I have biked with Critical Mass the last two months here in San Diego. As is typical, the San Diego event takes place the last Friday of every month. At 7 PM cyclists rally in front of the Rueben H. Fleet Science Center. Or if you like, the more commonly recognized location is at “the big fountain in Balboa Park”. The cyclists depart at 8 PM. At which time they spill out onto the streets of San Diego. The last two months that I have attended Critical Mass there were around 500 cyclists present.
What is Critical Mass? It is a somewhat controversial, sometimes hated and mostly wonderfully entertaining gathering of bicyclists that assemble once a month for a night ride. Wikipedia does a good job of explaining it in detail.
Critical Mass is a bicycling event typically held on the last Friday of every month in over 300 cities around the world. While the ride was originally founded in 1992 in San Francisco with the idea of drawing attention to how unfriendly the city was to cyclists, the leaderless structure of Critical Mass makes it impossible to assign it any one specific goal. In fact, the purpose of Critical Mass is not formalized beyond the direct action of meeting at a set location and time and traveling as a group through city or town streets on bikes.
Critical Mass participants represent a wide cross section of society. There are 70 year old cycling enthusiasts, 16 year old punks, 30 something professionals, occasionally parents with their children and even some who look as though they might be homeless. The bicycles present are equally varied. There are hybrids, racing bikes, mountain bikes, beach cruisers, gearless stunt bikes, recumbent bikes, and even a fellow with a stainless steel kitchen sink and LED banner welded to the back bicycle.
The diversity is remarkable, but I am most amazed by the people with gearless bikes that participate. The ride is generally over 20 miles and runs up and down San Diego’s canyons and hills. I can not imagine braving the ride without gears. Talk about a work out! There are a surprising number of kids on tiny stunt bikes. Even with no gears these kids somehow manage to maintain speed at the front of the pack even when going up hills.
Critical Mass has a tendency to piss off motorists. Bicyclists commonly block intersections and clog traffic. At first I thought this was unnecessary and mean spirited until I witnessed what happens when the cyclists do not take control at intersections and block lanes of traffic. Drivers, when afforded the opportunity, consistently behave erratically and dangerously. The safest course of action is the cyclists to “cork” intersections to allow riders safe passage.
Do not get me wrong, there are a few assholes who ride with Critical Mass. This handful seem to mostly be interested in getting drunk or high and causing a little harmless mayhem. However, the preponderance of participants are like me, which is to say solely interested in having a safe and fun bike ride through the gorgeous city of San Diego. Indeed, I can report from my experience that the largest percentage of assholes are irate motorists. Being briefly inconvenienced by having to wait for as much as ten minutes for the cyclists to pass some motorists become enraged. I have personally witnessed several incidents of motorists being drunk, and occasionally physically violent or dangerously aggressive with their vehicles. These are the real assholes and are very much interested in causing a little not-so-harmless mayhem.
In San Diego Critical Mass receives a police escort. The San Diego Police Department is remarkably friendly and helpful. They tend to attempt to guide the riders through the city’s least trafficked areas; however this often realizes little success. The will police commonly “cork” intersections for riders. If cyclists are blocking an intersection (or circling as it is commonly referred to in San Diego) the police, when they arrive, move into the center to ensure safety.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed both my Critical Mass rides. I tune into the deadpod and cycle (mostly) safely for an invigorating 20+ miles. My first ride I met an interesting environmental attorney in his late 50s. The ride yesterday I showed up with Damien, my co-worker, about 10 minutes before take off and he and I had a blast. If you have a bike, regardless the quality or style, show up for Critical Mass. Not everyone bikes the entire 20 miles as many drop off in the Gas Lamp or Ocean Beach to imbibe. Biking with Critical Mass has to be the safest way to bike San Diego at night and guarantees a fresh view of San Diego even for the seasoned downtown cyclist.
Other Posts: July Critical Mass Ride