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How I conquered San Francisco on bike

A rider on the Golden Gate Bridge. Photo/Getty Images

Seeing hilly San Francisco from a bicycle is easier than it sounds.

Anyone who has seen the car-chase sequence in the 1968 film Bullitt – and everyone should; they don’t do car chases like that any more – knows San Francisco is a city of hills. Fully 21 neighbourhoods have the word “hill” in their name (Nob Hill and Telegraph Hill are the best known); the same number are dubbed “heights”, and mounts and peaks feature, too.

This all seems calculated to dismay anyone planning, as I was, to explore the city by bicycle. It’s a form of transport often ignored by travellers. It’s faster than walking, but you’re still sufficiently in touch with the world to smell the bakery before passing it: you can stop wherever your lock will fit around a steel pole, and head down any interesting side street without even changing gear.

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But still, those hills. I’d done a lot of cycling in mostly flat European cities where drivers know their place, cycle lanes are generous and people pedal in their business suits and Sunday frocks. But the long uphill slog from the Financial District to Golden Gate Park wasn’t likely to earn me anything other than a serious case of the hot-and-bothereds. I was beginning to think about electric bikes.

Fortunately, Nick Hormuth had dealt with overweight, overambitious customers before and he quickly put me at ease. The founder of Pedal Inn, a bicycle-hire place two blocks from where I was staying, he gave me a solid briefing, deploying a range of coloured felt tips to mark out the best routes.

Much of his planning was based on sticking to the edge of the peninsula on which the city stands, nipping in from the edge to access North Beach (for the fabled City Lights Bookstore) or Chinatown. And to save that option becoming ridiculously roundabout, there’s the Wiggle – a zigzag series of left-right-left-right turns along almost flat, bicycle-laned streets that lead from north of the Castro through to Golden Gate Park.

Peter Calder about to tackle the landmark.

On the Wiggle, a stagecoach trail as old as the US itself, riders rule. But drivers and pedestrians don’t always take kindly to cyclists’ indifference to the stop signs at each intersection. A brawl on social media spawned a police crackdown, which spawned a riders’ fightback of “radical compliance”: hundreds of them turned out to ride the route, slowly and in single file, stopping in turn at every sign. It choked traffic, made drivers apoplectic and prompted a police rethink.

Golden Gate Park is some distance from the Golden Gate, the 1.6km strait that leads from the Pacific into San Francisco Bay. To get there, you ride through the Presidio, a former military base that has been a park since the 1990s. Much of its centre is thick forest latticed with good paved trails.

On the easy roll down to the bridge, I pass the Immigrant Point Overlook, where the words of President Woodrow Wilson are carved in stone: “We opened the gates to all the world and said, ‘Let all men who want to be free come to us and they will be welcome.’” It tastes somewhat bitter in these roiling days of American dysfunction, but the view is fantastic.

It was equally impressive from the centre span of the bridge, a hauntingly beautiful deco-inflected structure. Close up, it’s unforgettable, a blend of brute strength and fine balance, held together by enough steel cable to girdle the Earth three times at the equator.

Fleeing the hideousness of Fisherman’s Wharf, I took the advice of a taxi driver I had met at City Lights Bookshop and caught the 1-California bus all the way up the long slope to Richmond. From there, it was a downhill run all the way home.

There’s a bike rack on the front, and the fare’s barely $2. The bike goes for free, because in San Francisco that’s how they roll.

Peter Calder rented his bike from Dandyhorse SF Bike Tours and paid full price.

This article was first published in the January 13, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.