I went to the first Critical Mass that I know of in Evansville, in 2008. I think three people showed. It was organized by a friend who I knew through our working together to prevent the construction of I-69. We both lived in collective houses that shared food and other resources. I remember that time as being a lot of fun: the way we got food, the way we made income, the ways we passed time together. That’s why I was glad to see people starting up Critical Mass here again. I wanted to be around people who were thinking about how to use the city as something more than a site of routine and drudgery. I was ready for more fun. I’m glad I’ve been going on the ride because I’ve found some of those folks.
Below is an interview with three people who ride at Critical Mass regularly. After the interview are a few of my thoughts on ways people who enjoy Critical Mass might be able spill that joy from into the streets to the homes and workplaces and all the places they lead to in each of our lives.
When and where did you take your first Critical Mass ride?
Cecilia: I first attended a critical mass ride in Huntsville, AL around 2009. After seeing how much fun it was to ride bikes with a large group with such a great cause behind it, I was hooked! When I moved up to Evansville, I realized how much I missed the camaraderie that critical mass brought and began to plan some local CM rides.
Elliot: I rode in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the early 2000’s. I remember at most there being a couple dozen folks. Highlights had to be riders towing a car the length of the rout, and one where we found partially filled paint cans…we spilled them out and then rode around and around leaving different colored tire stripes all over the street.
Chad: All of my Critical Mass rides have been in Evansville, and my first one was probably late summer of 2015.
Where do you think you first heard of Critical Mass?
Cecilia: I believe I first heard of critical mass by way of a small bike shop located in Huntsville, AL (Bicycles, Etc). They used to put on the Huntsville CM rides
Elliot: I used to read Clamor Magazine. I think it’s the first place I heard of most things I’ve found exciting in my life. But I connected with an actual ride from fliers. I miss community bulletin boards being around outside and fliers being everywhere for stuff to do.
Chad: My friend first told me about the rides. Before I could come to one I met a second friend for the first time on a 100 mile ride we did together with the first friend. They had just met each other at Critical Mass a few weeks prior.
What is the significance of the ride being "Critical Mass"?
Cecilia: We call it critical mass because it is important that all bicycle riders group together "mass up" in order to maintain a safe ride. As cyclists, we are already at disadvantage on the road and auto drivers have a hard time seeing only one cyclist. If we ride together, we are easier to notice on the road. Safety for bicycle riders is always the main concern when riding in the street. This is why we ride at the pace we do!
Elliot: I’m not sure. I’ve heard a lot of people having a lot of different opinions about why to consider it “Critical Mass” as opposed to just some group ride. I know the name comes from a movie about alternative energy or something that people biked to after one of the first rides when it was still being called “The Clot” or “Clog”, something... For the people I went with we mostly thought of it as the power of collectivity, like taking the street during any protest. The power of people acting together and that it is critical for people to do that more often.
Chad: The name 'Critical Mass' is significant to me because it symbolizes something a lot of motorists around here don't realize -- that everyone is required to share the road. Some people only realize it when there's a large mass in the road and it's critical that they control their driving. ;)
What are some other actions that you take in your life to counter car-culture? Are any of them also group activities?
Cecilia: I live downtown, so I have it easy when it comes to riding my bike or walking somewhere instead of driving. However critical mass is the only group activity
Elliot: Um, maybe I can’t think of anything directly about countering car culture. Perhaps gardening; I try to do it with people but am bad at organizing that. I guess I sporadically help with land-based projects and homestead-type stuff, and yeah it’s as much about doing something with people as it is about an alternative to “suburban middle class lifestyle” if that might be “car-culture”.
Chad: I enjoy riding to work, restaurants, and shops such as Lowe's when getting small items. I also commute to visit friends when I have the opportunity.
How does the “mass” make decisions (i.e. choosing a route, when to leave, how to interact with traffic, etc.)?
Cecilia: The route is usually made as we ride. Those up front will help out in choosing where we ride, but I like to avoid crossing major roads like 41 for safety reasons. We leave around 7 on the last Friday of every month, but I like to give an extra 15 mins for the stragglers though, because every cyclist matters, so sometimes more like 7:15. We ride in the road and behave like a car by signaling our turns and merging. Because safety is so important, we also cork at intersections, this is when we make a left turn, but the light changes and now cars coming our way have the green light-- in order to have everyone stay as a mass, someone will block/"cork" the incoming traffic by waiting at the intersection. Usually the drivers around Evansville have a positive reaction to seeing CM on a ride, they are typically amused. We have had a bad encounter with a drunk driver going down Franklin last year though, he was yelling at us for blocking the road and wanted to get out of his car and fight us all. (This person had a Sheriff’s Department license plate)
Elliot: This is something I in particular enjoy. I think maybe because Critical Mass isn’t explicitly political, the form of decision making seems more organic. I’m used to groups that refuse to have leaders, and sometimes they get so stifled by their insistence on process to insure some ideological way to make decisions. In Evansville and the few other places I’ve done Critical Mass these decisions have seemed to me comfortably spontaneous. I guess I do get concerned for some of the children riding who fall a great deal behind the group with their care-taker, but even with that people in general tend to stop at some point to let them catch up.
In Knoxville when there weren’t too many people the rides became more like biked-urban exploration and those were really the most random and exciting ones.
Chad: Everyone can voice where they would like to ride, and we usually leave 15 minutes after the Facebook event says we will take off just in case anyone else shows up. A lot of times we will block traffic to allow the mass through intersections, otherwise interactions with traffic are passive and cars are allowed to pass.
Do you like the idea of themed rides? For example, one where riders wear costumes on the October ride coming up, because it’s close to Halloween. Does a certain theme come to mind?
Cecilia: I love the idea! We did do a Halloween costume ride in 2014, but due to the low turnout (3 people), we haven't tried that again, if the weather isn't too bad this Oct, I would like to try the costume theme again. Other things we have done are a midnight mass bike ride, and more recently, a pub ride. We have discussed the possibility of an alley cat race across Evansville, which would be a major undertaking. We are always open to suggestions.
Elliot: Yes. I’ve been to naked rides. I’ve also found it pretty common for individual people to wear shirts supporting this or that cause. I’d like it if there was an issue that the riders over all could rally behind without feeling coerced or excluded. I’d like to think that could be a “Fuck Trump Ride” or a noise demo ride to the jail, or a drag ride. But maybe that should be some separate thing.
Chad: I do like the idea of a themed ride! Last week we all discussed it and normally the October rides do not happen due to the early sunset, cold temperatures, and possibly windy conditions. I've worn some silly outfits to the ride before to show friends how relaxed the ride is. I think it'd be great to do a ride in business formal clothing, but for Halloween anything goes
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I had initially included another question in these interviews. I had asked each person what role, if any, they had in Critical Mass in Evansville. I decided not to include those answers due to my reading two articles. The first, an article from Miami Florida where the police tried to identify “organizers” of the local ride and hold them “liable” for the perceived illegal and dangerous activity of the group (children riding without helmets, obstruction of traffic, etc.) The second, about police spying on and harassing the Critical Mass ride in Portland Oregon. So I asked another question: What is the danger to the government of disparate people riding bikes together?
This turned my curiosity sharply toward what the history of Critical Mass has been politically. I read several websites hosted by enthusiasts of the ride. Each of them seemed to not so much be ambivalent to the question of if Critical Mass is a protest, but were ambiguous as to the answer. Even the Wikipedia page for Critical Mass seems to suggest that for some riders it is a protest for some it isn’t-- that historically it is a ride for fun and safety but fun often contextualized in a time and place of more generalized protest. Protest by default, the same way it is “organized coincidence;” people claiming their right to public space instead of asking that it be given to them. They don’t have to agree as to why or what for, the protest is simply the claiming. Several of these websites pointed out that because Critical Mass is not explicitly a protest is why it can be leaderless and unpermitted (and so fun and spontaneous).
This context is more thoroughly investigated in Social Movements and the Bicycle by Dave Horton. The author traces a line through the histories of “Feminism, Socialism, Anarchism, and Environmentalism.” Horton situates Critical Mass in the 90’s within the varied contexts of the anti-globalization movements. Highlighting in this period the anti-gentrification actions like Reclaim the Streets which involved unpermitted street parties of thousands in which people jackhammered the street and planted trees. As well as anti-infrastructure campaigns like M11 when entire towns barricaded the streets to prevent the leveling of it for a highway. More recently we can find Critical Mass politicized by union members in New York City. They converged outside of the business headquarters they meant to protest and then their ride took a route to swarm at two of the property sites being developed by this business. As well as politicized through criminalization like when in London it was considered a threat to the Olympic spectacle.
The bike like most other things that can be experienced collectively, transports a power not limited to itself. This is what scares the state, because literally and politically they don’t know where the ride is going. It is a tactic that is easily reproduced and a daily object that can be swiftly weaponized to confront harassment, interrupt development, etc. . The cops know this and that is why at the RNC this year they focused the bulk of their force on bike cops as counterinsurgency. Bikes have a “softer” image, but utilized strategically they can be an impenetrable “barricade.” In Evansville in 2013 after the police brutalized a performer at a public event they responded to the general disapproval by promising a friendlier neighborhood police presence on bikes. People who have been to a large protest are likely to know the feeling of being blocked in by bike cops who then pick up their bikes and push you against a wall or down onto the pavement all the while yelling at you to disperse.
The state is always saying one thing and doing another. When it says it is redeveloping Main St with bike lanes to make it more bike friendly what it is actually doing is developing a commercial district dividing some of the poorest neighborhoods in town.
We can push back, and Critical Mass might offer an occasion. I’ve met some of my closest friends at protests. Critical Mass is a reoccurring event where we can get to know people, and talk about the stressful parts of our lives from which Critical Mass is a relief. At times it might also put us in a position to resist those stressors together. In so many other facets of our lives we experience being squeezed over to proverbial curbs; where is the critical mass we need to secure our own space everywhere? The fun of the ride, the joy of play and participation in something “not our own,” something shared, is radical if it is the roots growing up into something libratory, a freedom that is not our own, a freedom that is everyone’s. The road to freedom looks different for everyone. We each can pick a different route.