Reno 911: Outlaw bicyclist bust

Bicycles circle the park near the Truckee River in downtown Reno Friday. Tall bikes, low bikes, bikes with squeaky brakes.

Three BMW motorcycles pull up. The Reno Police Department, looking for the group’s leader.

This is Reno’s Critical Mass. No leaders. No ride plans. Just a group of like-minded bicyclists out for an informal ride.

“We just want everyone to know that we’re here to help them out, help them stay safe,” Officer R. Larson says.

OK. Sure.

Since 1997, Critical Mass has held rides on the first Friday of each month. In March, Jordan Lubek, a UNR journalism student new to Critical Mass, was run off the road by a police officer who handcuffed him and slapped him with more than $600 in fines.

“It was a real slow-speed chase,” says Mike Corson, who also rode that night. “Motorcycle versus bike. [Lubek] lost.”

News of the arrest fueled interest in Friday’s ride for a few new riders, including Rob Gotcher, 26.

“When I read about the injustice, it reinforced my decision to come down here,” Gotcher says. “This is my main transportation. Bikes have just as much a right to the road as cars.”

Then we’re off, riding to Sierra Street. Cops follow, bringing up the rear, parade-style.

Where a lone bike may not get much respect from gas-guzzling SUVs, no one misses 50 bikes traveling up Sierra.

“Is this Critical Mass?” a middle-aged man shouts.

“Yup,” someone says. The man grins and gives us a cheer.

As we turn en masse onto Plumb Lane, the left arrow turns red. But a cop stationed at the intersection motions us to continue. Nice. We stay together, zooming down the road and crossing a busy South Virginia Street on a green light. Then it’s up to the roundabout at Shoppers Square. Dozens of bikes circle around as the rider of a tall custom bike rounds about in reverse. Then it’s off to Wells Avenue, cops on all sides.

That’s when officers begin shouting orders to bicyclists.

“Stay in the bike lane!” one officer shouts. We attempt to comply. But there are too many bikes for the narrow lane, so we change lanes to make a left turn at the light.

The light turns yellow as I zip through. Officer D. Cecil yells, “Stop! Stop right now!” Fearing the rapid application of brakes will propel me over my handlebars, I continue through the yellow light, as do several others, including Maggie Nroczkowski, a cheerful young woman in a pink shirt.

When Cecil calls her and another rider over, “You in the pink shirt and you in the yellow sweater,” Maggie obeys. Yellow Sweater disappears into the mass.

Maggie is issued a $115 ticket for not obeying traffic laws. She feels unfairly singled out.

“Tell it to the judge,” Cecil says.

While he writes the ticket, at least four cars run yellow lights and a taxi zips through on red. The officer takes no notice. He compares following the bikes and nabbing them for yellow-light-running to catching an armed bank robber.

Is it a new police department policy to tail bicyclists—a kind of vehicular profiling?

Officer Larson explains that it’s like spotting a possible drunk driver. If a cop can prevent an accident by catching the baddie, he’ll do whatever it takes.

But bicyclists aren’t drunk drivers or armed bank robbers. They are Reno citizens who want to celebrate their clean, emission-free bikes—to raise awareness that transportation alternatives to cars exist. They enjoy getting together with like-minded friends on a Friday night.

“I just wanted to have fun,” Maggie says. “This wasn’t fun.”

“At least they weren’t using handcuffs this time,” Lubek says.

For the next Critical Mass ride, meet at 5:30 p.m. May 6 next to Java Jungle on First Street.