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Situation Not So Critical

By Justin Sondak in News on Sep 25, 2007 11:06PM


Let's be clear: Friday night’s Chicago Critical Mass ride will not be the last. No matter what the veteran masses staffing the ad hoc “Grand Finale Committee” decree, cyclists will keep coming to Daley Plaza the last Fridays of October (Halloween Mass!), November and, barring a citywide emergency or SWAT-style police crackdown, every month after that. Want us to prove it?

Started in San Francisco in 1992, and adopted by Chicago cyclists in '97, Critical Mass has no leaders, no bylaws, and no user manual. The moniker “organized coincidence” seems appropriate. Those thousands of riders drawn downtown in July and the few hundred hearty faithful who tough it out in February share not much more than a love of bikes. Popular vote may determine a route, whether that route is followed often depends on the front of the pack.

The lack of formal structure that attracts so many to circle the Picasso and disrupt your Friday night commute is why Michael Burton chose to make headlines and name this month’s 10th Anniversary Ride “The Last Critical Mass.” Anyone with reliable wheels can join the parade, whether or not they ride respectfully, dream of a world without cars, or care about building a vibrant local cycling culture. And in CCM’s “xerocracy” (a system of freedom through copying ideas), Burton and the “Committee” have no more authority to speak for the Mass than we do. The ride has absorbed, well, masses of new riders. Some get drunk and taunt the police, some are just fighting boredom. It is, in the end, just a ride. But it’s also a space for like-minded people to develop local resources like Cycling Sisters, Working Bikes, West Town Bikes, Break the Gridlock, and Bike Winter. When we started riding CCM six years ago, commandeering Lake Shore Drive for the two-wheeled set seemed like madness. Now the Bike Federation shuts down the road for a sanctioned yearly event.

statue_2007_09.JPGA Tribune reporter joined the group last month, and her impressions were like those of many first-timers — concern, then elation, awe, and a feeling of invincibility. In the end, the police escort turned the group away from the Museum Campus and Northerly Island (prompting a new round of CCM list-serv discussions about Masser-Police relations). Vocalo host Dan Weissmann is devoting the rest of today’s programming to the Critical Mass debate; the cacophony of testimonials is on their site.

We’ve been off-and-on massers these days, sharing many of Burton’s frustrations. But the event’s too big and complex for us to love every minute. We were thrilled to head the pack at the 5th Anniversary Ride, pissed that a group veered onto the Kennedy, relieved to hear no one was hurt, amused to see a rider bring his canoe and float around the Wicker Park fountain, sad to hear a friend’s bike was stolen. Every month is unique, some more unpredictable than others. We’ll certainly be downtown Friday night, spreading “Happy Fridays” to pedestrians wondering what we’re riding for. There are a few things we’d change about the Mass if we could, but we wouldn’t miss this anniversary for the world.

Chicago Critical Mass starts at Daley Plaza, Washington and Dearborn Streets, Friday night sometime after 6 p.m. More information at the CCM website.

Photos by the author.