The end of Chicago's Critical Mass?
In the Chicago Sun Times, 5 August 2007, Dave Newbart writes:
As we halted traffic on a congested section of Halsted last week, you could almost see the disgust in some drivers' faces. They were already delayed by the construction on the Dan Ryan, and now they had to wait for some 2,000 cyclists to slowly pedal through on a busy Friday night.
But later, as we rode down side streets in Little Village, families ran to the street to see us, holding out their hands for high-fives and repeating our greeting, "Happy Friday!"
And we were a spectacle to see: a street fair on wheels, featuring music, performance art, tripped-out, double-decker bikes, bubble-makers and bikers in costume.
Welcome to Critical Mass, the monthly bike ride through Chicago that will celebrate its tenth anniversary next month.
The ride is cyclists' chance each month to take over the streets they normally cede to cars, and ride wherever they want. Some riders say it's the only time they truly feel safe on Chicago's roadways
But some riders wonder if the ride has gotten too big and too party-like, and no-longer conveys a strong message. They are pushing for the ride to end after its ten year anniversary ride Sept. 28.
"It is not as much an instrument of change as it used to be,'' said Howard Kaplan, 43, of Little Village. He complains, "It looks like an Indiana University frat party.''
Others say it would be foolish to end the ride now that awareness of global warming and cars' contribution to it is at an all-time high. And with more cyclers on the streets--something the mass has sought to promote since its inception--it's natural there would be more riders at Critical Mass. More than ever, bikers should push forward, they say.
"Things have gotten better, but we have got a long way to go,'' said Dan Korn, 36, of Little Village.
Korn would like to see an entire shift away from cars--and throws out ideas like banning cars from the Loop. Others say the city should create more dedicated bike lanes--where cars and bikes are separated by medians--or even commit entire streets to bikers.
The debate on whether to end the mass has raged on the Internet, although most concede there is little chance the ride will really stop as long as bikers keep showing up in Daley Center Plaza the last Friday of every month at 5:30 p.m. Some admit calling for the end was actually a publicity stunt to reinvigorate the ride and get more recent riders to take the lead.
Over the years, riders have traveled through nearly every neighborhood in the city, on Lake Shore Drive and even the Eisenhower Expressway. There have been nude cyclists and costumed cyclists for the annual Halloween ride. They have had as many as 3,000 bikers on a ride last summer and as few as 100 in a cold, rainy February a few years ago.
Whatever happens, the ride was in full-force late last month as riders headed on a nearly 15-mile ride toward Berwyn.
We gathered at a true work of art, the Picasso at Daley Plaza, and then made plans to visit another one, although of a more controversial status, the Spindle at the Harlem-Cermak Plaza. The ride is to protest a move to tear it down, and bikers see the cars impaled on a giant spike as promoting their goal of someday making cars a museum piece.
"Massers''--as they are called--ranged from twentysomething, tattooed and pierced bike messengers to middle-aged parents pulling kids in trailers, from spandex-clad, hardcore gearheads to women riding in dressy flip-flops and purses drooped over one shoulder. One guy, who rigged up a huge make-shift tire that formed a circle around his bike, did somersaults for the crowd.
"This is as grassroots as it gets,'' said longtime rider Steven Lane.
By 6:30 p.m., the throngs became restless, and one by one, and then group by group, they begin riding laps around the entire plaza, blocking the busy downtown streets in their wake. The group finally sets off for its destination by heading South on Clark Street.
You quickly learn that nearly 2,000 bikers don't go anywhere very fast.
As we cruise past the Harold Washington Library, Queen's "Bicycle Race'' song plays in the background, courtesy of a rider with a large boom box on the back of his bike. Riders ring their bells in unison to the song.
On Halsted south of Roosevelt, one driver screams, "Get the f--- out of the way.'' While at times it takes 10 to 20 minutes to pass through an area, the riders are careful not to spend too much time on any one street so as to not slow things down for too long.
Other drivers take the delays in stride. Pizza delivery man Joe Sabian, stuck at 21st and Wood, says, "I don't mind. Whatever festival you have, more power to you.''
Still, things get ugly on 18th in Pilsen, when 10-year-old Will Healy is creamed by an alleged drunk driver. The driver, Robert Rogers, who riders said was being tailed by police, turned directly into the crowd of cyclists, scattering riders to the curb and crunching bikes underneath. Healy couldn't get out of the way fast enough and wound up sprawled on the driver's hood, before falling to the ground, his mother, Jane, said.
Biker Antoinette Moore said at least 10 cyclists were hit, although no one suffered serious injuries.
Healy was treated at Stroger Hospital for bruises, cuts and scrapes--but miraculously no broken bones.
Rogers, 44, of Maywood, allegedly had a blood alcohol content twice the legal limit, authorities said. He was indicted Thursday by a grand jury on two counts of aggravated DUI and leaving the scene.
Massers say the incident was quite rare. More common are minor bumps with other riders, like when two bikes pass too close, and their bikes lock together. "Bike sex!'' someone screams. The female rider manages to pry her pink bike (I'm not making this up) from his bike as others tell them to "get a room.''
As we ride, some bikers pass beers back and forth and rest them in their water bottle holders. Later, I catch up with Jeff Bewier, 53. He's an engineer from Highland, Ind., who is here with his two college-aged kids, wife--and another 15 friends from the Hoosier state.
They come each month, he says, for "the camaraderie.'' Indeed, it's easy to strike up a conversation with just about anyone. And it's a great way to see parts of the city off the beaten path. In one stretch, we see a church processional led by a priest in full robes while carrying a cross, a home with head-high corn stalks sprouting in the front yard, and children singing outside a school.
As we head through Cicero, it quickly becomes clear that doing interviews on bike isn't necessarily the safest way to get a quote. I hold my digital recorder out with one hand and rest the other on my handlebars, but I plunge the recorder into my pocket as we hit an expressway-style interchange at Ogden and Cicero. I manage to avoid wiping out, but as we quickly gain speed, one cyclist goes flying over his handlebars and lands in front of a car, which was luckily stopped by cyclers known as "corkers.'' These brave souls park in front of the cars at intersections until everyone passes. I look back and see the fallen rider has gotten back on his bike and sped away.
We finally reach the Spindle about two hours after we kicked off, and I feel like I ran a marathon, even though we really didn't go that far or ride that fast. The bikers congregate around the Spindle, crack open beers and generally celebrate. For the next hour or more smaller groups of riders make their way back home.
I join up with a group of six riders who ride North to Augusta and then East back into the city. At about 11 p.m., one rider--no one in our group had met him before tonight--gets a flat in the middle of Lawndale. He tells us to go ahead, but that would be counter to the spirit of Critical Mass, now wouldn't it? So we wait, and someone lends him a spare innertube, and he changes his tire. We finally get back on the road a half-hour later.
Whatever happens in the future, massers say they hope to get 4,000 or more riders for the celebration next month. They have even asked Daley, a known cycling enthusiast, to be the "mass marshall.''
The mayor's office did not respond to questions about the event, and other city officials were sheepish about giving an opinion about what should happen to the ride.
Officials with Mayor Daley's Bicycling Ambassadors were at the start of the mass ride promoting bike safety and passing out bike maps. But they didn't ride in it, and program director Emily Willobee wouldn't even say whether she had ever been on a Critical Mass ride or not.
Kevin Smith, spokesman for the city's Office of Emergency Management and Communications, said the ride has been a mixed bag.
"Critical mass has posed some problems at times depending on the traffic those evenings and the direction the riders choose to go,'' Smith said. "We know that motorist have on many times found these rides frustrating. But the city also has done a lot to encourage bicycling and done a lot to make riding easier and more enjoyable, and in that regard, Critical Mass and the city are certainly partners.''
© Copyright 2007 Sun-Times News Group