We caught up with Jean Kao in San Francisco to talk about how she got into city cycling and why her Brompton is perfect for commuting and leisure riding.
How would you describe cycling in San Francisco?
I've been cycling in San Francisco for over 10 years and a lot has changed in that time. Now I regularly see moms and dads taking their kids to school, pensioners running errands and smarty dressed business people on their way to work. To be a cyclist is no longer seen as a novelty and no matter where you go you'll see people cycling - and regular people too, not just people out for a workout. The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition has done a lot to make the city safer for cycling - working with the city to put in miles of bike lanes, repaving old bumpy roads and experimenting with ideas such as 2-way cycle lanes, bike boxes and parking protected cycle tracks.
How do you use your Brompton bike?
What don't I use it for! Lemony Snicket is my number one choice for going everywhere. It's allows me a flexibility that's liberating. I can take it on the bus or underground - no matter how crowded. I can put in a friend's car and take it inside most shops, restaurants and bars. I often put it in the shopping cart to go grocery shopping - always causing a sensation among children, "look mommy it's a bike!" and among adults as well. Owning a bright yellow Brompton is not for the shy and retiring! I think I get a comment almost every time I take it out even after two years of constant use. I even take it on self-supported bike tours - offroad (with much walking!), along the Pacific coast (60 miles & 3000ft climbing days) and overseas (Japan, Norway, Taiwan). My friends are astonished when I show up without it, they'll ask "where's Lemony Snicket?"
How did you get into cycling?
I grew up in a small town in Michigan with very practical parents. I started cycling as a kid. My parents would take us wee ones on family bike rides - me on my little one speed and my two sisters in bike seats behind my parents. I was probably only 6 years old. It was a real treat these bike rides. I remember cycling across town to ballet lessons when I was just 10 years old. I continued cycling as I got older but it became more of a weekend sport. I didn't start commuting by bike until I moved to London and my husband found us a pair of vintage Moultons to ride around town. Pretty soon I was addicted. It was just as fast as the tube but much more enjoyable. When we moved to SF we left the Moultons behind but bought a pair of vintage Raleighs within a few weeks to get around town.
What advice would you give to anyone considering cycling in San Francisco?
Just do it! You don't need a special bike or gear. Try it out, maybe on a practice run on the weekend, and see how it goes. The main commuting routes have more bikes than cars these days. And if you look at the people cycling you'll see a lot of folks just like you. You don't have to be strict about it either. Cycle when you want. Take the bus on other days.
When you’re not commuting, where are your favourite places to visit by bike?
I'm super lucky living in SF because beautiful country roads are just a few miles from my front door. Marin, just over the Golden Gate Bridge, has lots of hills and gorgeous views. And if I'm too tired I can just take the ferry back! It's often tempting to have a few beers at the brewery and do just that on a nice sunny day. When visiting friends in the area I'll often choose to bike the 30+ miles to their place in the East Bay or down the Peninsula just to get out and explore some quiet roads and enjoy the day on my Brompton, rather than taking transit.
If you could go on one cycling adventure, where would you go and why?
I have so many adventures I'd like to go on - the Great Divide Mountain Bike route, the Great Allegheny Passage and C&O Towpath from Pittsburgh to Washington DC, the Dunwich Dynamo, a few EuroVelo routes look very interesting as well. But if I had to choose only one it would be returning to Taiwan to cycle some of the mountain passes on my Brompton.
In 2014 I returned to Taiwan for the first time in 10 years and had such a great time there. The people are friendly, the food is fantastic and the cycling infrastructure is superb. There are scooter lanes to ride along the main roads and the police stations are cycling rest stops with water and tools. And the best part is that it feels like a hidden gem with hardly any other cyclists there. My husband and I cycled down the east coast and the country roads were just beautiful. I can't wait to go back and tackle the mountains. And I'll definitely be packing Lemony Snicket!