On the roads again with Critical Mass

Critical Mass, a grassroots cycling movement, meets the first Friday of every month

A little before 6 p.m. on a Friday in June, I spotted a group of cyclists stopped at the traffic light at North Virginia and First streets. I was cruising south on Virginia on my bike after work. I met up with them at the red light.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“Critical Mass!” said a young, tanned girl who introduced herself as Emily. “Want to join us?”

I said sure. I hadn’t known that Critical Mass—a grassroots movement in which local cyclists and other riders of non-motorized vehicles get together to create solidarity among the non-motorized and awareness among motorists—was back in action. It had been dead for many months.

“Hey everybody, we’ve got a new person,” Emily exclaimed to the rest of the cyclists, who were riding up ahead a little. The cyclists cheered. Another young woman with black hair in a pixie cut wore a gigantic rectangular carrier on her back, filled with brightly colored noisemakers. She handed me one and introduced herself as Annie.

One cyclist, with longish blond hair and rugged hippie looks, played his bongo drums as he road along.

As I cruised down Virginia Street with the cyclists, I soon joined them in waving and using my noisemaker. It was contagious. The group of about 10 cyclists was eager to share the clean-air, good-health biking way with motorists.

“Woohoo! Ride a bike,” a cyclist shouted cheerfully. “Prevent road kill!”

“Come join us!” yelled other cyclists, waving at other folks on bikes as they passed by on the opposite side of the street.

“Thank you for walking!” they shouted to those on foot.

We passed California Avenue, where Virginia Street narrows to one lane.

“What should we do?” asked one cyclist. “Stay off to the side or go for the center?”

“Drive into the middle. We can take up a whole lane.”

So we did, filling out the southbound lane, shouting and waving and sounding our noisemakers. Many people waved back, or at least craned their necks in curiosity. I felt a sense of joy, community, camaraderie. By the time I had to part from the crew at Virginia and Plumb Lane, the rest of the cyclists had just decided to take a ride down Wells Avenue.

Critical Mass, from its beginnings in San Francisco 10 years ago to its continued practice in cities all across the country, has always been a leaderless, informal thing. With small groups like this, riders usually determine their routes as they bike along.

I waved goodbye to the group and asked when the next Critical Mass will be.

“First Friday of every month. In the West Street Plaza next to Java Jungle at 5:15 p.m.” That means the group will be in motion again on July 5.

"I’ll be there," I said.