I went on my first Critical Mass ride this month, and I have to say, I did it up right. I was in Chicago for Pitchfork, and brought up my bike. Laurie drove, so the Princess of Pinkness (my bike) got a free ride. Laurie has ridden CM before, so I was happy to not only have the company, but also the expertise.
I was a bit nervous, because I’d never biked in Chicago before. I’m a farm girl, so 90% of my biking experience involves gravel roads that are straight and flat. I’ve been biking a lot in Champaign, and I’d like to think that I’m pretty good, but this is the Big City.
So, Laurie and I went down to Daly Plaza. We got convenience-store sammiches, which turned out to be DELICIOUS. I’ve decided that Laurie is my favorite adventure friend, because she always accounts for time to get food. As a wheezy hypoglycemic, I like this.
SO. There was a lot of hanging around Daly Plaza. Routes were voted on, but I missed it because I was talking to a kickball friend I hadn’t seen since last summer. I have a tendency towards socializing during democratic processes, so this wasn’t surprising.
We mounted up, and headed out – on a route that would take us south to the beach. The first portion was kind of painful, because we were going so slowly it was hard to balance with my feet on the pedals. I have some nice bruisy shins to prove that walking with a bike isn’t in my forte. (Plus I have a short-for-my-height inseam.)
(This will give you a sense of proportion. You can spot me midway back on the right side in this photo. I’m wearing a black tank top and a white and green skirt. My bike is pink and my helmet’s blue.)
Part of Critical Mass is ‘corking’ – blocking off the perpendicular route (even when the light is green for them) so the group can get through. When I first heard about this concept, I was wary. Anything that involves conflict and confrontation makes me want to hide. Because there are so many people riding, it’s the safest way. It’s like an impromptu parade.
CM riders shouted “Happy Friday!” to passersby/onlookers. If a frustrated vehicle honked, the crowd would whoop and shout. This made me smile a lot, because it’s a celebratory response to someone’s frustration. (I can understand – you get in your car to get to point B, and you’re held up an extra five minutes, and you start feeling anxious. But the point is to remind you that there are alternatives to driving everywhere.)
One observation I made was that when we were in white neighborhoods, people in their vehicles (often on cell phones) had furrowed brows and angry looks on their faces. They honked in anger, and would try to push out into the sea of bikers.
When we travelled through areas that were not white – mostly Latino and Asian – people in their vehicles were also honking, but they were smiling and waving, and shouting “Happy Friday” back to us.
You can see it as a parade, or you can see it as a roadblock, but either way it’s happening, so you kind of get to choose your perspective.
The path we took seemed to have a few problems – but I don’t know if it was the route, or if it was the bikers. We were completely stopped for about 10 minutes, and I couldn’t see far enough ahead to know what the problem was. There were police cars involved, but they left, and we continued on our way to Chinatown.
Back to corking, and general bike-rider/car-driver interactions. I witnessed one interaction where a biker got into a screaming match with an angry driver. It was overly aggressive on both their parts, but I was embarrassed for us collectively, because this douchebag biker was making us all look bad. Corking traffic isn’t a biker’s legal right, and the point is to raise awareness – not block traffic once a month to raise vehicle-driver’s blood pressure or pick fights.
Laurie and I decided to not finish the ride, because we were due at a gathering up-up-uptown and the route was taking up south. We rode about six miles with Critical Mass, but put 25 miles on our bikes that night.
Critical Mass is my preferred method of being enviropoliticactive. I like big events, where we actually DO something (even if it’s nothing more than piss off drivers and get sweaty). As a city biker, I NEED drivers to be aware of me. I want to bike everywhere I need to. I want to get rid of my car and never take the lazy way out.
The thing is, I can’t make this lifestyle choice alone. Sure, biking only takes one person, but because I’m part of traffic, it’s in my best interest to make sure people who do drive are aware of me and treat me like another set of wheels on the street. Champaign drivers aren’t used to a lot of bike traffic. There are a lot of people who bike on the sidewalk. They’re not used to me biking at their speed and maneuvering near me.
Champaign has started doing Critical Mass, and I can’t wait till the last Friday of the month to go out with them.