Critical Mess

The time is September 1992. The place is San Francisco's hipster dive bar and guest house, Zeitgeist.

Published December 2007 by Bicycling Magazine
By Todd Balf

The monthly ride known as Critical Mass may just change the world
The time is September 1992. The place is San Francisco's hipster dive bar and guest house, Zeitgeist. The man is softly featured, with a blond shading of beard, and in almost all respects looks like an easygoing, next-door neighbor you'd like to barbecue with. What we know about him is modest. He was born in New York City in 1957 and moved to Oakland with his family in 1967. As the Summer of Love unfolded across Haight Asbury, H. Rap Brown was arrested by the FBI and the buildup in Vietnam reached its peak, the man in the photo was a boy of 10. He graduated from high school, dropped out of a couple of state schools, and took an unimportant, uninvigorating job as a word-processing temp in the city's financial district.

But in the photo, of course, none of that history is apparent–nor is the future, the momentous social movement the man has just sparked. The man is smiling, grinning really, and he's wearing a silly cartoon-emblazoned T-shirt that reads, "Save the reindeer, ride a bike." He and his buddies had just completed a group ride across the city's downtown streets, a small, slightly subversive gathering the man was calling the Commute Clot. It was the last Friday of the month, and the idea, explained in a leaflet the man had copied at his place of business, was to "make our presence felt to ourselves and the rest of the city, and ride home together."

There were maybe 60 of them that first night, no more.

Fifteen years after that photo was snapped at the end of a simple bike ride among friends, I find myself in the shadow of London's Parliament building, riding a sky-blue, cruiser-style rental bike with a broad, horseshoe-shaped handlebar and a slightly humiliating placard hanging from the top tube that shills "Go pedal." Ordinarily, I might be slightly embarrassed to be spotted piloting such a getup, but amid the sea of several hundred cyclists streaming into the square, I am, for all intents, anonymous and quite unextraordinary. It's an impressive turnout for a Critical Mass ride, but only considering that earlier in the day two Al-Qaeda car bombs were discovered a few blocks away in the West End.

In Budapest earlier this year, 50,000 Critical Massers pedaled through the city on the last Friday of the month, paralyzing auto traffic. In Warsaw's Plac Zamkowy, where Masa Krytyczna is approaching its 10th anniversary, the multithousand weekly gathering is described as the living, breathing (and occasionally wheezing) heartbeat of the Central Europe underground. "You've got to go to Budapest," a swarthy London bike messenger named Pedro tells me. "It is wild." He is wearing a T-shirt that couples Einstein's image with his maxim that "Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving."

In the United States, Critical Mass has seeded itself in dozens of cities. It is always the same and never the same. There are no organizers. An announcement simply appears, sometimes on fliers and posters, sometimes in underground newsletters, more often now on the Web. The announcement states a gathering spot and a date, usually the last Friday of a month. Then cyclists–sometimes there are tens, most often hundreds, sometimes thousands–simply show up and ride, fanning out with a clarion call of ding-a-linging bike bells. The riders in front move slowly while self-appointed lieutenants fan out to the cross streets to prevent side traffic from slamming through the leisurely snaking main body. Either cell phones or relaying to-and-fro bike messengers coordinate the group and keep it together.

Critical Mass rides have been called Woodstock on Wheels, which is especially true in San Francisco. On the April ride I saw elaborate bike displays, a flurry of preride, antieverything leaflets and a colorful, regularly occurring cast of characters such as the Howler. (He screams periodically, apparently out of uncontainable joy, when the others begin arriving each Friday.) And there is Running Wolf, whom a riding companion pointed out. He had just returned to the pack after a tree sit, up in Berkeley. Perhaps enjoying the feel of terra firma–the campus redwood's perch was 70 feet high–he simply runs alongside the elongated pack for much of the 20-mile, roughly two-hour ride.

Loud, roaring club music is an integral part of the event, with specially outfitted bicycles carrying 12-volt generators and sound systems. It's not uncommon for the smell of cannabis to mingle with the hoppy aroma of beer as, like a wasted book group on wheels, no-handed riders pass refreshments back and forth. There are bikes of all conceivable persuasions: choppers, track singlespeeds, BMX, mountain, English three-speeds, beach cruisers, recumbents, tandems, penny farthings and an amorphous homegrown category that might include, say, two bike frames welded to one another, with the stratospherically aloft pilot hovering 5 feet above Market Street.

The pilots themselves don't mind dressing up or dressing down. There are the usual San Francisco types–bike messengers in three-quarter-length jeans, vine-streaming Earth Mothers in organic flower and dark-haired men screaming "viva la revolucion" while wielding Che Guevara flags–but there are also men in casual, sophisticated style (a Sinatra-era fedora, for example, in place of a bike helmet) and others who appear to have taken a wrong turn at Mardi Gras. I refer to the man in the one-piece grape-bunch suit and the individual whose exotic, multiwheel fish float features shiny silver scales made of old CDs.

Happy-hour cafe goers and hustling pedestrians stop and stare. Naturally, traffic comes to a snarled standstill wherever the ride elects to go. Motorists get steamed, and skirmishes sometimes occur. The cars can't go where they want to go when they want to go. The bikes can. The order of things is reversed. The motorized world is turned upside down. It's for only two hours, but it's enough to cause havoc. Where there are roundabouts, the thousands of triumphant riders, drunk with solidarity, might circle round for what seems like forever, or they might stop, and in a grandiose photo-op raise their bikes like John Cusack in the famous boom-box scene from Say Anything.

The rides that are friendly are very friendly, but some are scary hostile, and some are absolute chaos. In the July 1997 Critical Mass in San Francisco–largely in response to then-mayor Willie Brown's threat to crack down on the lawless mobs–some 5,000 cyclists oozed across the urban landscape like a vicious plague. Hundreds were arrested (including the infamous, 8-inch phallus-atop-the-helmet Dildo Man who was ticketed, he proudly proclaimed, for "blowing a red light").

Last year in New York City, police and riders clashed violently over the group's constitutional right to gather. Dozens of squad cars blockaded the ride, leading to a degenerating sequence of events (arrests, tickets and the confiscation of bicycles as "evidence") that drew worldwide expressions of outrage when footage was uploaded to YouTube. It also spawned, as these things do, new rides in new places. This June there was another arrest in NYC when activist Bill Talen (a.k.a. Reverend Billy) refused to heed an officer's request to put his bullhorn down and stop repeating the First Amendment at the top of his lungs. Neither officers nor Talen backed down, and Talen's attorney quickly cheered the Critical Mass community with his defense: "Reverend Billy has a First Amendment right to recite the First Amendment."

Because there are no organizers, there is no way for local authorities to conventionally prepare. Several cities, such as New York and London, have taken Critical Mass to court, attempting to argue that thousands of riders gaily cruising in an unbroken clump through their streets is a parade and that parades need permits. The catch is that a procession must have an organizer….And round and round it goes.

The April San Francisco ride I did was a high-profile occasion. The previous month's Critical Mass had gotten ugly when the driver of a minivan from Redwood City, with five child passengers, tangled with riders who believed she'd rammed a couple of them in her soccer-mom haste. Someone still unidentified shattered the van's rear window by pitching a bicycle into it.

As a result, the April ride drew the attention of the beleaguered mayor, Gavin Newsom, double the ordinary police detail, and a saturating air and ground media force (including multiple TV news station trucks, helicopters whizzing overhead and intrepid head-camera-wearing, bicycle-riding reporters). "All the media didn't scare you away?" asked a San Francisco Chronicle reporter of a dad who'd brought his tot, but just as papa was winding up into a soliloquy on brave resistance he was shushed by his four-year-old, who wanted him to listen to the whirlybirds.

In the noisy mob scene that began building at 5 p.m. at Justin "Pee Wee" Herman Plaza on Market Street, my plans to coordinate via cell phone with a veteran Critical Mass rider came undone because I couldn't hear my phone ringing over the thumping helicopters, celebrating cyclists and booming music. Police estimated the crowd at 3,000, but it felt larger, especially when riding near the front and looking down the hills at the swarming masses. It felt as if the Tribe of the Bike People, the long-bullied city transportation weaklings, had gone all Jack La Lanne–bulked up, beaming and full of the feel-good gospel. We were unstoppable.

"Remember," announced someone with a wry grin, just as we were setting out, "no attacking minivans tonight." There seemed to be an unspoken understanding that this ride's vibe should be peace and restraint.

"I was cutting a red light," said a bike-shop kid from Walnut Creek who does three Critical Mass rides a month, "when somebody yanked me back by my backpack."

Here is what that "yank" seemed to concede: Critical Mass has at least as much ability to derail progress in bike advocacy–or at least distract from the task at hand–as improve the situation. Critical Mass is best at creating a scene, which is sometimes helpful and oftentimes not. The nuts and bolts of engineering improvements to the cycling infrastructure are best left to experts, which in San Francisco means to the long-running, ever-durable San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (SFBC).

Now a key, politically invested partner in city government, SFBC and its executive director, Leah Shahum, reminded people on the eve of the April Critical Mass ride that there was no official connection between the two groups.

On the table in San Francisco were more than 60 cycling-improvement projects that could radically enhance the city cycling experience. "We are at a tipping point,'' says Shahum, whose group now boasts 7,000 dues-paying members. The coalition had already seen huge increases in cycling's share of Bay Area commuters (6 percent, according to Nick Carr, of the San Francisco MTA Bike Program, with a 10 percent goal by 2010), and slowly had begun to change the car-first culture.

But slow really does mean slow. The seemingly simple task of modifying a popular commuting roadway such as Valencia Street by adding a paint-partitioned bike lane was a painstaking process. There were countless procedural delays from a determined and deeply entrenched opposition, one of whom had also filed a lawsuit to hold up all 60 of the approved bike-lane and bike-parking-related projects.

As they battled the issues in courts and government meetings, bicycle advocates were asking their ambassadors–the city's daily riders–to make gains in the court of popular opinion. That was a problem. There are cuckoos in the street–one-speed track-star wannabes who jet through red-light intersections and scream obscenities at tourists. Some rage not only at motorists and pedestrians, but also at each other. "It's crazy out there," says a bike-shop employee I spoke with. "Nobody knows how to ride–it's not like Europe, believe me–and every time a light goes to green it's like a hole shot. I've been hit twice."

"Three times!" hollers another guy, working in the back.

That is everyday San Francisco, every day in any big city. Now, take those overcaffeinated riders, add the graying longhair with the water bottles in his tube socks, the three or four who come as circus clowns, and the guy wearing the unflattering George Bush mask, spice with an additional 2,000 assorted cyclists and you have a Critical Mass. This is why a person in Shahum's position opens the weekend's paper after the last Friday of the month like a student getting his SAT scores. No matter how well you think you've done, you fear the worst.

Even so, Shahum isn't anti-Critical Mass. She herself experienced what she describes as an awakening on a Critical Mass ride, which showed her in the course of a two-hour ride what "the possibilities could be." I don't ask her the specifics of the ride but most probably, like the one I was on, she cruised along the Embarcadero to Fisherman's Wharf, then on to Union Square, the Castro area, Hayes Valley, Haight Street, Golden Gate Park, Ocean Beach and the Broadway Tunnel with multiple passes through North Beach and the area south of Market.

It can be a giddy experience, especially for those deeply terrified of riding a bike alone in city traffic. For a few hours the streets are safely yours. The group is like a force field, keeping the usual dark enemies at bay. You have time to wave, time to chat and time to drink in the cityscape.

But then, just as everything seems hunky-dory, you might notice you are stopped for a prolonged period of time. You're at the corner of Oak and Stanyon at the eastern edge of Golden Gate Park and the tribe is chanting with bicycles overhead, thumbing their collective noses at the hissing and steaming automobiles unable to get through. Someone's sound system is cranking a rock anthem: "Cum on feel the noize, girls rock your boys, we'll get wild, wild, wild…wild, wild, wild."

You notice a one-armed man slamming his truck door and coming right at you. He has large tattoos, enormous biceps and a burning-hot forehead that suggests something akin to what your Scottish father-in-law would call the "red rage." It appears that the man has taken this fun little outing as a personal insult. It is now that you know this might not be the safest way to spend your Friday night in the city after all. It is now that you know how a Critical Mass ride can quickly cross the fine line between blissful coexistence and the business side of an angry, one-armed truck driver.

Fifteen years is a long time. In that time, Critical Mass has woven a colorful, interconnected human fabric, a rich and crazy tapestry that stretches from one end of the world to the other. Countless people have discovered cycling on temporarily welcoming urban avenues. Countless more have rediscovered their childhood love. Many have discovered human love–people have met and married after meeting on rides (and probably argued and divorced because of them). Due to the movement's longevity, families have grown up together on the rides. "My dad got me into this," a 15-year-old from Walnut Creek told me when I asked her why she came. "See him? He's over there with the beret and the singlespeed."

Many, many counterculture spin-off movements have been born in the course of Critical Mass rides. A small, Bay-area sampling glimpsed during my ride: RTS (Reclaim the Streets), Uncivil Servants, Critical Manners.

If you were the guy in the photo, the nearly accidental founder whose slightly worn-out idealism was about to spark an enduring global social phenomenon, and you were asked to predict the outcome of a decade-and-a-half of hundreds of thousands of people regularly practicing civil disobedience on their bicycles across the planet, you might not go so far as to imagine a truce with our gas-guzzling brethren of the road. But you might well anticipate a world brimming with bike lanes–or at least visible and effective signage. Improved air quality? Safer roads? A public debate about street congestion at least as vibrant as the back-and-forth about no-smoking laws or trans-fat bans?

Yet, even the most enthusiastic and loyal supporters glumly agree–I'm thinking here of a man I met in London who identified himself as Professor Kayoss–that Critical Mass has, at best, had a modest impact on the quality of our urban lives. "It hasn't been all positive," says Kayoss, founder of the Save the World Club. "The people who ride around London and take it seriously–well, they aren't really us." The professor doesn't apologize. Anarchy is fun, not purposeful. The strength of Critical Mass–nobody in control–may also be its most profound shortcoming.

Chris Carlsson was 35 in 1992, with no money, a young daughter and a vast number of radical political causes behind him. He had no way of knowing that his idea to take a ride at rush hour with some prankster-minded friends would become the most persistent, rambunctious, and messiest bicycling _action in the world.

When I finally interview Carlsson, who seems to be hesitant to speak definitively about his creation, he does admit he had early misgivings about the direction his idealism was taking. After those impromptu rides in San Francisco grew from 60 cyclists to 600 in a matter of months, he hastily constructed an unofficial Critical Mass handbook; it advocated against violence, self-righteous shows of force, abuse of the temporary power cyclists enjoyed over motorists and the mob mentality. But even by then, Critical Mass had taken on a life of its own, and what Carlsson thought wasn't terribly relevant. Anarchy doesn't politely ride inside the narrow, white-lined confines of a city bike lane.

Carlsson, now 50, recently seemed to again feel enough responsibility for his oddly numerous, ever multiplying, and often disruptive offspring that he tried once more to remind the brethren of the mischievious, fun-loving, disarming spirit of that first jaunt. Last winter he created a flier, also posted on, to remind his San Francisco brethren "Why We Ride," with a list of "dos and don'ts."

His daughter, a Critical Masser who cut her teeth on a chaotic ride in the summer of '96, was among the first to object. "A little didactive [sic], I think, Daddo," she wrote in a comment on her father's site. Then, as if she understood his predicament–as if Carlsson was some bike-advocacy Albert Einstein attempting to rein in his work on the A-bomb–she undercut her criticism by sweetly signing her denunciation, "yr lovin daughter."

Today, Carlsson is sure of just one thing about the rides: There might not have been a 15th anniversary if people still called them Commute Clots. "I can't really explain it but Critical Mass is a name with an almost magical effect. It really caught on."

It is a rare sunny afternoon in an epically miserable London June when the wide South Bank plaza area along the Thames near Waterloo Bridge begins filling with bicycle riders. Naturally riders gravitate to their own sects–the bicycle world is hardly One World. The prim foldie people clutch to one another at the same time the ragtag couriers are gathering on another part of the plaza. The why-can't-London-be-Amsterdam people are parked against the riverside rail, with one of their streamer-strewn bikes bearing the utopian slogan "Ban cars yesterday."

This group's solidarity–even including me, Go Pedal Man on my blue cruiser–might come from our contemplation of what awaits us at the other end of the plaza: a sizeable bicycle brigade of Metropolitan Police. Perhaps because of my one-armed man memories from San Francisco, or my repeated viewings of violent YouTube footage from New York, I sense trouble. The country is already on edge, with 50-year floods in the north and the morning news of the Al-Qaeda car bombs in downtown London. The terrorism alert in the United Kingdom is listed as severe.

But at about 6:30 p.m.–urged on by an older man working himself against the grain of the crowd and saying a less-than-inflammatory "Shall we?"–the ride is peacefully launched. A black-vested mountain bike cop spins next to a lady whose backpack sticker reads, "If you don't hit me I won't fall down." A guy who looks like Sly from the Family Stone throws a wheelie on a rig emblazoned with the block-lettered motto, "fuckin' criminal." The pack floods forward, as aimless and cheerful and unhindered as a six-year-old on a birthday bike.

The police noninterference, on this night of all nights, feels remarkable to me. It seems to suggest an understanding, a bit of respect, perhaps, or at least tolerance. Critical Mass, I think, might actually be working in London. It feels a little more predictable, a lot less sensational, as if Dildo Man and Howler have yet to cross the pond.

As it turns out, my impression is mostly correct. The London Critical Mass is more a part of the city than not–it's cited in the popular event listings in Time Out as one of the "101 More Things to Do Before You Leave London." Unlike the capitals of Critical Mass in the United States, where sentiments can and often do turn dark quickly, Londoners don't seem to expect the worst of each other. The lack of feistiness on both sides sometimes seems a drag–"Does anybody even care anymore?" lamented a blogger prior to the spring rides–but the integration of ride and city means nobody is pissed off, nobody is getting personal. And, most significantly, the city is changing to accommodate bikes. It's hard to say if Critical Mass is the catalyst to all the things that make London, in the mayor's rosy view, the next great cycling city. But at least it's not getting in the way.

Critics of Critical Mass say that cycling's increased popularity in London–there has been an 83 percent increase in bicycle trips into the city since 2000–is a direct result of infrastructure improvements and a central London driving toll that has lessened auto traffic, and is in spite of Critical Mass rather than because of it. They also point out that the police have worked hard to squelch the ride, or at least control it. In a yearlong legal battle, a court recently affirmed the Metropolitan police department's contention that Critical Mass is a "procession" and as such must apply for a permit on each of its Friday rides.

But even in that argument there is a friendlier official attitude to Critical Mass than is found in the United States. The Friends of the Earth environmental group has appealed the judgment to the House of Lords, but whatever the decision, police spokesmen say they aren't inclined to shut down the ride. Jenny Jones, the former deputy mayor of London, now a Green Party London Assembly member and still an occasional CM participant, even went so far as to encourage cyclists to show up for a post-court-decision protest ride in May. Her 500-word appeal in the May 25 Guardian described Critical Mass as a "little cultural gem in London life…one of those mixed-up expressions of dissent, fun and celebration [that is] also untidy and slightly chaotic at times, but London was born that way."

The mayor himself, though not riding in Critical Mass, didn't antagonize the situation nor question its right to exist, as some U.S. city leaders have. In fact, at the same time he was welcoming the Tour de France to London for its opening two stages in July, he announced a cyclist-and-pedestrian takeover of central London on September 23. Automobile traffic would be forbidden, with the idea of getting more bums on saddles, said his press secretary, Hilary Merrett. Says Tom Bogdanowicz, of London Cycling Campaign, the city's leading advocacy group, "It's basically the official version of Critical Mass.''

When one goes hunting down answers as to how Critical Mass successfully coexists with city officials in London, the destination is obvious: Professor Kayoss's abode, in Surrey.

The good professor is one of the most devoted veterans of the ride and also happens to be the individual on whose behalf the Friends of Earth appealed the Critical Mass court decision.

Kayoss (his real name is Des Kay) is short and stout, with twinkling blue eyes and a gray mane of hair pulled back into a ponytail. When he walks me the short distance back from the tube stop to his home–he dubs it the Monkey House on account of its Gibbon Road address–he explains that he is a moderate in his interpretation of Critical Mass. It is, he says, a "celebration of cycling"–no more, no less. "That's the shared ideal. Individually everybody has their own agendas, of course, but that has never gotten in the way of us all going off cycling together."

Kayoss says he knew from the first London Mass in 1994 that the event was definitely "for me." By way of explanation he shows me around. Bikes and costumes are everywhere. A little three-wheeled hot dog cart is, he says, "the amazing, cycle-powered answer-to-everything machine." It is a big hit with kids, adds Kayoss, whose rambling storage shed of a house spills out other salvaged items he uses in the earth-hugging performances he does at schools and festivals. Bikes predominate, but umbrellas aren't far behind. "I've probably got a thousand of them," he estimates of the umbrellas.

I ask him about a story I heard about one of the earliest London rides, when a small band of riders made love to their bikes on the doorstep to 10 Downing Street, complete with humping gyrations and a hard-mashing, bike-on-bike orgy to cap the affair.

Professor Kayoss smiles.

Perhaps, I suggest, hoping for a good quote or insight, that is the difference between London and other cities: Here it always was and still is about bike love, not bike war.

Kayoss smiles some more, and I get the feeling he's still thinking about that free-love ride.

And that smile, really, says it all.

Chris Carlsson is more like Professor Kayoss than the San Francisco Bike Coalition's Leah Shahum or London's Jenny Jones–or the one-armed truck driver, or, for that matter, the cyclist who threw a bike through that soccer mom's window. Carlsson has described the hotheads at the edgy front of Critical Mass as the "testosterone brigade." The people who seek to duel with motorists, to overpower them, have it all wrong–as do the well-meaning people who want to impose order.

Carlsson just wishes more of us valued the social connectedness of a bicycle ride–that it can make the world a better place simply through the epiphanies that come from meeting strange new folks who do strange, wonderful things. Critical Mass really is about Howler howling and Tree Sitter running. It's never ever been about bike lanes, congestion ordinances, parking racks. But Carlsson knows it's better to smile and ride than to say all this stuff. Critical Mass is what it is and, anyway, nobody–especially him–wants to be a didactic daddo.

Todd Balf's new book, Major, about the life of 20th-century cycling champion Major Taylor, will be published in February by Crown.

Know The Lingo
By Christine Mattheis

Even a veteran cyclist could devolve into a fumbling novice when dropped into the middle of a Critical Mass gathering. In its 15-year existence, the San Francisco ride has developed its own rituals, expectations and dynamics, unseen on traditional road rides. Some have spread to rides nationwide. Here are some terms commonly tossed around at these events.

Building, Rebuilding and Keeping Mass: Maintaining ride density to increase safety. Cyclists are more easily seen when part of a large pack, rather than as individuals or a thinned-out group.

Corking: Cyclists plant themselves in front of vehicles at intersections to prevent motorists from entering the mass of bikes. The technique is most successful when accompanied by smiles and signs that say "Thanks for waiting!"

"Courtesy!": An alert to riders to clear the road for ambulances, fire trucks and buses.

Escort: When a car gets stuck in the middle of the ride, one or more cyclists help lead it out of the group.

Ignoring the Red: Riders in the middle and the back of the pack ride through a red light in order to keep mass with the rest of the group and minimize time spent near the intersection.

Testosterone Brigade: A group of confrontational riders that antagonizes motorists.

Whoop Start: When a large pack of riders stops at a red light, cyclists in the front let out a loud "Whoop!" to alert riders in the back that the light has changed to green.

Xerocracy: The organizational principle of Critical Mass in which no one person is in charge. Anybody who photocopies promotional fliers or lists of ride tactics exhibits a degree of power.