Critical Mass

On my way home on Friday, I found myself accidentally joining in with my first Manchester Critical Mass. Turning into a main road I was swept up in a swarm of cyclists, pootling slowly down the road with sound systems blaring, bells a-tinkling and conversation a-flowing. All sorts  of bikes and riders were on display; skinny-jeaned hipsters on stripped back-fixies, middle aged commuters on sturdy mountain bikes, BMX-ers, hippies and speed-freaks. The mood was jolly, the sun was shining and end-of-week joie de vivre was in the air.

I’d meant to check out one of these monthly rides for ages; one bitterly cold night in February I even got as far as the start point on St Peter’s Square before chickening out and getting home to my warm flat as quickly as possible.

If you don’t know about Critical Mass, well I wish I could provide some critical-mass-dot-com link for you to read more but I can’t. CM is a loose ‘movement’ of mass bike rides in cities around the world with no leadership and no fixed agenda beyond getting lots and lots of cyclists together in one place and riding around for a while, forcing traffic to give way. They’ve grown from 48 participants on the first ride in San Francisco in 1992, to hundreds of thousands of people on rides across the world, from Manila to Stoke on Trent. Clearly, a lot of people find these rides very appealing. But why? What are they for?

Here’s an extract from the Critical Mass London website which typifies the vagueness of it all:

“Who are we and what are our aims? We are not sure, opinions seem to differ. There are probably as many aims of CM as there are participants. Each individual comes there with his or her own idea of what it’s about, and the sum of this makes up the Mass. We have no organisers and no planned routes and this website does not try to be representative of CM in any way.”

On the one hand, this wooliness can make Critical Mass very appealing, Without a defined mission and central organising bureaucracy, these rides are free to evolve into whatever they want them to be. On the other hand, are they not just a bit of an excuse to do a bit of petty law-breaking and stick two fingers up at motorists, an attitude which surely doesn’t help the cyclist’s cause?

An internet search to find out more about CM is a depressing experience, leading you off into a maze of defunct links and raging debates on obscure message boards. Disputes appear rife, with more than one CM website appearing to have been abandoned by their owners in frustration.

Personally, my experience on Friday was a perplexing one. My initial response was of sheer pleasure at being in such a big group of friendly cyclists; as a cycle commuter you can often feel lonely and vulnerable on the road. I felt incredibly safe, as fellow cyclists up front stopped upcoming traffic and blocked side roads to allow the ride to pass. And then there was my undeniable glee at feeling just that little bit naughty in our civil disobedience, riding assertively in the middle of the road, four abreast and forcing traffic to stop with our sheer weight of numbers.

On the other hand, I couldn’t help feeling slightly irritated by the anti-agenda-ness of the whole thing. If you want to go on a social bike ride, join a cycling club. If you want to assert cyclists rights, then join a campaign. I would blame no passing motorist, who’d had their journey held up by the ride, for feeling decidedly put out, if not downright angry. Surely there are better ways to improve relationships with motorists?

But hang on, Critical Mass has no agenda, so we’re not meant to be bothered about improving relationships with motorists. But what a missed opportunity!

I don’t get it.

But despite my reservations, I liked it and may well go again. Maybe.

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