On the last Friday of each month, San Francisco cyclists congregate at the Ferry Building for Critical Mass. sfcriticalmass.org Typically, it leaves around 6:30. The route varies and the number of riders vary. There are always new faces and many familiar ones too. It began in SF in 1992 and now exists in over 300 cities around the world. I believe Critical Mass originally began in response to the overwhelming lack of infrastructure for cyclists. Drivers had little awareness around sharing the road and gave little to no credence to cyclists. Unfortunately, many of these issues still exist.
I’ve been doing CM for about 6 years. It’s a San Francisco institution and I wanted to learn more about it. When I first started, it was definitely intimidating. I wasn’t the most experienced biker but I wanted to at least try it once. I had heard it was a protest of sorts and borderline anarchy but the few times I had randomly caught a glimpse of it around the City, the cyclists seemed to be having a blast. When I started riding in Mass in 2006, I saw a lot more aggression than I do today. I witnessed multiple arguments between cars and cyclists but I never saw anyone throw a punch or a cyclist hit or vandalize a car or a car hit a bike, although I know there have been many instances of confrontations throughout the years. To me, it seemed like there was an equal amount of antagonism from both sides. Today, SF Critical Mass seems to be a kinder, gentler shade of its volatile past. I don’t perceive the same degree of hostility from the cyclists or drivers anymore. It seems CM has been somewhat accepted by SF as one of those wacky SF traditions. Maybe because of its broader acceptance attitudes about CM have softened a bit or maybe CM is a bit tamer because SF is finally implementing some infrastructure to accommodate cyclists. OR—I like to think that the bubbles from a certain someone on a pink bubble bike have had a happy, calming, giggle-inducing, anger-diffusing effect. 🙂
Politics and social causes aside, I’ve always thought of CM as more of a bike parade than anything else. To me, it’s a celebration of bikes, of movement, of being outdoors, of sharing a common interest, of seeing SF in a new and exciting way. When I first began attending the ride, I lacked confidence in my biking ability, my endurance and my knowledge of how to navigate around SF. I’ll admit, I’m pretty much directionally dyslexic. I’ve always said, it’s a good thing I live in SF. If I get lost and go too far, I’ll get wet. Get it? Because it’s surrounded by water on 3 sides. ;P CM gave me confidence. Not only is there safety in numbers but I’ve biked places in SF with CM I never knew existed or at least, didn’t know how to get there. Because of Mass, I know I can bike 40 miles around SF, from downtown, through the Mission, Castro, Marina, clear out to Ocean Beach and back downtown. I can take care of myself. I trust my abilities, my strength, my endurance and my knowledge of how to get around SF. And I’ve made a lot of friends over the past 6 years. I’ve become more outgoing socially. More aware of the interests and issues people connect with. Critical Mass is liberating and has empowered me to discover my own path through SF and through life. For all of these reasons, I am grateful that it exists and remains a tradition the last Friday of every month in SF.
It might sound silly to some but on my birthday which just happened to land exactly on the last Friday of April, more than anything else, I wanted to ride Critical Mass. No fancy dinners. No need for wasting a ton of money on an expensive outing. No need for presents. Instead, I got the best gift of all. My brother came for a visit from New York to help me celebrate. He’s been aware of my biking and bubbling habit for some time. So he wasn’t at all surprised when I told him what I really wanted to do for my birthday was have him join me on Critical Mass and share with him something I enjoy so much. I wanted Mass to know that he was on the ride and to make him feel welcome. My brother was definitely a tad uncertain about the whole thing just as I was on my first Mass ride. So to break the ice, I put a sign on his bike that said, “I’m Bubblegirl’s brother!” He got quite a kick out of all the people saying, “Hello bubble brother!” ;P And on my Pinkie, I attached a sign that said, “Wish me happy birthday!” It turned out to be a great idea because I got more happy birthday wishes that night than all of my birthdays combined. In fact, even months later, I am still getting random happy birthday wishes from people when they see me ride by.
But besides the happy birthdays, it was a thrill of a ride. I’ve led Mass only briefly before but because everyone knew it was my birthday, the hundreds of bikers encouraged me to lead the ride the entire night! Since I was in charge and ride a heavy bike, I opted for a relatively flat route without a lot of hills. I also got to share many of my favorite spots with Mass like North Beach and the Palace of Fine Arts and had more than a few people after the ride tell me that it was their all-time favorite Mass ride.
Beginnings of my CM birthday ride.
CM birthday ride along the Embarcadero.
The timing of Mass’s arrival at the Palace couldn’t have been more perfectly timed. When we biked into the enormous iconic rotunda, we unintentionally crashed a wedding proposal. They were less than thrilled at first but the music, bubbles, hoorays and celebratory nature of Critical Mass ended up giving them the best proposal they could have never planned.
My brother got a kick out of listening to all of the comments and compliments directed at me from the other cyclists, pedestrians and drivers about the route, my bike, bubbles and birthday celebration. He confessed later how he thought it was exceptionally hilarious that not only did I lead Mass all night but that at one point when I briefly paused to refill my bubble machines with juice, the entire Mass of several hundred people stopped to wait for me.
After about 3 hours of riding, Mass was beginning to dwindle a bit and I wanted to introduce my brother to another type of ride with my skater friends who do the Friday Night Skate every, yes every Friday night. So I redirected CM and started heading back towards the Ferry Building at which point 1 of the bike police rode up next to me and asked me where Mass was heading? I joked with him that I wasn’t in charge of Mass but I that I was heading towards the Ferry Building and didn’t know where all of the cyclists following behind me were going. As I winked, I told him I had been trying to lose them all night. ;P Since Mass is still somewhat of a rogue event, I didn’t really want to admit I was “in charge.”
The Friday Night Skate (FNS), led by David Miles, the Godfather of Skating, also starts at the Ferry Building but leaves at 9. The Godfather pushes a modified baby stroller equipped with a sound system and skates along with a group of 30-100+ people. They take the same 12 mile route around SF and have been for the past 26 years! There are several breaks along the route which leads you past Pier 39, Fort Mason, the Palace of Fine Arts, the Marina, through the Broadway and Stockton Tunnels and down to Union Square where the perform the Thriller Dance and a couple other line dances on skates which delights the lucky tourists who happen to be there at the perfect time. Much to my surprise, I was able to talk my brother into doing a line dance. My sides ached from laughing so hard. 😀
Bubble brother attempts a line dance. ;P
After that, the skaters head down to the nearby escalator at the end of the Powell Street cable car turn-around and perform some thrilling tricks backwards down the escalator that have to be seen to be believed. Next we headed towards what the long-time skaters have named, the concrete jungle which is south of Market Street. By then, I think my brother was appreciating each rest break more and more. Eventually the route ends up on the Embarcadero and we finished around midnight back at the Ferry Building.
My brother summarized the evening by saying, “That was the craziest, most fun thing I’ve done in probably 10 years.” ;P He was a real trooper. My GPS tallied 35 miles and 7+ hours of biking.
It was a great birthday, probably the best I’ve ever had because I got to share what I love to do with my brother and several hundred other people. 🙂