Northern California Mini-Tour

November 27, 2012 at 7:42 pm

A short list of common thoughts cycled through my mind as I toured France. One of them was just how pleasant it would be to do small bike tours in northern California with good friends. The language spoken, the terrain and the people known. I’d often daydream about it.

So although some people thought I was crazy, a small bike tour is exactly what I craved when I got back from my big tour. Call it a comedown tour. My brother’s visit from Portland provided the perfect opportunity.

I had a couple of other friends who were interested in camping, but without bikes. Thus our approach was unconventional. We drove from San Francisco to Samuel P. Taylor with the bikes on the back of the car. My brother’s progress was waylaid by what is thus far the worst Apple Maps screwup that I’ve heard of. With the iPhone’s new mapping software, you can be delivered terrifically wrong directions to a place that requires literally two turns. That’s right, arriving at Samuel P. Taylor requires exiting the 101 and then eventually pulling into the parking lot.

Instead, Apple Maps directed my brother onto a dirt road that was soon not a road at all. Navigating up a steel hill with branches brushing past the car on both sides, it became clear that there wasn’t a national park campground that would be found any further up the treacherous path. After switching to Waze, my brother found the actual campground.

That night we made a fire (something not possible in French campgrounds) and rested well. In the morning we intended to ride to Bicentennial Camp in the Marin Headlands. I’m personally a fan of the views and feelings of the headlands, but it’s a place where fires aren’t allowed. Because the air was cold, we changed course and headed for China Camp–where I’d never been. The ride was easy, but because we’d winged it a bit, we probably didn’t take the most bike friendly roads. I won’t share my route here, because I’m quite certain it would be poor advice.

Near the campground, we passed a couple of teenagers walking a dog. They wore an expression of such painful ennui that it reminded us both of our teenage days. Because it was my brother, they were the same teenage days. Seeing that expression of strong existential boredom and discomfort makes you want to grab teenagers and shake them. “It gets better!” you might shout. You can just see how tough it is to enjoy much of anything.

China Camp is encircled by a network of mountain biking trails. Although our bikes were directly wrong for the application, my brother and I were excited about the idea of doing a little trail riding. Neither of us had done any mountain biking in many years. We set up our tent and took the trails for an hour while the sun set. It was the most fun I’d had on a bike in a very long time. It was also the first time I rode forest trails with clipless pedals, something I am excited to do again. The mix of power and control is astonishing.

It was my brother’s 30th birthday, so we decided to make Birthday Cake. I melted a big block of chocolate into a pot of water and added a healthy amount of whiskey. It tasted better than what you’re thinking. Or if you think it probably tasted good, it tasted like that. We shared the Birthday Cake with the three friendly chaps who were also staying at the Hiker Biker spot. We all got along wonderfully and effectively ignored the 12 dozen screaming kids and gas generator that rang throughout the valley from another campsite.

In the morning, we made the enjoyable ride back to San Francisco following Google Map’s suggested bike route. It was perfect.


Allons-y à Samuel P. Taylor

September 6, 2012 at 6:45 pm

You really don’t notice 1989 silver Honda Civics on the road until you drive one. Likewise, I had no concept of bike touring or bike camping until I starting doing it. And now I can’t cast a sideways glance towards a highway or campsite without catching sight of someone proceeding merrily along, leaden with panniers.

I say this because I (and the very bike-and-camp capable girlfriend) rode the 30-some miles to Samuel P. Taylor state park this weekend. For me, it was the final simulation run before my real tour. For her, the first bike camping adventure. Not only did we run into other bike campers on the way, we actually knew nearly everyone at the campsite by coincidence. Yes, San Francisco is a small city. But even more so, bike touring is a community.

The bike ride from San Francisco to Samuel P. Taylor is mostly a pleasant one. It goes something like this: You leave your apartment with a very heavy bike and collect strange looks as you wind towards the Presidio. Once you make it there, you enjoy the relaxing atmosphere of open roads and actual trees. But more and more you notice the fog creeping in. Nearing the bridge, you would be appreciating startling views of the bay were it not for the blanket of fog fully obscuring said views (this, obviously, is not always the case).

Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge on a bike will either be a battle against the elements, a battle against the tourists, or both. If you’re lucky, you’ll face intense fog and gale-force crosswinds. If you’re not, you’ll be shouting at tourists to please move and trying desperately not to send them into the cold abyss when they casually walk into the path of your bike.


View of the Marin Headlands from the Golden Gate Bridge.

Notice: The Elements.


After the bridge, you descend steeply into Sausalito. By most accounts, this was once a cool bohemian town. In the Kingston Trio era, it was probably a really great place to get a reasonably priced drink, and a meal, and absorb the near-impossible beauty of the bay. These days it’s about as crowded with tourists and over-priced restaurants as a town can get.

Sausalito ends by placing you on a long flat bike path along the marshes outside of Mill Valley. In my experience, heading north is casual and pretty and almost begs you to take your ride at a slow pace. The folks headed north wonder why all the folks heading south look so tired. That is, until they turn around and face the constant headwind blowing in from the bay. Then they look tired to all the folks heading the other way, etc. etc.

The bike path ends and you take a small detour to The Ugliest Bike Path in America (nobody calls it that), which skirts the 101 for a short stretch before putting you mercifully onto some neighborhood streets. For several miles, you take a combination of main streets and back roads through Larkspur, San Anselmo and Fairfax. If you’re shortsighted like me, you’ll grab beer in Fairfax. Then you’ll hop onto Sir Francis Drake and climb the only major hill on the entire ride with a needlessly heavy bag. If you play things a bit smarter, you’ll wait until you descend the hill into Lagunitas to buy beer.

Then, you’ll hop onto the Cross-Marin Trail. It’s an old railway line that was converted into a dirt and gravel bike path. It is smooth enough for road tires and tucked under the trees along a river. There are side paths you can walk down to swimming holes along the way.

The Trail drops you off right in Samuel P. Taylor campground where you can grab a hiker-biker spot for $5 and sleep comfortably in a redwood grove.

We did, it was nice.


Bike Camping in Marin, Alone

September 4, 2012 at 7:12 pm

I went bike camping in Marin again, this time I did the trip alone. I found the same rocky beach as before and sat drinking a strong stout. The black water lapped against the rocks. It was slightly less foggy than last time, which only meant that you could see some things. A dozen feet out, a few seals popped their heads out of the water. They gazed at me curiously. I gazed back, feeling about the same. I thought about how differently special moments are received alone and with others. When there’s company, you might point, act excited, exclaim the wonders around you. But when you’re alone, you receive the potent gleam of every moment in reverent silence. The very world itself seems different because of how differently you receive it.

E.’s rock cairn had fallen down. I built a new one and headed back to camp.


A small cairn built on a beach in Marin.

Rocks + Man = Cairn.


I went ahead and bought a Martin Backpacker before this trip. This small travelling guitar isn’t exactly ideal for bike touring, but it’s close enough. The ideal instrument is probably a harmonica, and the only stringed instrument you’d really want to bring on a bike is a ukelele. The Backpacker straps onto my rear rack and hangs off the back. It probably looks a bit sketchy, but it’s worth the awkwardness to have something to play at camp. And anyway, cars tend to give you more clearance when they think you’re unsafe.

The Backpacker sounds roughly like someone else playing a beautiful guitar and holding it up to the phone for you. Slightly better than six wet noodles and an empty cereal box, in terms of acoustics. And while the sound is lousy, holding the thing is even worse. But again, this is what you get when you want to play a guitar, but don’t want to bring a guitar with you. And it’s worth it to me, to have something to play.

While making my dinner, I scanned my headlamp casually across the campground and caught the eye of a small fox. He was a cute little guy and trotted around a bit before running off. A few minutes later, I was chomping on my food and glanced off to my right. A skunk, who I had not invited to dinner, was milling around several feet from my table. For the next hour or so, he sniffed and tumbled around.

After reading in my hammock for about an hour, I dozed off comfortably. Several hours later–let’s call it 4am–I awoke to a terrifying shriek. At first, being roused from sleep by the sound, it struck me as a woman’s scream. But as I became slightly more aware, I realized it was just a Banshee. You know, the mythological creature.

Actually, I spent some time on YouTube today watching horrifying videos that people had shot in the dark of their own campgrounds. They usually consist of about 2 minutes of a camera pointed towards the darkness, at nothing, and occasionally a blood-curdling wail. It was through these YouTube videos (YouTube is amazing), and the comments thereupon, that I learned that the awful sound I heard was nothing but an owl, or a fishercat, or a mountain lion. In fact, it sounded the most like a mountain lion. But don’t worry, they don’t attack humans who are just lying there asleep. Except when they do.

I woke up, drank coffee, and played a song or two before heading out. San Francisco is beautiful:

From Bicentennial Camp to San Francisco

It really is.

San Francisco Bike Camping is Easy

August 29, 2012 at 6:28 pm

If there were 6,000 reasons I felt lucky to be a San Francsican, here’s reason #6,001: Bike camping in San Francisco is wildly easy.

I want to take a few small tours to test out my load and my gear before I ship off to France. In fact, this probably could have happened sooner. A mini-adventure is always a great reality check. The best advice I can offer to hikers, cyclists, climbers, and adventure-seekers of any sort who are shopping and researching is to just go. Plan a short trip with what you have on hand and just get out there. Everyone is adamant about their advice and everyone’s advice is different. You won’t know what is important to you until you’re setting up camp.

With that in mind, I set off for the Marin Headlands from San Francisco on what my buddy E. referred to as a “simulation.” I packed more like I will for the actual bike tour than how I would have packed for a night in the Headlands, because I wanted to feel the actual weight of my bike. I reserved a bike camping spot at Bicentennial Camp. This required that I stop by the visitor center for a permit. The visitor’s center closes at 4:30. But my buddy and I had to finish discussing Breaking Bad and eat some falafel. We got out of the city late and in no time to actually visit the visitor’s center. Not having a permit was absolutely no issue.


Jamis Aurora at the Marin Headlands Battery

Fully loaded success.


I felt a little extra prepared with my new handlebar bag. Before I left, I stopped into Sports Basement in San Francisco. They claimed to be out of handlebar bags. Then, walking out disappointed, I noticed a really nice bag on a display bike in the middle of the sales floor. A helpful staff member was nice enough to remove it from the bike and sell it to me. Score. It’s a great little bag for your camera, map, and a little food.

Getting to Bicentennial Camp from San Francisco is easy. Take the Golden Gate Bridge, find the one-way tunnel and basically proceed straight. When there’s a sign for the Visitor’s Center, it will be helpfully pointed away from you. Luckily, you can learn a lot by looking at the backs of signs.

We found our camp site after a few photo-touring adventures of batteries, cliffsides, and a light house. I set up my tent in a spot that would have been a lot nicer to set up a hammock. This was my final indication that it would be smarter to tour with a hammock. This is one of those debates where everyone’s opinion is different and equally strong. I really like camping with hammocks. I spent some time on the Appalachian Trail and carried only a hammock. I think they’re light, easy to set up, and I sleep well in them. If you like spending time in your tent or can’t sleep well in a hammock, they’re a bad idea. For me, they’re just a great way to save weight.

E. and I found a small beach that was dark and rocky. We spent some time staring into the thick gray fog of the bay and then built a really impressive cairn. If you don’t believe me that it was impressive, you’re welcome to go find it.

Find out more about bike camping in San Francisco here! 

(Attempting) to Secure a Brooks Saddle

August 21, 2012 at 2:22 am

Brooks saddles are like mid-90s Honda Accords–a huge target for thieves. And since I’ve already had a mid-90s Honda Accord stolen (I named it D’Accord, but didn’t have the vanity plate made in time), I intend to keep my Brooks Saddle.

Everyone has a different idea of how to best secure a saddle. It’s a little difficult to trust what anyone says about saddle safety because of a really significant sampling problem. If you have had your seat stolen, you think the way you secured it was dumb and bad. If you haven’t, you tend to think you’ve done a pretty good job of locking it up.

Here are the most common methods of securing a bike seat:

1. “Hey, that’s a funny lookin’ bolt.” The locking skewer. These fall into different categories. Some are simply bolts with unique imprints so that special tools are needed to remove them. Others claim to be more sophisticated and require that the bike be flipped over to remove them. Unfortunately, the cycling world is full of stories about how thieves have bypassed these. Vice grips and magnets seem to work just fine.

2. “You wouldn’t want it anyway.” The least sophisticated strategy on this list–just toss a plastic liquor store bag over your seat. This way thieves will have to remove a liquor store bag from your seat before stealing it. Well, they wouldn’t really have to remove the liquor store bag before stealing it. In fact, they would mostly just have a handy place to hide your seat as they leave the scene of the crime. Well, maybe they ‘ll think you have such a terrible seat that you’re ashamed of it and it’s probably not worth stealing. I don’t really understand the theory behind this, to be honest.

3. “What bike seat?” Without a doubt the most effective method of keeping your bike seat from being stolen is to take the seat off your bike. That’s right, don’t leave it outside. Just carry it with you. Hard to argue with this advice, really. The only thing ridiculous about it is that there are probably other parts of your bike equally expensive and equally easy to remove. But considering seats are the biggest target, your risk will be significantly lessened.

4. “If I can’t have you, no one will.” This is the strategy that causes the most nuisance for the actual bike owner. Take a ball bearing and superglue it into the hex imprint on the bolt. It neutralizes the effectiveness of most tools. I recommend you dial in your bike’s setup REALLY well before taking this approach. Dissolving the superglue will take a good 20 minutes with a Q-Tip as you listen to This American Life and your arm gets tired.

5. “Chains aren’t just for sprockets anymore.” I see this often in San Francisco. Riders take an old bike chain and loop it from your frame through the rails of your saddle. Chains are a pain in the ass to cut through. But if you have a chain tool handy, removing a link takes a few short moments. If you use an older rusty chain, this significantly increases the time it would take to remove a link.

6. “What I did.” I wouldn’t ever tell you that this is the best, or even a very good strategy. But considering I want to continue adjusting my bike for a little while before heading off on my bike tour, I needed something more adjustable than a ball-bearing and superglue. Luckily, I had a U-Lock for a motorcycle’s disc brakes sitting around in my apartment. Since I don’t have a motorcycle anymore, nothing’s safety was being compromised by the re-purposing effort. The lock is small enough to fit through the frame without becoming a nuisance while riding. And I’m able to take the cable and feed it through the saddle rails. How secure is this? Not very. I could see it being a secure solution with a thicker cable, but it’s heavy and kind of dumb when compared with the other options on this list.


Motorcycle disc brake lock for saddle security.

Mostly stupid, somewhat secure.


An old hiking expression comes to mind when talking about security from bicycle theft: You don’t need to be faster than the bear, just so long as you can outrun your fellow campers. If someone is looking to make a quick theft, you’re normally going to be fine as long as your things are better secured than your neighbor’s. Unless of course the thief plans to steal lots of things at once. Or the bear is really hungry.


Planning For A Bike Tour

August 14, 2012 at 2:31 am

Everyone approaches planning differently.

Me, I generally like to do sporadic research about random aspects of something. Then, I stress out about the stuff I didn’t research and agonize about the fact that I should be researching other things I don’t know about. Then, when the actual event I’m planning for, when that arrives, I think quickly on my feet and things work out pretty good. In terms of planning strategies, this isn’t one you’ll discover in any books. That’s because it’s a bad strategy.

Some people think I remain calm and go with the flow.  They’re generally undervaluing just how much I overthink things while staring at the ceiling, apparently seeming very calm.

Luckily, it seems that I’ve found like-minded souls in those people who take up bicycle touring. From most accounts that I’ve read, more than a rough outline of a trip is unnecessary. This is mostly due to the fact that once the rubber hits the road, things change. You meet people, or get sick, or find someplace else you’d like to go. My two-part planning strategy of first agonizing and then adjusting seems perfectly suited to this arrangement.

I leave for France on September 10th, just under a month from now. As of now, the route that I’ve decided on for my French tour could fit on a bar napkin. It’s basically a U. I will start in Paris and head to Normandy. From there, I want to travel south, and then follow the coast of the country. This is based on a couple of pieces of advice. One friend of mine, a native Parisian, mentioned that the middle of France is nothing compared to the coasts. In my ridiculously biased opinion, this is largely true of the United States as well. The good stuff is all stacked on the sides. I didn’t know how logical this route would be, but then I saw that these guys had done it. Sometimes just reaffirming that something isn’t insane is enough to move forward.

I plan to avoid French cities. With enough money and time, I would love to spend time in each city along the route. I love cities. If I ever live in France, it will likely be in a city. But I just don’t have the money to do them justice. Instead, I might roll through but I’ll likely avoid them. There are enough other things to see along the way.


A shot of the 1:200,000 Michelin French Road Atlas 'In action'

Again, totally no idea what I’m doing.


One thing that my open-ended planning strategy makes difficult is carrying a map. I bought a 1:200,000 French road atlas from Michelin. It has scenic routes and back roads and the stamp of approval of other bicycle tourists. It also weighs about 80 pounds. I could tear out only the pages that correspond to my route, but I don’t know my route. I could also buy individual maps that correspond to my route, but I don’t know my route. A third option would be to photocopy only the pages that I need along my route. But, well, you get the idea.

I’ll likely tear out the pages that correspond to areas that I’ll least likely explore. More on that problem when I solve it.

The 2012 Jamis Aurora – For Bike Touring in France

August 7, 2012 at 2:37 am

A couple of months ago, I wouldn’t know a good touring bike if it ran me over in the street. After looking around a bit, and a totally fruitless Craigslist search, I wound up with a 2012 Jamis Aurora. A friend of mine was able to give me a deal on the bike if I bought it unbuilt, in a box. This is what I opted to do for three reasons:

  • It was cheaper.
  • Building the bike would teach me how to maintain the bike on the road (in theory).
  • I would have the box to repack the bike and put it on a plane.
The 2012 Jamis Aurora -- Almost

I have no idea what I’m doing.


Assembling the bike wasn’t terribly frustrating, except for the seat post–which I’ll get to in a bit. I went about learning each step of the building process just like any well-educated person does in 2012. I YouTube’d everything.1

I hadn’t set up derailleurs before, so that took the most time. To a single speed rider like myself, a touring bike looks like The Homer. But I was able to get past my cable-and-doohickey aversion and learn a whole lot in the process.

The 2012 Jamis Aurora comes with mostly decent components, with a few glaring exceptions. The pedals are absolute garbage. They’re plastic with plastic toe cages and nylon straps. Only the most casual of casual riders would be caught dead using these things. And then there’s the saddle assembly. The saddle is powerfully ugly. Why they couldn’t ship the bike with a basic black saddle is beyond me.

The Aurora ships with a seat post that is known to be faulty. I found several forum posts with disgruntled customers griping about how at maximum tightness, their seat still slid around freely. I adjusted my seatpost height, tightened the bolt as well as I could and the seat post still slid from side to side. Frustrated, I stripped the bolt trying to get it tighter and then ultimately trying to get it off.

Luckily, I have a Dremel tool. I cut off the bolt at the center, where there is a break in the frame to clinch the post. The built-up tension caused the bolt to soar across the room once it was finally split in half. It was doubly satisfying to cut the damned thing off. After that, I walked over to my LBS planning only to buy a seat post that actually fit. Instead, I walked out with a new saddle as well. I’ve never had the pleasure of owning a Brooks saddle, and this seemed like a fitting time to try one out.



The 2012 Jamis Aurora in San Francisco.

With a new saddle, it’s a nice looking bike.


Once I had the bike totally set up, I took it for a spin. At 5’9″, the 55cm frame is about as big as I would ever want it to be. It’s certainly at my upper-limit as far as comfort goes. But I’m satisfied, and ready to see what this thing can do.


I have a friend who went hunting every day for a whole season without finding a deer to shoot. This is a true story. He was driving home one day and found a dead deer on the side of the road. It was freshly killed, steam rising in the morning air. At any rate, he decides that this is his deer, regardless of how it wound up becoming an ex-deer. He tried at first to lift it away from his body so that he wouldn’t be covered in deer bits, but it was far too heavy for that strategy. Instead, he had to bear hug the thing in order to drop it into the trunk of his tiny Hyundai. I don’t remember if the trunk closed all the way, but either way it’s a pretty unique visual image. At any rate, he gets the carcass home and drags it into the back yard on a big blue tarpaulin. And then he walks inside and looks up a YouTube video on how to field dress a deer. Once outside, he performs the process. After that, he went back to the computer to learn how to harvest the meat. And then he repeated the process again to skin it. Mind you, I wouldn’t had believed this story if it had come from someone unreliable. YouTube is amazing.

My IRO Mark V – The Tardis

July 30, 2012 at 7:48 pm

This is my IRO Mark V in an image I took of it 5 years ago. Something about the image, perhaps the way that it is resting on the fountain, is reminiscent of a family vacation photo. Or the photograph of one’s child playing in the park. It feels very human, and that’s precisely how I feel about it. I’ve been riding this bike daily for years. Looking at this is like looking at a high school yearbook photo of someone who is still your friend.

The spoke card in the rear wheel is from an alleycat that I raced in Florida. The Key to Cortez race (which, oddly, there’s a map of here) was my first. My brother was living in Sarasota at the time and planned the route for the two of us. We placed 8th. Well, 8th and 9th if you want to get technical, but let’s just say we tied at 8th. I felt like I was cheating because I’d been riding in San Francisco. Training in SF and then racing in Sarasota is like weight-training on earth for a Strongman competition on the moon.

Also note the white bar tape in this photo. What an awful idea. Stays white for about 2 hours, unless you wash your hands before riding your bike.

My Mark V has been through a lot. When I worked in Menlo Park, I commuted to and from Caltrain on this thing. When I lived in Daly City, I climbed 18th Avenue countless times for band practice. It was a trek that was literally uphill both ways.

If I could find some Polaroid film, I’d love to go back to this fountain and lean my bike against it again for a coming-of-age photo. The paint has now suffered countless knicks from being locked to various things in the city. The bars have been flipped and chopped to become bullhorns. The chain is black, the wheels are dirty, and the rear tire is white and worn nearly-through.

My Mark V is like a hammer with a wooden grip that has worn grooves from the carpenter’s hand. Someone once tried to steal the seat with an Allen wrench that was a bit too small. In the process, they stripped the bolt into a smooth circle. Now impossible to adjust by traditional means, my bike is locked into a perfect fit with my body. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Hello World

June 4, 2012 at 10:15 pm

An idea can take years to gestate, feebly pushing through the soil and flowering. Eventually.

My plan for a bike tour didn’t happen like that.

I made something of a New Year’s resolution to become conversationally fluent in French by 2013. Generally, New Year’s resolutions have a one month half-life. This one stuck.

I purchased books, listened to French radio, and started taking a class. But the folks around me kept saying that in order to actually learn French, I had to go there. Fair enough. I kicked around a few ideas. And then I walked into a cafe to put up a flier for the French class I was taking at The French Class.

There I saw a cycling magazine with an article about the grueling Bordeaux-Paris race. Apparently it was part of the pro circuit for years until the riders protested and had it removed. It was too grueling and didn’t provide the chance for physical recovery before the next major event on the circuit. I flipped through the article, put up a poster, walked outside, and texted my brother:

“I’m gonna go explore France on a bicycle.”

His response:

“I don’t see why not.”

And that’s when the planning began, little by little. To be honest, I didn’t know the first thing about bike touring. Still don’t. The research reminds me a lot of the reading I did before my first long hike on the Appalachian Trail. Everyone has ideas about what is essential, and everyone’s ideas are different.

A buddy once told me that the most vitriolic debate on the internet is over the proper way to sharpen a chisel. Equally serious wars of opinion are daily waged over:

  • Whether wool is, or is not, essential.
  • Whether panniers are bulky, or a trailer is bulky.
  • Whether camping adds 20 pounds of misery to your ride, or 20 pounds of blissful freedom.
  • Whether “stealth camping” is an easy necessity or crazy illegality.
  • Helmets.

As a daily cyclist, I’m pretty used to these debates. I ride many miles a day, to every place in San Francisco that I need to reach by bicycle. I do it on a fixed gear, and I usually do it in jeans. This is near-heresy for many riders who think riding more than 3 miles in a pair of jeans will lead to ambulatory asphyxiation.

Whenever I feel like I need to spend $100 on a merino wool moisture-wicking chamois-padded infrared-equipped pair of cycling shorts, I remind myself that the first guys who rode their bikes around the world did it dressed like this:

That ain’t no triple in the front, neither.