The Golden Gate Bridge’s Welcome Center is still dark when riders start to gather. A flag above the bridge flies east. Conversations start up as friends recognize the silhouettes of friends. Some discuss recent rides and races, but more are concerned with which flaky pastry they’ll enjoy at Arsicault Bakery at the end of the ride.
At 6:10 a.m., only a few have arrived, but by 6:13, a full crowd has gathered. Pink splashes of color mark dozens of torsos with the croissant-emblazoned logo of Fatcake Club.
It’s 6:17. Someone rings a bell to signal ‘go’. Conversations slow. Riders lazily wheel toward the sidepath along the Golden Gate Bridge. A few cries of “rider up!” and “pedestrian right!” trumpet through.
On the bridge, the wind is loud. Lit by thin streetlights and a train of headlights, riders carefully thread the small service turrets on the bridge before heading down into the North Bay.
Turning left, the train of cyclists heads toward the steep wall that starts Hawk Hill.
The sky is now navy and starting to get lighter. The mellow pace of the ride disappears the instant that riders meet the sheer slope of Hawk. In a blink, the first bikes are already halfway up the 12% grade that marks the first section. A chorus of loud breathing starts.
Just when the pace seems unsustainable, Hawk Hill becomes a false flat. A paceline forms as riders draft off each other. Some give up and fall back. Others surge to latch onto a wheel ahead. The road is free of cars, smooth pavement gliding under hundreds of wheels.
Finally, the summit comes into sight. One last sprint leaves everyone gasping.
Riders roll easily to a vista point at the end of the road. The first have already been here long enough to recover and wipe the sweat dripping off their chins. Others are just arriving now to the vista point, having taken Hawk Hill at a more conversational pace.
The reward for summitting? No USA Cycling upgrade points, or even bragging rights. Every rider gets the same prize: coming one step closer to precious pastries and coffee.
Someone takes out a phone to grab a photo, and suddenly everyone is looking out east over the viewpoint. A sharp dropoff brings the ocean into full view, along with shadowy details of Crissy Field in San Francisco and the microscopic trees of the Presidio. Red sunrise lights up the red steel from the Golden Gate Bridge like a furnace.
After regrouping, the group descends along the cliffs behind Hawk Hill. Now riders loop through the Marin Headlands. The roads here are still smooth, but the atmosphere is different. Instead of city buildings, the scene is lush farmland, green and wet, marked with the sweet smell of mud. A few stucko houses, hostels, and service stations dot the road, but the rolling landscape is mostly open.
With another stunning view of the lagoon in front of them, everyone stops to regroup and take more photos.
After a few more minutes wandering the flat farm roads behind Hawk Hill, the route turns upward again. At this point, many tired riders are happy just to talk with their friends instead of hammer, although some manage to climb at a rapid clip anyway. A few riders with extra energy decide to make this ascent their Alpe D’Huez, sprinting up the switchbacks of McCullough Road like there are croissants waiting. Hint: there are.
McCullough Road leads back to intersect the climb up Hawk Hill. After one last push on the steep pitch of Hawk, riders are greeted with an entirely different view of Golden Gate Bridge (although from the same vista point as before). Before, the entire valley beneath the hill was dark. Now, warmth has spread to the landscape. Golden hour has arrived. The green of the hillside comes into focus. The same city we live in is seen from far away, in miniature detail.
After one last descent and a peaceful return over the Golden Gate Bridge, riders spin easily through the eucalyptus forests of the Presidio. A few sprinters launch off the front, and a few dirt-lovers seek out lesser-known paths. Everyone ends up at the same place, Arsicault Bakery, national bakery of the year in 2016 according to Bon Appetit Magazine. Most riders don’t care too much about that award, but care a lot about the epic ham-and-cheese croissants, chocolate croissants, and chocolate-almond croissants: all so richly flaky that, during a single bite, your mouth feels like it’s closing on layers of pastry for years instead of seconds. And don’t forget the Kouign Amann. And morning bun… And, yeah, everything there is out of this world.
After a long talk over coffee and pastries, Fat Cakers wander off into their daily lives. But most will spend the Tuesday work day remembering the morning, the views, the pastries, the Strava KOMs, and most of all the friends, all found in the brief hours when everyone else is asleep.
Words by Matt Krane
Photos by Andy Wong