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Biking the Hills of SF
Jeremy Smith
8/1/2005


photo: Shelly Doo
I grew up in horizontal places like Michigan and Florida, where the land is tiled with parking lots and shopping malls.

This may explain why I love the forty-nine hills of San Francisco.
I don’t merely love having the views—no, I have to earn the views, physically, preferably on my bicycle. When friends visit from out of town, even the fit, experienced cyclists gaze up in awe and terror at the peaks and hillocks. But me? After five years of riding around the city, I just change gears and pedal faster. My bicycle has taught me to love San Francisco’s urban undulation. You see things about San Francisco on a bike that you’d never notice in a car: the eccentric businesses and people, the colorful stoops and improvised public art, the odd little parks and rugged footpaths. But most of all, I love sitting at the top of a scrubby, wind-swept hill, the sweat drying on my back, eating lunch and taking it all in.

If you too are fleeing to San Francisco from a flat place—or if you just love a hilly one—then I have some recommendations on where to start. But first, a few tips about cycling in San Francisco:

• Use a bike with low gears and a light frame: Whether you’re renting a bike or packing your own, be sure it’s light-weight and has lots of nice low gears. A 26-cog is considered good for cycling around town. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, don’t worry; just walk into the bike shop and tell them that you’re a masochist and intend to climb as many hills as possible. They’ll know what to do. (If you’re really tough, consider getting an ultralight bike with no gears or brakes. That’s what all the cool bike-courier types ride.)
• Bring light layers: You may think that your town has some weird weather, but you haven’t seen anything until you’ve crossed from one side of San Francisco to the other. The hills block fog and wind coming in from the ocean; this means that while one neighborhood can be warm and sunny, the next can be cold and dreary. Even when the day seems intolerably hot outside your house, bring a fleece pullover and a pair of rain pants.
• Prepare for traffic: San Francisco is beautiful and that means that lots of people live here. The streets can be jammed with cars, often driven by yuppies chattering on cell phones or suburbanites fumbling with maps. If you’re new to city cycling, be exceptionally careful and be patient. It’s better to arrive alive than not arrive at all.

So, now that we’ve covered the basics, here’s three of my favorite hill climbs:



photo: Jeremy Smith
Telegraph Hill
Ok, you got your bad-ass, hill-climbing ride, your layers, and your car-radar. Let’s get started with Telegraph Hill (280 feet), where you’ll find a slice of San Francisco’s bohemian history.

Begin on a Saturday at the Ferry Building Farmer’s Market. Located right where Market St. runs into the Bay, the Farmer’s Market is a fabulous, lovely place to perambulate and stock up on provisions. (I particularly recommend cheese from Cowgirl Creamery!) From the Ferry Building, you’ll be able to see to the northwest your destination: a fluted concrete thumb, topped by arches, named Coit Tower.

From the Ferry Building, start north up the Embarcadero, which has a bike lane and a continuous view of the Bay. Hang a left onto Broadway. In about seven blocks you’ll hit Columbus Street, the main drag through San Francisco’s most popular neighborhood, North Beach. Watch out, because the car and pedestrian traffic can be heavy here. Cut a half block up Columbus and turn right onto Grant. At Union Street you’ll hit your first steep hill.

Feel that fire in your thighs? Get used to it!

Keep going up Grant until you hit Lombard St. Turn right. Enjoy the graceful Mediterranean homes while you pedal up a gentle 5-10% grade. Lombard will turn right into Telegraph Hill, which will carry you up to Pioneer Park and Coit Tower. (Note that on wheels you can’t approach the top of Telegraph Hill from its eastern side; you’ve got to come around to the west.) On busy days you might find yourself sailing past a bumper-to-bumper line of tourists waiting for a parking space. Feel free to stick your tongue out at them. Dude: you’re there! In Pioneer Park at the top of Telegraph Hill you’ll find great views of Alcatraz, the Bay Bridge, and downtown San Francisco. Coit Tower looms above, 210 feet tall. For $3.75, you can take an elevator to the top of the tower, but I recommend skipping it—or rather, skipping the line to get to it.

Instead, linger on the 1934 Public Works of Art Project frescoes that cover the walls of the ground floor. Painted by 25 artists in the middle years of the Depression, the mural reflects the social radicalism of the time and depicts Northern Californians at work in fields, offices, and factories. In one panel, a self-portrait of artist John Langley Howard pulls from a library shelf a copy of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital; in another, a gritty San Francisco street scene, you’ll see a news rack full of the politically radical magazines of the day, such as The New Masses and the Daily Worker. Fearing that such images might encourage social unrest, San Francisco’s art commission closed Coit Tower to the public shortly after the mural was completed—only one example of the censorship imposed on mural projects throughout San Francisco’s history. Coit Tower painters such as Edith Hamlin and Bernard Zakheim would go on to work with younger radicals and inspire the left-wing mural art that spread through the Mission district in the 1960s and 1970s.

In addition to checking out Coit Tower, I recommend walking down the wooden Filbert St. Steps on the east slope of Telegraph Hill, where you’ll find a pretty cluster of cute cottages and gardens.



photo: Shelly Doo
Corona Heights
Next up is a ride for the kids, to the Randall Museum on Corona Heights (420 feet). Start your trip with a quick ride through the Castro, one of the world’s first and best-known openly gay and lesbian neighborhoods. You’ll also see many charming examples of Victorian architecture as well as wonderful, if somewhat expensive, shops. You’ll also get a sense of the Castro’s racy (but nonetheless PG-rated) street life.

To start towards the Randall Museum, take a left onto State Street from Castro St., near where Castro meets Market St. The grade up States is gentle but long, ranging from 5-18%. Near the end it will be too tough for many kids, who may need to get off and walk. Along States you’ll find humdrum apartment complexes mixed in with typically idiosyncratic San Francisco homes, ranging from mock-medieval to neo-cubist. The view of Upper Castro and Twin Peaks along States will remind you of Mediterranean hillsides; you’ll want to own one of those balconies, sipping wine and munching figs. At the end of States, hang a right uphill onto Levant. You’ll pop out on Roosevelt and see a sign for the Randall Museum. Take a right at the sign and follow Museum Road—a nice downhill glide—into the parking lot of Randall Museum.

The Randall Museum, free and open from Tuesday to Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm, focuses on the culture and environment of the San Francisco Bay Area. It has a somewhat pathetic petting zoo as well as an interesting
exhibit about earthquakes (which you’ll get to experience during your visit, if you’re lucky). The Randall Museum also has classes and events for kids—for a schedule, check out the Website at www.randallmuseum.
org/events.cfm.
After a visit to the museum, you can explore the park that surrounds it. Lower down there’s a dog park, tennis courts, and a run-down playground for kids. The peak of Corona Heights is well worth the climb on foot; there you’ll find magnificent views of downtown, Potrero Hill, the Castro, and the Mission. Try to imagine the views as they were 200 years ago. Since the 19th century, streams have been channeled underground—Mission Creek is now part of San Francisco’s sewer system—and the shoreline extended with landfill.
To the south, probably covered in a cottony layer of fog, you’ll see our next destination, Twin Peaks.

Twin Peaks
At 910 feet, Twin Peaks is the closest thing San Francisco has to a mountain. It’s also my favorite ride, a chest-pounding, thigh-melting ascent past the most beautiful views in the city. There is no one way to get to Twin Peaks. It may even be worthwhile to get a little bit lost (not too, too lost, as you can spend a lot of time going up and down some pretty steep hills). I ride up from Noe Valley, where I live. I cross above busy Market St. on a footbridge at Grandview and Elizabeth, follow Corbett to Burnett, then on up Twin Peaks Boulevard to the top. You can also start from the west side of the city, from the vicinity of the University of California Medical Center—Henry Kingman’s wonderful book Short Bike Rides: San Francisco suggests a route from there to the top and down again.

When you get to the top, take a figure-eight victory lap around Christmas Tree Point Road (named for a huge Christmas tree the city put up in the 1920s). Enjoy the 360-degree view of the city, the best in town. On a clear day you’ll see the Pacific, the Bay, and most of San Francisco’s neighborhoods and hills, not to mention the Golden Gate Bridge, Marin County, Mt. Tamalpais, Mt. Diablo, Angel Island, the East Bay, and even parts of the South Bay.

That’s three hills—there are forty-six others for you to explore! In addition to Kingman’s book, I recommend
a visit to the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition’s Web site at www.sfbike.org, which will point you to many other local bike-riding resources. Good riding!



Listings associated with this Feature:

Coit Tower Randall Museum
Cowgirl Creamery


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