900 Vertical Feet

Lots of excuses help justify not commuting by bike. One of the goals of this article is to dispel all of them: for myself as much as anyone else. People cite the rain, the dark, the traffic, the subway challenges, and the lack of bike ways as reasons not to bike to work. Today I’m profiling myself to dispel yet another excuse for not riding: hills. Wind, rain, and darkness come and go but a hill is a motivational challenge that is the most consistent if not the most formidable.

My ride starts at the top of the Oakland Hills. It drops 900 feet in less than a half mile to the subway (BART) station I take out to the valley. This makes for an exciting but death-defying ride down. Of course, it also makes for a brutal climb back up at the end of a work day that can haunt your decision to ride. When I first started riding it, the hill alone was a sufficient excuse. “I’m just too tired to face the climb today,” I’d say. After a while, I would combine this with another excuse:

  • It is unacceptable to employ a 4000 pound machine to haul 15 pounds of groceries
  • It’s raining and it is too dangerous
  • Now that it’s daylight savings it’s too dark
  • I ate lunch too late in the day and I’m too full
  • There’s frost on the road and it’s too cold

Nevertheless, for the last year, I have managed to press through all this B.S. at least 3 times a week on average. I’ve biked up this hill in driving rain with heavy wind in the dark and enjoyed doing it (thanks to great lights and rain gear). I’ve ridden it with frost on the road with mittens and 2 sets of leggings. I’ve ridden up the hill right after drinking 2 beers and a large burrito. After all that, the hill is not so intimidating anymore.

The biggest challenge now is managing all the temperature differences. Some days I start above the fog in freezing cold air, arrive at the subway under the fog where it is virtually raining, then cycle the remainder of my ride in the valley under a hot sun. Dressing for all these temperature changes without freezing or sweltering is the trickiest part now. I literally do not worry much about the hill anymore. I never thought I’d say that.

Once down the hill, I catch the subway out to the valley. Here’s the subway station on both a sunny and a rainy day. In the rainy day picture, you can see how the cyclist count plummets. The “it’s raining excuse” is obviously in full effect. I honestly don’t know why anymore. Folks think nothing of going out in a snow storm to go skiing or snowboarding. With the right gear it’s doable. The same is true for cycling so what’s the deal? Rainy days are when we really need folks not to drive.

At the subway station there’s often 10+ degree difference in temperature so I strip down on the train on the way out. On a good day, there’s a lovely view of beautiful Mount Diablo. From there it’s off for my morning cappuccino at Peet’s.

After my cappuccino, I head off to one of the great bike trails in the Bay Area and one of the great things about my ride: the Iron Horse Trail. My ride has remarkably few cars on it. In fact, a route will soon exist that allows me to leave my subway station in the valley and arrive at my office without riding near any cars. Extraordinary. I wish it wasn’t but I’m savoring this wonderful experience regardless.

At the first   bridge  I cross, I’ve almost stashed on the frosty redwood planks in winter but otherwise I just love crossing this on my way to work. A lovely creek flows below. I often pass folks doing Tai Chi or playing soccer on the lawn. It all makes for an uplifting start to my day.

The next  bridge  I cross, an old steel  bridge  left over from the days when this trail was part of a railway system, holds a lot of charm for me.

The last  bridge  on my route in is not as quaint but it impresses me on a number of levels. First, it gets me over the fast-moving boulevard I would have to take if the dedicated bike path didn’t exist so I love going over this rather than going through what you see here below. Second, the age and design of this  bridge  is such that it cannot possibly be a hold over from the railroad days. That means the voters of this area agreed to spring for the cost of putting it here when there are so many other priorities competing for the funds. For that, I am eternally grateful. I average about 22 MPH on this path which would be too slow for cars on that boulevard below but too fast for pedestrians if I were on a sidewalk or smaller trail.

Once I’m over the  bridges , the rest is a pretty mellow straightforward bike trail. Other cyclists draft me in their jeans while I’m in spandex. I’m impressed but I pity them for the chafing they must endure.

Naturally, the end of the day is just this path in reverse with a few exceptions. One is that I am occasionally blessed with views featuring a tree with the moon and Mount Diablo in the background. Another is that I often stop off for a second coffee or tea at Cole’s Coffee for the ride up.

I started out going straight up after getting off the train because any pause would risk a loss of will power and a call to friends for a ride up the hill. I would just power up the hill before the excuses took hold. However, I had to stop doing that because it meant my after work quality of life suffered. When I drove to work, I often met friends, ate dinner, ran errands, or otherwise lingered down the hill before heading home. It was something I enjoyed and something I missed when I skipped. Consequently, now I often cruise over to Cole’s for coffee, or Lanesplitter Pizza for dinner with friends and I don’t let the onset of fog or dark worry me when I do. I just finish what I’m doing then put on my jacket, flip on my light and pedal up the hill.

Mentally conquering this hill has taken me a long way towards viewing cycling as the rule for transport rather than the exception. The last hurdle is hauling significant loads of groceries or other stuff up this hill. If I’ve got to haul more than 15 pounds of cargo, I still wind up using my car.

I’m not a bike purist. I don’t believe it has to be bikes all the time in all cases. That’s why I combine bikes with trains. That’s why I consider car use when I have serious hauling to do. Nevertheless, it is unacceptable to me to employ a 4000 pound machine to haul 15 pounds of groceries. “Right-size your ride” is my motto. If it is just me going somewhere, use the vehicle that is just enough to haul me. Likewise, with me and a little cargo. To fill the gap between car and bike, I’m considering a little scooter. Something that can let me feel better about darting down the hill for a quick run to the grocery store. Regardless, most of my trip’s down the hill are just me, a few clothes, and fewer excuses everyday.