Learning to Ride a Bike at 30 in San Francisco
This is a guest post. Daniel is a product manager in San Francisco with eternal wanderlust. In his spare time, he reads Calvin & Hobbes, eats fried chicken, and helps with NoJack. Find him on Twitter here.
I’m 30, I just moved to San Francisco, and for the past month I’ve been learning how to ride a bicycle.
Now I know what you’re thinking, and no I’m not starting out on training wheels. I don’t have a bicycle with a basket and a bell. I already went through the baseball-cards-in-your-spokes, pegs-on-your-rear-wheel phase. But I’ve never seriously ridden a bicycle – the longest distance was probably biking the mile to the convenience store when I was 14.
So now a decade and a half later, why do I want to start biking?
It probably has something to do with me backpacking Asia over the last few years and seeing how ubiquitous bikes are in other countries – as opposed to Minnesota where I grew up where you get a pickup truck for your 16th birthday (seriously, I think it’s written into our state constitution or something). It also probably has something to do with the city of San Francisco – small and compact, while being extremely bike-friendly. It might have to do with my current group of friends, who all ride to some degree. And maybe a small part of me just wants to lose my beer gut.
So first things first, how do I even go about buying a bicycle?
I quickly found out that everyone and their mother has an opinion. “Buy a cheap, vintage bike.” “Get one as light as possible, preferably carbon fiber.” “Screw gears, get a single-speed or fixie.” “By a hybrid so you have the option of taking it offroad.”
I guess buying a bike isn’t as simple as buying a bike – a bike defines you as a person. It labels you. You’re buying into a subculture. This is some mods vs. rockers type shit.
After some careful thought, I decided I’m a vintage bike kind of guy. So I set out to find something on Craigslist. Ok there’s a lot of good stuff on CL, and most stuff is relatively easy to find, but buying a bike ain’t that. I guess if I was willing to buy a stolen bike (I’m not) the process would be easier. So many postings have no description but a million tags. And 20 bikes will be in front of the same outdoor wall that looks like it’s in the Mission somewhere.
So I go the used bike shop route. I end up buying an orange bike. (This might sound funny to you, but I honestly know nothing about my bike. I have no idea the brand or how old it is. All I know is it’s a steel frame, orange bike.)
My first ride in San Francisco was a shitshow.
I rode my new purchase home from the bike shop in North Beach to Lower Pacific Heights, which is roughly 3 miles. I do my best to avoid hills, but embarrassingly, I still had to stop multiple times to catch my breath. I arrived home a hot, sweaty mess. Which is impressive, because San Francisco is a windy, chilly 50 degrees. You’ll get your bike legs really quickly, my friends all said. In a few rides you’ll be sprinting these hills. Yeah screw that, I could barely walk the next day. I felt like I was in 8th grade gym class and just did 20 minutes of wall sits.
After a few days once I could feel my legs again, I decided to go for my first official ride. I went to my local bike shop down the street and inflated my tires. “70 PSI MAX” was printed on my tires. I’ll go safe and inflate to 60.
Half a mile into my ride, I hear a shotgun blast. It was the loudest BOOM! I’ve ever heard. My ears are ringing now just thinking about it. I looked down and noticed both my tires exploded, and both wheels were mangled. How I got two simultaneous flats, I have no idea.
Working on your bike gives you more of an appreciation for it.
So over the next few days, I started ordering parts to replace on my bike. New wheels, check. New tubes, check. New cassette, check. New handlebars? Why not – check. I was actually getting giddy as my parts arrived piecemeal in the mail.
Once the last piece arrived, I took them to Bike Kitchen in the Mission – a totally rad not-for-profit that allows you to bring in your bike and fix it in their workspace. I dutifully worked on my bicycle, with the help of all the volunteer bike mechanics. And slowly I restored it to its former glory.
Now I feel like my bike is mine.
I built this baby up. These are my parts. It’s a whole new level of ownership. I almost feel a duty to ride it, and when I do it’s a feeling I can’t describe.
So biking down Market is the best thing ever.
For the past month, I’ve been commuting to work on my bike. I’m learning when to be assertive and when to be passive when it comes to other motor vehicles. I’m learning my riding style. I’m learning when to push myself and when to take it easy. I’m learning when to take risks and when to consider my safety.
A lot of my commute is biking on Market Street. It’s the closest thing that comes to biking in Asia. I start on Market pretty far away from downtown, so it’s usually just me on the road with all the buses, taxis, and cars. And stop by stop, more bikers join. It becomes a hive, a colony of bikers that cruise down Market. We weave in and out of traffic, around buses and cable-car tracks. Everyone is courteous, everyone follows the person in front of them. It’s like a school of fish in rhythm, all tracking to a destination, but using improv to get there.
Maybe I enjoy this ride because I’m new to biking. Maybe it’s because I typically don’t exercise in the mornings, and I’m getting an endorphin rush I’m not used to. Maybe as I continue to ride to work, I’ll enjoy it less and less, and hate the traffic more and more. But somehow I doubt it.
People who ride really love to ride. I didn’t really get it until I bought my bike. Fixing it up helped me connect to the machine, and my fun commute helped me connect to the road.
The first month’s been great. Let’s see how the next one goes. And the next.
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