Outside Ritual Coffee on a dawn more rain than mist, 40 or so spandex-clad cyclists standing under the damp glow of streetlamps finish the last of their coffees.
At 6:30 a.m. the cyclists mount their road bikes, the metallic clank of shoe cleats sliding into slotted pedals sounding like a starting shot, to begin the 40-mile journey to Google headquarters in Mountain View.
This is not a one-off bike excursion, but the morning commute for a contingent of SF2G, or San Francisco to Google, a community of Bay Area cyclists united by their regular morning bike treks to Silicon Valley.
Days earlier, on the SF2G Google Group, I posted my intention to join FFFF (First Friday Friendly Frolic), a monthly NRLB (No Rider Left Behind) day. We would begin our journey with an RRR (Ritual Roasters Rollout) and ride Style III (about 15 mph, which feels like 18 mph — a “moderate, conversational pace,” I’m told) and take the Bayway, a 42.5-mile trek from the Mission to Google.
It’s their most common route — one that to my mind that doesn’t seem like a “friendly frolic,” but three hours and 40-plus miles of mildly gratuitous physical exertion.
Ryan! Mason (“with an exclamation point,” he says) says he too thought it was crazy, at first.
“I thought it would be a once-in-a-while thing,” says Mason, who has worked at various tech firms in Silicon Valley over the years. “Then I switched jobs and started doing it once a month.”
Now he rides nearly twice a week, though today would be his last; he recently accepted a job at Square in San Francisco.
Up we went in tandem, climbing the first major hill of the trek, into Bernal Heights, and then along Highway 101 through Visitacion Valley and onwards toward Bayview Park.
For first-time riders, SF2G’s website offered straightforward instructions. Perhaps try riding only halfway (take BART to Millbrae, then join), but if not, then bring PowerBars, water, a spare tube and wear chamois (bike shorts). I had never worn bike shorts, and had not biked more than 40 miles in the past three years, let alone three hours.
We cross 101 at 7 a.m. and proceed alongside San Francisco Bay, the dark giving way to a yellow horizon. As the terrain levels out, the landscape momentarily overwhelms my concerns of not making it all the way. The air loses its aura of mist; the only sound is that of bike chains spinning softly.
SF2G began in 2005 when Scott Crosby, one of its co-founders, took a job at Google but vowed not to make the “soul-crushing” commute to Mountain View each day. After discovering with co-workers an existing bike route from San Francisco to Google, the small crew turned the ride into a regular morning commute. In 2007, the Google employees, notoriously private, opened the group to anyone by introducing a public Google Group.
As Crosby writes on the SF2G website, “Turns out there are a LOT of people who have long considered biking down the peninsula to work from the city, and they just needed a little nudge in the form of someone else to ride with, and a good description of the route.”
Five years later, the group now has nearly 1,800 members — cyclists from Google, Facebook, Apple, Oracle and NVIDIA, to name a few. Crosby estimates that 40 percent of the cyclists on our ride work for Google.
At Seal Point Park — mile 20 — the group stops, regroups and takes in water. Placing my feet on the ground for a moment reminds my legs that they want to collapse — and we have not yet reached the halfway point. In less than five minutes we’re off again, my legs summoning me back toward the end of the pack.
Crosby estimates there are two rides to work each morning, with eight to 12 cyclists making the trek each day. Anyone can initiate a trip by “calling a ride” on the SF2G Google group, stating a starting point (typically Philz Coffee or Ritual Coffee) and the riding style or speed.
Speeds range from Style 4 (13-14 mph average) to Style 0 (over 22 mph average), the latter a largely unsustainable pace according to SF2G’s website. However, the SF2G Hall of Fame lists someone who completed the Bayway route in 1 hour, 54 minutes, for an average pace of 22.3 mph.
Passing San Carlos Airport at about 8:45 a.m. — mile 28 — we have our first casualty. A Google employee on his maiden voyage succumbs to cramps. Our subgroup of six riders — the rest are ahead of us — stops to assess the situation.
Carol Liu, a senior treasury analyst at Google, has a 10 a.m. meeting at the Mountain View campus, and we’re behind schedule. A veteran rider volunteers to stay back with the crippled newbie so that we may push on to Google.
I ask Crosby how often newcomers fail to make it. “People get lost, get behind the sweeper,” he says, referring to the designated SF2G veteran who “sweeps” at the end of the caravan to catch any virgin stragglers. “They fall off the back and no one notices.”
The Bayway route runs near the Caltrain line, so anyone who gets lost or is unable to complete the trip has a safety net for getting to work.
As for injuries, Crosby says there have been a few hospital visits, but for the thousands of rides the group has made, the crash rate is very low. “It’s really a safety-oriented organization,” he says.
While tech and cycling circles often have insular and intimidating reputations, SF2G is remarkably open and welcoming. “It’s not like you have to wear your spandex in the freezing cold and prove your merit before you can become a member,” says Mason. Anyone can join SF2G, tech community or not.
Along the route, veterans offer PowerBars and water to struggling newcomers, and seem interested in ensuring that everyone has an enjoyable ride. We’re 39 men and 2 women, and I find it odd to feel so comfortable and at ease with everyone.
“I think for a number of people it’s become a friend group,” says Mason. “You obviously share a lot in common with them and spend a lot of time together.”
Many of the riders — Crosby estimates close to half — live in or near the Mission because the ride has become a central part of their lives. “If you have to ride across town at 6:30, it’s going to be a material deterrent.”
The group knows how to party as well. Every Friday, someone posts Caltrain “party car” details on the Google group. It’s usually train 275, which stops in Palo Alto at 5:54 p.m.
SF2G riders dominate the car with socializing and, of course, drinking — typically “limited-production craft beers of certain varieties,” says Mason. Back in the Mission, the party often continues at Bender’s Bar at 19th and South Van Ness.
At 9:30 a.m., we round East Palo Alto and our subset of the group thins out to four as riders peel off to their respective offices. I’m exhausted, on the verge of “bonking,” as Crosby calls dropping out due to exhaustion, and put my head down on my handlebars as I half-chat with Liu.
With my head down, the road veers left but I stay straight, and end up lying on a hillside of weeds. I blame it on the bike. We laugh and then make the final push to Google to pull in just in time for Liu’s 10 a.m. meeting. I snap a photo as she hurries in.
Alone on the Google campus, I smile at a Google security guard eyeing me warily. I want to tell him, don’t worry, I’m not a threat — I just rode here from the Mission.