The Chain Gang

I was late for Critical Mass on June 28, so I went looking for it, which turned out to be a little like finding my dad in the supermarket. I knew that I could move faster than my target--a group of more than a hundred people on bicycles, snaking through the city on an improvised path. But that still left me to check every aisle of the urban grid, and on my own set of pedals.

After an hour, I spotted a cop walking out of a Subway on East Lake Street, near the river, and stopped to ask him if he knew where the bicycle protest might be. "Lake and Portland," he said, getting into his car. Then he shouted after me, "Wait, they just went north on Chicago."

Soon I caught up with the whirring mass on Lyndale and began pedaling along with the usual mix of "Massers": racers lying low on recumbent cycles, anarchists hoisting the Jolly Roger on "high" bikes, a little girl on a banana seat. In Mozambique, people riding bicycles are said to have jinga, a way of moving in style. But everyone's jinga is different in this conflux: the couriers, who kept Mass going through the slush season, were stretched and measured; the BMX kids, who presumably know a good thing when it passes their doorstep, were tight and rapid.

What always strikes me about this parade is its quiet, a gap in rush-hour racket that absorbs even the clink of chains, the shouts to passersby. The effect might explain why participants prefer to joke with--rather than preach at--people they pass. On a previous ride, when the cyclists glided past a man looking under the hood of his overheated sedan, one rider couldn't resist yelling: "Time to get a bike!"

That's about as didactic as this roving protest gets. Though against automobile traffic in both the physical and philosophical sense, Critical Mass is a ride first and foremost, an exercise in guerrilla leisure conceived ten years ago in San Francisco and duplicated across the planet, from Tel Aviv to Sydney. The name was lifted from Ted White's 1992 documentary Return of the Scorcher, in which one interviewee described the bike buildup and spontaneous group forays across the busy intersections of Beijing as "critical mass."

Now a local variant occurs on the last Friday of every month, kicking off at around 5:00 p.m. in Loring Park. None of the riders I talked to is sure exactly when the idea was set in motion here, but everyone knows the movement shifted into high gear in 1997, when hundreds of cyclists poured onto Nicollet Mall to defy a bicycle ban. Since then, a core of 30 to 40 riders has stuck it out. In recent months, however, Minnesota Critical Mass has seen an attendance spike, with an average of 100 participants--making it one of the largest events of its kind in the country. And the ride is drawing newcomers by the score.

"It's an exhilarating feeling to ride on some of the streets where we're most vulnerable and feel absolutely safe," says Jason Goray, a Web developer who joined the Mass in April. "I never realized how much tension I carry around when I ride; the feeling that a car could take you out at any point."

This exorcism inevitably backs up traffic and irritates weary motorists, but Goray doesn't like the word protest. Like many riders, he believes the movement's civilly disobedient slogan--"We are not blocking traffic. We are traffic"--is an assertion, not a dare. And during the June Mass, most onlookers expressed amusement when, in the intersection of Lake Street and Lyndale Avenue South, riders stopped, dismounted, and held up their bicycles like Cro-Magnon brandishing hunted elk.

This signature gesture struck an old chord in me. When I first saw it, in April, I was transported to a bike ride I took eight years ago while living in New Orleans. I had stopped at a red light in the Treme neighborhood, and a sports car pulled up behind me and honked. One-way traffic was rushing from the right, so there was nowhere to go. I ignored the driver. So he began moving forward, pushing me into traffic. Without thinking, I got down, grabbed the bicycle, and raised it above my head as if I were going toss it through his windshield.

You can get killed for that sort of thing in New Orleans, so I eventually stood down. He drove past, closely and slowly. A few blocks later, I recognized his car, parked in front of an abandoned church that I had heard was drug-dealer territory. In the middle of the street stood the driver with a few friends, apparently waiting for me. As I pedaled closer, I was shot through with fear and adrenaline.  

"What I ought to do is wrap that bike around your neck," the driver said as I rode past.

Then the following words came out of my mouth: "I have as much right to be on the road as you."

What I did seems absurd now; there I was, a white boy addressing a group of black guys and invoking my "rights." But it caught them off guard. Their only response was silence.

Having worked in a bicycle shop for eight years, I can tell you that anyone who rides in any city anywhere has endured the same humiliation, the same rush of fear, the same elation at not giving in.

Earlier this year, in fact, a similar alchemy of feeling helped galvanize the local Critical Mass. On a perilously icy Sunday in early March, a half-dozen riders participated in a "Minimass" outside an auto show at the Minneapolis Convention Center, then took off onto Washington Avenue, switched into the right lane, and began riding two abreast for safety. This formation is perfectly legal in Minnesota (Massers will quote you the relevant statute: 169.222, Subdivision 4, Section C). But the driver of a red Corvette didn't appear to agree or care, revving his engine behind them, even though the other lanes were open.

"We didn't want to start anything," says Tim Hayes, who says cycling conditions were already hazardous enough. "But when I caught up to him, I pulled up on the sidewalk and said, 'You've got to give us respect.'"

According to the riders, a passenger in the car opened his window and spat at one of the riders. Then the Corvette ran the red. When the bicycles caught up to the vehicle at the 11th Avenue light, the driver got out of his car, walked around it, and began threatening Hayes. Before taking off again, the motorist shoved another rider, Brett Stephen, into the back quarter panel of an oncoming Subaru Outback.

"This was my first real experience of seeing road rage," says Hayes. "I remember the faces of the drivers, their mouths were agape. Cars pulled over on the side of the street, obviously calling the police. So we surrounded the Corvette. But before the cops came, he pulled away and drove right onto 35W."

Hayes says people around him had to dial 911 three times before a squad car showed. He claims two people who reached a dispatcher were asked, "Well, was another car involved?"

"This guy almost killed a friend," Hayes says. "That's why I ride in Critical Mass: because, for that hour, you can feel safe."


Spooked by the Washington Avenue incident, members of the local Mass e-mail list agreed to start a legal fund for the next ride, democratically administered and officially dubbed the "Metamucil Jar of Justice." Hayes became temporary treasurer, and he recalls collecting $32 the morning of March 29.

"March was an ambush," he says now. It started out well enough that afternoon: The air was warm, the turnout was good (between 45 and 75 riders), and Critical Mass co-founder Chris Carlsson was in town from San Francisco, riding a borrowed tandem with his daughter.

But as soon as an armada of blue appeared, including at least six cruisers, one rider turned to another and said, "I dibs the 32 bucks!"

By all accounts, the police met the Mass a half-block away from Loring Park and instructed cyclists to ride single-file. The riders proceeded to do just that up to West 14th Street, where officers began forcibly confiscating unregistered bikes.

"They had loudspeakers saying, 'This is illegal,'" says Jared Lodge, who had bought his bike for the ride the day before. "I didn't want to be there. But as soon as we got on the street--any direction we'd go, there was a police car. It was kind of surreal, because we were going so slow."

On Third Avenue, Lodge was in front of the Mass when it passed through a green light. As is customary with Mass rides, mainly for safety reasons, the dozens of cyclists continued on through when the light turned red.

Before they reached Sixth Street, Lodge heard the screech of police-car rubber and looked back to see an officer's hands reaching for him. Witnesses allege that the officer knocked over two other bicycles in the process of tackling Lodge and sending him to the street face first. "I could tell I was injured because there was blood on my face," Lodge says.

The cyclist was later dropped off at Hennepin County Medical Center, where he received treatment for injuries, including stitches for his nose and a cast for his sprained wrist. "The officer just opened the door, took off the cuffs, gave me a ticket, and drove off," Lodge says, laughing. "My sweatshirt was still in the front seat. It was like a bad date or something."  

When the pepper spray had settled and the tickets were dispensed, two riders had been arrested and charged with obstructing the legal process. Eighteen bicycles had been seized and tossed onto a flatbed truck. (Most were later retrieved from the Minneapolis Police Property Warehouse.)

Shaken and angry, Massers met twice with members of the Minneapolis City Council and Mayor R.T. Rybak to express their grievances. The mayor seemed receptive, and he showed support by contributing a wrinkled dollar to the Jar of Justice. (Police Chief Robert Olson refused to fork over.) What the cyclists essentially told local officialdom was that the ride would continue no matter what they did.

"There's an understanding on the part of the council and the mayor that these are basically law-abiding kids," says Sixth Ward council member Dean Zimmermann. "Their agenda is my agenda: They're trying to promote a basically healthy activity."

April 26 was the "Revenge Ride," and Zimmermann made a point of attending. This time more than 300 participants turned out, many dressed as pirates. The police cruisers kept their distance. One officer even asked, "Are you okay?" when Lodge experienced a minor wipeout. (A pal had tried to steal his sword.)

Bold with breadth, riders near the front of the Mass considered entering I-94 via Huron Boulevard, but most of the riders wisely voted to steer clear. Later, in a climactic surge of cheering, riders swarmed onto West Lake Street and rode against traffic en route to Hennepin Avenue South. Police later showed a videotape of this scene to the Minneapolis Bicycling Advisory Board, who recommended distributing copies to members of the city council.

"We feel that the vast majority isn't trying to start a confrontation," maintains Deputy Chief Gregory Hestness, who passed along the videos. "But there is that element, and they can be a hazard."

In the warm months since the busts, the political momentum of Critical Mass hasn't abated. Riders can take credit for a Minneapolis amendment passed in June, written by Zimmermann and fellow council member Dan Niziolek, that repeals the city's bicycle licensing ordinance. The law had required that all bikes be registered, ostensibly to aid in retrieving stolen vehicles, but it had effectively been used as a pretense for harassment--as was the case on March 29.

More recently, the authorities seem to have had a more hands-off policy with Critical Mass. On May 31, Minneapolis dispatched bicycle cops, whose presence near the front of ride seemed to ensure that stoplights would be observed (at the head of the pack, at least), and that cyclists wouldn't venture into oncoming traffic. The police also coaxed riders away from "corking" traffic--that is, physically preventing cars from breaking up the flow of bikes. (I was parked for just this purpose when one officer rode up and said, "Taking a little rest, are we?")

Massers resented the implication that they're an accident waiting to happen, that they need protection from cars or vice versa. (The reaction of most riders could be summed up by what one woman near me said to a cop: "We really don't need you here.")

The giant, wormlike collective remained buoyant, however. On that same ride, the riders had left the police at the border of St. Paul and jokingly welcomed them back upon returning to Minneapolis. "How did you find us?" somebody quipped.

On the July 26 ride, a tour of public gardens, the police disappeared altogether. It turned out that Massers and city council staff had met with representatives of law enforcement the day before, and all sides expressed reservations about the continued police presence. Inspector Robert Allen, who whipped the Minneapolis bicycle police into shape ten years ago, cited the cost of policing and voiced his concern that, without being able to issue tickets, the force's presence would simply lend legitimacy to the ride.

"We just didn't have the people," says Deputy Chief Hestness, who was at the meeting. "It takes away from other assignments."

For the most part, Hestness says, the ride went off without incident. The police received only one call, about an obstruction at Nicollet and Lake. And as this reporter observed firsthand, when an ambulance sounded its siren on Como Avenue, the bicycles parted ways.


Perhaps this perfectly titled movement has found safety in numbers. But whether that fact vindicates the cause, or proves the rule of the mob, might depend on where you sit in the debate over automobiles, which have had a predatory relationship with bikes ever since Henry Ford gave up bicycle mechanics in 1899 to pursue the commercial possibilities of the internal combustion engine.  

"There's no conceivable way that the world, let alone this country, can go on using gas the way we have," says Sam Tracy, a local bike mechanic who contributed a chapter about Minneapolis to Critical Mass: Bicycling's Defiant Celebration, which will be published next month by AK Press to commemorate the ride's tenth anniversary. "The ecological and political argument is inescapable."

Bikes operate at about a fifth of the energy consumption of walking humans, according to journalist Stuart S. Wilson. In fact, they are the most energy-efficient machine or creature on the planet. By contrast, even the most fuel-efficient car will burn vast quantities of petroleum, a substance derived from the fossilized remains of extinct species, a resource that, poignantly enough, won't last forever.

Meanwhile, few Americans doubt that our dependence on oil motivates our perverse and fateful alliance with the totalitarian theocracies of the Middle East. When hijackers ignited jet fuel over two American cities last fall, many began to suspect that buying SUVs to protect our children might be part of the problem.

Cars produce more air pollution than any other human activity. If everyone on earth drove, we'd probably all be dead by now. To get a glimpse of our future, look no further than Los Angeles, Manila, or any other giant garage with the motor still running.

So forget about the romance of independent speed for a second--the road trips, the backseat sex--and think about what you actually use your ride for: wading through traffic, waiting for a parking space, perhaps so you can get to the gym to ride a stationary bicycle. If Minnesota's light-rail advocates got the moon, and five downtown streets, they still couldn't solve the problem of congestion.

Critical Mass offers nothing more utopian than a glimpse of how things might be different--a demonstration in every sense. Besides the drop in decibels, the ride lets you observe firsthand how quickly bicycles get around once traffic is rearranged for their convenience. Anyone who hasn't commuted in China will find this effect jarring. The flow of cyclists resembles nothing so much as a school of fish.

"It is a poetic response to cars," Tracy says. "We're already put in a position to do things we're not supposed to do--the laws don't really consider us. But then the next Monday or the next Saturday, when you're going down Portland or Park, you become just as marginalized again, having to watch for the car doors and potholes. Then you look forward to that celebration at the end of the month."


The end of the July ride was more surreal than usual. Exhausted and hot, riders coasted into the lot behind the Horn Towers high-rise--where Ofcr. Melissa Schmidt had been killed the following week--and were welcomed by a live jazz quintet. Between tours of the nearby community garden, one of the few left on city land, the Mass basked in the melancholy strains of "St. Louis Blues."

"I don't know what the reason for the ride was," said graying trumpeter Gene Adams during a break. "Do you?"

"It's for sustainability," said a man in cutoffs.

Satisfied with that, the band launched into Woody Shaw's "It All Comes Back to You."

And so it does. I write this rant as a lapsed cyclist, one who has been issued three parking tickets in as many days. This morning, though, I decided to unlock my bicycle and join the early rush hour. I felt very much the weirdo riding down the yellow lines of Hennepin Avenue from Loring Park to a bike lane some five blocks away. Then I saw a person in a yellow chicken suit, waving orange flags to remind drivers of the new parking lot below Block E. And it dawned on me: Maybe I'm not the one who's crazy.

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