Monday, September 29, 2008

The Critical Mass Bikers: "Happy Friday"? Really? That's the Best You've Got?

On Friday night I was making a Walgreens stop when I heard a huge commotion outside. The guy at the cash register and I both craned our necks to see what was going on -- it looked like a disorderly parade of bikes was passing by. "They all have clothes on, at least," I observed. "Have you ever seen the Naked Bike Ride?" He was lucky enough to have escaped witnessing that awful spectacle. Yeah, I'm all for weaning the country off of its oil dependency, but exactly how does streaking through the streets of Chicago on two wheels help that cause? Especially when hardly any riders have signs explaining what the ride is about?

But I digress. Back to Friday night...

I paid for my stuff and stepped out into the night. The bikes were still passing. And I'm not talking dozens. I'm not even talking hundreds. I'm pretty sure there were thousands of bikers snaking down my street. There was no regard to traffic signals or cars or people trying to cross at intersections -- everyone participating was just hell-bent on keeping up with each other.

A few bikes had small trailers that held stereos and speakers, but just regular music was playing... there was no "message" that I could make out. The only thing the people participating in the ride seemed to have in common, besides being on bikes, was that every once in a while they would shout out "Happy Friday!"

Finally, I took my life in my hands and dashed across the street when I saw a small break in the procession. Intrigued to find out what in the heck was going on, I googled "Happy Friday bike ride Chicago" as soon as I was safely in my condo (this was about ten full minutes after I first heard the bikers' shouts from inside Walgreens and there was still a trickle of people bringing up the rear of the ride). All signs pointed to the fact that I had just witnessed a Critical Mass event (not to be confused with the digital agency of the same name... shout-out to SS!).

Critical Mass is a loose-knit organization of bikers who hold rides around major cities across the world. They claim to have no real agenda other than to "take back the streets" for a few hours each month and celebrate cycling. As a person who enjoys a bike ride every now and then and who doesn't own a car, I have to say that while I understand the thrill of riding through the city, semi-protected by a pack of other bikers, I still don't get the point. There are city-supported rides, like the L.A.T.E Ride (which I've done a few times) that achieve the same goal and offer police protection and the closure of roads for motorists. There's the Lake Shore Drive bike path that spans miles and miles down the coast. Why interrupt traffic and risk getting killed (or getting somebody else injured) by taking over the streets the last Friday of every month for no good reason? You all know that I like to rebel against The Man, but this just makes no sense to me.

Have any of you out there ever seen a Critical Mass ride? I actually can't believe I've been here the better part of 12 years and wasn't clued in. Have any of you out there ever participated in one? I promise I won't judge, but I am curious about your motivations...

- e


Anonymous said...

I haven’t ridden in a Critical Mass ride, but I know people who do. I’m not really pro or anti this, but I can share what these participants tell me.

The riders I know are passionate riders and feel strongly that riders’ rights should be supported. One of the reasons they do Critical Mass is to remind motorists that everyone is supposed to share the road.

The eco-friendly message is also important to them. The city would be healthier all around if cycling became more prevalent. Realistically, if fewer people drove in Chicago and rode their bikes instead, everyone could actually get to his or her location faster and more easily.

The methodology is to get people marveling at and confused by all these bikes riding freely through the congested Friday rush hour. And then go home and google the thing.

I think there’s a participation crossover with the Ghost Bikes awareness campaign.

On a separate note, I have ridden in the Naked Bike Ride and agree with you completely about how difficult it is to convey messages properly while riding a bicycle naked and in the dark. I thought it was a huge flaw in the system.

But when the pack went right down the length of Michigan Avenue? Now that’s an experience not to be forgotten. The whole thing is pretty incredible to do. Although for me, once is (probably?) enough.

From my singular experience, I’m going to generalize that some of the folks on that ride are legitimately political. For the majority of them though, the event becomes a mobile art installation—Burning Man style. Personally, that’s okay by me.

Erika (aka "e") said...

Ms. - Thanks for writing in! I can't believe you did the Naked Ride - that takes some guts! I couldn't even bring myself to run the Naked Mile at the University of Michigan, where's it's a tradition for all seniors to do so.

Anyway, thanks for your perspective. I still just wish that - for all of these types of events - it was more clear what the point was when others are actually watching the riders go by. If they're organized enough to all ride together at the same time, why aren't more people making signs for their bikes or shouting out URLs for more info?

- e

Anonymous said...

Personally, I agree with you completely that the lack of message makes no sense. With Critical Mass being, purposely, a leaderless movement, it makes doing anything besides showing up at an agreed upon time and place very difficult. The bohemian attitude doesn't work very well when all grassroots efforts must be backed up by massive organization to get any results.

Still, I think they see this as a social action, and that there are more formalized groups working through other channels.

As for the Naked Bike Ride, nudity and the amount of nudity is all optional. To preserve some of my imaginary hipness, I'm not going to volunteer the level of nakedness in which I choose to ride. :)

Anonymous said...


Love bikes ... but more in the direction of off the road and into the back country. I don't trust anybody in a car so riding on the road is something I avoid. That being said ... not a bad reminder about alternate ways of travel.

The Other E

Kristina said...

I usually let these rides ride right by and don't think twice but this round I was ticked. We got stuck behind them and Andrew cried the whole 15 minutes that the car wasn't moving. Will started to get frustrated by Andrew crying and so he joined in. Each minute that went by, my anger and annoyance increased. Now I just hate bikes and want all the bikers to hang out in my car with a toddler and an infant!

Lars-Erik said...

OK... this is an old post I've stumbled upon, but I'll weigh in nevertheless.

You ask the question, "Why interupt traffic...?"

The Critical Mass ride makes the in-your-face point that bicycles ARE traffic!!

How many times has Kristina been caught in other types of traffic jams... where HER CAR was part of the problem?!? And now she hates bikes?!?