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The South Bay Loop

Like many of my so-called epic day rides, this one began with total ignorance of exactly what I was getting myself into, and ended with dogged resolve to finish the mess I started.

It was the day I had a shiny new rack and panniers added to the back wheel of my six-speed hybrid. Luggage rack installation is often a ticklish job. I had to switch out parts in both cases where I’ve had it done. By the time we got a good fit, it was one o’clock and getting quite warm.

The latest upgrade dramatically altered my bike’s profile, and the last thing I felt like doing was pedaling one measly mile to deposit at my back porch what seemed to me a shiny new toy.

But where to go? For no reason that comes to memory four months later, I turned out of my bike shop parking lot into San Tomas Expressway until it became the Montague Expressway in Milpitas, California.

The parts of Milpitas I saw along the main traffic arteries is unremarkable to look at and outright unpleasant to cycle through. I missed a walk signal twice because cars kept barreling into their right turn into a red light. Not one driver wanted to yield to a pedestrian for five seconds, and I was stranded at that intersection for two cycles. Somewhere near the Great Mall, a red truck matched my pace to chew me out for running a red light fifty yards back. I waved and offered a good-natured apology, he called me a moron and sped off. I’m usually good about obeying traffic law, but gently coasting the through street of a T-intersection while on the shoulder imposes danger to no one.

Just eight miles southwest of my position and five months ago, the motorists in Santa Clara amazed me with their courtesy on the road. They never honk or yell out their windows, and invariably give a comfortable berth when passing. I don’t know where you’re from, reader, and how you react to my description. Maybe you’re accustomed to sane, courteous road-neighbors. Otherwise perhaps you share my experience in Merced and know the ordeals of rough, inconsistent, or non-existent shoulders and the unpredictable reactions from drivers which range from overt caution to unfettered hostility.

I stopped at a convenience store just before Dumbarton Bridge to fill my water bottle, and the young clerk looked horrified when saw I intended replenish my supply with *gasp* tap water! Whatever heavy metals and amoebas the municipal water in Newark had in store for me, the subsequent illness could not have generated a more disgusting expression than that of the young clerk.

The east side of Dumbarton bridge is a wildlife preserve composed mainly of saltwater marsh that stinks to high heaven in the ripening May heat, and the northwest winds blew the reek in my face all afternoon and slowed my pace to about five miles per hour. My chain jumped off the front cog in the deadly marshes, and as I knelt in the mud to my work not even the passing ranger truck stop to make sure I was alright. Overall, I give the whole East Bay urban area from Milpitas to Fremont low marks in ridability and native friendliness.

I soon landed in Menlo Park, which lays at the west end of the bridge. The bike map had a dotted green line traced along roads called Bay, Pulgas, and Garcia, and usually indicated a scenic route, wide shoulder, or otherwise bike-friendly ride. The map’s “suggested route” took me out of squeaky clean and wholesome Menlo Park and deep into the heart of the famously shady East Palo Alto. When the well-maintained landscaping on University Avenue gave way to barred windows and gansters driving and leering out vintage street yachts, it dawned on me I was in the city “Dangerous Minds” was staged in.

I bought a polish dog from a statuesque black woman with two inch nails and asked about directions. While she drew a verbal map, punctuating waypoints with her ornate nails, a man appeared next to us and interrupted her.

“Where you headed?”

“South.” My answer was as deliberately vague as it was deliberately short.

“How far? I’ll ride with you as far as you go.” I noticed his bicycle.

At this moment the Amazonian hot dog vendor showed herself to be one who really knows how to control her space, for a deft word and gesture send the man walking his bike to an nearby corner store as though he never spoke to us at all.

It was almost ten o’clock and quite dark when I at last pedaled into the driveway. Unsurprisingly I was weary and my knees ached dully, but real pain bloomed under the seat of my pants when I kicked a leg over the bike and blood rushed to the area for the first time in hours, renewing lost covenants with the nerve endings in the welted flesh there.

I walked to work the next two days, and my butt ached at the sight of that saddle.

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