Sunday, September 23, 2012

Critical Mass: Legal, joyful and fun

by Michelle Stenzel

It turns out, everything I always thought about Critical Mass was pretty much wrong.

Before this year, my only exposure to this monthly event was occasionally seeing the hundreds of people pass on their bicycles, while I was walking on the sidewalk or sitting on my front stoop. The Mass participants always looked like they were having fun, and I enjoyed returning their friendly greetings of “Happy Friday!” 

There's a lot of love shared during Critical Mass rides. (Photo: Bike Walk Lincoln Park)
And yet, I refrained from ever joining the ride, nagged by these thoughts:
  1. It’s an illegal activity and I don’t want to be part of that;
  2. It creates traffic jams for car drivers, who get really mad, and I don’t want to be the target of their anger;
  3. It’s a free-for-all ride that’s spontaneous, with an unplanned route, and who knows when they leave, and where they go?
Wrong, wrong and wrong!

After I decided that I can’t be a true advocate in the bicycling community without getting familiar with this well-known group, I looked into the details, joined a few rides, and guess what?

1/ Critical Mass is a legal activity.

I already knew that bicyclists have the right to be on the street are required to ride on the street. We also have the right to take up the entire lane of a street if necessary for safety. There’s no limit on the number of bicyclists on a street, of course, just like there isn’t for cars. So, when a few hundred or thousand decide to ride on one street all at once, no problem!

If that doesn’t convince you, get this: Chicago police officers ride with every Critical Mass, and it’s not to enforce laws against bicyclists, but to help keep the Critical Mass participants safe. Thank you, CPD!

2/ Critical Mass causes some motorized traffic back up, but most drivers are fine with it.

I was pleased to see that the vast majority of drivers in their cars waiting for the Mass to pass were smiling, waving and honking in support at all of us riding by on our bikes. There are also many high fives, and return shouts of “Happy Friday!” Sure, once in a while I saw a car driver looking a little annoyed, and I even saw a one-fingered salute, but those were FAR outnumbered by the support and positive feedback.

3/ Critical Mass is a regularly scheduled event, with a website and routes posted ahead of time.

It’s every last Friday of the month, leaving Daley Plaza in the Loop around 6:00 pm, year round. The web site is  No charge for admission. No helmet or Lycra required.

But having those assumptions proven wrong was not what most surprised me. Instead it was this: Riding in Critical Mass is very, very fun. 

Part of the joy stems from all the happy vibes generated by the smiles, waves and greetings between those on bikes and everyone else. But for me, since I’m used to riding my bike on the streets of Chicago alone, it’s just a welcome change to be surrounded instead by hundreds of others who understand the trials I go through each day in the bike lane, and who are celebrating that one day a month when we truly reach a critical mass.

Join in. It’s open to everyone. Everyone. Sure, there are many young hipsters, and that’s fantastic! If you’re not a young hipster, you should come anyway. This is a group that follows the philosophy of being “radically inclusive” and they mean it. 

The next ride is Friday, September 28. It’s the 15th anniversary of Chicago's Critical Mass, and it’s sure to be a party. See you there!

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