If Portland is a compact city, with everything squeezed into a bustling few blocks, then San Francisco is the polar opposite. It sprawls. It also has so so many hills. Big, steep hills. Say San Francisco and the images that spring to mind will be those unique Cable Cars trundling up and down, against the backdrop of Golden Gate, Alcatraz, and Fisherman's Wharf. But it's not till you actually try walking up one of the famous hills that you realise just how steep they are
We arrive from Portland mid-afternoon and catch the BART train which whisks us easily from the airport to downtown. Our first taste of the hills comes quickly as we have a fair hike from the BART station to our hotel. Given that this is the city that is home to Uber (there is a curious lack of hail and ride taxis, quite unlike New York) we decide that Uber may well be getting some of our business in the next day or so.
The guys we have come to see are tied up the afternoon we arrive so instead, we relax for an hour or two before heading off to the Oracle Arena in Oakland to catch an NBA game - the Golden Gate Warriors vs. the New York Knicks. Even better, our good friend Justin from Ornot is able to come along to the game as well so we have a great evening of basketball, beer and chat. There's nothing quite like watching live US sports!
Morning dawns and we are half expecting the fog for which San Francisco is so famous but not today, it's lovely and clear. First up is a meeting with Spurcycle, the guys that make the iconic and beautiful bell along with a fair few other lovely things, all of which go firmly on the "need" list. Spurcycle is based in the shoreside town of Sausalito, a peaceful community located on the northern side of the Golden Gate Bridge. So with an Uber easily booked, we head over the bridge.
Spurcyle operates out of a small industrial unit in the northern part of Sausalito. On the outside, it's just like any other small unit but inside, it's a wholly different story. We meet Nick, owner and founder of Spurcycle, and he shows us round the immaculate and incredibly well organised premises. We check out his latest pride and joy, a machine the guys have designed and built themselves for the automated polishing of the domes of the bells.
A total of 81 domes can be polished in a single process and we watch, mesmerised, as the vacuum powered probe lifts each dome in turn, takes it to the polishing head and then, when finished, lifts it and places it carefully on a different tray for finished domes before heading back to pick up the next one. It's balletic in its simplicity but Nick explains it has meant they can considerably increase their throughput. I ask who did the coding for the automation of this lovely bit of kit. "Hmm, we did" says Nick, very modestly. This approach to home grown automation is evident everywhere you look, such as the simple but highly effective machine for adding the striking mechanism for the bells.
We chat about new products the guys have in development including a lovely titanium bike tool that comes in a pouch for easy storage and organisation. Like all Spurcycle products, it's brilliantly conceived and then superbly designed and manufactured. We leave highly impressed.
Baums and Pegorettis
Sausalito is a mecca for bikes with one of California's best bike shops situated on a side street in the centre of the town. The shop in question is called Above Category. Unremarkable from the outside, once we step inside we realise we have arrived at what is close to high-end bike retail perfection. Polished concrete abounds and the floor is strewn with Persian rugs that add warmth and colour. The less is more philosophy is at work here and on each side of the store, this is a single row of bikes, mounted, end on, atop a low and simple but elegant wooden display cabinet. The display cabinets are open and contain beautifully merchandised products such as jerseys, helmets and apparel, some of which is Above Category own brand. We also spot some garments from Pas Normal Studios, another favourite of Always Riding customers.
But it's the bikes that provide the most arresting feature. Down one side is a row of half a dozen Pegorettis and on the opposite side, a similar number of Baums. Always Riding had the privilege of visiting Dario Pegoretti in his studio in Verona in the summer of 2017 and therefore we know first-hand just how much love and attention goes into each of these incredible machines. So to see half a dozen up close and personal, here on the West Coast of the United States, is really rather special.
We chat to Chris, one of the sales guys at Above Category. He's wearing casual clothes quite unlike anything you would expect to see in a typical UK bike shop, but here it works perfectly. The style is fashion, cool, quality and service. Chris is relaxed, well informed and knowledgeable, and clearly passionate about Above Category. We realise this is a very different bike shop experience to what you tend to find back home. And we like it.
It's time to head back to San Francisco and we pop into the local deli to grab a sandwich. We're in California so we're talking gourmet sandwich of course but everything is reasonably priced and we watch whilst our sandwiches are hand made by the chef behind the bar. We don't consume them immediately however; we're in Sausalito and we have to get back to San Francisco which means going back over "the bridge". And since I have remembered to pack running top, shorts and sneakers, there's really only one way for me to get back to the city. I'm going to run.
Dropped off at Vista Point, I wave goodbye to Danny who will meet me back at the hotel and start to run. The bridge is one of San Francisco's most iconic landmarks. Opened in 1937, it carries over 100,000 vehicles per day - and with a height of 227m and a main span of 1280m, it is, remarkably, still the tallest bridge in the United States.
It is also very windy. Around the base of each of the towers, the headwind is so strong I make slow progress. Even though I think I'm running flat out, at times I am going no faster than walking speed. Curiously, I am able to overtake the cyclists heading back over the bridge as the wind blowing directly onto their larger cross section is making forward motion almost impossible at times. Still, I make it over, run down through Cressy Fields then along the bay to Fort Mason, opposite Alcatraz. It's only 7km but feels much further. Still, an exhilarating experience and one more bucket list run ticked off.
Our next meeting is with Ornot and we head over to their lovely shop/workspace/showroom opposite the Cable Car Museum in one of the more desirable (and hilly) neighbourhoods of the city. We've had the pleasure to work alongside Ornot since the brand started 3 or 4 years ago when founder Matt ran things from home and we were a small team of three, so we are excited to see what is now a slick and stylish operation.
We talk Spring/Summer 2018 product, future plans, and the bike scene generally with Matt (owner and founder of Ornot), Justin and Nich (they also made us some excellent coffee). The brilliant thing about Ornot is the way they combine a relaxed West Coast style with beautifully designed and manufactured technical products. There's something else brilliant about Ornot; San Francisco can feel far away from the wet and windy climate of Northern Europe yet Ornot's products neither jar nor feel out of place. They are vibrant without being shouty and cool without being overly laid back. They are what they are - really lovely designs, beautifully made by guys who love their cycling, and who practice what they preach judging by their high-end but well used bikes neatly parked in the corner of the shop.
By the time we finish the business bit of the chat it is dark (and raining), so we grab a beer and chat some more. Both Danny and I agree that we could quite easily relocate to the West Coast of North America without too much hardship at some point! We head off into town for a bite to eat and find a German restaurant (on Justin's recommendation) where the spaetzle and kartoffelsalat turn out to be very fine indeed.
Then it's back to the hotel. Tomorrow we're off on the final leg of the trip and up to the snow and cold of Canada and British Columbia. It promises to be pretty different!
To be continued.......