The Paris of the west

It’s early evening and another thick layer of fog rolls in from San Francisco bay, settling gently over the hillside houses like a cotton wool blanket. I’m resting on my top tube near the intersection of Potrero and Cesar Chavez in Bernal Heights. I feel I know this place, despite it being my first visit to the city. I’m waiting for that 1968 Ford Mustang to growl past, swiftly followed by the trailing Dodge Charger GT and the beginning of one of the silver screen’s most memorable car chases – the one between Frank Bullitt and Albert “Johnny Ross” Renick’s henchman, Phil, in Peter Yates’s 1968 film, Bullitt.

I’m in San Francisco to explore the hilly city, situated on the tip of a peninsula surrounded by the Pacific Ocean and bay, by bike. The city is known for its year-round microclimate, Golden Gate Bridge, vibrant tech community, Alcatraz Island and as the setting for some classic American movies. The first thing you notice is the street furniture; tramlines and signage all fighting for space on the highway and sidewalk. Look up and overhead lines criss-cross the sky, each ready to guide a tram to another neighbourhood. Then there is the traffic itself. The rider’s senses are bombarded with colour and sound.

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The lure of rolling hills and off road adventures of the Marin headlands and Mill Valley are within sight across the impressive suspension bridge spanning the Golden Gate strait between San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. Rolling through the botanical gardens of the Golden Gate Park it is impossible not to be drawn to Fort Point. Completed just before the American Civil War by the United States Army to defend San Francisco Bay against hostile warships, it stands imperiously tall on the south side gateway to the bridge.

San Francisco boasts a vast arsenal of weather, and you can experience many seasons in a day among the basins and valleys adjoining the coast. From gloomy ‘pea soup’ conditions to ‘factor fifty’ sun drenched skies, the layering game is essential to comfort and enjoyment whilst exploring by bike. Made up of sprawling districts, the city boasts a number of elevated vantage points providing panoramic views of the coastline and which in turn, frame the various neighbourhoods which fill the coastal divide. It’s easy to find elevation and tranquillity just a short pedal away from the hustle and bustle of the streets. Bernal Hill and Twin Peaks are just that. The latter, also known as “Eureka” and “Noe” are situated in Clarendon Heights. We approach through the foot slopes via Corbett Ave, a winding residential road populated with pastel shaded houses on a steady 6 per cent rise to the foot slopes. The climb itself is short and steady and as the road winds gently up the wind shows its hand, gusting and swirling around us. On a clear day, the reward is spectacular, with views from the northeast side of downtown SF.

Riding north along the central waterfront to the west of the city brings into sharp focus the ferry terminals facing Angel and Treasure Islands. Boarding the rickety ferry with the bikes in tow we settle in for the round trip to Sausalito. The outward journey skirts Angel Island and the return leg brings Alcatraz Island into sharp focus. The prison on the tiny island housed some of the most notorious criminals in history and its presence in the bay is dramatic, unforgiving and one of brutal isolation.

The total opposite to the cluttered, chaotic city streets. Just like its weather, San Francisco is a city of extremes.