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Insider's tour of Marin, on two wheels

The scenic and mostly flat bayside route starts at the ferry landing in Sausalito and ends at the dock in Larkspur.

October 23, 2005|Janis Cooke Newman | Special to The Times

Tiburon, Calif. — WAITING for my latte at Tiburon's Cafe Acri, I was surrounded by a dozen men in powder-blue spandex. Their legs were closely shaved, and they walked in the slightly bowlegged way one does when there's too much padding in your shorts. In hearty voices, they ordered plates of energy-producing carbohydrates (in the form of Italian pastries) and compared morning mileage -- nothing short of 15.

Dressed in my own pair of butt-padded Lycra shorts, I felt one with the boys in powder blue. Even if my morning bicycle ride was only the half-block from my hotel.

Tiburon sits squarely in Marin County, the place where mountain biking was invented, where hordes of cyclists take to the fire roads and bike paths every weekend, where residents seem to spend 75% of their waking hours in stretch fabric. So it seemed only logical for my husband, Ken, and me to explore this aerobically inclined county by bicycle.

Marin has plenty of rides that would make even Lance Armstrong breathe heavily. But our two-day trek was less than 27 miles, most of them flat.

We began our outing at the San Francisco Ferry Building, a magnet for foodies craving sturgeon roe or designer chocolates. On Saturday mornings, the surrounding plaza is a crowded farmers market with stands selling just-picked baby greens, organic chicken and six kinds of peaches. All of it looked appealing, but we needed coffee.

Arguably, the best coffee at the market -- perhaps in all of the Bay Area -- is sold by the Blue Bottle Coffee Co. We could have picked up a cup at the stand, if we had 30 minutes to spare. But we had a ferry to catch, and the tattooed guys working the machine won't rush their cappuccinos.

Instead, we went inside to Boulettes Larder, a cafe and takeout restaurant, and ordered a French-press pot of Blue Bottle's Three Africans blend -- which arrived in three minutes. That gave us plenty of time to buy Champagne grapes to eat on the ferry to Sausalito.

The ferry ride to Sausalito takes about 30 minutes, just long enough to admire the San Francisco skyline, check out Alcatraz and wonder how those houses cling to the hills.

Sausalito may have far too many galleries hawking paintings of flower-covered cottages, but it also has a couple of cool stores. We stopped in at the Sausalito Ferry Co. -- easily located by the giant rubber duckies spinning in the window -- where we were tempted by dashboard hula girls, monkey-shaped salt-and-pepper shakers and plastic figures of every character on "The Simpsons." We were kept in check only by the knowledge that anything we bought had to fit into our already overstuffed bike bags.

We were less restrained at Venice Gourmet, which is a bit like walking into a cave of salami stalactites. It sells six varieties of salami (as well as sandwiches), and we could not resist a few slices of each.

"Protein builds muscle," Ken assured me.

Then, we got on our bikes and headed north out of town, past the stone elephants that guard Sausalito's pocket-sized town park and along Bridgeway Avenue to the Gate 6 Road turnoff and into the Waldo Point Harbor parking lot.

Waldo Point Harbor -- and specifically Issaquah Dock -- is where some of the best examples of Sausalito houseboats tie up. Ken and I once lived aboard No. 8, so we walked out on the dock, ignoring the "Private" sign. (Many do; one time we discovered several German tourists eating lunch on the bench outside our bedroom window.)

Strolling among giant pots of flowers and odd-shaped cactuses, we poked around the houseboats -- a Japanese-style one made of teak, another with a red-eyed dragon carved into its door -- stopping to make sure our former home still boasted its sexy nude etched in glass on the front door.

Back on the road, we pedaled north toward Mill Valley on the dedicated bike path, traveling through marshland dotted with startlingly white egrets. Every 90 seconds, we were passed by someone in one of those aerodynamic helmets that make cyclists look like aliens with enormous brains.

Fortunately, there also were enough little kids with training wheels on the path to keep our egos from feeling too bruised.

Smith & Hawken's first upscale garden store was in Mill Valley, which pretty well sums up this village of prosperous New Agers. The best place to check out the Mill Valley scene is from a patio table at the Depot. Part bookstore, part cafe, the Depot serves up pretty good food and very good people-watching. We took a seat near a pack of chain-grease-covered mountain bikers just down from their 2,500-foot climb of Mt. Tamalpais and pretended our six-mile ride had been as strenuous.

After lunch, we browsed the town's rustic-yet-pricey shops, stopped in at Bonavita Coffee & Tea for chocolate truffles and baby cannoli, then pedaled out on Miller Avenue toward Tiburon.

This part of the trek includes the daunting ride across the U.S. 101 overpass, but the second half skirts the bay and rewards even mediocre cyclists with views of the San Francisco skyline.

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