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For me, riding with Critical Mass on Friday was an easy decision. How could I explain the tricky relationship between bicyclists and police without experiencing the event myself?
Critical Mass is a national movement in metropolitan cities to advocate politically against the use of automobiles. It’s been happening in San Diego since 2003, and has grown to around 1,000 bicyclists taking to the streets on a monthly basis and riding around with disregard for the city’s traffic laws. Police accompany the herd to help preserve the peace.
I packed my road bike on the back of my car and headed to Balboa Park. Yes, I realize the irony of driving to an event that aims to protest the use of automobiles. Other riders drove there, too.
I waited around the park’s big fountain and bicyclists started showing up in twos, threes and fours. I was surprised by the diversity of riders and how many bicyclists said it was their first time doing Critical Mass. A skateboarder and unicyclist also made the journey.
Before attending the event, people told me Critical Mass fit the cultural activity of “hipsters and hippies.” Some bicyclists definitely identified with those groups, but it was a diverse crowd in background and purpose. Many riders wanted to exercise or enjoy a social night with friends, and making a political statement was not their agenda.
Although it’s not an officially sanctioned event by the city, Critical Mass does feel like a parade at times. In some areas of the city — mainly Hillcrest and Ocean Beach — people lined the streets and cheered for the herd. Downtown, it felt more like a protest.
At one point, the herd came to a grind in the Gaslamp District. A taxi and silver Mercedes Benz created a five-foot bottleneck that the entire herd needed to fit through. The driver of the Mercedes was not happy.
“Hey, there are too many of you f***** people on the road!” the driver yelled at the herd.
“Why don’t you go shine your Mercedes?” a rider responded rhetorically. “There are too many of you on the road.”
There were other tense moments when I didn’t know whether a fight was about to break out or an accident would happen. I witnessed bicyclists crash into each other, vehicles slam on their breaks and traffic zip past the herd at lethal speeds. There were a lot of near misses, or near hits, depending on your viewpoint. When the group slowed, the smell of marijuana became more evident.
In Ocean Beach, the chaotic nature of the ride and the lack of leadership became undisputed. The lead bicyclists ended up taking the herd in a circle and connecting with its rear. It took a couple laps for the group to realize what was happening and break away from the circling.
After riding through Ocean Beach and Mission Valley, the group started to fragment more often. It looked like people were splitting from the group and heading home. Others rode up to the late-night windows of fast food restaurants, hankering for munchies. I kept riding with the pack until Texas Street.
Like hundreds of bicyclists around me, I walked up Texas Street heading south. The hill was too steep for me after 20 miles and walking was a nice break. At the top of the hill, many bikers stopped at the nearby liquor store and shared six-packs on the sidewalk. I bet the store owner appreciated that unexpected boost in business.
My ride safely ended in Balboa Park around 11 p.m. I talked with a few more riders who were hanging around the fountain and reliving their treks. I packed up my bike and drove out of Balboa Park — and yes, I understand the irony of driving from Critical Mass.