As with my last entry, I will be up front and point out that my day trip with Blazing Saddles was comped as part of my visit to San Francisco. That said, I’m not a whore, so I’ll be up front about what I did or didn’t like about my day’s rental and tour around San Francisco.
The wind coming off the San Francisco Bay is chilly as it tussles my hair and howls across the bridge unphased by the speeding cars and bikes that crowd it.
I’ve climbed the Sydney Harbour Bridge before and stared down at the lights of Sydney, but there’s something completely surreal about standing atop one of the world’s most iconic bridges and looking back at San Francisco. I’m actually touching the fabled red of the bridge and feeling it vibrate beneath me with the passing of cars.
These are the moments I live for as a traveler: the moments where I’m almost outside of my body and able to appreciate the gravity of having achieved something I never dared daydream I would.
This may all read as very dramatic; after all, it’s just a bridge. But to a teenage boy growing up in country NSW who had never had more than a few hundred bucks to his name – being overseas at all still feels mind-blowing to me at times. Getting to see and experience the things I’d only seen in movies humbles me each and every time.
It’s not a transcendant moment of realisation or inner peace. How can it be when cars are honking and bikes are whizzing by so close to me that I have to suck in my gut?
A few of my tour group at huddled by the railing to pose for photographs in the rare moments where bikes aren’t trying to get by us. I have no idea where our tour guide is, but I assume we’ll find her at the end of the bridge.
But I’ve got ahead of myself as if me writing from this desk in China is me perched atop my bike and staring down at that impossibly steep hill right after the bridge.
Let’s backtrack a little.
Meeting the Blazing Saddles Crew
I don’t know how people don’t die on a daily basis driving in San Francisco. This is a city built in a place where roads just shouldn’t be. Our taxi noses down the hill at the kind of angle usually only reserved for roller coasters and planes piloted by South Koreans and the air stinks of burning rubber.
We spy the Blazing Saddles office, hand over a wad of crumpled notes, and dart across the road grateful to be out of the cab. I spent the entire ride confident that the brakes would fail at any moment and we’d be doggy-paddling our way out of the San Francisco Bay.
Upon checking in we’re quickly ‘fitted’ for bikes and given the appropriate safety equipment. I’m a bit dazed as one of the girls on staff explains to us where we’ll be going, but am assured our guide will make sure we get there (and back again) safely. A quick test ride inside the offices and then we’re off.
Our group is 10 or 12 fellow tourists, none of whom seem particularly confident atop a bike. The adage holds true about riding a bike though – and I’m soon zipping ahead and doing the silly, unimpressive ‘stunts’ that I’d done as a kid growing up in a town with nothing better to do.
The Boring Part
The initial stages of the ride aren’t particularly awe inspiring. We follow the sidewalk along the waterfront and then up past a museum before heading through the suburbs. It’s all pretty standard stuff, although this portion of the ride is also the only time our tour guide really… guided us.
I can’t decide whether I liked that or not. On the one hand, I liked that we didn’t have to wait for the fat guy drenched in sweat to catch up at every turn; but I also regret that there wasn’t a whole lot of history being shared along the way. I’d have liked to learn more about the Golden Gate Bridge – but our education seemed to stop well short of arriving there.
Either way, it was a pretty leisurely ride outside of one or two rather steep hills. One is brutally so, but there’s a real sense of accomplishment when you arrive thighs burning and lungs puffing at the top of the hill. It’s pretty sweet to know that it’s (almost) literally all downhill from here.
Let’s be honest, the big draw to a tour like Blazing Saddles is the opportunity to ride across the Golden Gate Bridge. After about an hour of peddling through first suburban streets and then some kind of backwoods, we finally came in sight of the glorious bridge.
Well, mostly in sight. I mean, there were the iconic banks of fog washing across the damned thing spoiling photo opportunities, but I was able to fill in the missing bits from memory.
After a quick bathroom and photo break (separate things, perverts) it was time to make one last ascent.
Just as soon as an older Jewish man cussed me out for getting in his way as he shot down the hill.
I think he rode even faster than he had been on the hill when he saw my righteous beard tremble with fury. You’d better run, old timer!
Our group dissolved into pairs as we made our way across the bridge, and damned if it wasn’t windy as hell. We were buffeted roughly as we made our way across, and it’s more obstacle course than straight line as you dodge fellow cyclists and weave around supporting beams.
The view from the bridge isn’t quite as spectacular as seeing the lights of Sydney twinkle around one of the world’s most beautiful harbours. In fact, it’s not particularly spell-binding at all; banks of mist, a grey sky, and the distant dark water that looks angrier than even the most foul-mooded fellow cycler.
And now we’re back to that moment of self awareness and gratitude I started off talking about. All too soon we’re being hurried along for the fastest downhill of the day. I took it without brakes and yawping like a crazed barbarian. Heather’s descent was decidedly more halting.
Soon enough we’re cycling through the quaint streets of Sausalito where we’re bade farewell by our guide and given instructions on how to get the ferry back to San Francisco.
I really liked that the tour included a full day’s bike rental and the freedom to do a little exploring without the constraints of a bunch of relative strangers.
Heather and I locked our bikes up and did a bit of exploring – finding that Sausalito on a warm summer day is a hell of a place to try and get a table for lunch. We bounced through a bunch of restaurants, stormed out of one after a half hour wait for a glass of water, and eventually settled on a decent but overpriced pizzeria on the waterfront.
An hour or so of exploration, a half hour ferry ride back (with obligatory oohing and aahing at Alcatraz) and we were back in San Francisco proper. With the day winding to a close and our bikes due back by 5pm, we stopped at Ben & Jerry’s for a much needed sugar injection before dropping off our bikes.
Legs sore, clothes a little damp with sweat, and faces plastered with the smiles that travel and being outdoors and fucking alive will paint; we made our way back to our hostel.
Next stop: Portland
The tour itself is free, so you’re only paying for the bike rental. And at $32 for the day for the most basic bike, you’re not going to feel hard done by. That rental is for the entire day, giving you time to take a tour (the shortest is the 3hr Golden Gate Bridge ride) and still do a bit of free cycling later in the day.
My only real gripe from the experience was that the tour wasn’t more informative, but it’s a free tour – so I guess I can’t expect more than the basics, and that’s fine.