Seven Hells of SF: The road to hell is paved with potholes

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By Kat Renz

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Rounding the peaks. All photos by Frank Chan. View more here.

"When gas is five bucks a gallon, I'm joining you!" An excellent sentiment shouted by a supportive driver on the afternoon of Saturday, June 21, from her idling car. And it was something I'd been thinking all day, that the three dozen other velophiles with whom I was riding the city's most vertical inclines, officially dubbed "The Seven Hells of SF Bike Tour" were the badasses who'd easily contend with the realities – at least the personal transportation ones -- of the fast approaching shitstorm called peak oil. Yet would the driver have expressed the same enthusiasm had she witnessed our collective past five hours – including the four blocks of Divisadero we had triumphantly climbed to the finish line at Sacramento five minutes before?

You'll recall from high school lit class that Dante's version of hell had nine circles, and they were cold. This unique tour's organizers', Dan Reider and Frank Chan, rendition had seven hills, all scorchers, exacerbated by the fact we rode midday on the tail end of the very un-San Francisco summer heat wave.

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"Maybe I'm the only idiot who's done this three times." Chan remarked once we were relaxing back at our starting point, the daisy-dotted grass at the east end of the Panhandle (Chan was also the only one with a gigantic camera dangling from his neck, and he still roasted most of us on the hills in order to document our agonizing glory). There's a reason why the tour's only offered about once every two years, as that seems to be the average recovery time. Regardless of our recently burning lungs and wobbly legs, at least three-fourths of our group of 42 finished, and all were stoked. One rider said it was the most fun (Fun?! Yep, fun.) he'd had in a long time, and another dared to suggest the tour should be offered more regularly.

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The torturous route

In case you can’t wait another couple years and want to try the hell ride yourself, here’s a lowdown of the route’s most prominent peaks.

After a cheerful warm-up from the Panhandle through the Park to Ocean Beach and back to 9th and Irving, we started up the Mt. Sutro hill (aka Warren Drive), adjacent to the Garden for the Environment prettiness. Rated “Hard” along a three-tiered scale of “Moderate,” “Hard,” and “Very Hard,” this is where the profanities began when I could gasp them out. Well before reaching the top, I’d already decided this first effort would be my last. True to their word – “This is not a race!” – Frank and Dan made sure to wait for everyone to re-group at the summit of each conquered behemoth, tossing out Clif Bars for the calorically-needy like we were trick-or-treaters costumed as spandex ‘n’ jersey bike nerds.

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Flying downhill rarely fails to soften the memory of the pain it took to get there, and this tour was no exception: considering the city’s roller coaster topography there was always a dramatic descent to quickly return us to zero elevation. Our second hill was the only “Moderate” on the tour, and the comparably tranquil climb up Twin Peaks was a wise tactic, I’ve no doubt, to allay the fears of those still intimidated from the premier peak. At least three other factors were are work keeping my legs pumping despite the horror, namely peer pressure, the promise of post-ride bragging rights, and some psychological jujitsu: I knew if I could get up these devils, the typically dreaded grades along my normal commute would become mere bumps -- for a week or so, anyway.

Any respite ended while rounding the top of Twin Peaks, where we could pretend the tourists were watching us pedal to fame in the Tour de France (coming up July 5!) rather than just gazing on the Blade Runner horizon of West Oakland. The next two to tackle on our list were ranked “Very Hard” and “Hard/Very Hard.” I’d never ridden up a mountain like Dalewood before, always assuming the steepness combined with gravity would roll my bike right out from under me. Dangerous! Stay away!

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Approaching the southwest side of Mt. Davidson, the smell of hot pines and sweaty anticipation was heavy in the air. Dalewood is where I learned an abrupt lesson in the handy skill of flattening out a hill through switchbacks, and where Dan and Frank would shout numbers of presumed encouragement, “22!” “19!” as we carved our way up (by the tour’s end, our maximum grade was 26.1).

We rolled down to Valencia, where saner folk were enjoying the rare heat bedecked in cute, non-spandex sundresses and summer heels sans toe clips. The series of hills up 21st Street almost didn’t phase me. We were broken in, seasoned switchbackers, a mighty force. We could take in the scenery, the bouganvilla drooling down the fronts of Dolores Heights homes in garish fuschianess, and the cawing crow harassing us for our intrusion (or cheering us on in a crow-like way, I’m not sure, or maybe gloating over having wings).

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On Market Street, back in a reality dominated by automobiles, we rode to the San Francisco Bike Coalition headquarters at Sixth Street, merrily competing for the bike lane with a throng of skaters coming down from DLX. Eventually, we made it through Embarca-tourist hoards and to the foot of our hardest feat: Russian Hill. The two blocks of Jones between Filbert and Green are the fifth and third steepest in the city. And they’re in a row. And this was where even zig-zagging my way up failed to suffice and, after several efforts to regain any forward momentum, I threw a brief tantrum, hopped off my steel steed, and walked.

After swooping through Chinatown, we took California from Montgomery 16 blocks to the top at Gough, where we then plummeted down to Cow Hollow to ready for our final ascent. The four blocks up Divisadero were a blissful countdown, despite my aching thighs and publicly inappropriate grunting. Each time a helmet peaked over that last hill, the rider was awash in hoots and applause. One guy had even brought a watermelon (wha…?!) which he graciously cracked open right there on the shiny sidewalk of Pacific Heights. We were finally able to truly take in the characteristic view – from this direction, about a dozen sailboats back-dropped by Alcatraz and the sapphire bay – just one of seven with which our efforts were rewarded after each “hell.” Is there a better way to see the city and beyond?

The day’s sweet mix of pleasure and pain was well articulated by one rider’s evening plans: "I'm going home now to whip myself."

And for the woman in the blue coupe with the economically-motivated cycling ambitions: Roll up your right pant leg, buy a good lock, and put your wallet away at the pump. At the rate prices are climbing (quicker than a cyclist on a 22 per cent incline!), gasoline will be $5 per gallon in what? Two weeks?

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