If you want to become hill climb champion of the world, San Francisco would certainly rank as one of the best places to train for it. It’s a city that will certainly take your ‘morning hill rep’ training rides to a new level, and I’ve personally never experienced so many devilishly steep gradients all in one concentrated area.
I was fortunate enough to join road.cc tech editor Mat Brett on a trip to the US to attend the Sea Otter Classic, the largest gathering of cycling enthusiasts and cycling brands in North America.
It’s a show we’ve been meaning to get to for a few years now, hosted at the notorious Laguna Seca raceway in Monterey, and we’d highly recommend going if you ever have the opportunity. There's a packed schedule of races over the four days plus a whole host of brands showcasing new products; it really is a celebration of cycling with a festival vibe.
With Sea Otter finishing on a Sunday, I decided to tag a few extra days onto the trip and head up the coast see what San Francisco has to offer in the way of cycling and exploring.
I wasn’t able to take my own bike on this trip, but my recommendation, if you can make it work, is to take your own bike.
The city itself has decent cycling infrastructure, and it's so easy to hire an e-bike to whizz around on; but trying to find a road bike to hire for a few days is a bit of a challenge.
I ended up finding something to ride through the retailer Sports Basement, which has a few locations in San Fran and seemed to be reasonably priced. I reserved a Cannondale Synapse High-Mod Disc Dura-Ace. Yep, I thought I’d treat myself to a nice ride... but unfortunately it didn’t quite pan out that way!
When I arrived, it turns out they don’t stock those in their rental fleet and what I actually ended up with was a 105 rim brake version. Not the end of the world, and in all honesty, it did the trick.
What I learnt is that the cyclists in the Bay Area really care about their bikes, and take a lot of pride and joy in what they ride. You'll see a lot of custom one-off builds, and plenty of bling. That does of course mean that trying to find a shop that stocks a good range of hire bikes is tricky.
With San Fran being a large city, there are of course a lot of options when it comes to accommodation, so I won’t start recommending specific hotels or hostels. All I would say is, if you’re wanting to get out on your bike each day of your stay, you’ll probably want to stay close to the Golden Gate Bridge. Why? All the good riding is over the other side.
Speaking to a few locals, everyone recommended heading over the bridge each day to explore Marin County, and if you’re going to use any of the recommended routes, you’ll be doing the same.
The city is littered with stop signs, traffic lights, and some outrageously steep climbs, so unless you’re a fan of a stop-start flow to your ride, the closer you stay to the bridge, the less of it you’ll have to do.
Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge is an experience in itself. I think about 80,000 trips per day are taken across the bridge, so as you can imagine, it can get pretty busy. I was fortunate enough to be crossing during the week, after the morning rush, so I think I got lucky; but speaking to locals it can apparently get mobbed by tourists and be a bit of a nightmare. But for us non-locals, it’s something to savour, enjoy the views back at the city, and know you’re just about to start some incredible riding.
Once across the bridge, I found myself dropping down into Sausalito, dubbed the Monaco of the US by some, with its unrivalled seafront views and a generally polished and luxurious setting.
If you’re planning to stop in Sausalito, I would recommend popping into Above Category, arguably one of the finest bike shops in the whole of the US, filled with high-end builds, clothing and accessories; it really is a cyclist's paradise!
Most days I then found myself riding on from Sausalito to Mill Valley, a small town with plenty to offer. You'll find the Equator Cafe for all your coffee needs and Studio Velo for all your bike needs. The latter are a great bunch in there and happy to offer a load of advice on where to ride (if you want even more routes than what you can find on our komoot profile).
Every time I rode out of Mill Valley there was climbing, so be mindful that it might not be wise to take on too much food before heading out! From Mill Valley, well you’re spoilt for choice with the options available.
Called Mount Tam for short, this has to be one of the best climbs I've rode in a long time and you’ll struggle to find a better view in the Bay Area. There are a few routes to tackle that take you up to the top, but regardless of which way you go, you’ll be blessed with redwood forests, rolling hills and open fields that offer sublime views. If you want to get right to the top, though, you’ll need to jump off your bike and walk up to the fire lookout tower.
I own an old fluorescent Marin Muirwoods, so it was only right to go and ride around the actual Muir Woods, even if I couldn't take the bike with me! I’m told by locals that it is an iconic area to ride, and a lot of cyclists have local routes that include this area. After visiting, I can see why.
Once again, you’ll be surrounded by huge redwood forests which then open up into jaw dropping views as you summit any one of the multiple climbs you have on offer.
This is actually the stretch just before Stinson Beach, just before heading back into the Mount Tam park to climb. You have a wonderful stretch of flat road that hugs the shoreline offering sea views as far as the eye can see.
I managed to get out on a morning ride with San Fran local Maude Farell, and I asked her to give me some of her thoughts on San Francisco and it’s cycling scene:
Have you ever heard the thing about the two fish who swim by this third fish and she’s like “How’s the water”? And the two first fish look at each other and go “What the hell is water?” That’s like cycling in SF. I take it for granted just how big, dense, and dynamic the cycling scene is in San Francisco. It’s like all us cyclists are the fish and the scene is the water.
I recently found myself 'swimming upstream' so to speak on a Saturday morning, riding the opposite direction of most cycling traffic. This gave me a particularly special perspective to see the droves and people riding out of the city. It was mind-boggling!
The SF cycling scene is amazing because it extends so much further than San Francisco itself. On any given Saturday the SF universe melts into the Marin orbit as East Bay percolates over the bridge into the glorious place we call the Headlands and Tam watershed.
A gravel rider might dream up and craft a route that exists on the cusp of actually being a mountain bike ride, but tosses in a dash of one of the most spectacular road descents out there: Pantoll to Stinson Beach.
In a punchy 20km radius of Salesforce Tower and a buzz across Golden Gate Bridge, roadies may find themselves looping through and around the world famous Muir Woods, the historic working town and port of Sausalito, and the founding place of Western Zen Buddhism. The astounding aspect of cycling here is not simply the density of historic and hallowed places we ride past, but the web of trails and roads available to explore them. In my obviously unbiased opinion, it’s unrivalled anywhere else.
One thing I won’t stand by and wax lyrical about is our summertime weather. If you consider a visit in June, July or August, prepare yourself for a dramatic swing in temperatures.
You might leave the city in arm warmers and a vest, and regret not donning a jacket whilst praying your life isn't blown over the edge of Golden Gate Bridge... only to find yourself unzipped, sunburnt and half melted at the top of Tam! If you ever find someone who tells you they know how to dress for SF summer rides, I grant you permission to laugh in their face...
Have you cycled in San Fran? Be sure to tell us all about it in the comments and share your rides with us over on komoot!