Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2009 | The departure of a golden sun Friday signaled hundreds of bicyclists across the city to inflate their tires, grab a few water bottles and hit the twilight road for Balboa Park.
They arrived in small groups, congregating near the large fountain and eventually growing into an impressive force. Bicyclists of all ages — as young as 14 — waited in the darkness for the beginning of their 31-mile trek across San Diego.
The monthly cycling event, called Critical Mass, is part of a national movement in metropolitan cities to advocate politically against the use of automobiles. In San Diego, it started around 2003 with 30 to 50 riders and has grown to about 1,000 participants each month.
The sheer magnitude of the ride puts San Diego police in an awkward position. Having hundreds of bicyclists travel through the city at night with no regard for its traffic laws can be a serious public safety risk. Minor crashes are common, and in other cities, fights have erupted between bicyclists and drivers frustrated by the herd’s blockade of intersections.
“Our role is to preserve the peace,” said Capt. Chris Ball, who has overseen enforcement of the event in the past. “That’s brought on by the fact that these guys take over the road and some of the motorists get pretty ticked off.”
About a dozen San Diego police officers also waited in the dark at Balboa Park Friday, literally and figuratively. They had the unusual duty of accompanying the bicyclist herd without knowledge or control of its direction. Critical Mass has no structured leadership so the group could go anywhere.
“It’s kind of crazy,” Ball said. “What is the role of the Police Department when we’re out there? Sometimes we don’t know.”
As twilight passed, the anticipation at Balboa Park swelled. James Solis brought a drum set to add more energy to the atmosphere. Other bicyclists started circling the fountain and yelling cheers randomly. The dozen police officers moved into their squad cars and took positions around the area. They still didn’t know how the group would depart.
“It’s a very organic thing that happens. No one person is making decisions,” said Peter Rossenthol, one of the original people who started Critical Mass in San Diego. “It’s finally got to that point where it has a lot of energy.”
Without much notice, bicyclists started commanding the group to leave and the herd headed west. Hundreds of bikers spilled from fountain’s edge and moved across the park’s plaza. Some people weaved between other bikers or objects in the road. Within the first 200 yards, two bikers collided and slammed head-on into the supporting beam of an archway. A few scratches, maybe.
As the group moved forward, police positioned their squad cars ahead of the herd and blocked intersections. Michael Mikus passed a police officer on his bike and said “thank you.” Other bicyclists followed suit or said “thanks for your patience” to motorists.
Without defined leaders, the herd crept in the direction of its fastest riders. It moved north to Hillcrest and then back south toward downtown. Police completely blocked the streets so hundreds of bicyclists could race down Park Boulevard without consideration for stop signs or red lights. Most riders didn’t wear helmets and some didn’t use any lighting gear. None got citations from police.
“Are they out there encouraging biking? No. They’re just another layer of what we’re doing,” Rossenthol said. “It’s costing the city obviously to do that. It’s basically a parade.”
Police view the ride like a protest and patrol the event in the course of their normal duties, or in other words, without any overtime costs. Asst. Chief Boyd Long said eight officers and a supervisor are dedicated to the event and officers stationed at other districts may assist as the herd passes through their regions. The officers basically escort the herd, but police don’t call it that.
“We’re not providing an escort to these bicycles. I want to make that very clear,” Long said. “The best we can do is manage the event.”
According to Webster’s New World Dictionary, the word escort means “one or more persons accompanying another or others to give protection or show honor.” Some officers recognize the paradox of their enforcement, but the department doesn’t want to appear supportive of the event’s political advocacy.
Passing through downtown, the herd became a larger challenge for police to manage (or escort). It changes direction almost every block and can run into already severe traffic congestion. The herd came to a halt in some places with little room to pass through. Some pedestrians started filming the ride with their cell phones, some cheered and other used cursory language to express their frustrations.
In other cities with Critical Mass rides, the antagonism between riders and motorists has erupted in fights. In San Diego, police have dealt with some riders who vandalized cars, but there have been no fights. On Friday, police reported no arrests related to the ride but some people in the herd are recognizing the danger of its growing popularity.
Four days before Friday’s Critical Mass, about 20 riders met in Rebecca’s Coffee house in South Park to talk about the herd moving toward dangerous routes or activity. In the previous month, the herd went over the Coronado Bridge and others have wanted to go on freeways. The group of “veteran and conscientious” riders decided to create a small flyer and distribute hundreds of copies to riders on Friday.
“Riding over the Coronado Bridge is bad for Critical Mass,” the flyer said. “Riding up the bridge may only invite negative repercussions to this community bike ride. We, as a mass, do not need that.”
Although the event has no formal leadership, there are veteran riders who tend to police the herd and advocate for a safe run. A young City Heights resident named Ken is one of those people who stand out in the crowd. He arrived at the fountain before most, helped hand out flyers and put his body in the way of traffic to keep other riders safe. Ken would not provide his last name, saying he feared retaliation from San Diegans with a strong dislike for Critical Mass riders.
As the herd chaotically left downtown and traveled toward Point Loma along Harbor Drive, it became stretched so thin that police could not block all of its intersections. Riders were left to cautiously enter intersections and block traffic until more of the herd could catch up to block it completely.
On the southern edge of Point Loma, Critical Mass came to a halt. The herd couldn’t decide which direction it wanted to go and it started to fragment. Police didn’t know who to follow, but the main group eventually decided to head north to Ocean Beach. In Ocean Beach, the police presence disappeared for a while so Ken pedaled forward and helped block intersections. Ken denied that he was a leader of the herd.
“We’re just trying to keep it chill,” he said.
Upon exiting Ocean Beach, the police caught up with the herd’s leading riders and helped guide a route through Mission Valley toward the Fashion Valley Mall. It was around the mall that Mimi Alameddin ended up getting separated from the herd, which can be a risky position.
“We do need to address the issue that we have no bike lanes in San Diego or the bike lanes are not sufficient,” Rossenthol said. “You’re very vulnerable riding on a single bike.”
Alameddin got back to Balboa Park safely but it wasn’t the ending she wanted. Most of the riders ended up heading slightly farther east and riding up Texas Street toward the park.
“I think there were a lot more people there tonight than any I’ve ever been at,” Alameddin said. “I don’t think [police] were as attentive as they’ve been in previous runs. I think they would direct traffic better and I saw that a lot people were getting hurt tonight. I saw at least five people fall.”
By 11 p.m., when Critical Mass had ended for most riders, police had reported no major incidents or injuries related to the event. It had been one of the longest rides, taking some bicyclists across roughly 31 miles of city streets. Next month will probably include more first-time riders and police will have to tackle another event with its chaotic directions and unpredictable outcomes.