By Tara Austen Weaver
It’s still dark as I pull myself from a warm bed, thinking briefly of those who slumber on. Shuffling around the house I fill water bottles and stuff work clothes into bags while pulling on leggings and lacing up shoes. I clatter noisily down the stairs in the chilly pre-dawn silence and wheel my bike out of the garage. There is no traffic on the roads, bar the clanking garbage truck, and I glide past houses still dark.
There are those who think I’m crazy, waking long before necessary in order to bike to work. There are questions they ask—about showering, transporting clothes, changing flat tires. There are answers I give—the environment, exercise, traffic—but they all fall short. It’s hard to explain what can only be experienced.
Merging onto the bike path I speed past the salty marshes and wetlands of the bay. The tang of the air tickles inside my nose. Lights from the distant road reflect on calm waters rippling into infinity and I hear the tide swishing under wooden bridges as my wheels roll over them. The air is cold as it whips past, stripping away any vestiges of sleep. Soon there are houseboats and sailboats bobbing offshore, white beacons in the paling dark. There are joggers out now and we nod in greeting as we pass each other, sharing the bond of the early riser.
I was not always a bike commuter. There were days when I drove my car to the ferry terminal and sipped coffee as I read the paper, crossing the bay safely ensconced in a window seat. Other days I shuffled three steps up and onto the bus, feeding money into the machine and taking a thin paper transfer, fighting drowsiness as the low and steady sound of the motor threatened to send me back to sleep. I always seemed to arrive at work only half awake.
Cycling through the bayside town of Sausalito the image of my bike flashes on storefront after storefront window, creating a staccato pattern as I pedal smoothly onward. There is a break in the storefronts and suddenly the panorama of the city is before me: streets and houses and skyscrapers still outlined in twinkling lights, reflecting in the silent waters of the bay. The sky is blushing in the east, pink and gold fingers stretching upward.
Past Sausalito the road begins to steepen. I breathe deeply and the cold air knifes at my chest. Pushing harder my legs begin to warm and burn, first the right then the left, as I steadily climb the hill. Head down I push past stands of eucalyptus trees, fragrant in the morning moisture, and the delicate lacy green of fennel bushes lining the road.
My first ride into the city was serendipity. Deciding to bike from my house to the ferry I misjudged time and arrived just as the stout boat was pulling away from the pier. I had two options: leave my bike locked to a lamppost and take the bus, or ride all the way. Emboldened by the early morning light I decided to go for it. I’ve never looked back.
Cresting the hill the Golden Gate Bridge is before me, glowing red in the radiance of dawn. The cars are thick now, bogged down amongst themselves, and I speed past them on the walkway. The bridge hums from the vibrations of many motors and I feel the movement through my handlebars. Leaning forward I wheel across the slight incline, stopping at the middle of the span.
Suddenly the flaming gold of the sun bursts over the eastern edge of my world, flooding the city, the bay, and the mountains with a generous light. The bridge is illuminated now, more golden than ever before. The moment is precious, worth waking up for, worth the work to get here, worth it just to hang suspended high over water—on a shimmering link of gold—to watch the day begin.
Eventually I move on, wheeling across the span in the warming light. Descents wait for me on the other side—coasting down hills to the sandy wetlands of Crissy Field and the manicured green lawns and sailboats of the Marina. Cresting another grassy hill I glide down the curve of Aquatic Park where waves break rhythmically on a crescent of damp sand. The wharf is here, eerie without its daytime clamor. Restaurants are just beginning to stir as I speed past, busboys sweeping the sidewalk, a bakery churning out fresh bread. The air smells of yeasty dough, fresh fish, and the alluring scent of possibility.
There are days when I simply can’t bike. Days when logistics require a car, or evening plans preclude bringing a bike along. These days are never as good. Try as I might, I am cranky, still sleepy at three, my brain set on some slower speed. I need the cycle spins in order to function properly. If this is addiction I am not complaining.
Clearing the wharf I roll onto the smooth sidewalk of the Embarcadero. Piers flash by me on the left as I swoop around joggers, walkers, and graceful rollerbladers enjoying the early morning sunshine. The world seems new, and waiting in patient readiness for something to happen. The water of the bay glistens to my left and I wheel past the soaring dome of the ferry terminal, its arched façade disgorging early commuters scurrying to offices, meetings, and industry.
The Embarcadero curves around the city, embracing towers and buildings, and I follow the smooth pavement and wide sidewalk that borders the water. Here are the docks of yesteryear, haunted by the figures of longshoremen, the days when San Francisco was a real port. Rotting now, the sodden wood is slowly falling into salty waters; a century of history being forgotten.
To my right are the gleaming towers of the new San Francisco, an era of electronics and ideas replacing the might of ships and men. Here are the machines, the engineers, the high tech speculation, the new concept that rules all. Never let it be said that San Francisco had only one gold rush.
The clear bright of the day is reflected in these sharp windows, the waters of the bay dancing with light. In a groove now I coast past coffee shops—the deep aroma coaxing me onward— and toward the end of the Embarcadero. Here are the last of the boats, pristine sails a brilliant white in the early morning sunshine. Here too is the ballpark, its rusty brick solidity anchoring the shoreline. Memories of pitchers and peanuts cling poignant to the empty shell and, as I sail past, I glimpse a moment of velvety green through the open porthole door.
Leaving the Embarcadero I find myself on city sidewalks and dismount to cross the busy street. The train station bustles with commuters, coffee cups and briefcases in hand, eager to start their day. The flower vendor is stocked with deep purple irises, tender roses, and fragrant daylilies. The newspaper seller calls out headlines to a wakening world.
Crossing at the light I stand before the low brick building that is my destination. Removing my helmet I shoulder my bike and clankity-clank my way up the stairs, maneuvering the landing, and up again to my floor. My bike clicks quietly as I wheel it down carpeted halls and into my office.
“How was your ride?” my co-workers ask each morning.
“Not bad,” I say with a smile. Exhilarated. Invigorated. Alive. I am already eager for the ride home.