Travelogue: San Francisco and Surrounds by Motorcycle

It’s All Over

With some sadness, I handed the Triumph Tiger Explorer back to Dubbleju at 5pm local time. My ride here is over, and I don’t know when I’ll be back in California to ride.

There are few places in the world that offer the variety and quality of riding around San Francisco. Actually that’s probably not that true, there may be many. But that still doesn’t negate the awesome riding in this part of the world.

Friday saw me pick up the bike in what the weather channel assured was “100% Precipitation.” It was wet, grey, and cold. But given the bike rental was paid for, there wasn’t time to let a little discomfort get in the way of a great ride. First things first, head south to Palo Alto to check into my hotel, then up Old Page Mill Road to the 84 and the World Famous Alice’s Restaurant for lunch.

The 280 South is arguably a nicer higway than the 101 through Silicon Valley. Still, in the pouring rain, fairly strong winds, with limited visibility on a strange bike, it takes all your concentration to navigate and stay safe on this 8 – 12 lane road. Even having done this ride before, using the iPhone & Google Maps is critical. As in many developed parts of the world traffic flows at insane speeds, and you need to position yourself for a safe exit. Patience for ignorant drivers and last second lane changers is not very high.

The Mountains

From Palo Alto, head west on Page Mill Road, past Hewlett Packard Enterprise, under the 280 and you get into the Los Altos Hills. Then it’s all scrub forest with switchbacks and hairpins until Skyline Boulevard, where it changes to pine. Given the gloom, driving rain, and slippery roads, it was slow going. Very slow. Slow enough to let a couple of cars pass me. No point in pushing to the limit to come around a corner to debris or a puddle across the road.

Take a right and it’s about 6 or so quick miles with sweepers to the famous motorcycle watering hole, Alice’s Restaurant. Usually you can’t find a park with the hundreds of bikes there, although a 5pm on this sodden Friday it was cagers that made up the clientele. Mine was the solo bike. Alice’s makes The Old Road Cafe, and Pie in the Sky on the Old Pac outside Sydney look like roadside shacks. The restaurant has old world charm, friendly staff, and an awesome menu. They’re open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner until 9pm. If you’re here, on a bike, you have to go.

Actually, if you’re here, you have to go.

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Coming back in the dark, down the unlit, unguarded, Old Page Mill road reminded me a little of India. Nowhere near as rugged, or scary, or awe inspiring, but definitely requiring skill, effort and endurance.

South & West to Santa Cruz

Saturday looked promising, and as a good friend was in Santa Cruz surfing for the week-end before his work gig, that looked the best route for the day. Whilst there are motorways that will get you to Santa Cruz quickly, that wasn’t the point. So again up Old Page Mill road, straight into a rain shower. Doh. By the time I made it to the only bridge to stand under, it was almost not worth putting waterproofs on.

At the top of Page Mill, you turn left rather than right to take Skyline to SC. Filled with way too much overconfidence I was riding sans navigation. Only when finding myself on a single track path did I realise one of the inocuous turns way back led to my destination. A u-turn saw me on Bear Creek Road, which does eventually drop you onto the Santa Cruz highway. Of course not directly to the highway, so another 50/50 coin toss saw me riding up Montevina Road. Whilst this leads, pretty much nowhere, it winds up another mountain. Which makes it a fantastic ride, with spectacular views.

At the top of Page Mill, you turn left rather than right to take Skyline to SC. Filled with way too much overconfidence I was riding sans navigation. Only when finding myself on a single track path did I realise one of the inocuous turns way back led to my destination. A u-turn saw me on Bear Creek Road, which does eventually drop you onto the Santa Cruz highway. Of course not directly to the highway, so another 50/50 coin toss saw me riding up Montevina Road. Whilst this leads, pretty much nowhere, it winds up another mountain. Which makes it a fantastic ride, with spectacular views.

Any road that has no traffic, which by and large means little if any enforcement, good tar, and winds up or down a hill, is a good road.

Then it was on the 17 through Scott’s Valley into Santa Cruz. This is both a seaside, and university town. Although the weather meant that most of the beachfront was closed. There was a lone surfer in the water, which considering Dave didn’t answer my calls, I assumed was him. Seems I’m not the only mad nutter enjoying his passion in inclement weather.

You may get rain, but you also get rainbows
You may get rain, but you also get rainbows

PCH – California 1 South

If the PCH is meant to be spectacular sea vistas, and twisty cliff roads, south from San Francisco to Santa Cruz (or in my case returning north) is not that section. To be fair the road extends almost down the entire state, from Leggett in the North, to Dana Point, Orange County in the South – some 656 miles or over 1000 kms. In short, pretty far. Most of this route, with the possible exception of traversing metropolitan LA, is indeed spectacular. But this section would be what anywhere else in the world we’d call a motorway. I.e. Boring. Not entirely of course, but this was a 70-80 mph ride, adjacent to a spectacular sunset, back to the city.

Metropolitan San Francisco

On Saturday night I stayed at a hotel in the Marina, and of course I collected and returned the bike right on the other side of town. So traversing this city has become somewhat of a specialty.

As with most US cities, navigation is easy. Everything is always laid out in a grid, and the grid is labelled consistently. Invariably one of the sets of parallel streets is numbered, and the other named. The names will either be in alphabetical order, or follow a theme. But left, right, 4 blocks, left, left, right. Like I said, easy.

Traffic can be a nightmare. For a grid arranged city, they simply haven’t been able to phase lights intelligently. So 4 km’s across the city can take you 30 mins.

This in itself is pretty disconcerting. This afternoon my fuel, BT headset, iPhone, and time, all decided to race to empty. In rush hour traffic. There’s nothing like a little stress to end a great week-end of riding is there? No, there really isn’t. But it seems a theme of mine.

It doesn’t seem you can park bikes for free as in Sydney. Although I did see a number of bikes, back to the curb. Whether they park between cars, only outside of metred hours, or simply paid, I don’t know. There are 3 or so motorbike parking spots, but good luck finding a space. So I found a hotel with free parking and either Uber’ed or walked everywhere I needed/wanted to go whilst in the city.

PCH – California 1 North

Sunday. True to it’s name, was glorious. A late night with friends (3am) meant a late wake-up, breakfast at a cafe, then load the bike and head North towards Stinson Beach on the PCH.

Now that’s what I’m talking about.

First you have to traverse the Golden Gate Bridge. Which, let’s face it, is Awesome! At almost 2 kms (1966m to be exact) this is almost twice as long as that other awesome bridge to traverse, the Sydney Harbour Bridge’s 1.1km (or rather 1,149m) Other similarities are the speed limit, 45 mph or ~70 kph, and no-one drives the speed limit. However, this has much wider lanes, which in California you’re legally permitted to split.

Next is off at Tamalpais, some 3 or 4 junctions north of the bridge. Wind through the homesteads, and then open her up in the twisties.

You can either stick to CA-1, the PCH, which after a little forest breaks out onto the cliff, and hangs there all the way into Stinson. Or you can head right onto the Panoramic Highway. This is about equidistant, but a slightly slower route. It runs through state forest, and just one of those sublime roads to ride. On Sunday I returned this way. It was dry, and relatively traffic free, allowing me to swoop round corners on the big blue machine and accelerate out with a grin so large the Cheshire Cat would’ve been jealous.

On Monday, however, the SF fog rolled in, and it was spooky, cold, with water run-offs everywhere. Still better than the OPH north of Sydney.

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The PCH itself, is well, spectacular. Unguarded road extends to the cliff edge, overlooking the mighty Pacific ocean, not living up to its name, with a maelstrom of surf and rocks below.

Once past Stinson, the road to my northernmost stop, Port Reyes, turns in big sweepers through forest and farmland, and past a lake. Your speed opens up, and there is just enough cornering action to keep on the road.

I had Sunday lunch at the Farm House. Another themed restaurant, that is was probably never a farm house. Still the food is great, the ambience Americana, and that is precisely why we’re here.

Fin

And so, back to where it all started. I delivered the bike at precisely 5pm (thanks to lane splitting), checked it in, called an Uber, and rejoined corporate America.

So glad I made the effort…

…If you get the chance. If you have to come to SF for any reason. Check out these roads.

 

The Best Motorbike Rental in San Francisco

Now there’s bikes @Dubbelju – San Francisco

The USA is a fantastic country in which to rent a motorbike. You can usually find the bike you want easily; plentiful, cheap fuel and food (if somewhat unhealthy); spectacular, diverse geography; friendly locals; and the roads are sublime. Seriously: Constant radius corners, lots of; “baby bum” smooth asphalt (i.e. off the Interstates which are awful for bikes)

The US is a riders dream.

And there are so many motivations to ride there:

  • The “Cruiser” – from cruising down the Interstate to the iconic “Route 66”.
  • The “Find the Hidden America” – Back roads, camping, couch surfing, state & national parks.
  • The “Twist and Turn” – Find the “low enforcement” twisty roads and see what this baby can do.
  • The “Deal with Congestion” – Ever have to navigate the I405 in LA, or 101 in SF? You know what I mean.

These and so many more. Each reason will drive different motivations for a particular bike you want, and most likely rental company.

Which is where the challenge comes in. The problem is not finding a bike, it’s deciding on one. Then figuring out which company is going to give you the best deal.

Rental Companies

Broadly speaking there are three types of rental company:

1. (Inter)national Adventure Touring Companies (e.g. Motoquest)

Orgnisations like this make their bread and butter from guided tours. As such they have depots or agents in various adventure hubs across the country or world, and a fleet of bikes. Often the bikes will be “on tour” so availability can be somewhat limited.

On the plus side you can usually take the bikes off-road if that’s your thing. They are rugged machines, kitted up for traversing continents in all conditions. And often bikes will need to be relocated, where you can pick up a good rental deal if you can make the dates work.

2. (Inter)national Rental Companies (e.g. Eaglerider)

Whilst these companies do provide guided tours, this is usually to drive their core rental business. The advantage of an organisation like Eaglerider is ubiquity. You can pick up a bike here, travel across the country and drop it off there. You can be on business in Miami, or San Francisco, or Phoenix and there’s a depot with friendly staff.

That and variety of bikes. Whilst they have thousands of Harley’s, there’s usually one or two sports tourers, adventure tourers, dual sports, and even sports or nakeds for you too. Although I have heard horror stories of people renting a GS, then being “upgraded” to a Harley because the GS was “unavailable.” Not good. Probably not legal. Certainly not ethical. So renter beware.

Watch for extra’s in the prices. One way fees can be eye-watering, fuel fees, various surcharges, taxes, and insurances can all give you sticker shock. The rental rate for a given bike is can be as little as 65% of the daily cost.

With hundred’s of bikes and customers, you can be just a number

3. Local Bike Shops & Rental Companies (e.g. Dubbelju)

This can be a potluck affair. Disadvantages are often driven by scale. Without a national network, you’re very much constrained to limited availability and type of bike. There’s invariably no way to drop a bike off in another city, or at least without having to pay for, if not organise, a transporter. Also the size of the company often means their web presence isn’t that great.

This is not the case with Dubbleju, who provide both drop-off options, and their website is actually one of the better ones I’ve dealt with. It includes a rental calculator where you can set the parameters of your trip, then change the bike on-the-fly, allowing you to compare options.

Local shops do have the advantages of being connected to the local community, and knowing the best rides. Their small size often means they cater for a single type of rider, so they don’t have to have options for everything under the son. Also if you visit regularly you can develop a good relationship with the crew.

It’s All About The Staff

If I’ve learned anything from travelling the world it is that customer service has nothing to do with a brand or organisation, and everything to do with an individual. This is just as true with motorbike rentals. I’ve had a Motoquest manager pick me up at LAX, from their office in Longbeach; and on the next trip a manager lose a 10 day rental to Eaglerider because he wouldn’t pick me up, nor build in a competitive way to get to their depot.

This trip saw Eaglerider lose out to Dubbelju because they wanted to charge me an extra day for 5 hours more on the bike. Even though it’s a longer commute to Dubbelju (& at personal expense) Their rate, flexbility, and friendly service won out. I simply couldn’t justify an extra US$260 (AU$380) for 5 hours.

That said, I’ve come across really friendly, empowered managers that will go out of their way to ensure you have the best experience in the corporates: John Eisenberg (Seattle), Alex Elam (Longbeach, then San Francisco) at Motoquest; and Daniel Marquez at Eaglerider to name a few.

Calculate Everything

Once you’ve decided on a route, an itinerary, a bike, it’s time to figure out the best deal. (which isn’t only about $$) This can be pretty tricky, mostly because each company has it’s own versions of some charges. Some are included, there are discounts applied, some charge a “state mandatory” environment surcharge, others don’t and on. Some include luggage (panniers), others charge for everything.

Then you need to add on things like travel to and from the shop, whether you have to top the bike up or not on return, accommodation (if you need to stay a night before, or after the rental) etc. If you’re going to do a one way ride, you need to figure out the one way drop-off cost (Motoquest $100, Eaglerider $325!!) you may have a flight to tack on, and alternative airports may make more sense.

Not only do the different rentals charge under different titles, but they don’t all have a calculator either. E.g. at Eaglerider you have to select a bike and begin the rental process before you can figure out costs. At Motoquest and other companies you have to complete an online query, to get a quote (hours to days). All of this makes it hard to compare apples with apples.

But it’s mandatory. I’ve not yet paid the price I was expecting from the website, or emailed quote. There is always something the unwary haven’t thought of. So build a spreadsheet, and be prepared to go online for a couple of nights.

And don’t forget Travel Insurance. Not all, in fact most, don’t cover for motorcycle rental. There’s theft, collision, medical treatment, rescue and evacuation, and liability to consider. I haven’t yet found an affordable Aussie company that covers me for most of the riding I do. This is a lot easier when travelling from USA, Canada, and the UK. A good Travel Insurance will reduce your rental liability, which can significantly reduce the cost.

So San Francisco?

All in all Dubbelju is the best in SF by a country mile. Their prices are comparable, but their friendliness, flexibility, local knowledge, and bike range are all awesome. There’s that web calculator I mentioned before, and from Laura’s response to my booking, to Bobby checking my bike out today, the experience was seamless.

They went as far as recommending transport options from SFO (BART $9).

I do know “the Bear” of Australian Road Rider fame, Peter Thoeming comes in annually to take a bike for a blast down the PCH.

Also, if you’ve ever thought to try the Ducati Multistrada, they’re one of the few that stock these.

Interested in Your Experience

I’ve rented bikes in the USA a number of times now, in the UK, and have toured in India. But I’m interested in your thoughts:

  • Have you rented bikes, or joined a tour? Why?
  • Was your experience positive or negative?
  • What hints and tips would you add for new renters?
  • Anywhere you reckon I should ride whilst I’m here? 🙂

 

What Makes a Highlight

Every stop along this holiday I’ve asked Lu and the girls “What has been the highlight of this place.”

I love hearing the answers. Sometimes they’re the same for the whole family, and sometimes they’re extraordinarily individual. Lu hates heights, so would never vote for Space Needle; and Amanzi wouldn’t put a Sea Feast anywhere near her list.

But in San Francisco, the answer was unanimous…

There was some serious competition for the vaunted memory:

  • Pier 39, with more tourist and bric-a-brac shops you can poke a stick at.
  • Westfield, Forever 21, Forever XXI (I know right. And it’s across the road), and other money pits
  • Cycling over the Golden Gate
  • Cable car over Nobb and Russian Hills
  • Watching the SF Giants decimate the Arizona Diamond Backs live at AT&T Park

But no, the unanimous highlight of San Francisco was spending the day in Sausalito.

So What makes a highlight?

A combination of the new, the unexpected, the wow, the relaxed factor, and I’d suggest, great friends.

We caught met up with our good friends Peter and Melissa at the Ferry Terminal, in the nick of time. Then enjoyed a relaxed cruise around Alcatraz to this little village. A couple of hours is plenty of time to peruse the shops, enjoy a great Italian meal, grab some Salt Water Taffy, Gelato, and head back to the city.

Sigh.

Bliss.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pass Go, Do Not Go to Jail

Project 2012: Day 272

It seems I’m destined to not visit an island prison. When we were in South Africa almost 2 years ago, I wanted to visit Robben Island, famous for incarcerating Nelson Mandela. But I never did. Just too many conflicting priorities when you get 10 different people together with limited time on holiday.

Cruising past Alcatraz from Sausolito. Not Stopping. Nothing to see here.

So I was determined to visit Alcatraz this time around.

But alas, no. Every tour is fully booked until after the time we have to leave SF.

In short, for some things, unless you’re in one place for at least a week, you just need to bite the bullet and book in advance.

Yes, this restricts your options to do something on the fly.

Yes, you can screw it up because the weather changes.

And yes, all those arguments that go:

“What do you want to do today?”

“I don’t mind”

“Ok, let’s go to Alcatraz”

“But I don’t want to go to Alcatraz”

“I thought you said you didn’t mind”

“I don’t, but I don’t want to go to Alcatraz either”

Those arguments, you have to have beforehand.

But for me, I have yet to visit an island prison…