Cyclists are an odd bunch. Individually, they come in many shapes and sizes: thirty something commuters, tattooed couriers, lycra-addled athletes; collectively, they form coalitions to fight for their chance to share part of the road with vehicles that could crush them in an instant.
One such coalition, be it informal, is Critical Mass, a monthly event that takes place in cities in many regions of the world. Cyclists representative of many of the aforementioned groups arrive at a predetermined location, form a pack, and for an hour or so assert their presence on the road.
I took part in one such ride in San Francisco, home to the original Critical Mass. We met at the foot of Market Street, where Jason, a student at San Francisco State University, told me he enjoys riding with the group because “It’s a good place to ride with a lot of people. You don’t have to worry about cars doing road rage, because there’s a lot of us.”
His friend Jansen, a fellow SFSU student, seemed excited to ride.
“I’ve seen it happen before and it just looked crazy.”
Another participant was Vance, an energetic 60-something from Detroit who was very well spoken when it came to the vast differences in transportation infrastructure. In United States, he explained, citizens have much less public space and transit than do the places where he lived in Europe, Berlin and Copenhagen.
Vance, after 10 years of riding in Critical Mass in San Francisco, was convinced that this was “the most 60’s event in the city.”
It was soon made clear to me what he meant.
The ride began with hoots and hollers from the approximately 600 riders. We departed from the park and ventured into the realm previously dominated by the car. Pedestrians on both sides of the street gazed in amazement at our group, unsure if we were crazy and possibly jealous they couldn’t join in. The route snaked down Mission Street, and then left on 2nd, where we met considerable car traffic next to AT&T Park (a baseball game was starting shortly thereafter).
Instead of being pushed into the dangerous “door zone” on the far right side of the street, where cyclists are prone to negligent drivers and passengers swinging their doors into the bike’s path, we occupied the entire lane confidently and safely. We paused for no red lights, riding in a group so as to ensure the safety of all participants. Drivers may have been left angered or confused, but at least they were now more conscious of our presence than they usually were.
Pride Weekend was about to descend upon the city, so the riders near the front decided to lead the pack to Castro, the gay district of the city. One can only hope the tourists appreciated our spectacle.
The last part of the ride was perhaps the most thrilling for all involved. The Broadway Tunnel, generally closed to all traffic except for cars, was now ours for the riding. The screams of joy echoed off of the curved concrete roof above as our wheels spun rapidly on the concrete below.
What impressed me most about the ride were the police officers who kept good order among the rowdier of the bunch. At certain intersections that the group crossed, unsuspecting cars would be stuck as we rode by. Not only did the officers calmly move the cyclists away from the car’s path, they never once pressured the group to change the route of their style of ridings. It was the most respectful showing of police protection, rather than intimidation, that I’ve ever witnessed.
Given this behavior, I wasn’t still sure that Vance’s sentiment about Critical Mass being a 60’s event made sense. The National Guard didn’t show up and force us to leave, and we certainly weren’t placing flowers in anybody’s gun barrel. But even so, there was a true synthesis of activism and partying. The festive, collective nature about the ride that seemed Woodstock-esque, updated for the 21st century with a boombox bike trailer. This jovial nature was neither overshadowed nor dwarfed by the bike rights activists riding in memory of friends maimed and killed by motorists in the city limits.
Critical Mass will stick around cities and continue to influence formal bike coalitions to push for better infrastructure to accommodate cyclists. But more than anything, it will continue to be a cultural event that allows cyclists, be they very different in background, to meet in one place and have a great ride together.