Critical Mass:20 … Welcome to San Francisco!

When I moved to SF in August of 1997, I didn’t know anybody or anything. Looking back, I see myself back then as a soft-skinned rube (which I was) who had landed into an alien land of an edgy, left-leaning city full of kooks, freaks, radicals, burners, and all manner of people from all corners of the globe and economic scale. Boom times were happening back then, and not just for the dot coms and investment banks. Burning Man had just had a wild week in the desert and gained national attention exactly a year before my arrival. Back East, it was a blip on the CNN feeds. (here’s a little video taste of the Cacophony Society’s Burning Man 1996). And only a month prior to my landing in SF, an entity called Critical Mass had been harassed and roughed up by Mayor Willie Brown and the SFPD. (see a video of this event here).

I only knew about Critical Mass from picking up the latest copy of the SF Bay Guardian my first ever Wednesday in the City. They had an intense photo of cyclists getting arrest, their bikes impounded, for no real reason than being in a huge bike ride that defied any type of control. Being a cyclist in the Southeast, which meant that I rarely rode on paved roads for fear of being killed by car drivers who felt that they owned ALL of the pavement, I was instantly inspired by Critical Mass.

So, on the last Friday of August 1997, I hopped a MUNI bus down to Justin Herman Plaza to see what the hell this monthly activity was all about. I didn’t have my bike. I didn’t know anyone who would loan me one, and I couldn’t afford to rent one. So I showed up to find thousands of cyclists, piles of riot cops, media and cop helicopters, and a general sense of fun an celebration. I walked through the mass of riders, waiting to wander off into the city to cause mayhem with the Friday car commute home, with amazement. I’d never seen so many bikers in my life.

People handed me flyers about Critical Mass. It was leaderless. It had no route. I asked riders to not be angry or be ass holes with the car drivers. It talked about corking to block the cars so that the ride could get through and stay massed up. And, most importantly, it stressed that the bikers have as much fun as possible.

As the ride left the plaza, with riot cops in tow, I vowed to make the September ride next month. I figured out how to get my bike shipped to SF and, after a month or so of being totally afraid of riding in traffic (I stuck to sidewalks at first), I became traffic. And that September Critical Mass was a birthday mass. And the October CM was a costumed ride. What a fun time!!!

This year marks 20 years of Critical Mass. It started in San Francisco, and is now a model for cyclists across the globe. As spring comes to the Bay, forces are at work to make this coming September ride be the most memorable one yet. I won’t go into details yet, but I am proud to be part of the Welcoming Committee for CM:20.

So much has changed with regards to cycling in SF since that month when Willie Brown decided he controlled Critical Mass. Cycling has practically become a mainstream activity here, with streets like Valencia St. becoming models of just how bike friendly sections are now. With bike lanes, bike parking, parklets, and a bike shop every block, the City now has more cyclists then ever before.

So I look forward to bringing that edge back into focus this September. But Critical Mass’s edge is mostly secondary to the amazing power of celebration and unity that I also saw 15 years ago. As things get ramped up for the birthday week, expect another wild ride that last Friday of September. And, like always, it will be leaderless and unplanned!