A New Breed of Biker
On the last Friday of September, my bright red spandex biking outfit left me feeling out of place, even though I had just joined a group of hundreds of fellow cycling enthusiasts.
Published October 16, 2006 by UCSD Guardian Online
by Will Parson
On the last Friday of September, my bright red spandex biking outfit left me feeling out of place, even though I had just joined a group of hundreds of fellow cycling enthusiasts. I found myself at Balboa Park’s fountain with a different breed of biker than I had expected. I did not see the old men with gray chest hair poking out the top of their skintight jerseys, nor did I see the wives they often tow along in small groups, a common sight along my standard route through Del Mar that makes me curse the invention of form-fitting fitness gear.
No, this group was younger and sleeker even without the aid of spandex. The clothes were mainly casual, and the thickest form of protection for many was not a helmet but a pair of denim jeans. As a boom box blaring from the front basket of someone’s bicycle added to the feeling of rebelliousness in the air, a man coasted up to me on his bike and handed me a flyer with a heading that made our mission clear: “Critical Mass isn’t blocking traffic —–— we are traffic!”
And so began the event that takes place the last Friday of every month. Critical Mass, as the group ride is called, started in San Francisco with the goal of reclaiming the street from man and nature’s metal enemy: the automobile. For just a few hours every month, concentrated pulses of cyclists attain this goal in cities worldwide as they navigate the urban terrain. That night in San Diego — my first Critical Mass — there were 400 hundred cyclists in attendance.
Had I known more about the event beforehand, I would have taken more steps to ensure my safety. I had forgotten my headlight, and was wearing clip-in bicycle shoes to keep my feet unfortunately fastened to my pedals in case I lost my balance. As the mass circled the fountain in the last minutes before launching into the streets, it became evident from the stop-and-go flow of so many bikes that my plan to take photographs during the ride might come at the price of some road rash.
At least I had a helmet on, so as a photographer I was concerned with more esoteric matters such as what aesthetics my images that night would take on. Shooting at night is tough, and so is shooting moving objects. So, to be photographing nighttime cyclists — while on a bicycle myself — posed some interesting challenges. Moving bicycles started to disappear from my shots because of long exposure times. The technique of panning the camera to follow my subjects dominated my shots when I was off my bike, and without exception I used flash while spinning with the pack. To avoid crashing, I shot most frames without looking. I was confident something interesting would develop since in photography, chance really does favor the well-prepared.
After circling the fountain enough times to get comfortable with my bike, my camera and the rest of the riders, an unseen force guided us away from the fountain and through Balboa Park. Riders cascaded down the steps as some swerved to the smooth ramps on the sides. The first traffic we encountered was at the beginning of El Prado, but it was no match for us. A minute later Hillcrest’s one-way roads were a joy. Intersections were a breeze, as leading riders would stop in front of crossing traffic so the whole pack could continue through as one. When there was oncoming traffic, shouts of “Stay to the right!” would come from the front. At an intersection we passed a solitary cop on a motorcycle trying to keep the pack from obstructing traffic. There was some confusion at this point, but we continued on once everyone realized the cop was impotent and no one was in trouble.
For about an hour the pack cruised through Hillcrest, Mission Hills and Old Town until it hit the end of the ridge and faced a steep decline down through Presidio Park. The pack spread out, and with few streetlights or other riders near me, I was aware again that a headlight would have been useful. The road was clean, though, and so smooth I could barely feel it through my bike. I could not even see the asphalt; it had dissolved into an abyss and I felt like I was flying. The wind dominated my senses. It howled in my ears and left me chilled despite miles of pedaling. Winding down the steepest slope, the collective effort of 400 bikers squeezing 800 brakes left the smell of burned rubber in the air. A few felt no need to resist gravity and zoomed down the hilly road, disappearing around corners. Once or twice we stopped amid shouts of “Regroup!” This afforded me the rare opportunity to view the ride from a stationary perspective. For a few seconds before moving on I could watch the length of the group that was behind me, individuals known only by their gleaming headlights, swooping and crashing down a hill like a swarm of phosphorescent locusts.
The final stretch of the ride was on a bike path, which was along a corridor west to the coast at the mouth of the San Diego River. This was the quiet portion of the ride, and a time for reflection. Sunny bike paths usually offer me peaceful relief from the threats of city cycling, but riding on the path at night left me cloaked in darkness and feeling outcast. I wasn’t afraid of vehicles any more. I wanted us to be back in the streets, with the bright signs of shops and bars helping us traverse the rough city roads, rather than pushed out to the edge of the water to be forgotten. Even after I split from the pack and rode home with just a couple friends, I was energized by this sensation of empowerment.