Bike Routes

Adventures in Bay Area Bike Share

This story originally appeared in Bike Fun in the Mountain View Voice online edition on September 9, 2013.

It’s been just over a week since the Bay Area Bike Share pilot program opened for service in five cities: San Francisco, San Jose, Redwood City, Palo Alto and Mountain View. So far, 3000 people have bought annual, day or three day memberships to ride the bikes (including me) for a variety of reasons. Last week I chatted with people riding bike share bikes around town and asked them what they thought.

Sunday: On my way to Caltrain I met Brett, who was coming back from a ride on the Stevens Creek Trail to Shoreline Park and back. That’s a longer trip than the 30 minute free ride period so he paid $4 for an extra 30 minutes, but he didn’t mind. “I’m not a biker,” he said, “I’m trying this out to see if I like it before I buy a bike.” He was smiling as he docked his bike and headed for the Farmers Market.

Wednesday: On my way to work I ran into Alex and Dennis as they were undocking bikes at San Jose Diridon station. It was Alex’s third day commuting with bike share and she was thrilled. Before bike share, she took Caltrain from San Francisco, either bringing her bike aboard or taking a shuttle for the last mile to the office. With bike share, she won’t risk getting bumped due to overcrowding on the bike car, and she won’t miss the shuttle if her train is late. Like Alex, Dennis lives in San Francisco. He only works at his company’s San Jose office occasionally. Having a regional system that works in both cities is important to him.

Thursday: On my way home from work I met a man near the VTA Light Rail station who was heading home on a bike share bike. “I’m lucky to have a station near my home,” he said. I didn’t have time to ask him which station before he rode away, but he was headed toward either the bike share station at Rengstorff Park or the San Antonio Caltrain Station.

What about me? Unlike Brett, I already have a bike. Unlike Alex and Dennis, I don’t have a bike share station by my office. And unlike the last guy I met, there’s not a station by my home. So when did I use my annual membership? On a trip to San Francisco last weekend with a couple of friends. We had lunch in North Beach, watched a bicycle race at Levi Strauss Plaza and stopped in at the Ferry Building for a little shopping.

We learned that bike share is a great way to get around San Francisco’s downtown and waterfront, but made a few mistakes that show there’s a slight learning curve to using the system. The instructions on the Bay Area Bike Share web site and on the station kiosks are a good start, but to make your first trips more trouble-free than ours, here are a few things you should know.

Undocking the Bike
With my annual pass, checking out a bike is quick and easy. I pushed my key fob into a slot on the bike’s docking station and pulled back firmly on the handlebars to release the bike. Make sure the bike’s kickstand is up first, though. I banged my shin on the kickstand the first time.

A day pass requires using the kiosk at the station, inserting a credit card, giving them your mobile phone number, and going through a lot menus on the screen. In the end they give you a 5-digit code that you punch on the left side of the bike’s dock. For trips later that day, you’ll need to go back to the kiosk and insert your credit card to get a new 5-digit code. My friend Deanna had a few frustrating minutes trying to reuse her original code before realizing she needed to go back to the kiosk to get a new one. At least there are fewer menus to click through on the second trip, though.

Watch the Clock
The thirty minute no-extra-charge period goes by quicker than you think, so don’t play tourist and stop for photos too much along the way. To maximize time, plan your route and where you’ll dock your bike near your destination before you punch in your code or push in your key fob. You may want to adjust the seat height, put your bag in front holder, and put your helmet on before you undock the bike. And don’t forget to note your start time.

Docking the Bike
Docking the bike at a station near your destination sounds simple–you just push the bike into an available dock–but it’s easy to do it wrong. The trick is to line the bike up straight before pushing it in, hold both handlebars and push it in hard. You’ll know you’ve done it right if the dock’s green light turns on. To be sure it’s docked, you can also tug back on the bike to see if it releases. That’s the only way we could tell for sure at a few docks that were facing into the bright sun’s glare.

Dock Surfing
If you realize you may run over the 30 minute time limit, or know you’ll need more than that to get to your destination, try dock surfing. Dock surfing is simply swapping out bikes at an intermediate station along your route. If you’re a nervous Nellie like me and don’t want the stress of rushing, plan for an intermediate stop. With an annual pass, it’s pretty fast to grab a new bike.

Bike Malfunctions
One of the bikes my friend Michelle undocked was stuck in the lowest gear and wouldn’t shift. We returned it to the nearest station, pushed the repair button on the dock, and turned the seat around backwards. So if you see a bike with the seat turned 180 degrees backward, don’t try to undock it.

Download the App
Download the Cycle Finder app on your smart phone before your first trip. It shows station locations and number of available bikes and open docks in real time. It’s pretty basic but useful. If it only integrated recommended bike routes it out be outstanding. I kept finding myself flipping from map to map to navigate to the station in North Beach that was closest to our restaurant.

Security and Theft Prevention
Once you undock a bike you are responsible for the bike until it’s docked again. So don’t leave the bike unattended or locked anywhere other than an official station, and make sure it’s docked correctly. Also, with single and three day passes, don’t let anyone see or hear your code number. If you are slow to type it in and undock a bike someone could use it before you. The same is true of an annual members key fob. Guard it carefully and report it immediately if lost or stolen.

Have you tried the Bay Area Bike Share yet? If so, where did you go? Do you have any advice for other users? If not, where can you see yourself using it?

Bay Area Bike Share web site:
Bike Fun Photos from San Francisco

Deanna Bay Bridge Wide

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Hitting the Dirt on Mountain Bike Trails

This story first appeared in Bike Fun in the online edition of the Mountain View Voice on August 27, 2013.

Did you buy a mountain bike because of the big fat tires and easy riding comfort, but the only times you’ve ridden it off-road were on the levee trails along the bay? That was me, until my friend Steph took me out on some dirt trails at Arastradero Preserve in Palo Alto where I put the mountain back into my mountain bike.

To me, mountain biking is a lot like hiking. You get out of the city and feel like you’re far away from it all, even when you’re only a few miles away. I’m always surprised how much wildlife there is so close to town, from deer to wild turkeys to coyotes to gopher snakes. If you’re lucky, you might spot a bobcat or tarantula. I’ve seen all that and more, especially since I cover a lot more distance on a bike than on foot.

If you’ve only ridden on pavement before, there are some things you should know before hitting the dirt that will make your first ride a lot easier. Riding dirt isn’t hard if you make a few simple adjustments.

First, on the trail there are a few new rules of the road. As a mountain biker you need to yield to hikers and horses, as well as uphill riders. In particular, be aware that you and your bike can make horses nervous because you look too much like predator. As you approach horses, slow down to crawl, call out “hello” as soon as you’re within voice range, and ask the horseback riders how to proceed. Sometimes they will want you to stop and let them pass, other times they’d rather pull off the trail and let you pass. It’s all about communication. The same advice works for hikers. Be polite, communicate with them and don’t buzz by.

As for your bike, any bike with knobby tires works and some people can rock the dirt on slick tires too. Having a fork with front suspension smooths out the trail, but isn’t necessary for the moderate trails I’ve listed below. To set up your bike before your first dirt ride, all you’ll probably need to do is pump up the tires and go. But not too much. Lower pressure in your tires gives better traction on loose dirt and gravel. I set mine at 35-40 psi, which is the far low end of what my tires recommend.

If your attitude about shifting gears is “set it and forget it” on the streets, you’ll need to review shifting. Most trails in our area have steep sections so you’ll want to use your gears. In particular, the wide gravel roads that may look easier than the narrow trails also tend to suddenly get steep. Unlike the narrow trails, they were built for farm trucks with engines, not people on foot or on bikes.

After that, it’s all about the ride. Here are some techniques that can help you feel more comfortable and stable riding dirt.

Ready position
The ready position is used when you’re rolling down a trail like my friend Cindy is in the photo above, or rolling over obstacles like ruts or roots. First, put your feet in the pedals level at 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock positions in a wide stance, then lift your rear out of the saddle, bend your elbows wide and look straight ahead down the trail. The goal is to stay balanced as the bike moves underneath you, like an English-style equestrian, where your legs are shock absorbers and you move forward and back and side to side as needed to stay balanced. Put one or two fingers lightly over each brake lever, place your palms lightly on grips and you’re ready to go.

Roots, rocks and ruts
You’ll need the ready position to roll over obstacles like ruts, roots and rocks. The other key is to brake as you approach the obstacle, then let go of the brakes and let your bike roll over the obstacle. For obstacles too big to roll over, look where you want to go to roll around it. Stare at that big rock and you’ll hit it for sure.

Mountain biking gets its name because most trails are hilly, at least in our area. The good news is mountain bikes have lower gears than road bikes. Use them! Downshift to your small chainring (left hand shifter) before the hill and then use the gears in your cassette (right hand shifter) to find the right gear. On really steep hills, the tendency is either for your rear wheel to slide out or your front wheel to pop up. The trick to staying balanced is to stay in saddle, slide forward on the saddle and lower your chest toward the handlebars. And there’s no shame in walking up the hill if it’s too steep.

Descending starts with the ready position described above with your rear out of the saddle. As the trail gets steeper, move your body further back behind the saddle. Moving your body back means you can brake with both your front and rear brakes together without flying over the handlebars.

Tight turning
Tight turns in trails, also known as switchbacks, can be challenging and rewarding when you learn to ride them. The best line to take is to go wide before the turn, look down at the apex to turn sharply and as soon as your front wheel gets close to the apex, look far down the trail. And keep pedaling, especially as you exit the turn when the tendency is to coast. Don’t feel bad if you can’t make the turn. It takes practice and some are hard to clear for experienced riders.

Walking the bike
In mountain biking everyone walks the bike sometimes. The easiest was to push your bike is to stand on left side of it so you can avoid bumping the chainring. Put both hands on the handlebars. If you’re walking the bike downhill, feather the rear brake (right hand) to control your speed. On super steep uphills, you can brake hard and use bike as a cane to help balance as you walk up.

Finally, as trite as it sounds, relax. If the trail feels too intense or you find yourself tensing your body or squeezing the hand grips tight, slow down and or stop for a bit. A stiff body makes everything harder. Take a breath, enjoy the scenery, walk it off if you need to and then roll again.

Here are two of my favorite local parks and trails that are great for first-time mountain bikers.

Arastradero Preserve in Palo Alto
Arastradero Preserve offers rolling grassy hills with wide gravel roads and narrower smooth dirt trails very close to town. The park is small, but with proper planning, you can ride a dozen or more miles without too much repeating, and you can reverse direction for a new experience. I’ve marked an easier first-timer’s loop on the map in pink, plus a bonus loop in purple. The blue loop is where my friends and I ride after work, which is a good time to visit since the park has very little shade.

Long Ridge Open Space Preserve on Skyline Boulevard
Long Ridge offers smooth and shady trails along Peter’s Creek and great views from the ridge along Skyline Boulevard. My favorite starting location is Grizzly Flat, which is 3.1 miles south of Page Mill Road or 3.3 miles north of Highway 9. Watch your odometer to find the trailhead at the unmarked roadside parking.

Cindy at Long Ridge Wide

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All Aboard! Taking your Bike on Transit

This story originally appeared in Bike Fun in the online edition of the Mountain View Voice on July 11, 2013.

My bike alone can only take me so far so fast, and sometimes I’d rather arrive somewhere without looking like I’ve been pedaling for hours. That’s when I turn to trains and buses to extend my cruising range. Here in the Bay Area, we are really lucky that almost all of our transit operators allow bikes on board.

Caltrain leads the way in bike-friendliness not only here in the Bay Area, but in the country. Every train is equipped with two bike cars where lower-level seats were replaced with bike racks. The old-style train cars hold up to 40 bikes and the newer cars hold 24, which means every train can accommodate 48-80 bikes. The service is so popular that Caltrain reports that one in 10 riders brings a bike aboard. Some days it seems like all 4,200+ daily bike commuters are getting off the baby bullet as I get on for my commute to San Jose.

When I take my bike on Caltrain my no-sweat 10 mile cruising range grows to a 50 mile corridor from San Francisco to San Jose. It helps that the rail line has stops every 1-3 miles and runs through the downtown business districts of most Peninsula cities, which are my favorite places to eat and shop.

While VTA light rail and buses don’t have the bike capacity of Caltrain, they dedicate space for 6-12 bikes inside every light rail train and every bus has a front rack that holds two bikes. When the rack is full, the bus driver may allow up to two bikes inside the bus, as long as the bus isn’t too full. VTA light rail and buses are not as fast as Caltrain, but they offer more frequent service, longer running hours and their lines fan out across the whole valley.

Your bike + transit options don’t stop on the Peninsula and South Bay. From San Francisco, ferries can take you and your bike to Sausalito, Angel Island, Oakland, Vallejo and more. From San Jose, you can roll your bike aboard the Amtrak Capitol Corridor trains to Sacramento or the ACE train to Stockton, or you can rack your bike on a bus to Santa Cruz or Monterey. And as of this week, BART has loosened its restrictions with a five month trial of all-hours bike access.

When do I appreciate bikes on transit the most? On my work commute when riding five miles instead of 14 means I don’t have to change clothes when I get to the office. On trips to places like San Francisco where I don’t want the hassle of driving or parking and would rather get around town on a bike. On recreational rides when I’d rather ride one-way and go further than ride out-and-back. On any ride where my bike has a mechanical problem that I can’t easily fix on the road. Yes, VTA has rescued me more than once on a ride.

Have you ridden a train or bus with your bike before? Where did you go? Why did you take transit?

Riding Caltrain with your bike
* Each train has two bike cars that are labeled a large yellow sticker near door. One is the northernmost end of train, the other is in the middle of the train.
* Before boarding bicycles, let people without bikes get off and on first.
* Bikes share racks. Either choose an empty rack or put your bike in front of a bike that will be getting off at a station after yours.
* To keep people from loading their bike in front of yours, create a destination tag and attach it to your bike. Post-it notes work fine.
* Use the bungee cords provided to secure bikes to the rack. Don’t lock bikes to the rack.
* Sit in bike car and watch your bike to make sure no one with a destination after yours puts their bike in front of yours.
* Children must be at least 6 years old to bring a bike aboard. Children under 12 years old must ride with an adult and be able to carry their own bike on and off the train.

Riding VTA Light Rail with your bike
* There are four racks in the center of the train car where you can hang your bike by its front wheel.
* If your bike is heavy, you can hold it on the floor in the turntable area of the car.
* Unlike Caltrain, there are no stairs required to board.

Bay Area Bikes on Transit:
More Tips for Bikes on Caltrain:
Bikes on VTA Guidelines:

Caltrain Bike Profile Wide

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Going the Distance on Bay & River Trails

This story originally appeared in Bike Fun in the online edition of the Mountain View Voice on July 6, 2013.

Last Thursday was Independence Day, a day to celebrate freedom: breaking away and being in control of your destiny. As a child I found my freedom through my bicycle. On our bikes, my friends and I roamed the neighborhood, rolled down to the creek to throw rocks and explored trails that led to distant and unexpected places. Freedom was knowing we could go wherever we wanted under our own power.

That’s still how I feel when I venture out on the creek and bay trails, exploring to see just how far they’ll take me. You’d probably be surprised to learn how far your bicycle take you starting directly from your front door even if you stick to off-road bike trails. Little known fact: you can ride 20 miles from downtown Mountain View to downtown San Jose and only leave the trail for about 1/4 mile, provided you and your bike can handle riding on some gravel sections.

Exploring trails is also a great way to increase your fitness. You don’t have to be training to race the Tour de France, where riders average 100 miles per day for three weeks every July, to see health benefits from amping up the distance. By gradually increasing your mileage five miles each week you can go from 10 miles this weekend to 50 miles by Labor Day. And you can do it all on trails.

The trick to going long off-road is to take the Stevens Creek Trail to Shoreline Park, turn right and cross the footbridge onto the gravel Bay Trail to head south behind Moffett Field. Then continue through Sunnyvale to catch the newly paved Guadalupe River Trail down to San Jose. Out-and-back is close to 40 miles from downtown Mountain View, but there are good turnaround points along the way. If you’re like me and don’t like out-and-back routes, you can also ride further, then bail out by taking Caltrain or VTA Light Rail home.

Here are some highlights of the route. Note that all mileage is approximate and starts at the downtown Mountain View Caltrain/VTA transit station.

Mile 5: Moffett Field
Built in the 1930′s to house dirigibles, Hangar One is so massive that folks say clouds form inside. Once slated for demolition, they’ve torn off the toxic shell leaving its graceful and impressive lattice framework exposed. If you’re lucky you may catch military, research. or other aircraft taking off or landing from its long runway.

Turn around here for a 10 mile round trip.

Mile 7: Sunnyvale Wastewater Treatment
Wastewater draining from indoor sources in Sunnyvale flows through sewer pipes that direct it to this plant for treatment before being discharged into San Francisco Bay. The odor-free plant has two treatment ponds on the bay where you can add an extra 3-4 miles per loop.

Turn around here for a 14 mile round trip or ride 1/2 mile to bail out at the Borregas VTA Light Rail Station.

Mile 11: Alviso
There’s a lot of history in the unassuming town of Alviso. Back in the 1800s its port was the hub for the Santa Clara Valley, with steamboats bringing passengers and goods on daily trips from San Francisco. During the depression what was once the country’s third largest cannery closed, the salt pond operations expanded, the port silted up and the town’s regional economic role declined. It’s still a one-of-a-kind place to visit, though, and a perfect place to add extra mileage on the large salt pond loop.

Turn around here for a 22 mile round trip or ride 2 miles down the Guadalupe Trail to a bail out at Lick Mill VTA Light Rail Station on Tasman.

Mile 16: San Jose International Airport
The Guadalupe River Trail runs for 10 miles from Alviso to just south of downtown San Jose and passes alongside the full length of San Jose International Airport. The trail’s proximity to the runways means great views of airplane takeoffs, approaches and landings. The airport viewing location near the Hwy 880 underpass has seating plus interpretive signs to keep you entertained between airplanes.

Turn around here for 32 mile round trip or ride 1 mile to a bail out at Metro VTA Light Rail Station.

Mile 18: San Jose’s Little Italy
As the Guadalupe River Trail approaches downtown San Jose, it crosses through the former River Street area, home of dozens of Italian immigrants who came to San Jose in the late 1800’s to work on farms and orchards throughout the Santa Clara Valley. Many immigrants first stayed in the Torino Hotel, which is now the home of the iconic Henry’s Hi-Life BBQ.

Turn around here for a 36 mile round trip or ride 1/2 mile to bail out at Diridon Caltrain Station.

Mile 19: Children’s Discovery Museum
Inside this bright purple building is a world of fun for the little ones, with interactive exhibits designed for open-ended explorations. If you stop in, check out the exhibit featuring skull, femur and pelvis fossils from Lupe, a Columbian Mammoth discovered along the Guadalupe River near the Trimble Road in 2005.

Turn around here for a 38 mile round trip or ride one mile to bail out at Diridon Caltrain Station.

The Guadalupe River Trail continues south to Almaden Valley with several on-street segments required. With a little adventure and a good map, you may surprise yourself with how far you can go. Keep adding 5 miles a week and by Thanksgiving you could be riding 100 miles in a day.

Tips for Going the Distance on Your Bike
* Carry water and refill wherever available. Plan to drink 1 bottle of water per hour of riding.
* For trips longer than one hour, carry snacks. It doesn’t need to be sports bars, just portable and easy to eat.
* For trips longer than an hour, consider wearing padded bike shorts. If you don’t like the tight lycra look, you can wear bike shorts under loose-fitting shorts.
* Go long and try transit for the return trip. It’s a lot more fun to see more new places instead of doing an out-and-back. If you’ve never taken transit with your bike, come back to Bike Fun next Thursday for details on how to get started on transit with less stress.

How far from home have you ridden on your bike? Have you ever followed an unknown path and found an interesting new route? What has been your most interesting discovery?


Bike Fun Bay & River Trail Map
Photos of Bay & River Trail Highlights:

Going Distance Wide

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Planning Your Route: Secret Bike Passages

This story originally appeared in Bike Fun in the online edition of the Mountain View Voice on May 30, 2013.

The best way to get around town on a bike is probably not the same way you’d go by car. A route that’s convenient by car may be very stressful on a bike. Fortunately, there are bike maps that show you which faster-traffic streets have bike lanes, show you which roads to avoid, and clearly mark the kid-friendly, off-road bike trails. Bike maps are often available on paper so you can take them along on your ride.

Another option is using the bike directions setting on Google Maps, which can give you point-to-point directions and offers Street View which lets you visually check out the route. But sometimes Google gives you bike routes that aren’t exactly what you’d choose. Like the time it recommended I take Central Expressway to get to my job near San Jose Airport. Not my idea of a pleasant ride to work, even though my friend Jack did it for years.

But both kinds of bike maps can be misleading. Some of the best routes are low-traffic, slower-speed neighborhood streets that don’t get marked on the map because they don’t have bike lanes and they’re not bike trails. The secret is to look for the quieter streets (often marked in white or gray on the map) and to learn the secret bike passages.

Secret passages are unexpected connections just for people on bikes and on foot. You won’t find them behind a bookcase or under a staircase, but they’re really common in neighborhoods built after 1950 where streets were designed to limit cut-through car traffic. Which is exactly where you need them the most. Here are some of our favorites:

Sneaking into Sunnyvale: Dana St to Sylvan Park
Getting from Downtown Mountain View to Sunnyvale is a lot calmer with this little connection that starts where Dana St ends at Moorpark. At the end of the crosswalk you’ll see three posts guarding a short path to Foxborough St and into the Sylvan Park neighborhood. Another secret passage at the end of East Dana leads you to Washington St in Sunnyvale.

Connecting Downtowns: Castro Street to Los Altos
This short bike-only path fills a gap on Marilyn Drive for a route that can take you from the southern end of Castro Street to downtown Los Altos. When Dick meets me on a Friday night at the Caltrain station for a dinner date in downtown Los Altos, the Marilyn Drive connector helps us get to the restaurant in time for our reservation, even when there’s a headwind.

Hugging El Camino on the South Side: Marich Way
Need to get somewhere on El Camino Real and want to avoid traffic? If you’re south of El Camino, look to Marich Way. A secret bike connector on Marich Way will let you ride from El Monte Ave to San Antonio Rd on the south side of El Camino. The trick to getting to that store or coffee shop on El Camino is knowing which cross street to turn on. Guess wrong and you could be walking your bike on the sidewalk a long way.

Crossing San Antonio Road: Monta Loma to South Palo Alto
Crossing San Antonio Road can be challenging since most traffic signals are on busier streets, but there’s a traffic signal at the old Mayfield Mall site just North of Central Expressway that lets you cross on quieter streets. It’s been recently improved on the Palo Alto side with a larger waiting spot, but heading out of town you’ll have to use an awkward crosswalk on the Mountain View side. Still, it’s a rare easy crossing that takes you into Palo Alto.

These four are just a start. In the resources section below there’s a link to a custom Google Map I created with many more. Just zoom into the area you’ll be traveling, click on a marker and you may just find the secret bike passage you need.

How do you plan your bike routes? Do you use any bike-only passages as part of your trips? How did you find them?

Bike Fun’s Secret Passages Map:
Mountain View Bike Map:
Santa Clara County Bike Map:

Martens to Yorkshire

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