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Critical Mass

It’s all about the bike community
Critter Cruise at Kesey Square.
Critter Cruise at Kesey Square.

We’re living in a golden age of cycling. And we might have a bunch of loud, traffic-stopping cycling activists with anarchistic tendencies — better known as Critical Mass — to thank for it. 

For the uninitiated, Critical Mass (CM) is a quasi-organized monthly bike ride that takes place on the last Friday of the month in cities across the globe. Founded in San Francisco in September 1992, the ride is part-rolling street party, part-pro-cycling demonstration, often chaotic and a heck of a good time — minus the occasional arrest — but, hey, even those can have side benefits.

True, cyclists on CM rides have run red lights to stay with the pack to the ire of drivers stuck idling at green lights. And in some cities CM rides draw controversy and cops like magnets. But in the pre-Lance Armstrong era — before charity fundraising rides became popular and hipsters discovered single speeds — CM played a big role in raising public awareness of cycling as a sustainable community choice and part of a healthy lifestyle. 

In its heyday, Eugene’s CM made plenty of headlines due to an overly aggressive police crackdown in the summer of 2006. Since then, the local CM ride has petered out — replaced by less overtly political and confrontational group rides that local cycling enthusiasts organize via word of mouth and social media, such as the “Critter Cruise” that pedaled off from Kesey Square April 4.  

In 1991, a year before the first Critical Mass, the federal government spent a measly $4 to $6 million annually on cycling and pedestrian infrastructure. By 2008 that figure had grown to $541 million, according to government data. Between 2001 and 2011 alone, national bike use rose by 39 percent.

“The complete streets movement started with biking, but is much broader than that,” public policy expert and cycling activist Barbara McCann told The Nation in 2011. “The big engine has been the bike community.”

I’ve ridden CM rides up and down the coast from Seattle to Santa Cruz and cycled nearly every Chicago Critical Mass staged during my four years in the Windy City. In my experience, CM created that sense of community among cyclists, reinforcing the notion that I wasn’t crazy for not owning a car or for layering myself in spandex and fleece to brave subzero mid-winter Chicago weather on my daily commute. 

Strangely enough, it also provided me a family. I was arrested during my first-ever Chicago CM and stuffed into the back of a squad car shackled to a very pissed off six-foot-five dude with a shaved head. Turns out, a cute and acerbically witty woman watched me get thrown into that squad car — she happened to be the bald guy’s girlfriend — and if it wasn’t love at first sight, it was something. 

Something that became a 15-year relationship and parenthood. Hey, things happen.  

So maybe I’m biased. Fine, don’t take my word for it. Ask the city of Berkeley’s Pedestrian and Bicycle Planner, Eric Anderson, a longtime CM rider and 13-year transportation-planning veteran. 

“I can honestly say that I would not be in my present career if it wasn’t for Chicago Critical Mass,” says Anderson, adding that a CM background isn’t uncommon in his field. He says, it “helped show me a way to participate in something that I cared about and helped me go from just caring about it to caring about it enough to make it my work.”

In Lane County, CM also inspired a kid-centered, strictly traffic-law-abiding monthly group ride called Kidical Mass, which launched on April 2008 in Eugene and now has spin-off rides throughout the country. According to website www.kidicalmass.org, Eugene’s 5-year-anniversary ride takes place April 20.