Critical Mass cyclists try to gain traction in McAllen

They call it Critical Mass. But in the Rio Grande Valley, it is neither critical nor massive.

•••

Published March 12, 2007 by the Monitor
By Kate Lohnes 

TX — They call it Critical Mass.

But in the Rio Grande Valley, it is neither critical nor massive.

The number of participants in a Critical Mass bicycle ride Feb. 23 in McAllen? Twelve.

Why, in an area with hundreds of cyclists, hasn’t Critical Mass fared better?

Critical Mass is not a club or an organization. It is a community bike ride on the fourth Friday of every month. Formed in San Francisco in 1992, Critical Mass exists in cities around the world (New York City, Jerusalem, Israel and Rome, Italy, to name a few). In large cities with Critical Mass, hundreds of men, women and children participate in rides, taking up lanes, if not full roads.

The McAllen Critical Mass ride started strong on July 29, 2005. “On our first run, we had about 50 people,” said Angela Garza, a Critical Mass participant. “We had all ages, from 2 year olds to people in their 70s. But the cops came out. They were like, ‘What’s going on?’ They told us we needed a permit.”

The ride never really recovered. The small gathering that convened at McAllen’s Archer Park pavilion Feb. 23 looked more like a handful of college kids than a cohesive bicycling group. They chatted and held a banner, homemade from a bed sheet and spray paint, while waiting for people who did not come.

“We have the hardcore number of people that come out regularly,” said Bobby Guevera, 32, an organizer of that first ride.

Why can’t Critical Mass attract more people?

It’s not that cycling is unknown in the Valley. Team McAllen, a non-profit cycling organization based in McAllen, has been around 25 years, said president Letty Zavala, and currently has a directory of more than 100 members. Separately, the Catholic Diocese of Brownsville hosted its third annual Oblate Trail Ride on March 4, with an estimated 300 riders registered.

Part of the problem is the attitude surrounding cycling in the Rio Grande Valley, Guevara said. Critical Mass riders tend to encourage using bicycles as alternative transportation for daily commuting. Few people locally take advantage of alternative transportation, opting instead to burn gasoline for the sake of convenience.

“People here have a different way of looking at vehicles,” he said. “The local bus system, a lot of people don’t take advantage of it. (Alternative transportation) hasn’t been ingrained into the way everything works down here. If people want to get a six-pack from the Stripes three blocks away, they jump in their truck. They don’t even think, ‘I could walk, or I could take my bike.’”

Even though cycling exists in the Valley, few people know much about it, Zavala said.

“You see in cities like Austin, it’s a lot more open,” she said. “I think people there are more educated (about cycling), especially when Lance Armstrong (Tour de France winner and Austin resident) came into the picture. In bigger cities like San Antonio, it’s not rare to see a cyclist out on the road, you see it quite a bit. I think the Valley is still growing. Before, you never saw cyclists on the road, whether it be commuters or people training for events. A lot of people don’t understand or are not familiar with the do’s and don’ts of cycling and of the road.”

Some Critical Mass members say the ride suffers from the lack of bike lanes in the area. In McAllen, there is 26-mile “hike and bike” trail, which includes parts of Col. Rowe Boulevard, Bicentennial Boulevard, 10th Street and Nolana. There also are designated bike lanes, which are striped and clearly marked for bicycles, within the city: one such lane travels north and south-bound on Ware Road, while another loops around Travis Middle School on Houston and Dallas Avenues. These few options are far from perfect, however.

“A lot of police officers are not familiar with the fact that we can take a lane on the road, that bikes are considered vehicles,” Zavala said. “A lot of people expect us to take the bike lane, but sometimes it hasn’t been cleaned by the city of debris. If there’s debris on the road, that causes a lot of wrecks. We had a cyclist who fell. The shoulder had not been cleaned and he fell and broke his clavicle.”

Aggravated motorists also pose a problem for Valley cyclists, said Critical Mass rider Arlene Cornejo.

“There are people that don’t realize we’re Critical Mass, and they honk and cheer us on,” she said. “We also have people who are driving behind us and honking at us to get out of the way. People still try to pass us, and they drive really close behind us. It’s kind of intimidating.

“I also live on University Drive (in Edinburg), and so many times I see cars doing rolling stops and they almost hit me. I have a friend who had a car follow her to her place of work. As she was chaining up her bike, the guy got out and was yelling at her. It really terrified her. They have the capability to injure us.”

Yet even as Critical Mass must deal with poorly-cleaned bike lanes and antagonistic drivers, so too must groups like Team McAllen. Why do they succeed while Critical Mass struggles?

Guevara thinks the biggest problem Critical Mass faces, and what might prevent more people from participating, is one of image. Currently, the majority of Critical Mass riders are young, with some still in their mid-to-late teens.

“People have the perception that we’re just a bunch of teenage hoodlums,” Guevara said. “Any time a lot of younger people congregate and it’s not church or city sponsored, people get the wrong ideas.”

Cycling, like any other sport, has stereotypes. In this case, Guevara said he thinks many people view cycling as an elitist activity, where only diehard riders with expensive bikes can participate. Not so with Critical Mass.

“For our group, we have the attitude that we don’t take ourselves too seriously,” he said. “If you show up with a rickety $20 Wal-Mart bike, we’ll help you get it running.”

While participants are sometimes disappointed with turnout, Guevara said they will continue to promote Critical Mass as best they can, posting flyers in coffee houses and contacting people through their MySpace page.

“I try not to let it get to me,” he said. “I’m happy if we get one other person to come out (each ride). I kind of roll with it.”
———
Kate Lohnes covers features and entertainment for The Monitor. You can reach her at (956) 683-4427. For this and other local stories, visit www.themonitor.com.