Every summer, hundreds of tourists make the slow, wobbly pilgrimage across the Golden Gate Bridge on badly fitting rental bikes, helmets on backward, arms outstretched as they ignore oncoming traffic to take a selfie. June and July are arguably the busiest months on the bridge, and many a San Francisco cyclist will turn the alarm back even earlier on weekends just to avoid the tourist rush.
But for days when the bridge is too daunting, or the thought of biking to and from Ocean Beach one more time is simply too uninspiring, let us present you with a San Francisco classic: the storied, somewhat mysterious, and always-fun Butterlap. The 17-mile bike ride loops around the top of San Francisco before concluding at Benders, and a group of cyclists gather to ride it together every Wednesday evening.
It has a website now, but it didn’t use to. Rumor has it that a group of Sports Basement employees started it around 2001, for a quick spin around the city. Another whisper is that it was cyclocross riders, who’d bike from bar to bar to train. A 2009 blog post says it was named for its “silky, buttery smoothness,” thanks to its limited stop signs and traffic lights, and that it was “legendary bike huckster Ira Menitove, a man beholden to no one” who created it. One Kathryn Aaker was the ride leader in the mid-2000s, when it became a more regular event. Sarah Hagstrom joined in 2009.
“At this time there was still no set day, time, or starting point, and they’d coordinate each week over email,” Hagstrom tells SF Weekly. “They experimented with different finishing locations. They tried Toronado and Zeitgeist, for example. They settled on Gestalt as the end point because at that time it was a bike bar with a ton of bike parking inside. They switched to Benders when Gestalt stopped being a bike bar.”
I began riding Butterlap regularly in 2013 and never met Sarah — or any Ira or Kathryn. Butterlap’s now been around for more than 15 years, and while the demographic who rides it has changed from cyclocross riders to a motley crew of commuters, the route is consistent: Show up at the Ferry Building at 7 p.m. on any Wednesday, and a small crowd of people on bikes will be gathered outside, rain or shine. It’s a mixed group: a handful of young guys in spandex, a few seniors on hybrids, a fixie kid, and probably a mountain bike or two. Regardless, all the regulars know the route, and at least three of them are carrying beer.
The ride starts at 7:15 p.m., heading from the Ferry Building along Embarcadero. On weeknights, the traffic is pretty tame; as you enter Fisherman’s Wharf it’s usually free of the floods of tourists that take over on weekends. Cruise down the main drag past the In-N-Out (watch the Muni tracks) to Aquatic Park, and follow the water to your first challenge: a short, steep, miserable hill from the base of the Municipal Pier up to Fort Mason that is totally A-OK to walk up.
At the top — in the lush green field of Fort Mason — is the first official stop, of six. It’s a quick regroup, a chance to let stragglers catch up, a place to introduce yourself to newcomers — and then the group is off again, down to Crissy Field and along the straight, smooth multi-use path to the Warming Hut near the base of Golden Gate Bridge, where the next climb lays before you.
This one is a doozy. Cruise through the Warming Hut parking lot and take a sharp left up the hill. When you reach the T-intersection, turn right, give a nod to the old Golden Gate Bridge, and huff and puff up to stop No. 2, a scenic overlook around Lincoln and Washington boulevards.
This is where you pull out your phone. Depending on the time of year, the sun may be setting over the ocean, and by this point those endorphins will be pumping. Which is good, because after a speedy downhill past Baker Beach, you’re on a climb again. The upside is that it’s through the mansions of Sea Cliff, which allows for some great people-watching.
From El Camino Del Mar, head straight into the Presidio and up the hill the to Legion of Honor for stop No. 3. By this time, it’s nightfall, and the raccoons will be out. It’s customary to do a victory lap or two around the massive Legion of Honor fountain in the parking lot, because aside from a couple little bumps, your big hills for the night are over.
To celebrate, riders unload a few beers from their panniers and messenger bags, to be handed around liberally. After a quick brewski, hop back on your bike and fly past the golf course, then hang a right past the Veterans Building to Clement and 43rd streets, a bland four-way stop that seems uninteresting but marks the start of something special: The coaster race, started by cyclocross rider Murphy Mack.
This part is for experienced cyclists only. The goal is pedal through the intersection, stop your legs from spinning, and coast. The hill is so long and windy, so smooth after being freshly repaved a couple years ago, that it’s fully possible to ride past three blocks of houses, Lands End, Sutro Baths, the Cliff House, and most of Ocean Beach before your bike will slowly, awkwardly come to a stop sometime around Great Highway and Cabrillo Street, one mile away. Whoever goes furthest without pedaling wins bragging rights.
From here, it’s a predictable ride — hang a left on JFK Drive, travel through dark, quiet Golden Gate Park to the Panhandle, a stop for quick regrouping at Stanyan, and then float down the Wiggle to 17th Street to Valencia to Benders, where tater tots await. (They’re legendary.)
All told, Butterlap comes in at 17 miles, and around 1,000 feet of climbing. It’s not an easy ride and it’s always a workout, although Benders’ constant supply of beer and fried potatoes probably replenishes all those lost calories.
Nevertheless, it’s addictive — whether it’s the endorphins or the company or the tater tots, those who go once tend to return. Friendships are made, weeknight one-night-stands might happen, and Thursdays are usually a little hungover, but regardless of the level of belligerence you engage in, it’s hard to find a better bike adventure for a warm summer night in San Francisco.