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Cycling with Critical Mass: San Francisco

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Pedaling around Civic Center Plaza, a carousel of exotic creatures rises and falls with the landscape. Reggae and rock music blares from speakers bungied onto rear racks. Bike bells ring, car horns complain, and onlookers hoot and holler and wave as over a thousand cyclists pass by. I turn into the plaza and stop to get a better look: there’s a guy in pink bikini bottoms, a guy with a long brown braid sticking straight out, a musical fish bike with cds for scales, and a lot of Pippi Longstocking socks. I’m in the middle of a Dr. Seuss bike parade. Its rush hour on the last Friday of the month in San Francisco, and this is Critical Mass.

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Pedaling around Civic Center Plaza, a carousel of exotic creatures rises and falls with the landscape. Reggae and rock music blares from speakers bungied onto rear racks. Bike bells ring, car horns complain, and onlookers hoot and holler and wave as over a thousand cyclists pass by. I turn into the plaza and stop to get a better look: there’s a guy in pink bikini bottoms, a guy with a long brown braid sticking straight out, a musical fish bike with cds for scales, and a lot of Pippi Longstocking socks. I’m in the middle of a Dr. Seuss bike parade. Its rush hour on the last Friday of the month in San Francisco, and this is Critical Mass.

 

 

There seem to be as many reasons to ride as there are riders, and a lot of bikes are sporting signs: Bikes not Bombs, Climate Justice, No War for Oil. I don’t have any signs, but if I did, they’d say “Biking for a Crazy Good Time,” and “Biking Around Town Without Getting Mowed Down by a Car.”

 

 

A little while ago, I sat on a wall and watched how this free-for-all pulled itself together. A little after five, cyclists begin to swarm into Justin “Pee Wee” Herman Plaza from all directions. Beginning in 1992, Critical Mass has now become a San Francisco institution, and a great way to see the town. This is organized coincidence has spread to over 300 cities worldwide, each with its own local flavor. The BMX kids show off their tricks, grassroots political groups sell t-shirts, friends hang out and chat. The local news truck is there, cops watch from the fringe. The bikes keep coming until well after six, and then, without notice, the mass begins to move, filling Steuart Street for six blocks. Car traffic is gridlocked. Horns of protest are met with whoops and hollers. This act of civil disobedience has real potential for trouble, but I see nothing more than a few pissed off motorists, some drunks, and a few joints being passed. Anarchy? Absolutely not. No shots are fired, no buildings razed, no fires lit. There are no leaders to arrest. An ever-changing handful of people choose the route, and change it on the fly. Cops on dirt bikes speed down the sidewalks, trying to stay in front of the headless dragon. And everyone on a bike has a good time for a few hours, riding around without fear of becoming road-kill.

 

 

Through the canyons of the financial district we ride, and after a couple of laps around Civic Center Plaza, we head up Market and through The Wiggle, a bike route to Golden Gate Park that skirts around the hills. The police have blocked JFK Drive, so the ride turns north, then east, then north again and up through the Presidio where, by this time, a lot of the riders have bailed. The ride sort of falls apart, so I coast back down through the Presidio and along the Promenade. I’m back at my hotel by nine, exhausted, excited, and still laughing. 

 

September 18, 2023

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