For the full photo diary of this part of the tour please click here
There are two strands to the story of my ten days in San Francisco. The dominant narrative is that of spending quality time with my parents, an experience that would shape my perspectives on the city. Interwoven into this were the real demands of sustaining a long distance bicycle tour. I rolled into San Francisco thinking only of one thing, the warm familiarity of my Mum and Dad. Yet on the periphery of this focus crowded various equipment issues in desperate need of attention.
Prior to the start of this journey, the longest I have ever spent without seeing my parents was three months. Barring trauma and abuse, I believe respect and love for where we came from is an essential component of our humanity. I am lucky to have great parents who have invested a good deal of their being in me and my sister. It therefore comes as no surprise that they should be willing to lay down their money and time to fly 5,500 miles across the globe to see me. I am grateful that they did and saw parts of San Francisco I wouldn’t have if they hadn’t.
There are many people who offer strict definitions of what constitutes a ‘tourist’ and what a ‘traveller’. Although just a label and actually meaningless, I feel that I become a tourist the moment my camera strap falls over my head. In San Francisco I was a tourist in the most definitive of terms. Marching around the tourist hotspots as a dynamic trio of Britishness; cameras slung around necks and guidebook (often begrudgingly) clutched in hand, we hopped on and off buses, trams and trolleys brandishing our weekly travel passes and gaining bearing from complimentary street maps. We ‘did’ the Science museum, De Yong art gallery, walked the Golden Gate bridge, strolled the rainy coast, pondered the Coit tower murals, drank tea in the Japanese gardens, coffee in the Museum of Modern Art and took the ferry over to Alcatraz. Between these attractions we pounded the hilly San Francisco streets, braved Safeways, drank fine single Malt and fell asleep in front of evening Christmas films.
Although I admittedly carried a Lonely Planet in Alaska, since then I have made a point of travelling sans guide-book. Undoubtedly useful in their way, guide books can become a dictation, a constant nagging reminder of where you should be and what you should be doing. Instead I prefer not to know what I am missing and take the word of locals regarding where I should be going and how I should be spending my time. My mother on the other hand is a destination tourist, keen to know what a city offers and happy to tick off its attractions. Ordinarily I would have spent most of my time wandering or pedalling the San Francisco Streets, getting a feel for the place and generally trying to get a handle on its vibe. In actuality I was more than happy to let my folks pay for me to give San Francisco a good touristic going over. I would never have visited the Science Museum but was fairly blown away by the planetarium there… this also enraptured my father who was knocked unconscious by the mind-blowing visual display. It is unlikely I would have paid to visit two art galleries yet was enraptured by aspects of both. Sure we battled over who should carry the guide-book to the point where it became the lurgy and a running joke, and certainly intensive sightseeing is tiring and can fray patience, yet there can be no dispute that packing the days with activities certainly gives plenty of memories.
One place I certainly would have visited had I been alone in the city is Alcatraz. Ever since seeing Clint Eastwood escape from the island prison I have been mildly fascinated by the place. It’s a curious thing having a picturesque little island, viewable from around the Bay as the holding place for some of the nations most derided and dangerous citizens. Until its closure as a Federal prison in 1963, Alcatraz offered San Franciscans a constant reminder of the value of their freedom. On the flip side, the prisoners of Alcatraz were persistently taunted by the sights and sounds of the bustling city that lay so close yet so far across the water. The audio tour of the prison facilities gave a really good feeling for what life was like when the cells pulsed with the sweaty stench of criminality and wardens remarkably bought up their children on the ‘safe’ side of the prison walls. It’s a bizarre curiosity that draws us to such places, the same thirst for understanding that takes us to concentration camps or military cemeteries, a calling that helps reinforce the positive aspects of our own lives and highlight the freedoms we often take for granted.
That was the Nathan side of my San Francisco experience, then there was the VeloFreedom side, a piece in the jigsaw of my selfish little bike tour. Various pieces of my equipment were in desperate need of attention on arriving in the Bay area. I had a saddle that was barely rideable, a tent door with serious zip issues, rusting gear cables, sticky brakes and waterproofs in desperate need of washing and reproofing. Throughout my time in San Francisco these issues were always in the back of my mind and prevented me from totally relaxing into the situation.
I had been in contact with Hilleberg, my tent manufacturer regarding the zip and they were trying to send me down some new sliders for the zipper. Problem was that we did not have access to the mail box for our rented apartment so I only got my hands on the package in the minutes before leaving the city. Thus, I rolled out of town with a broken tent but the parts to hopefully mend it. The gears were sorted after hours out on the apartment balcony battling with rusted cable and substandard wire cutters. While emails and phone calls to Brooks about my saddle ended in San Francisco’s oldest bike shop.
I bused over to Haight-Ashbury to check out the former hippy hangout and pay a visit to its numerous bike shops. American Cyclery was top on my list with its boast of being the premier Brooks retailer in the States. They have two stores one either side of Stanyan street and have proudly been the leading light in west coast cycle maintenance and retail since 1941. I walked into their store, a veritable Aladdin’s cave of cycling, at around 4PM and walked out just after midnight staggering down the street clutching my new brake cables and cycling gloves. I had got talking to mechanic and shop worker Daniel Malloy, a man passionate about bikes and touring. We bonded over our Rohloff hubs and I managed to muster an invite to the shops Christmas Party that evening. I had a great time at the party, mingling with the great and the good of the San Francisco bike community in a room two doors down from an apartment Charles Manson once rented.
The saddle situation was becoming stressful, with Christmas close on the horizon there was no way that Brooks were going to be able to send me over a replacement saddle in time for me to ride out of San Francisco. I was getting really concerned that this saga could rumble on for a while. Luckily I hadn’t made such a bad impression with the American Cyclery crew and Daniel agreed that the shop would replace my saddle and take up the warranty issue with their Brooks rep. So I cycled back over to the shop to pick out a new saddle. I hadn’t been in the store more than two minutes before my beloved Shermy had been hoisted into a stand and was having her brake cables replaced. While she was getting her ‘massage’ I picked out a new saddle, opting to upgrade from a Standard to a Champion Special which has broader rivets that should reduce the leather stretch… also it was a rather nice green. After a quick beer I said good-bye to the fine folk of American Cyclery, forever indebted to them for digging me out of my saddle hole and generally reaching beyond the calls of customer service and into the realms of friendship.
I left San Francisco on 20th of December with a rushed farewell to my fantastic parents and a trip on the BART train over to Cycle Monkey in Oakland. Owned and run by Neil Flock from a shop in his back garden, Cycle Monkey are the only Rohloff service specialists and suppliers in the whole of the Americas. I made the trip to pick up some Roholff specific shifting cable but also walked out with another oil change kit. Neil had a cut away version of the hub so it was a real education going in there and talking with the experts about the hub that has been working so well for me and been the topic of conversation so many times on the road. I am grateful for his time and advice and urge any Rohloff users who are near San Francisco to drop in. If you’re not a Rohloff user then I suggest you embrace the future and try getting a ride with one.
Onwards I forge, sad to say good-bye to the ones I love but ready for a new chapter. In some respects a fantastic holiday from the tour, I will remember my time with family in San Francisco fondly for I know it will soon be just a distant memory.