Critical Mass Bike Ride

By STEPHEN REGENOLD

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.

Critical Mass - In Downtown-W.jpg

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.

Ride On
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.

Critical Mass - Ready to Ride - W.jpg

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.

Critical Mass - Cops Waiting - W.jpg

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.

Mass Diversion
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!”

Critical Mass - In Uptown - W.jpg

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.)

Posted by Steve Patten - 09/22/2008 11:27 PM

I have heard about this concept but living in a small rural community like Albert Lea, it’s a “big city” issue. I started reading your article, assuming that Critical Mass would be a concept heralded as free speech and individual rights at its finest. As I continued to read the article, I became incensed, having grown up in Brooklyn Park and the Twin Cities area, that law enforcement resources are wasted on protecting these scoff-laws; that rather than arresting them for deliberately and blatantly breaking laws that would normally warrant a citation at the least, they were enabling them by stopping traffic and giving them a full escort. It was extremely encouraging to see your conclusion. As someone who has not lived in the metro area for going on 8 years, when I first hear these stories, I wondered if all city cyclists in the city are like this. Thank you for taking a stand as a responsible cyclist. As a driver and a former avid cyclist, I agree that drivers can do a better job of seeing RESPONSIBLE cyclists. However, I also remember the first rules my parents taught me as I started riding those Brooklyn Park boulevards. 1- You are part of traffic and therefore responsible to obey all the laws just like cars. 2. Cars are bigger than you. You WILL lose- every time.

Steve Patten
Albert Lea, MN

Posted by Ryan Bortolon - 09/22/2008 11:28 PM

Thank you for the article on Critical Mass. It exposes them for who they really are. This is the first article I’ve read that actually takes the time to document their activities, including breaking multiple traffic laws.

Just curious, did you ask the police department how they can support such illegal activity? Also, I would like to know what they would do if an emergency vehicle or other emergency (such as a laboring female) were to need to use the road?

Ryan Bortolon
Minnetonka

Posted by Randy Fordice - 09/23/2008 08:32 AM

I totally agree with how you summed up your piece on CM. I rode in it once last year for about ten minutes and was bored out of my mind. I understand how some of the participants feel like there’s a great comraderie and how they’re raising awareness of bikes, blah, blah, blah. To me, though, it was just a boring ride that went slower than I like to go and didn’t accomplish anything.

Posted by Harley Reed - 09/23/2008 11:01 PM

A couple of months ago I was driving through downtown on a Friday afternoon and got caught in a Critical Mass ride. Since I do not drive downtown very often at first I was not aware of what was happening. All I saw was a stream of bikers running the stop light. I was going to honk my horn until I noticed that there were police bikers with the group. That is when I realized what this was all about. I was upset and angry. Not because people were biking but because they were smugly defying the law. But then why should this shock me. I have a 25 minute commute to my work place and this summer I would estimate that at least 3 out of every 5 days I see bikers crossing major intersections against the right light, turning in front of oncoming traffic against the light, and other obvious violations of the law. I respect bikers and never crowd them or cut them off. But on those occasions I have laid on my horn and given them the one finger salute. Most of the time they respond by flipping me off or yelling at me. Are they upset because I am exposing their disregard for the law? Or do they really think the law does not apply to them while on a bike?
Sincerely,
Harley Reed

PS Do you think I can get a police escort if I want to hold a pogo stick “ride” to demonstrate the plight of pogo stick riders and the difficulty we are having in getting respect for our “cause”?

Posted by Dan O - 09/25/2008 12:28 PM

Harley,
If there are actually thousands of people riding to work on pogo sticks, then yes, you can. But it’s not a viable form of alternative transportation. And, when you are riding to work, do you also honk and flip off every single person who is j-walking? What about those motorists who don’t do a complete stop at stop signs? Let’s be consistent here.

Posted by Jay W. - 09/26/2008 08:19 AM

I agree with Steve.. Lets not forget that in the eye of the law bicycles are considered vehicles and are
suppose to follow all traffic laws. We don’t have any more right just because we ride a bike.

Posted by Jess - 09/26/2008 08:57 AM

I live in a small community that is trying to become ‘bike-friendly.’ We hold full moon cruiser rides every month. Depending on the month we have 45 – 300 people show up to ride through town. We obey stoplights, and try to ride on streets with out a lot of stop signs so we don’t have to stop. I must say, it is fun to make a car wait for all the bikes to go by…. It goes well and we’ve never had a run-in with an angry motorist or police in the three years its been going on. At the same time, I bike commute every day and regularly fear for my life even though I ride on the bike path, obey stop signs and really pay attention to my surroundings. I’ve discovered that there are two types of drivers: 1. a driver that sees the bike and assumes the biker is going to run the light/sign so stops and waits forever (until i physically put my foot down and lean on my bike and stare at them until they go – although I’m probably the only biker that even stops) and 2. the driver that is oblivious and almost hits me backing up, turning right into me (almost happened this morning) or blowing through a stop sign itself because it doesn’t see me. Its definitely a balance, and as the first poster said, cars are bigger, they will win, so us cyclists have to be constantly on the defensive.

Posted by Cory Peterson - 09/26/2008 10:17 AM

I lived in LA, and rode my bike everywhere I went for a year and a half. I believe in obeying traffic laws. Bikers who don’t give bikers a bad name, in my opinion. I don’t understand why a Critical Mass ride has to run red lights to get the point across.

Posted by Boo - 09/26/2008 10:40 AM

Nation: Try the ‘critical kiss.’ If a driver respects me when I’m on my bike, I blow them a kiss. Gets a smile every time.

I rode in a sad Critical Mass here in Seattle after the death of another cyclist. What hit me was the undercurrent of animosity towards regular cyclists like myself who happen to wear bike shorts. It was not the most welcoming of participatory events.

Posted by Lane - 09/26/2008 11:45 AM

I’ll echo some sentiments already posted. If CM is trying to raise awareness, how does breaking traffic laws help that? Seems like it ends up being more of an anarchists’ convention (even though that’s technically an oxymoron.)

Posted by Alan Mansfield - 09/26/2008 06:27 PM

If you tick people off how do you achieve what you want? As a one off it may be fine.

There is a place for everyone but there has to be reciprocation it just seems to me that it is all or nothing sometimes.

CIM has had my attention however been abused whilst riding for some indeterminate outcome does not seem worthwhile. The rides if held regularly just reinforces other road users worst feelings about cyclists and it may not be a CIM rider who is harmed in the worst instances.

As an aside as pedestrian, cyclist, father of three i.e. citizen I wonder if in the USA (my location is Sydney, Australia) are your local state even federal governments funding work were road infrastructure -refuse to say/acknowledge rules-such as broken even solid white dividing lines are appearing on footpaths. shared paths. cycle paths? I think this is a dangerous nonsense that allows the callous, the cavalier, the incompetent or careless to justify their stupidity around pedestrians/other users. Approaching at speed from behind and ringing the bell as they sail past and of course taking offense if something is said. Not unlike passing another car at two or three times their speed and wondering why the other care driver maybe unnerved-150mph v 50mph is the same as 15mph v 5mph.

Posted by Sarah - 10/03/2008 12:41 PM

For the first time, The Gear Junkie has seriously let me down. I am also a law-abiding bike commuter. While I don’t choose to participate in critical mass often, I do value that it exists and disagree with your conclusions based on visiting one critical mass. I have met parents pedaling with their children on critical mass who tell me that it is the one time of the month they feel safe on the streets.

CM is intended to be a celebration, not an opportunity to cause trouble. Those who want to try to tie up traffic as much as possible and be confrontational with motorists are missing the point. We can assert our right to the road without being rude about it. Focus on the ride, not on the cars that also happen to be on the road. Just like there are always a few motorists causing road rage— there are always a few cyclists who bring an attitude to critical mass. But don’t dismiss it all because of the actions of a few. At many Critical Masses, bicyclists hand out doughnuts and flowers to waiting cars at the intersection, and say thanks for waiting!

Here is an excerpt from a SF Chronicle article by Charles Higgins back in 2000 that I enjoyed, you can read the full article here: http://tinylink.com/?r1lh1nyd9H

“Sadly, it is the confrontational side of Critical Mass that most people remember. The idea that the bicycle is a practical mode of transportation and a symbol of good quality of life gets lost in the fracas.

But there are many faces to Critical Mass. The event is at once a rebellion and a celebration. It is a manifestation of deep consternation over transportation, the environment, materialism and free market-driven urban planning.

Though it raises the blood pressure of some rush-hour commuters, Critical Mass offers a change, if only for a few moments, in the domination of the streets. In place of tons of steel and glass is a rolling community of people who can talk to each other and experience safety in numbers.

Critical Mass exists because thousands of people are exhilarated and inspired by its ability to redefine public space that was mapped out two generations ago with the oil industry at heart. It is the voice of the minority amid the deafening roar of engines and the seduction of Madison Avenue advertising.

Before Critical Mass emerged in 1992, bicyclists were nearly invisible. On the streets and in the political landscape, they were less than a minority.

The ride has helped people question the arbitrary rules set forth by an auto-dominated society.

While some activism and confrontation remain a small part of the ride, Critical Mass provides an opportunity for average people to gather surrounded by other cyclists on the streets that otherwise threaten them. It is an expression of how many people think differently from mainstream society. Critical Mass originally intended to bring people together, at the same time and place, to ride home. It was and is an experiment with unpredictable consequences. That it grew and transplanted to cities all over the world says something about the collective frustration people feel about the streets.”

Just like many other celebrations— parades, marches, and the like— allowing autos into the procession decreases the safety of all participants and makes the procession stretch out much farther than is necessary. The police realize this, and that is why they help keep the ride together.

Come out and try Critical Mass again— the San Francisco Halloween Mass is the best of the year, and I’d love to give you a tour.

Sarah

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