Monday, August 03, 2009

My Critical Mass conundrum...

Critical Mass, as defined by an excellent CM resource is;
Critical Mass is a monthly bicycle ride to celebrate cycling and to assert cyclists' right to the road.
That's a wonderfully idealistic view- and one that once really drew me to the group.

Up until this past Friday, when I rode my first Mass in at least 3-4 years, I had stayed away from the local CM rides. A few of my coworkers have ridden CM off and on for a while. This past Friday, one of them- Carol- asked to use one of the few Masi demo bikes left over from last year's Interbike demo to do the ride. It was this simple conversation with her that sparked an interest to finally go back and see just how CM has evolved/ changed in San Diego since the last time I rode.

Background; I rode a couple of the CM rides 3-4 years ago, back when the rides here were often only 25- 50 riders showing up. On one night, as was usually the case, several of the riders were drunk and belligerent. Coming to one intersection, this kid in front of me nearly hit a car because he was drunk and the car was partially in the intersection. He yelled at the driver and tossed a water bottle at him. The driver then sped up to us and jumped out of his car grabbing the kid and threatening to beat him to a pulp. At this point, I hopped off my bike to separate them- nearly getting punched by BOTH of them in the process. After getting them apart and talking the driver into leaving the scene as the kid continued to be an ass and the group of CM riders left us to ourselves, I got back on my bike and put CM behind me for good- until this past Friday night.

Please understand that I very much believe in the premise of CM- celebrating the bicycle as transportation and asserting our rights as cyclists to be on the road. As I have said for years, I agree with the message, just not the way it is normally conveyed. I know that the best way to create change is to be a part of the process and educate people, rather than walking away. But, I admit that I simply haven't had the desire to fight the people who are not willing to learn or listen. Some people just see CM as a form of semi-organized anarchy. Others see it as an excuse, or convenient cover, to just be obnoxious asses. Neither do any good to engender any kind of understanding or sympathy toward the cause of gaining and maintaining greater rights for cyclists. In fact, it usually has the opposite effect.

All that said, my curiosity and hope for change has been growing over the past few years as I've heard more and more comments about recent CM rides. I'm a starry-eyed Piscean dreamer, always willing to give something/ someone yet another chance. So, I came home from work on Friday and cooked dinner for my wife and daughter and ate with them before grabbing my bike and heading out the door to catch up with the Mass ride. I caught them just a couple blocks from my home and was shocked to see the number of riders- well into the 100's and I would speculate there were at least 400-500 riders out! Amazing to me. Better yet, there was a police escort of multiple squad cars stopping traffic and encouraging the Mass riders. I was shocked- to say the least. There were a few of the officers who were using their PA systems to talk to the group and point out things like the group breaking up and encouraging regrouping and good intersections to stop and wait for other riders- while stopping traffic. It was a far, far cry from the rides I had last done. I guess it proves less of a liability to be chaperon than try to pick up the pieces after the fact. Regardless, it was awesome to have the support of the San Diego police and I sincerely applaud them for the efforts and outreach.

The last rides I did, were largely small affairs with a few riders and centralized to the small downtown area of San Diego, but this ride meandered all over the place! We probably rode close to 30 miles! I was sorely unprepared for such a ride on the SoulVille SS I was riding fixed and wearing my "street clothes". What I saw this past Friday was an impressive change from years past. A friend of mine I saw toward the end of the ride was explaining that the month before saw closer to 1000 riders! Amazing- especially if you are familiar with San Diego's fractious cycling community.

As we rode through multiple neighborhoods and back through downtown and through the airport (where a crash occurred that sent one rider to the hospital unconscious and in an ambulance), the mood was overall very light. There were moms and dads with their kids, couples, groups of friends, rowdy punks and earnest activists desperately seeking change and awareness. It was everybody you can imagine on a bicycle- and they were getting along. I was very impressed by the overwhelming sense of "brotherhood" that existed among the majority of the crowd. There were BMX bikes, TONS of fixed gear/ singlespeed bikes, lots of mountain bikes and a large amount of regular, everyday bikes. I think I saw two or three people in lycra and only a few "race bikes". It was largely a crowd of ordinary bikes, trying to accomplish the extraordinary.


Some of the sweet, warm love-in feelings were dented and bruised by the large number of drunks riding in the group barely in control of their bikes and passing cans of beer or other drinks back and forth, along with the HUGE amount of people smoking enough weed to give Cheech Marin a contact high. I'm no prude, by any stretch of the imagination... trust me, but it hurts the attempt to educate when many of your "educators" are swerving across the road to puke in the bushes, pee behind parked cars or rolling joints in front of kids. There were numerous riders who were still there just to push the edges of anarchy (and the patience of the police), yelling at pedestrians and attempting to intimidate drivers. I didn't see any altercations and I didn't have to intervene at any point- though I likely would have left any of the idiots to fend for themselves.

I know this all sounds like the rants of disapproval of some middle-aged guy who simply doesn't understand. But... I DO understand and I still think the behavior is stupid and severely undermines the credibility of those who are legitimately trying to seek and create sustainable change. The voices of the folks who were thanking the patient drivers and pedestrians were certainly drowned out or forgotten when some beer-soaked stoner screamed at the curious onlookers trying to figure out what was happening. There were plenty of people who honked, clapped and cheered in support of the ride and I grinned from ear to ear waving to them in thanks... but was embarrassed by the buffoons yelling at onlookers or kicking cars. Those are the actions of a few, but those few still manage to leave the most lasting impressions.

I'm not naive enough to believe that a group like Critical Mass has the power or responsibility to prevent goobers from ruining their ride or steering the "message" off course. Nor am I such a stuffed shirt that I don't believe in having fun- I do believe in fun and like to have some myself... believe me. Yes, I know I should shut the hell up and put my big old mouth to work "fixing the problem" as I see it. But... you know, I just don't have the energy anymore. Work, marriage, bills, family... the desire to tilt at windmills is just diminished now. The core of the CM message is very real and important to me, but the fight is just not as strong- especially when the drunk stoner yelling at cars simply doesn't give a shit.

So I'm not sure if I'll be going back out on a Mass ride again any time soon. My heart is just as behind the message as it ever was, but I'm just not too sure I've gotten to that place where I'm comfortable with how the message is being delivered... on my behalf.

Maybe it's just me, but I have a hard time coming to terms with it all...


(PS- I love how the writer of the opening link on CM I reference finally gave up on the project due to the behavior of some other CM people... helps to illustrate the point of my own conflicted feelings.)


Gilby said...

I know how impossible it is to write a succinct piece on CM, as I share many of your feelings. Every rare once in a while I'd go on an absolutely wonderful CM ride, usually in the middle of winter when the ride was small enough to feel our vulnerability. We'd keep the group compact, stop at lights, etc. I would arrive at the next month's ride with residual optimism from the last ride, only to leave early thanks to a general atmosphere of chaos and hatred towards other road users.

Tim Jackson said...

Thank you for the comment, my friend. I know my experience is in no way unique. I wish I had a better sense of how to make a change and the energy to carry that to completion.

I'll always believe in the ideas behind what CM stands for, but I labor with the ways the message are usually (not always) delivered.

Tom said...

Tim: your eloquence matches the times. I no longer attend critical mass rides (after experiencing SF, every other one pales in comparison). But will defend it, support it, etc. It's not for me any longer. I think the testosterone brigade is unfairly portrayed as the core of critical mass, when there are usually hundreds more students, cyclists, kids, elders, etc in the mix too.
Critical mass has absolutely made a positive change to the urban environment and urban design.

Rick said...

Tim it's the same at any type of event. It could be a CM, a sports game, a rodeo, a county fair you name it there will always be those people that for some reason think it's an excuse to get all shit faced and make noise. It's no different here or anywhere. Sadly. SNFU.

Rich Kelly said...

Nice write up and comments. I happened to be downtown that night dropping my sister off at the airport and noticed the large amount of fixie and bmx riders seeming to converge. Thought it must have been CM and got somewhat disappointed that I didn't know about it ahead of time so I could have brought the bike and joined in. You know... support the cause and all even though I'm torn on the whole CM concept as you are. Unfortunately, I guess I didn't miss much and will keep working in other bike advocacy efforts...

libertyonbikes! said...

and he's back!
the irony of debating if I should
go to this months CM.
I finally decide to go,
only to find one other person at the start point.
Some cities desperately need CM,
other cities have such a well rooted bike culture, CM becomes more of a party & meet-up.

I saw Chris Carlsson talk the other year, and it was motivating,
but I subscribe to BSNYC's philosophy-


Ride your bike wherever and whenever you can - represent yourself through your own behavior, maybe inspire someone else. That's how I started being
a full time bike commuter.

Next month? I'm going to BIKE to the local Art Gallery stroll instead,the last Friday of every month.

Well put Tim.

Dan Large said...

Great write up Tim!
Thanks for being my guinea pig and testing the waters to see how it was going.
I used to participate in the early days of SD's CM and attended for a while until it just became a way for hipsters to show off how cool they can be by acting belligerent and spreading mayhem, just further building the stereotype that cyclists are just a small group of kooks on the fringe of society. Don’t get me wrong. As you are aware of my friend, I am also guilty of having a drink or two. But I feel that while a person is acting as an ambassador for a cause then you should act accordingly. There is a time and place for partying and I do not feel that CM is the time. The mob mentality gets out of hand. As you know I have several friends on the SDPD and they have had to deal with the mayhem of some CM attendee's. Mass riders descending on a small store, filling messenger bags with beer and running out. riding and skidding fixies inside the airport terminal at Lindberg Field the list goes on and on. These SDPD officers are bike racers and Bike shop owners they love the bike community we have here and they have to watch as these folks make us all look bad.
Unfortunately I do not have the ability turn a blind eye to this kind of behavior so I too give up on CM.
I agree with the BikeSnob N Y C, I am a CM of one! I strive to ride my bike everywhere.

. said...

Tim, I have given Up On CM here in San Francisco. Why? Just for the very reason's you just pointed out. Annoying people who are strupid stoned and drunk. I have seen many nice bikes destroyed by other bikers in the group, and if that were to happen to my Speciale, I'm not sure what I would do. C.M. Used to be fun but now its just chaos up in San Francisco...

Nexus said...

I fully support the idea of CM, just not a lot of the assholes who ride it. I was driving home from a meeting once and got caught in a CM at an intersection. The behaviour was exactly the same as your experience and was an embarrassment to the rest of us cyclists. Sadly, like the idiot, good weather only) commuter who runs a red at a crowded intersection, they give us all a bad name. These are the only ones Joe average remembers.
Ride your own critical mass.

Kk said...

Thank you for the honest assessment of SD CM rides past and present. I stayed away from such rides because by the time I found out about then hey were already known for getting hijacked by the rowdy crowd.

After reading your post I did a quick search to see if there was a nearby ride I could attend for myself and maybe at least be one more rider who was neither drunk nor stoned. But alas, the links I found for central coast rides were already defunct!

ADIG said...

Hey Tim - Saw this out in the Twittersphere and immediately thought of this post...,0,1911283.story?track=rss

It's a shame that people behave this way.

Tim Jackson said...

ADIG- yes, it is a shame.

The truth of what happened likely lies somewhere in the middle of the two accounts, but from what I have seen locally... it doesn't make CM rides look very good.

The message remains important, but I still say it is the delivery that makes the message meaningless in the end.

As others have said; be a Critical Mass of one and try to spread the best message you can on your own.

Anonymous said...

You're in the same spot a lot of us. Great potential, tons of energy, but a few idiots spoil it. I pulled a cyclist off a car a few months back, only to have the cyclist try to strike me.. only to have the car hunt me down a few blocks later. It's a tough one Tim.