I can only speak for myself (but I suspect there are similar closet cases out there): I was scared to death to ride a bike in San Francisco. How do these psycho drivers, giant trucks and tiny vulnerable bike riders co-exist?
I didn't think I would ever try to face down these demons, but here is another admission: I wanted to bike to work. I live in the Potrero flatlands and work South of Market. After living in the car culture of Southern California, being able to walk to and from work in San Francisco has been a real pleasure. But I wanted more. I wanted to get there in 10 minutes instead of 30. I wanted to look "sporty" and "with-it." I wanted to join the legions of pant-leg-rolled-up, yell-at-double-parkers, SF-style biking warriors. Actually, maybe I only wanted the first thing. To be honest, an extra 20 minutes of sleep a day was the biggest motivating factor for me to get on with learning the bikey lifestyle. But there have been factors to overcome.
First, I did not have a bike. I had never ridden one in a city, and San Francisco is so fast-moving and aggressive. Not only that, but I harbored some deep bicyclophobic secrets. How to get over these fears? This is where my friend Nancy stepped in. She showed up at my house one day armed with a bicycle, a bike map, and a plan to ease me into the wonderful world of urban bicycling. The first few rides were simple affairs. Always traveling on traffic-light weekend mornings, we toured to easy destinations like Pac Bell Park or my gym on Potrero.
There were challenging moments, but nothing that scared me off. Living in a flat area with lots of bike lanes was a real bonus. We even went to the Mission and cruised up and down Valencia Street. Nancy kept my incentive up by stopping often for rest, treats and shopping. Soon, I began biking to the gym on my own.
When I was a kid I had a pink Schwinn - my pride and joy. I learned to ride it myself, and loved to explore the long suburban streets of Phoenix. When I was 12, to avoid being hit by two cars, I swerved and fell in the gravel, hard. My bike was ruined, I was banged up, and I never rode a bicycle again. Simple story, but some pretty far-reaching consequences.
Learning to bike the right way, to be calm and avoid dangerous situations, was key for me to be able to ride with confidence as an adult. So one day, Nancy and I spent hours in a parking lot, where she observed and corrected my mounting, stopping and turning techniques. That was a breakthrough, as a lot of my fears stemmed from the fact that I did not really know how to maneuver and control a bicycle comfortably.
Until now, I rode with my seat so low that I could always place both feet on the ground while seated. But with practice, I was able to raise the seat to a higher, more comfortable position, as I unveiled the mysteries of stopping and dismounting without needing both feet on the ground. It was here, too, that I started to come to terms with my deep-seated bicyclophobia.
As I got more comfortable, my ultimate destination - my office on Ninth Street - began to glow in my imagination like the Emerald City. If only I could get there, I could do anything and bike anywhere! Well, not really, but if I could master the one-way streets, double-parked cars and breakneck pace of SoMa, I would achieve a major victory.
As usual, Nancy and I set off on a weekend morning. The route was a seemingly roundabout one, but necessary because of all the one-way streets. I was OK until we got to the heart of SoMa, where the pace picked up and the bike-friendly streets evaporated. Even on a Sunday morning there were plenty of hazards to encounter: driver-side doors opening, double-parking, and drivers turning right without looking.
Just when I thought I could not go on, we were at my office building. Even though it was kind of scary, it was an amazingly short trip. Worth it, and worth the potential future of extra sleep!
There is no definitive end to this story. I'm still slowly expanding my bicycling horizons at a comfortable pace ‹ a critical method to use for a newbie biker. I'm sure there are plenty of people out there like me: the desire to bike is there, but it's buried under a few layers of nerves and reluctance. Having a patient teacher has also been a critical ingredient, as well as many lessons about riding and safety techniques. Some of my fears are still there, but now that I'm learning the skills, I'm ready to face fears too.