The car revved its engine from behind as I signaled a turn, my arm outstretched to motion a left. It was just before 5p.m., the last Friday in July, and I was riding my bike to a gathering in Loring Park at the edge of downtown Minneapolis. “Go get yourself killed!” came a shout from the driver as I bumped off the road.
Thus was my introduction to Critical Mass, a monthly gathering where cyclists meet in cities around the world — from Sao Paulo to St. Paul — in a show of solidarity on city streets clogged with cars.
Since its inception in the early 1990s in San Francisco — and the subsequent adoption by bikers around the globe — Critical Mass has no doubt brought attention to how unfriendly cities can be to cyclists. But the controversial rides have also spurned violent outbursts by bikers, property damage, and the deployment of riot gear on mobs of riders refusing to obey traffic laws.
ABOVE: The Mass clogging up Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis.
In August 2007, tension between police and cyclists in Minneapolis cumulated in the arrest of 19 bikers, though most all charges were eventually dropped. This is one local example from dozens of similar incidents around the globe.
As social phenomena go, Critical Mass tends to polarize, be it the view that the bikers are arrogant punks bent on anarchistic confrontation or that of car drivers as smog-spewing street hogs oblivious to pedaling commuters on the road. As a longtime bike commuter — though one who respects the laws of the street — my view was somewhere in between these two extremes when I pedaled to the park for the July ride.
There is no leader at a Critical Mass. There is no common agenda. Riders meet at a universal place and time — 5p.m. in Minneapolis at Loring Park, the last Friday of the month — and hang out until a few people initiate a ride through the urban grid.
When I rolled up in July, about 200 cyclists were milling in the mist of Loring Park’s famous dandelion fountain. Police watched from the north side of the park, a quiet tension seething through the crowd as three Mass participants shouted for attention before starting an ad hoc “arrest protocol session.” “If an officer stops you make sure to ask ‘Am I being detained?’” a presenter yelled out.
ABOVE: Mass participants preparing for the ride.
Soon we were pedaling south on Hennepin Avenue, a line of massers riding slow and blocking traffic. We took up the southbound lane. We ran red lights. Cars honked, while many pedestrians cheered.
I coasted up to Justin Kalemkiarian, 24, a mass rider from Minneapolis. “We need to make cars aware that bikers are allowed on the road,” he said.
Force of Law
Since the August 2007 arrests, where alleged police aggression gave the city a black eye, law officials in Minneapolis have walked on egg shells. In July, I counted 28 police officers spinning on mountain bikes, their guns bobbing on belt straps. Squad cars circled the mass, honking, blaring sirens at will.
But tension faded as the mass took a left on Lake Street in Uptown, 10 minutes into the ride. By Lyndale Avenue, where the mass turned back north, I realized the law enforcement was blocking the intersections for us, serving to keep the ride running smoothly.
ABOVE: Bike cops wait in Loring Park for the Mass to start.
The bike police ran all the red lights. They blocked traffic, some even shouting at motorists. “Cool it buddy,” a man in blue yelled toward an angry driver.
By Washington Avenue in downtown, the Mass had evolved into a parade, a couple hundred riders tootling along in a happy mood with seemingly no threat of arrest or citation.
The next month’s ride was even more handled. I biked to Loring Park on August 29 just after 5p.m. to witness an armada of bike cops, squad cars and an all-terrain police vehicle topped with a lighted sign: “Have a safe ride.”
Media helicopters hovered a couple thousand feet up, cameras aimed at the mass in anticipation of riot. But the crowd was calm as an officer took a loudspeaker in hand. “We’re here to get you through the traffic,” he said.
Indeed, as riders trickled into downtown the police followed, bordering the outside lane, blocking the mass from behind. In what was essentially a show of support, dozens of police shepherded the mass for more than two hours, the city’s committed resources undoubtedly hovering in the thousands of dollars spent to support an aimless mob.
We rode for 10 miles, the mass gaining riders as it went, stretching to nearly a mile in length on Lake Street, a busy thoroughfare. One driver, stuck trying to make a left, peered down the street. “Does it ever end!” he shouted.
Further on, a pedestrian yelled out: “Where are you going?” Most bikers ignored him until one rider gave a response: “We’re not going anywhere,” he said. “We’re just going to go!”
ABOVE: The Mass evolved into a nonconfrontational parade within 20 minutes.
My sentiment soured — for the massers as well as the police — the further we rode. If the goal was to anger drivers, the mass was doing its job. And the police were on our side, acquiescing the anarchy while at the same time making any type of protest seem sanctioned and null.
Riders in other cities have felt similar frustration. Reama Dagasan, 29, organized a group called Critical Manners in San Francisco in 2006. The group meets every month to ride, but unlike Critical Mass, Critical Manners stops at red lights and obeys traffic laws.
“There was a militant faction to Critical Mass,” Dagasan said. “We wanted to offer an alternative to encourage everyday people to ride with us instead of using their car.”
On my August ride, I left the Critical Mass pack after we detoured back toward downtown, stopping on a sidewalk to watch the mob amble by. As a workaday rider I want drivers to respect me on my bike. Blocking traffic, making people mad, disobeying laws not only felt wrong but it felt meaningless, contrived, aimless — a lot like Critical Mass.
(Stephen Regenold writes The Gear Junkie column for eleven U.S. newspapers; see www.THEGEARJUNKIE.com for video gear reviews, a daily blog, and an archive of Regenold’s work.)