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A freewheeling guide to two-wheeling in San Diego, a city made for cycling

I still savor the days of biking 40 or 50 miles from my home near San Diego’s Old Town. I would head up the coast along Pacific Coast Highway through a series of idyllic beach communities — Del Mar, Solana Beach, Cardiff by the Sea.

A steady breeze kept the cycling temperate most days, the view of sea, sand and sashaying palm fronds was unrelenting, and even the steady scurry of vehicle traffic along Pacific Coast Highway never intimidated, thanks to the road’s broad shoulders.

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Fast forward about three decades. I still ride weekly, but I’m middle-aged and a bit rounder. And now I find the good-size hill along the route is intimidating.

When I recently made the trip again, I cut the mileage in half by jumping for the first time onto the Coaster commuter rail in Old Town. Loading the bike was easy, and when I disembarked 40 minutes later, I rolled my bike off the train and within seconds was riding the coastal route.

That was reason enough to take a fresh look at ways to enjoy San Diego on two wheels, not four.

The city and environs have made strides as a bike-friendly place. Hundreds of miles of bike lanes have been added as streets are re-paved; some roads that were three lanes wide are now two lanes plus a bike lane. Much of this access is in scenic areas of the city.

The city has dozens of rental shops and docking stations for Discover Bike, its bike-share program.

Now San Diego also is welcoming “dockless” bike companies, which don’t require a station. The yellow, green and orange bikes, unlocked using an app on a smartphone, have mushroomed across the city almost overnight.

The result? In a ranking of the best U.S. bike towns for cycling, San Diego came in at No. 9 , the largest city to make the top 10, according to a data-driven city rating system released by People for Bikes, the nation’s largest bike advocacy organization.

Whether you bring your own bike, borrow or rent, you’ll find terrific places to ride in the city. Here are my picks, including where to rent, insider tips and what’s worth dismounting for:

Balboa Park

The Cabrillo Bridge serves as the western gate to Balboa Park, San Diego, leading to Spanish-Moorish architecture built for the park's 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition.
The Cabrillo Bridge serves as the western gate to Balboa Park, San Diego, leading to Spanish-Moorish architecture built for the park's 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition. (David Swanson)

Balboa Park, just northeast of downtown San Diego, was laid out in 1868 at what was then the outer edge of the city. It was a generous forethought by San Diego’s planners because the park today occupies what is the heart of the city. It’s home to 17 museums, more than a dozen gardens and, of course, the San Diego Zoo.

Where to rent: If you’re looking for a bike-share, don’t start in the park; supplies are limited. I would hunt for a bike near the western entrance to the park, around Sixth Avenue and Laurel Street. (Besides, the ride across the Cabrillo Bridge is a terrific way to make an entrance.)

You’ll also have an easier time finding a shared bike along Sixth Avenue in Hillcrest, downtown or on Park Boulevard, which leads to the park’s northern and southern entrances.

Insider tips: Casual riders will find the park easy to explore by bike, although there’s a modest hill to ascend leading into the park from downtown. To learn more about the trails: lat.ms/balboatrails

Dismount for: The quaint Spanish Village Art Center, just north of the Natural History Museum. The center is home to 37 art studios in a courtyard setting. Neighboring Daniel’s Coffee stand offers sandwiches, salads, pastries and smoothies.

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San Diego Bay
The San Diego waterfront has wide walkways suited for riding, particularly around the Maritime Museum.
The San Diego waterfront has wide walkways suited for riding, particularly around the Maritime Museum. (David Swanson)

The city’s resplendent harbor is lined with bike lanes and sidewalks from the Hilton San Diego Bayfront to Liberty Station, passing the convention center, the airport and Harbor Island, a distance of almost six miles one-way.

It’s flat, and the water is almost never out of sight. Dozens of downtown hotels are within a few blocks of this route, along with many of the city’s top attractions: Gaslamp Quarter, the USS Midway Museum, the Maritime Museum and Little Italy.

Green-line Trolley Stations access the route from the Gaslamp Quarter north to the County Center stop.

Where to rent: Bike-share prospects are good along the entire ride, but especially around downtown, and there are excellent bike rental shops in and near the Gaslamp Quarter.

Insider tips: Bike riding isn’t allowed inside Seaport Village, the touristy outdoor shopping attraction. Also, foot traffic can be heavy in the mile between Seaport Village and the Maritime Museum.

After that, traffic is light on the paved path to Liberty Station, formerly the Naval Training Center. Its Spanish Colonial Revival buildings have been converted into an appealing residential, shopping, arts and entertainment district.

The bustling Liberty Public Market is a great spot for a quick, casual lunch, and sit-down options abound nearby.

Dismount for: Harbor Island, just opposite the airport. It has several restaurants; my go-to is C-Level, at the east end. It’s moderately upscale, with bay and downtown views, and offers an eclectic menu of seafood, sandwiches and salads. No reservations so be prepared for a wait.

Mission Beach and Pacific Beach

Mission Beach and adjacent Pacific Beach invite gentle rides along the boardwalk that fronts the sand. It’s 3.4 miles from Mission Point, on the south end, to Law Street, where the boardwalk ends.

Where to rent: Bike share is abundant, especially close to Mission Boulevard or in Old Town, along with several traditional rental shops. The Green Line’s Old Town station is 1.2 miles from the loop’s southeast access point.

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Insider tips: Pedestrian, skateboard and scooter traffic can be thick, so it’s a bit of a scene. It gets looser and rowdier as the day progresses, especially on weekends and especially in the mile south of Crystal Pier.

Alternatively, the flat, 12-mile Mission Bay Bike Path circuits this bay (not to be confused with San Diego Bay) and provides excellent leisure cycling with a minimum of moving obstacles to dodge.

It’s ideal for kids, and along the way, you’ll find 10 public parks and two wildlife reserves. There are few businesses along the bike path, but just a block or two off the route are plenty of casual dining options.

Dismount for: Sportsmen’s Seafood, if you’re riding the bayside bike path. It’s known for processing the catch of local and visiting fishermen. Picnic tables and a tasty lunch menu — fish and chips, tacos, soups, salads and sandwiches.

Ocean Beach

Just to the south, this beach community is best reached by a bike path that follows the San Diego River. Although there’s a freeway on one side, the river offers plenty to look at, especially at low tide when the estuary blossoms with birds.

At leash-free Dog Beach, where the route turns inland to the residential area, canine-lovers can enjoy a pooch party.

Insider tips: Ocean Beach has a laid-back vibe, which makes it fine for exploring by bike. The business district stretches just a few blocks in each direction, and lots of food options are at hand.

One of the city’s better farmers markets takes place here starting at 4 p.m. Wednesdays along Newport Avenue.

It’s 3.9 miles each way from Old Town to the Ocean Beach Fishing Pier; add another mile or two if starting from a hotel in Mission Valley.

Where to rent: You’ll find lots of bike-share options in Old Town and Ocean Beach, some in Mission Valley, but few along the actual route. You’ll find bike rental shops in Old Town and Ocean Beach.

Dismount for: 3rd Corner, a bistro and wine shop with cheese and charcuterie plates, brunch on weekends and occasional Saturday afternoon wine tastings. It’s just off the bike path as you approach Ocean Beach. Closed Mondays.

Bayshore Bikeway
The Bayshore Bikeway offers a dedicated bike path for cyclists along the Silver Strand. The isthmus connects Coronado to Imperial Beach and offers views of southern San Diego and the hills of Tijuana, Mexico.
The Bayshore Bikeway offers a dedicated bike path for cyclists along the Silver Strand. The isthmus connects Coronado to Imperial Beach and offers views of southern San Diego and the hills of Tijuana, Mexico. (David Swanson)

From downtown, it’s a short ferry ride to Coronado Island where dedicated bike paths or lanes circuit the island’s eastern lobe. (The other half comprises North Island Naval Air Station.)

The more ambitious circuit is known as the Bayshore Bikeway, a breezy, 24-mile route around the southern section of San Diego Bay.

You can ride the horseshoe-shaped circuit in either direction — I like starting from Coronado. Wend your way past the iconic Hotel del Coronado to the Silver Strand, an isthmus of dunes that links the island to Imperial Beach, California’s southernmost beach community.

The hills of Tijuana float on the horizon, and at the southern end of the water, the bay sparkles like diamonds in the sun, courtesy of salt crystals harvested here.

As the Bayshore Bikeway circles north, the route alternates between path and lane (vehicular traffic usually is light), passing the San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge, which offers birdwatching, a nature center, and eventually, the naval shipyard.

Where to rent: If you rent a bike in Coronado, you’ll have to return it there, so renting in downtown San Diego makes the most sense for anyone not staying on the island. Bike-share companies are not allowed to operate in Coronado.

Insider tips: The advantage of a counterclockwise routing is that the San Diego Trolley line parallels the east side of the bay so you can shorten the ride at almost any point by jumping aboard and riding back to downtown.

Also, where the route passes under the San Diego-Coronado Bridge, take a moment to enjoy the colorful murals at Chicano Park.

Dismount for: ¡Salud!, just two blocks from Chicano Park. Tacos, ceviche and mulitas can be paired with a long list of draft beers. Closed Mondays.

Pacific Coast Highway

With the hills of Torrey Pines State Park serving as a high point, Highway 101, better known as the Pacific Coast Highway or PCH, offers fine cycling along the Pacific Coast.
With the hills of Torrey Pines State Park serving as a high point, Highway 101, better known as the Pacific Coast Highway or PCH, offers fine cycling along the Pacific Coast. (David Swanson)

Coaster commuter rail service operates up to 15 times daily in each direction, between downtown San Diego and Oceanside, including a stop in Old Town.

The ticket costs $5.50 each way and bikes travel free. There’s less service on weekends and holidays, but some of the Coaster service is handled by Amtrak.

Where to rent: Skip any notion of using bike share for this route. Instead, proper bike rental shops are found along PCH in Del Mar, Solana Beach, Encinitas, Carlsbad and Oceanside. You can also rent from one of several shops in Old Town.

Insider tips: A reservation is required to take a bike aboard Amtrak, and space is limited to six bikes per train. If you don’t have a reservation and the spaces are filled, you won’t be allowed to carry your bike aboard.

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All southbound Coaster service departing Oceanside after 6:30 p.m. on weekends is by Amtrak.

Dismount for: the Cedros Avenue Design District, one block east of PCH and a block south of the Solana Beach train station. In this collection of independently owned stores you’ll find furniture, clothing, outdoor gear and more, all with a high sense of design. There are several casual restaurants, and on Sunday afternoons, the street converts into a farmers market.

What to know about bike sharing

San Diego introduced its bike-share program in 2014 with the arrival of Discover Bike. But the city attorney’s office elevated bike-sharing when it approved “dockless” bikes, unlocked using a smartphone app.

The first bikes to appear were yellow and green units offered by LimeBike, which appeared on sidewalks, lawns, street corners and at bus and trolley stops throughout the city.

Within a few weeks, yellow bikes and orange bikes from Chinese companies Ofo and Mobike materialized.

The promise of inexpensive, easily available bike transportation throughout the city was exciting. But as with other disruptive technologies introduced in the last few years, there have been teething pains.

The community’s reaction was mixed. Some business owners complained that the bikes block access for customers; some homeowners grumbled about their ubiquity. Other residents and many tourists applauded the new availability.

“Change is hard for people,” said Judi Tentor, executive director of Bike SD, a nonprofit cycling organization. “People say those bikes are everywhere, but there’s a blindness to the fact that there are also cars everywhere.

“They see two or three bikes and I see 30 cars with all of their attendant problems.”

Lessons in bike-sharing

My first experience with bike-share did not start off on the right foot.

The bike I aimed for, using the Ofo app, was parked at a corner in a residential section of Hillcrest. When I got to the bike, a sketchy looking young man had turned the bike upside-down and was actively dismantling the chain, presumably to unlock and steal it.

Another bike I tried to access had been vandalized: Its brake cables had been cut.

When I finally unlocked a bike sitting outside a Trader Joe’s, the ease of the system kicked in. In half a minute, I was on my way to Balboa Park, ideal turf for leisurely cycling.

Outside the park’s Fleet Science Center, I encountered a family of four that had three Ofo bikes corralled and were looking for a fourth.

“I think it’s fantastic,” said Julie Corbett, visiting from Scotland with her husband and two teenagers. “We don’t have anything like this in Edinburgh.”

Her husband, Alan, said: “It’s promoting public health and community engagement and helps reduce diabetes. I can see people really latching on to this.”

Having tried bikes from all four bike-share companies over the last few weeks, I’ve learned a few things:

•Bikes from the three dockless companies — LimeBike, Ofo and Mobike — are small-framed, three-speed, with a basket and a bell. They are not suited for climbing hills.

All unlock using a smartphone and QR code under the seat. Brakes and gears worked with varying degrees of reliability, based on maintenance.

Prices vary, after incentives and discounts are factored in, but average $1 for every 30 to 60 minutes of ride time.

•The key advantage of LimeBike is that seats can be raised higher. I’d recommend LimeBike for anyone taller than 5 feet 10 inches. (Ofo is working on raising the seats, a representative said.

•An advantage of Mobikes is that the basket in front is linked to the frame, not the wheel, so the basket stays in line, making it easier to steer. I’d recommend Mobike when carrying more than a few pounds,

•LimeBike also offers electric, or eBikes, although they are few in number and cost more: $1 to unlock plus 15 cents a minute of use — $10 for the first hour. But they’re a great option for flattening out some of the city’s steeper hills.

•The bikes from Discover have a higher seat position but are more expensive — $5 for 30 minutes, $7 for an hour, or $12 for two hours.

You don’t need an app to rent a Discover Bike, just a credit or debit card to unlock the bikes. If you’re hoping for a point-to-point trip be sure to check the company’s map for return locations. Stations are plentiful in downtown and Little Italy, and there’s good representation in Hillcrest and North Park.

But there are few locations in Old Town, beach areas and none in Coronado, La Jolla or Mission Valley.

If you go

Where to stay

Several San Diego hotels have started lending or renting bikes to guests. Among them:

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Downtown

The Sofia Hotel, 150 W. Broadway, San Diego; (800) 826-0009. Doubles from $169; summer rates as high as $210.

Hotel Z, 521 6th Ave, San Diego; (619) 330-6401, Doubles from $109, summer rates as high as $184.

Hotel Republic, 421 W. B St., San Diego; (619) 398-3100. Doubles from $179; summer rates as high as $360.

Mission Beach / Pacific Beach

Bahia Resort, 998 W. Mission Bay Drive, San Diego; (858) 488-0551, Doubles from $139; summer rates as high as $279.

Catamaran Resort, 3999 Mission Blvd., San Diego; (858) 488-1081. Doubles from $165; summer rates as high as $333.

Tower 23 Hotel, 723 Felspar St., San Diego; (858) 270-2323. Doubles from $165; summer rates as high as $333.

Del Mar

L’Auberge Del Mar, 1540 Camino del Mar, Del Mar; (844) 875-5256. Doubles from $255; summer rates as high as $509.

Carlsbad

Cape Rey Carlsbad, 1 Ponto Road, Carlsbad; (760) 602-0800. Doubles from $269; summer rates as high as $400.

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