(On Wednesday I published a photo set and article discussing the perception around, reaction to and purpose of Critical Mass. This is a follow up to that piece with my account of the Mass.)
On the last Friday of every month Chicago’s cycling community descends on Daley Plaza and around 6 they take to the streets in an effort to overrun and control traffic in an event called “Critical Mass.” Last Friday, June 25th was no exception to this tradition.
When I first moved to Chicago I had a mountain bike, I learned quickly that while this worked out great living in the Northeast it was terrible for the roads out here. I eventually purchased a new bike, started riding to work daily and eventually taking part in several community bike rides. However last year when winter set in I stopped riding for almost a year.
Last Friday I pulled my bike out of storage, filled up the tires and intended to make it to Daley Plaza in time for the ride. I have taken part in three ridings of Critical Mass since moving to Chicago but this one was different for me. I barely made it in time.
On my way to the plaza I blew out a tire and had to make a pit stop at Johnny Sprockets to get it repaired. The staff there was helpful and had me quickly back on the road.
I got down to Daley Plaza around 5:30, surveyed the crowd and picked up a map of this month’s route. Around 5:45 the other cyclists started circling and by 6 it was time to “mass up!” The group took off down south, eventually touring through Chinatown and then back up through the west side of the city before heading back towards the loop.
All the while the event was pretty mild. There seemed to be no large disruptions and the majority of the drivers that found themselves delayed due to the event seemed to take it in stride as riders passed them shouting “Happy Friday!” while waving a smiling. There were of course a few exceptions but overall the experience was welcome, jovial and friendly.
The two previous “masses” I’ve ridden in went through the North side. The different course of this trip was a welcome one for me as my experience with the South side has been limited. I was pleased with what I saw. As we passed under the highways I found parts of Chicago that reminded me of Brooklyn and others of San Francisco. It was profoundly eye opening and exactly the kind of experience that Critical Mass should be about. After the route looped back through the loop it head east to towards the lake. From there the riders went over to the museum campus and along the Lakeshore path. This was decidedly my favorite part of the trip. I watched people fish along the lake and walk the path waving and smiling. It was shortly after this that I saw the other side of Critical Mass reared it’s ugly head.
As I mentioned in my previous entry Critical Mass sometimes gets a bad name due to the actions of a few individuals, well it was after the Lakeshore path when that happened. The road from the path turned up towards the road again and as few riders took off. At that point more and more riders followed their lead, mob mentality took over and much of the Mass attempted to take over Lakeshore Drive.
I, like many, held off and watched the Police block off the path, begin knocking people off bikes and saw this as my cue to exit. It’s moments like this that make me understand why there are those who dislike Critical Mass. All in all the bulk of the riders used their better judgement but the actions of a few can tarnish the perception of the whole.
Now that I’ve had a week for me to collect my thoughts I’ve decided I still very much value and appreciate Critical Mass and what it offers to our great city, I just wished everyone did, riders included.
From my experience, Chicago’s monthly Critical Mass bike ride can be a divisive topic for many of this great city’s residents. I’ve found people typically have one of three responses to it:
They love it
They hate it
They don’t know about.
That may seem like I’ve covered all the bases but the truth is virtually no one is indifferent to it. Just doing a search for it here on ChicagoNow yields a variety of responses, few of them neutral.
Although I have participated in ‘Mass’ several times, my opinions are mixed. I find the event to be fun and mostly positive. Above all, it’s a great way to see Chicago and feel like a part of the community. The organizers, on their website describe it as follows:
Critical Mass is a bike ride plain and simple. The ride takes place on the Last Friday Of Every Month (in Chicago anyway). A Critical Mass is created when the group of riders comes together for those few hours to take back the streets of our city. The right of the people to assemble is guaranteed in the Constitution, and Critical Mass helps people remember that right. The Mass itself has no political agenda, though, no more than the people of any other community do. Critical Mass is open to all, and it welcomes all riders to join in a celebration of riding bicycles. Why? Because bikes are fun!
Sure, as with any community, you’ll see people of all types. Some people see Critical Mass as a forum for grassroots political change. Some people see it as a protest against cars. Some people just like to ride. The Mass, however, is just that…a bunch of bike riders. You can drive a car the whole month and ride in the Mass. You can be an anarchist and ride in the Mass. The point of the Mass is the Mass, nothing more. Critical Mass has no leadership. It is a ride where no one is in charge. At any time, riders are free to leave, stay, stop, or even help out. Everyone is responsible for themselves and the Mass.
The spirit behind Critical Mass is one I can get behind and I do believe it still stands for that. I think those who are annoyed by it and call for it’s abolition need to lighten up.
However, I do see the other side. There are many who participate that act irresponsibly and push a political agenda through the event. After a while Critical Mass leaves a bad taste in many people’s mouths as they start letting a few bad eggs influence their opinion of the whole community.
My first experience with Critical Mass was actually years ago in New York while walking through Times Square and seeing thousands of bikers holding up traffic. I didn’t understand it at the time. I just saw it as people acting irresponsibly and behaving recklessly. I remember writing a harsh blog entry at the time criticizing them. Now I find myself years later actively participating and realizing that the actions of the few do not necessarily represent the motivations of the many.
Last Friday I participated in the June riding of Critical Mass, it had been well over a year since I last participated so I figured this would be an excellent topic to focus on here. Attached to this entry you will find twelve photos and on Friday I will post twelve more and my account / findings of the ‘Mass’. Enjoy!