October 2013


The second day of the bike tour is when things got more interesting. It offered up some interesting route options and after some discussion with the tour leads about the nature of the routes, I wanted to do Coleman Valley Road to finish. It was the longest option and finished as a 62 miler (100K). It wasn’t the mileage I was interested in, it was that the Coleman Valley Road was supposed to be the more scenic option. Check out the full route map and details here.

Half the fun of these trips is the food and breakfasts are no exception. On this morning we started things at the “Big 3“. I went with a big omlet. Tasty.

Weather kinda sucked to start with. We knew it’d get better later, but it starated chilly and foggy. I was very glad I had brought along plenty of layers. The weather in the area at this time of year appears to start off chilly if not downright cold (40’s) and later warm into a sunny livable 70’s. Full finger gloves, a jacket and leg warmers were in order.

We trekked up Arnold Drive that morning, out of Sonoma and through Glen Ellen. Traffic was not bad though the cars are fairly plentiful on that road. From there we started a significant climb up Sonoma Mountain Road. This was a winding, hilly and potholed road. Pretty countryside though. Long climb and we warmed up quickly. The descent was rough on that road. The potholes made it more technical than it might otherwise have been. We quickly reached the lunch stop though at Matanzas Creek winery on Bennett Valley Rd.

Turns out I’ve been to this winery a few times and was already a member. They treat members nicely so Stephanie behind the counter offered up several wines not otherwise on the Backroads tasting menu. As usual, it was all very good stuff.

After another fantastic picnic lunch at Matanzas Creek and more than enough wine to choose from, we were off to finish the rest of the day. The majority of the ride was still before us. Coleman Valley Road had been billed as being the scenic option so I was up for it but it was also the route with two more tough climbs on it to end the day, and an interesting descent as it turned out.

The climbs up Coleman Valley were indeed tough and by that point it had warmed up considerably. I had almost left my jacket in the van along the way. Glad I didn’t. After climbing, the view at the top was wonderful. Long vistas to the west. By this point in the day it was also becoming apparent that fog was going to be rolling in. In the distance you could see it in the valleys. As I approached the coast, I knew there’d be a descent down to Hwy 1 and into Bodega Bay. Up ahead I could see that that descent would be into thick fog. From sun to thick fog in short order. The temp drop dramatically. Really thankful I had my jacket with me. I put that on and headed down. Brrr. A very steep, curvy descent over several cattle guards. Very cool though, literally and figuratively.

At Hwy 1 it was a left turn and 3 miles or so to the hotel for the evening. The Bodega Bay Lodge. Hwy 1 isn’t my favorite place to cycle. While the traffic isn’t terrible, it’s still a major highway and traffic goes by at considerable speed. Occasionally there’s a shoulder along the way but it’s not consistent and often full of debris like gravel.

Made it in fine though and it was time for snacks and yet another big dinner at the hotel. That night I think we earned it.

It’s been over a year since I’ve done a bike tour of significant length and off in some interesting locale. I routinely search for interesting tours but the timing has to be just right because of my work schedule. So this year it worked out October had some time. After a fair bit of searching, I landed on one offered by Backroads.

In a nutshell, the tour was billed as the Napa/Sonoma wine country tour. 6 days of riding in the beautiful California wine country. Sounded good to me.

I’ve known about Backroads for ages but never booked them because they seemed to me to cater more toward really plush tours – not to mention they are also more expensive than average. I thought it might imply the routes might be boring or easy or both and it’d be entirely filled with first-timers. Turns out at least for the tour I booked, most of that wasn’t true. It was indeed plush – more on that later – but the routes turned out to have some great options and I found a few people I enjoyed riding with.

There were indeed some first-timers on the trip but there were also vets of other tours. For a group this size (23 of us and 3 guides) most people got along very well and the tendency I have seen in other tours of that size to have cliques form that never cross paths after the first day or so didn’t really happen. In a group this size there’s ‘always at least one’ person or couple that doesn’t quite fit the mold and that was true in this case too. Funny how consistent that has been over the years. Otherwise, the demographics were what I expected. People my age or a little younger, professionals.

Logistics for this tour were a little more challenging than others. Partly because there wasn’t airport pickup built into the plan. Instead, we started from a hotel in downtown San Francisco and later returned to the same hotel. But the transfer from the hotel had to be made independently. Why that couldn’t have just been arranged by Backroads I don’t know. Because we ended on a Friday it seems natural that some would just want to hang out in the wine country till Sunday and then fly home but there was no accomodation for that. And renting a car in the wine country after and returning it at SFO later is more costly than most would want to arrange. So in my case I ended up going to the hotel after and then SFO to get a car. It amounted to 6 hours out of my precious vacation in transfer time.

Enough of that and on to the cycling. After shuttling to Etude winery, we immediately got exposure to the Backroads touch. There was a wine tasting at Etude followed by an elaborately prepared gourmet picnic lunch. Nice. Who’s ready to ride!? I really should have taken pictures of the lunches. The picnic lunches were outstanding.

Time to ready the bikes… I brought seat, pedals and helmet and my own bike computer. A bike comes with the price of the tour and by all accounts on the website it seemed like a nice enough one that I didn’t need to bring my own. I missed my own as it turns out but the rental bike was actually a nice bike. It just wasn’t the same perfect fit as my own bike. The bike was a titanium frame with either Shimano 105 or Ultegra or in the case of the rear derailleur some mountain bike component. Gear ratios were plentiful. Triple crank with (I didn’t count) probably at least a 30 tooth cog in the back. Some really low gearing available and I appreciated that later. It was a decent bike and suitable to the task.

The ride that first day was easy peasy. We rode from Etude over flat country to Sonoma and to the Sonoma Mission Inn. Weather was fantastic. Warm, sunny and just right. Click through for the route and details.

The Sonoma Mission Inn is plush, very plush. The highlight was the spa and the Santé restaurant.

As guests, we had at least the “bathing ritual” access to the spa. That alone was nice because it included showers with exfoliating scrub, hot tub, steam room and sauna. With only 20 miles under our belt it hardly seemed like we’d earned it but it was sure nice!

Did I mention the wine? We’d already had a wine tasting at lunch, then along the way we stopped in and had a fantastic tasting of wines at Ravenswood and once we arrived at the Inn there was a complimentary (er, included) bottle in the room and then more to choose from at a meet and greet at 6pm at the fire pit at the Inn. Oh, and of course we could order more with dinner later too of course.

Dinner at Santé was excellent. We dined in 3 groups but in the same room. I went with the heirloom tomato salad, a filet and some ice cream/fig type dessert I couldn’t possibly remember exactly but it was all very good.

First day ended with everyone clearly getting to know one another. Some nice folks on the tour. Doctors, lawyers, business owners… from USA, Canada and Mexico.

I’ve wanted to bike the Marin Headlands for some time now and there’s never been time on other relatively recent visits out this way so I took the opportunity on this visit to work it into the plan. From the city it’s not actually all that long a loop ride so it’s reasonable to assume you can leave from pretty much anywhere in the heart of the city to get out there.

I neglected to bring my Garmin handlebar mount so I didn’t have my bike computer onboard my rental bike so here’s the best I can do based on a quick google search to illustrate the main part of the loop in the Marin Headlands. (Later in the day I found a bike store to buy another Garmin mount for the week ahead.)

First off, it was downright chilly here when I left this morning and headed toward the bridge. Here in the city at 8:30 in the morning it was clear, bright and sunny. Still though, pretty chilly. 50’s? Not sure. I was decked out in bike tights and a long sleeve bike jersey over a long sleeve shirt. Warm enough.

By the time I got to the bridge though it was pea soup fog. Visibility was poor. Still though, I was one of many, many cyclists heading north at that hour. I’m guessing that’s pretty typical. In fact, on the weekends, the routes are such that cyclists must take the western side of the bridge and pedestrians must take the east side of the bridge. That’s good because given the number of riders going both ways up there it’s tight quarters and it would be a mess up there if bikes and peds were going both ways on the same small patch of sidewalk on the bridge.

In the distance, the fog horn in the bay sounds remote and forlorn. On the bridge itself it seems pretty apparent the horn is right there on the bridge. Wow, it’s loud! The horn of a ship passing underneath was added to the noise. Too much fog to see anything though. I could only hear it.

There are a ton of riders taking off at that time of the morning and heading north. Where to? who knows. But there are a lot. And many are the pedal pounder type. Off to the races. As fast as you can go. So, despite limited space, bike traffic both coming and going and thick fog, they’re passing in groups and weaving in and out at top speed. I was just happy to hold a line and avoid getting run over.

Once over the bridge you quickly begin to climb. I was thankful I had rented a pretty light road bike with low gearing. In fact, the bike had SRAM Apex gearing. This is a double crank setup that basically matches what I always ride. After climbing a bit I stopped to snap some pics. I’ve included one below. You can see the fog I rode through to get there. In the fog, you have no idea that it’s clear just a few feet above your head.

A Fogged In Golden Gate Bridge from the Marin Headlands

The climb up wasn’t all that bad though I would have really liked to have my pedals and my bike shoes. Traffic was surprisingly light at that time of the morning and at least on the climb there was no fog. It was glorious sunshine. Eventually you reach the peak of the climb and if you’re going to continue on around the loop the road turns into a one lane road. And it drops quickly. It’s a very, very steep descent. On my own bike I’d have felt more comfortable. On a rented bike, I always wonder about the brakes and gear in general. It’s foggy, it’s steep and a one lane road. Just off the road is an abyss. Hang on! We’re going for a ride!

As the apex of the loop flattens out again the fog lifted and I was headed back inland. Eventually I rode though this very cool tunnel that emerges on the east side of hwy 101 and it’s a short ride from there to Sausalito. From Sausalito, it’s then back to the western side of the bridge for the ride back into the city.

The pic below was taken after making the trip back across and under the bridge. By then the fog had cleared from around the bridge. Excellent view point. Don’t miss this ride if you like to cycle and you get the chance.

Golden Gate from San Francisco Side of the Bridge

Ferry Building Clock TowerIt’s rare when I visit San Francisco for anything other than work-related stuff. But I’m in the city now with very little agenda. I’m walking and biking around and grabbing a bite/drink as the mood suits. Maybe a little shopping. Sure, I’m a tourist I guess. Granted, I’m pretty localized to the Nob Hill, Financial District, North Beach, Chinatown, Wharf and Union Square areas. At least so far.

Maybe it’s because I have so little agenda that I’m walking slower but man do the locals seem to walk fast. I don’t think I’m known for walking slow. Certainly not among my coworkers. Or maybe it’s Austin folks. Whatever it is, they’re moving fast. A small woman walked past me yesterday morning. In short order she was half a block ahead of me. Not an isolated example. No surprise, there are more people on the street than in Austin – at any time other than SXSW – so maybe it’s just the law of averages.

Austin has it’s share of odd people, and we’re proud of it. But San Francisco is doing it’s part to keep up with Austin in this department. Clearly not my first visit to San Francisco and not the first time I have observed a few odd people walking the streets. It was readily apparent even when I was a kid visiting in the 70’s. I wondered then and I still wonder about their circumstances.

Many of those fast walking folks I mentioned above are, naturally, toting mobile phones. Nothing new here obviously. In Austin we complain about drivers messing with their phones while driving. They weave around like drunks. Same here, but they’re walking with the phone up to their face. You have to watch out for them because they’ll walk right into you. Phones, phones, phones. We’re addicted to our phones. I’m just as guilty – though I do try to stop walking before reading the next email. Ok, maybe once or twice…

Update: have to add car horns to my observations. Second only to New York and Boston I think. There are lots of impatient drivers here. Block someone for a few seconds and they’ll be on their horn.

Mobile phone's at the ready

Full moon over the Transamerica building
With a major work project launched, I took the opportunity to plan a getaway out to California. Primary motivation was to get some interesting cycling in and I hope to do that. Landed last night to enjoy a couple days of bumming around San Francisco before joining up with a bike tour group on Sunday for the rest of next week. Took BART into the city and it’s a good thing I arrived yesterday. Today BART is on strike. I suppose that would have left me grabbing a taxi but taking BART into the city from the airport is such an easy and economical option.

I’ve done a short term rental of an apartment in the heart of the city. The Nob Hill area to be specific. In fact, it’s literally across the street from the Ritz Carlton. I had intended to just find a hotel for the couple few days but all the places I usually stay out there that aren’t mega expensive and that are reasonably decent were booked. And I looked quite awhile back. Turns out there’s a big marathon going on Sunday that leaves from Union Square which is just a couple blocks from here so I’m guessing that is why the hotels around here are so booked. I had tried to stay at the Hotel Monaco (which is where I meet up with the bike tour) but – booked.

So, I found this place and schlepped my luggage up the hill to my home away from home for the weekend. It’s a nice little place. 3rd floor apt with 1 bedroom, a living room area, bathroom and small kitchen. Don’t need much more than that. It’s not large but it’s bigger and better and certainly more livable than your average hotel room. You can see the main living area in the photo below.

I arrived kinda late in the day so with the 2 hour time change it wasn’t long before I was ready for some dinner. A place named Cotogna had been recommended to me so I ventured off to find it. Made my way through Chinatown to get there. Trendy kinda place, with with hearty Italian food. “rustic Italian” the website says. Somehow I managed to score a table outdoors. Weather was ideal as far as I was concerned. They had a prix fixe menu that looked interesting so I went with that. Opted to add a salad which in hindsight was probably more food than I wanted. I apparently arrived at a good time because it wasn’t long before they were turning people away. The place filled up fast.

I snapped the photo at the top as I walked back through Chinatown after dinner. Nice evening. Full moon. Happen to catch it rising over the Transamerica building.

From there, back to my humble abode for the evening. More on the trip in subsequent posts.

Nob Hill digs