Sunday, May 31, 2015

Critical Mass – what the hell?

Critical Mass is a spontaneous bike ride that happens in cities around the world on the last Friday of every month. Spontaneously. This report on Critical Mass is not representative of all Critical Mass Rides. I do not represent Critical Mass, nor am I responsible for it happening. The truth is nobody is, and nobody could be. Is that enough of a caveat? Good, grab a drink, get comfy (or uncomfortable, whatever you prefer) and we’ll begin.

I first rode London Critical Mass last year, but having learnt a little more about this massive event since that first ride I decided joining the ranks just once wasn’t anything like enough of an immersion to get a good impression of what Critical Mass is all about. So on Friday 29th May 2015 myself and VeloBalls Assistant Editor Sam Hurrumph took our trusty (and in the case of my bike rusty) SingleSpeeds along to the British Film Institute (on South Bank) and prepared to ride the streets of London. The bulk of the preparation involved filling ourselves with gargantuan burritos from the nearby food market. Carb loading.

Critical Mass – what the hell is it?

A criminally brief description of Critical Mass would be ‘a bunch of cyclists going for a bike ride’. But that doesn’t even come close to explaining it. In the same way that an FA Cup Final is much more than a ‘bunch of blokes kicking a ball about’. 

Critical Mass originated in San Francisco in 1992 and was a popular idea that spread fast. By 2003 there were regular Critical Mass rides in 300 cities around the world. The idea of huge spontaneous bicycle rides were not a new idea by any means, cyclists in Scandinavia had been getting together for big rides since the early 70s. In fact as long as bicycles have existed I’m pretty sure Critical Mass style rides have been happening all around the world. But why?

So is Critical Mass political?

Officially Critical Mass is a celebration, not a protest. It’s well worth bearing in mind that the word ‘official’ has naff all to do with any aspect of Critical Mass, but at least according to the Critical Mass Wikipedia page Critical Mass is most definitely not a protest. There are claims that this clear distinction is made to protect anyone who might be accused of being in charge from the necessity of giving the Police prior notice that a ride is going to take place. Bear also in mind the fact that these rides happen in many cities all around the world on the same day of the month, at the same time, at the same meeting place and you’ll start to get a taste of the rolling contradiction that is Critical Mass. One of the best descriptions of Critical Mass I’ve seen calls ‘it’ an ‘organised co-incidence’.

Even as a social movement Critical Mass is disparate; there is no one type of rider on these outings. We saw lycra-clad carbon riding racers, families on tandems, bike couriers, many many people on Boris bikes and a whole bunch of people riding cargo bikes. These riders cannot be categorised into race, income, sex or class. If you have a bike, you join in. Simple. In fact you don’t even need to have a bike, there were people on skateboards and young teenagers on scooters.

The party atmosphere is reinforced by riders who attach sound-systems to their bikes. Pumping out everything from dub, to cheesy rock, to hardcore techno.

Got it? Good, let’s proceed.

Ride report – Critical Mass London – Friday 29th May 2015

On the Strand.
After about an hour and half of hanging about under Waterloo Bridge / outside the BFI the crowd of cyclists had grown massive. Critical Mass rides are notoriously difficult to pin accurate numbers on, but estimates posted on the Critical Mass Facebook page (by folk counting the numbers leaving South Bank) at about 650 riders. In reality I’d say the number was far larger. Trying to count this number of riders as they weave their way off a plaza is probably about as easy as trying to herd cats.

There were more riders than I remember from the last ride I joined – it might have been the clement weather, or a reflection of the current popularity book cycling is enjoying. On a more somber note the news of the tragic death of yet another cyclists on the roads of London on the morning of the ride may have brought out more riders, partly as a show of solidarity and perhaps partly to reclaim the streets. One cyclist I spoke to told me that before his first Critical Mass ride he always felt ‘like a rat’ apologetically dodging London traffic on his commute. He went on to say that riding Critical Mass hugely increased his confidence in traffic, and with confidence comes assertiveness. And an assertive cyclist is often a safe cyclist.

By the time Sam and I had reached the large roundabout that leads onto Waterloo Bridge the side roads and roundabout access roads were already being ‘corked’. Corking is the name of a process of passively blocking roads to protect the large numbers of cyclists as they pass. As far as I can tell there is no pre-ordained group of ‘corkers’, if anyone on the ride sees an opportunity to make their fellow riders safer they will take it. Usually blocking traffic from entering the gaggle of riders requires one or two volunteers, who (from what I could hear) very politely beg the indulgence of the motorists, and explain that the inconvenience will only last a few minutes. As the group passes cheerful shouts of ‘thank you’ show appreciation to those doing the corking, but most of all display genuine gratitude for the understanding nature of the 99% of motorists who take no issue with being slightly delayed on their journey.

Most of the motorists I saw who were being ‘corked’ were either laughing at the spectacle or actually dancing to the music of the various sound-system bikes as they ambled past. If there’s even the merest hint of aggravation on the part of the motorists then the two or three people who have taken it upon themselves to block the junction are quickly joined by more cyclists. On the exceptionally rare occasion that a motorist verbalised their impatience then the number of riders corking the junction quickly swells to 20, 40, 60, 100 etc etc. If any motorists start tooting their horns the shouts of ‘thanks’ given by the riders are intermingled with cheering, and even louder shows of appreciation.

I’m being careful not to over-emphasise the acceptance of drivers, and this would be a dishonest report if it did not mention some of the more unpleasant incidents I witnessed, but the occurrence of miffed motorists really was minimal. Some people even got out of their cars to have a proper dance to the music. One man in van that we passed was holding out his hand to high-five passing cyclists.

The ride set out across Waterloo Bridge and for a while didn’t make it much further. The incredible number of cyclists trying to pedal from one end of the bridge to the other caused a huge bottleneck, and it appeared that everyone came to a standstill. Frustrating? No, not at all, this was just an opportunity for a dance!

When we eventually made if off the bridge the ride rolled past Somerset House and then turned left onto the A4, along The Strand. Skirting Trafalgar Square gave the tourists something to take some truly interesting photos to show friends back home (or let’s face it, to put on Facebook).

As the ride moved onto The Mall I heard a fellow ride remark that ‘it was nice for the Queen to put some flags out to celebrate our arrival. The ride along The Mall was glorious, this was our first chance to get a bit of speed up en-masse. In fact I’m fairly sure we reached a top speed of at least 9mph. Critical Mass rides are not fast, in fact they’re a great exercise in extremely slow speed bike control. Despite that I don’t think I saw a single fixie rider performing a track stand. Maybe such showboating isn’t really in the spirit of Critical Mass. I’m just jealous really.

When we reached Buckingham Palace everyone stopped for a rest. One of the sound systems started blaring out ‘God Save the Queen’ by The Sex Pistols. The royal flag was flying but Lizzie didn’t make an appearance. I’d like to think she was wryly amused by the cheeky choice of tunes. I’m also fairly sure she’s the type of Monarch to yell ‘TUNE!’ when the punk subsided and the banging techno started up again.

As soon as we reached the Royal Palace one of the more colourful riders approached the armed guards who were stood behind the main gate. This made me a little tense at first as I have a vague recollection that some cyclists on a Mass ride were arrested on a previous visit to the palace.

As you’ve probably guessed the very existence of Critical Mass is cause for great debate on cycling forums, and one of the often raised objections is that some riders are openly antagonistic. So it was with a little trepidation I rolled a little closer to the gates to try and catch a feel for what was going on. I couldn’t make out what was being said, but the body language of the rider was open and friendly, and the lads with their fingers glued to the triggers of some very big guns were all smiles. Not very antagonistic. This may have been one of the countless occasions when riders took a moment to cheerfully explain what was going on to bemused or concerned onlookers.

Later in the ride I found myself stopped next to a car that contained a slightly concerned looking couple of ladies. I smiled and gave a cheery wave. Much to my surprise the driver opened her window and tentatively addressed me. The conversation went something a little like this:
Her – “So what’s this all about?”
Me – “We’re just going for a little bike ride, we’ll be gone in a few moments time.”
Her – “So is this for charity?”
Me – “Not at all, at least I don’t think it is.”
Her (surprised) – “So why are you doing it?”
Me – “Because it’s great to be alive, and we’re having a little celebration.”
Her (smiling) – “Oh!”
Me – “Thank you ever-so-much for stopping; it’s lovely motorists like yourself that make this so much fun. I really appreciate that you have stopped to help keep us all safe, it really does make a huge difference.”
Her – “Oh that’s okay”.
Me – ‘You ROCK!’

I looked around and could see similar conversations taking place all around me. The moment was marred a little by some drunk bloke yelling abuse at anyone who was unfortunate enough to have a working set of ears. Everyone ignored him, and any cyclists who looked like they might be about to try and offer reason to the man were cheerfully requested to let it go, and move on by those cycling past him. Confrontational and antagonistic? Not on this occasion.

Just before we rolled on a few motorists in a side street started sounding their horns, and a couple of passing policemen nicely asked them to stop. I’ve gone off point, let’s get back to Buckingham Palace.

Riding Critical Mass gives riders the opportunity to do things on the streets of London that would otherwise be impossible. I saw a man on a unicycle stood in the middle of what would normally be a deadly roundabout for cyclists, he had stopped to roll himself a cigarette. Sitting on the edge of the huge memorial that sits outside Buck Pally were a couple having their wedding photos taken, which gave several hundred cyclists the unique opportunity to be included in a total stranger’s wedding album. Several cyclists took the opportunity to use the circular walkway around the top of the memorial as a sort of impromptu velodrome. One particularly impressive fella on a mountain bike grabbed the opportunity to lap the main column of the memorial doing the longest wheelie I have seen in my entire life. I even saw someone on a cruiser bike enjoying a pedal around the (empty) water part of the memorial.

After much blowing of whistles and ringing of bells we departed Buckingham Palace and tripped down Birdcage Walk back to Parliament Square. The bottleneck effect struck again just before we reached the Houses of Parliament. While we were stopped a taxi driver wound down his window and signalled that he wanted to talk to Sam. The conversation didn’t seem too tense so I didn’t think much of it. Afterwards I asked Sam what the taxi driver had to say. Apparently he felt the need to tell Sam that cyclists cause more Co2 pollution with what comes out of their mouths than all the cars combined. Mercy.

After a quick bip along Embankment we looped back on ourselves and headed back over Waterloo Bridge. It turned out the destination was the notoriously deadly Elephant and Castle, the scene of several recent cyclist deaths. The poignancy was not lost on anyone, although in the spirit of the ride everyone whooped and hollered, apparently revelling in the opportunity to use the junction without danger of dying.

Apparently Critical Mass doesn’t usually go south of the river, but this time it did. A fair way south. Somewhere in Camberwell a car full of burly looking men jumped a light, apparently so the driver could offer to ‘put a fucking knife in’ someone who was cycling along side him. I was unaware of exactly what was going on, but when I saw the driver get out of his vehicle myself and a whole lot of other cyclists stopped to show solidarity. Nobody really said much (other than the driver) and after a few moments of yelling the driver got back in his car and we decided the situation had diffused enough for us to move on. It was only afterwards that I learned that the vehicle rammed and rear-ended a cyclist, and it was after that the driver got out with a long-bladed screwdriver and asked the crowd if anyone ‘wanted some’. The entire sorry episode was captured in damming HD by one of the many cyclists with cameras, and with any luck the matter will become a legal one.

I spent a lot of time trying to decide whether I wanted to mention the above incident, but decided in the end that I should. Just like many bad things in the world this incident is news because it’s not the norm. The stir that this thug has caused on the Critical Mass Facebook page goes some way to assure me that it’s as unpleasant as it is a rarity. The behaviour is unacceptable in any aspect of life, the fact there were cyclists were involved is largely irrelevant. I would not wish to meet this screwdriver wielding idiot in a pub, on the street, at a festival, at a club etc etc. A spilt pint any other perceived ‘wrong’ would likely be met by this person in the same way. People who are so quick to violence are exceptionally rare, and I believe such grotesquely violent threats would be just as likely to be made in any one of a million circumstances. I give credit to the cyclist he hit (who was fine) and to everyone present for disregarding the threats so wholly. As we cycled away I looked back over my shoulder and a passing cyclist glanced in the car window and exclaimed ‘they’ve got a fucking kid in there’.

I sincerely hope reading about this heinous individual this doesn’t put anyone off riding Critical Mass.

Soon enough we were in Brixton, and this is where the party really started. I was riding near a sound-system that was pumping out reggae, and it appeared to hit the right note with a lot of pedestrians who were dancing on the pavements. People hung out of their windows to cheer us on, and the bad feelings brought on by the passing thuggery soon drifted away, replaced by a stronger feeling of all-round peace and love.

The next ‘rest stop’ was Stockwell Skatepark; and it was here that I saw a scene that will stay with me as long as I live. As we rolled up it became quickly apparent that the many deep bowls and smooth hillocks of the skatepark were busier than they have probably ever been before. Among the skateboards and BMXs were fixies, carbon road bikes and loads of Boris bikes.
Shenanigans at Stockwell Skatepark

Buoyed by the general joie de vivre of Critical Mass at this point Sam and I took our SingleSpeeds into the skatepark and hit the ramps. I lost my nerve a bit when someone in front of me stacked their carbon racer in a bowl. I remembered by age and lost my nerve entirely when someone on a Boris bike came a cropper and face-planted dropping into a bowl and didn’t get back up. A lot of people who looked like they knew what they were doing gathered around and I was hugely relieved to see that while the man was down, he was conscious. After a few minutes he got back up and a massive cheer echoed around the whole park.

The journey back into central London was fairly uneventful, and we found ourselves drawing the ride to a close in Paternoster Square. After a good while of chatting with some other riders and skaters a security guard very nicely told us that we ‘shouldn’t’ be drinking beer in Paternoster Square and we took it as our cue to quit for the night.

So just what is Critical Mass? Well I’m not sure I really know, and the truth is I think I want to keep it that way.

P.S please watch the video report we made, it gives a fairly decent impression of what it feels like to be involved with a Critical Mass ride.

P.P.S if you’re inspired by this report but fancy something a bit more extreme there’s always the naked version…

P.P.P.S if mass unorganised rides are your thing, then you need to know about the Dunwich Dynamo…

Critical Mass Videos

Here’s the video we made to accompany this ride report:

Here’s another nice video of Friday’s ride:

About the author
Andrew Culture is a professional writer and reviewer who has been writing about everything to do with bikes and cycling for many years. Andrew is also a musician and award-winning zine author.

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