Bicycle Diaries: Critical Mass branches out

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Critical Mass branches out

Cyclists launch
Wicker Park ride

Mathew Hendrickson reports in Chicago Journal, 12 September 2007:
Bikers assemble for Critical Mass in rain, shine, wind and snow. The Mass runs year round, and at each one, a large group of energetic bicyclists are ready to reclaim the road.

This month celebrates an event a decade in the making for Chicago's bicycle community-the 10th anniversary of Critical Mass in Chicago. It began on the first Friday in September 1997 when 150 bicyclists gathered at Daley Plaza to parade the streets. Now held on the last Friday of every month, cyclists claim the 10th anniversary ride is likely to draw well over 2,000 people.

In occurrence with the 10th anniversary ride at the end of the month, last Friday opened a new chapter for Critical Mass. It marked the debut of a new ride to be held on the first Friday of every month that will begin in Wicker Park.

Even the torrential downpour before its start couldn't keep cyclists away. About 100 cyclists converged at the Polish Triangle intersection of Division, Ashland and Milwaukee near the Nelson Algren Fountain to kick off the ride at 6:30 p.m.

"This is part of a movement to further democratize the Mass, and to bring it closer to where people live," said Payton Chung, a long-time participant in Critical Mass.

Critical Mass is, at its heart, simply a collection of people who just happen to like riding their bikes. There are no leaders, routes are chosen by vote, and rides occur as long as people are willing to show up. Critical Mass has no political statement, though many participants are there to voice the political and social concerns that brought them to biking in the first place.

"The ride doesn't have a singular purpose," Chung said of the Mass. "Each person has their own reason for going."

Many of the cyclists ride to promote biking as a healthier and safer alternative to driving. Others are drawn to the parade spectacle that the ride creates, centering on the idea of reclaiming the streets as social space-not just avenues for people driving cars.

The ride becomes a piece of living public art through the cyclists that participate. Some bikes are hooked up with stereo systems pumping music, while others ride tall bikes or "Frankenstein" bikes made of multiple bikes and bike components.

The Mass is a fine line between protest, public art and a weird kind of social gathering. Some riders are hardcore bike messengers, others are activists, and many are just there to enjoy a nice bike ride before jumping into the weekend. One of the Wicker Park riders was a Chicago professor, who brought his class out to tour the neighborhood.

The Wicker Park Critical Mass rode in a rough spiral around the neighborhood, exploring Wicker Park, and ending at an ACME Art Gallery opening, at 1741 N. Western. Critical Mass rides can also be a great way to get to know Chicago. Routes change month to month, and bringing people to parts of city that they may never have been before.

The growing size of the downtown Critical Mass has produced some concern from city officials, police and the bikers themselves. Police often accompany riders to aide the flow of traffic, and make sure the crowd stays safe. Within the biking community, some believe that Critical Mass has run its course and achieved its stated goals of bringing awareness about biking and the environmental issues it encourages. Others say that's all the more reason to continue, with the media regularly reporting on issues like global warming and the impact cars have on the environment.

"I've rode the Mass in a couple of other cities and Chicago has a pretty healthy relationship between the riders and the city," Chung said.

Lately police presence at the large downtown ride has increased; at the last ride several bikers were arrested. The Chicago Police involvement at the last ride also created confusion for bikers, at times forcing them to change routes several times, according to reports from several cyclists.

"The police are starting to see the number of riders in terms of crowd control," Chung explained. "Critical Mass is policed internally, but they are getting worried about the crowds that it brings."

The 10th anniversary ride begins at 5:30 p.m. on September 28 at Daley Plaza. All you have to do is show up with a bike.

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