Photographs by Felipe Buitrago
Traffic Stop: San Francisco fixed-gear riders Alex (left) and Shawn track-stand at the light on Ralston Avenue on the way to San Jose.
Confessions Of a Bike Nerd
Our staff cycling expert has pedaled all over the world. Here's why he thinks he's finally found biking paradise.
By Felipe Buitrago
NOW, I am definitely not the Einstein of cycling. I'm that Joe Bike that constantly tinkers with the gears and gives his steel steed corny names. That guy that grew up getting grounded for dismantling Mom and Dad's bikes all the way down to the bare frame for spare parts—or just for kicks. I've also been that friend that can't give advice on what bike to buy in less than 15,000 words.
Growing up, I dreamed of riding my bike everywhere, and I've been fortunate enough to do nearly that. I've used my trusty two-wheeler for everything, even for work as a courier, in cities in Europe and now the United States. I was always searching for that Holy Grail of a cycling community that I knew had to be out there. And it looks like I may have found it, right here in the Bay Area. With more and more people riding everyday, and the United States competing in the Tour and taking the last eight—make that seven—wins, cycling is moving up in the ranks of sports. And the community is adjusting to fit the demand. There are more and more races, like the Amgen Tour of California that had its inaugural run last year.
But it doesn't matter if you're a beginner or if you want to compete. There is a group of people just like you looking for a ride. We're lucky enough to live in the hottest state for cycling, where new cycling clubs are emerging yearly as well as advocacy groups for cyclists' rights on the road and on trails.
A perfect example right here in the South Bay is the Almaden Cycling Touring Club, which counts about 1,000 members and over 150 rides per month that are all about fun. The club separates its rides into Billy Goats, Grizzly Bears and Mountain Goats, offering a wide range of levels and terrain that can fit just about any rider's needs. Whether it's more of a flat, leisurely ride, a brutal hill or blazin' the trail, the club keeps track of its members' mileage and recognizes their accomplishments.
How about an organized ride to the roasting company for a cup o' coffee? Or breakfast? That was a good enough reason for me to get out of bed at 5:30am to join Pam Downs on a climb up Hicks Road—a winding 16 percent incline that could rival a professional mountain stage. Sure, I was just as eager as the next guy to conquer a massive incline that early on a Thursday morning, but my bike wasn't. Some of us turned around and made our way to the coffee shop and mingled.
Fast and Accessorized: Jerry Schomewille breaks away from the pack on Old Almaden Road.
Just because Hicks was not the road to ride that day doesn't mean that I was riding with a bunch of slackers. The pace was fast and I quickly realized that it was a good thing I didn't go up the hill, because I would've been dropped like third period French. As I tried to disguise my collapsing lungs while getting coffee, everyone congregated around the table as if it were a campfire and talked about different rides and conquests. This is the social element that ACTC brings to the table, both with rides this this and events like the 2006 Ice Cream and BBQ Social or the weekly Wednesday Whine and Dine.
Making Romper Room
If the asphalt isn't your deal, then maybe the guys at ROMP can help you out. This nonprofit group of Responsible Organized Mountain Peddlers is the oldest off-road cycling advocacy group in the bay, and they do more than just offer rides up and down the trails of the peninsula. ROMP, whose members started in the early '80s in Los Gatos "romping" (duh) around on their bikes, became the first advocacy group in Santa Clara County to open its trails to cyclists. This month they will be having group rides on the weekends and on some Wednesdays. Trail work and maintenance are a part of riding off-road, and they know it, so that is always a part of the agenda. ROMP also has a Basic Fixit class on Saturday, Aug. 26, followed by a Beginner's Clinic, and much more.
Welcome to the Velodrome
Let's say you don't want to ride out to no man's land and you don't want to get dirty—you just want to go as fast as you possibly can and you don't even have to turn. All you have to do is cruise over to Hellyer Park where you'll find one of the two velodromes in Northern California. A velodrome is an elliptical banked track where bikes with no gears, no brakes and no coasting are raced. Be sure to bring a helmet, $5 for parking, nerves of steel and a lot of energy.
If you're a beginner, your turn is at 8:30am Saturday mornings. You'll be taught track etiquette and some racing techniques. And if you're lucky you'll get a sample of Terry Shaw's history and humor.
The earlier you get there, more track time you can have to get accustomed to riding a fixed gear. And trust me, you'll need it. Keep in mind your legs are the part of your body that depletes oxygen the fastest. I learned the hard way and almost passed out after one lap. Track times for more advanced riders are distributed throughout the week. But who says you have to ride a track bike—or a "fixie" as some call it—on the track? Several online forums and messenger communities are bringing back the fixed-gear rage. And rides "for fixers only" aren't unusual. In preparation for this year's National Handmade Bike Show in San Jose, a ride was organized from San Francisco to San Jose with no specifics of bike to be used, but it was quickly swamped with fixed-gear riders. Everyone met at Market and Seventh and took the side streets all the way to San Jose. No Camel Backs, fancy tools or gimmicks, just rolled-up jeans, a messenger bag and a few stops to play around and regroup. And when the destination was reached beer was served. After all, cyclists need their carbs.
Early Bird Specialist: Pam Downs is the early-morning leader for the Almaden Cycling and Touring Club's rides.
The subculture phenomenon of the single-speed and sometimes fixed-gear rider is coming out of bigger cities like S.F., NYC, Philly, Seattle and so on, and its been spreading like a virus. All it takes is finding an old geared bike—strip it down, slap on one cog and you're good to go. The claim is that with all this useless technology taking over it's a slap in the face to progress in an attempt to keep life pure and simple. For some it's more of a commodity—no more expensive parts. For others it's for training in the off-season to develop cadence. And for others, it's a way to help not have their bikes stole, since any thief who's never ridden a bike that doesn't coast will probably get thrown over the handlebars. It makes for a great deterrent. Stories like "It didn't take me too long to find the culprit, 'cause he didn't get very far" are pretty common.
Roasting and Riding In Los Gatos
Now what do all these groups have in common besides a passion for peddling? The community. You may see Lycra-clad cyclists riding up and down Foothill in Palo Alto, or Almaden in San Jose, or blowing red lights in S.F. But where are they going? They have to be going somewhere. If you happen to be in Los Gatos bright and early on a weekend, stop by the Los Gatos Roasting Company and you'll see the sidewalk flooded with any kind of bike you can imagine. From the conventional to the aluminum to the unobtainium, it's the place to be to talk shop and meet fellow riders. And while you enjoy your fresh cup of brew keep a look out—you might catch a glimpse of something interesting, like a mountain unicycle.
All over the Bay Area, little enclaves of cyclists are conspiring to take over a 16 percent hill or conquer a trail. If you're up in S.F. at night sometime, stop by the Zeigeist, one of many courier and cyclist hangouts.There's a sense of social responsibility in this community, too. Charity rides are abundant, like the Tour de Cure, a nationwide series of cycling events to support the American Diabetes Association. This benefit ride has been rolling since 1991 and has several chapters in California, one of them in Palo Alto. Anthony Kennedy Shriver has a ride of his own. Along with the help of his sister Maria Shriver to continue the family legacy of enhancing the lives of people with intellectual disabilities, he started Best Buddies in 1989, an organization that now has grown into an international resource. This ride benefits the cause, and the route offers something for every level of riding, whether it's the full century (100 miles) the metric century (63 miles) or 15 miles. As exhausted as I was after nine hours of riding and 100 miles, taking the necessary—and sometimes unnecessary—stops, the ride is an experience I will never forget. The sense of fulfillment is not easily equaled because of everything and everyone involved. And I will gladly be doing it again this year. Top to bottom, the Bay Area has one of the most active cycling communities I've ever seen. There are clubs with one or two rides every day of the week, for those of us that need a constant fix and can't wait till the weekend to don those tights. There are races every month, whether it's on a track or on a trail, and even a huge messengerlike community in S.F. for those of you who like the edgy urban ride and aren't afraid to take some risks. Cycling doesn't just encompass the Tour de Lance. For some it's a way to commute, for others it's a pasttime and for some it's a way of life. Whether you roll up your jeans or wear Spandex, you're living in a biking paradise.
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