It was to be my first ride with Critical Mass but the weather forecast was not promising. A big thunderstorm was set to descend upon the city and as the departure time of 6:30 p.m. approached, it started to look increasingly menacing.
I’d wanted to attend a Critical Mass ride before but hadn’t managed to make this monthly ritual wherein cyclists go on a group ride in an attempt to celebrate cycling. For some it’s about reclaiming the streets. Personally, I want streets to be safer for all road users (particularly those who are exposed to the elements) but I don’t want to aggravate what’s already a tense dance between wary partners.
By the time I got to the parkette where the group was meeting, I could tell that the rain was coming at would at best delay our departure and at worst derail the whole event. I locked up my bike and headed over to the group to see what the general consensus was – would we still try to head out? People were determined to ride but would do so safely.
The Rain Ends … When Do We Begin?
Like the rainstorm simulation activity I did so many times at summer camp, the rain slowed from foot stomping, through clapping to snapping. As it slid further towards hand rubbing, the sounds of bells and whistles started to pipe up. I guessed this was a notification among group members that departure was guaranteed and nigh. It was also a rallying cry – soon we would head out into battle!
You could tell that people were ready to depart but we needed someone (didn’t we?) to figuratively cut the ribbon, smash the bottle against the bike frame, or release the starting gun.
I heard rumblings from the regulars, “Let’s go! What are we waiting for?”
Another first-timer asked me, “Who is the leader?”
“I think it’s leaderless,” I responded. He replied, “Everything needs a leader.”
I wasn’t sure if I agreed with that because I liked the idea of a collective that didn’t require one person to be in charge in order for it to be effective but I had to agree that unless someone started moving, we might just be there all night, caught in democratic inertia.
And then it happened. Hoots and hollers, bells and whistles sounding we slipped off the curb, onto the pavement and set off.
The pace was slower than I had anticipated – we weren’t so much riding the roads as stalking them.
The experienced riders assumed valuable positions at the front and the back of the ride. Others acted as barriers at intersections to ensure that we all got through as a group.
We slinked through the streets, gathering lots of attention from passersby. They stopped in their tracks, yanked out phones and started snapping shots.
Some people knew what it was and called out, “Way to go, Critical Mass! Safe ride everybody!”
Others wanted to know what we were doing, “What is this?”
A Ride-By at City Hall
At one point we rode to City Hall and the cyclists headed up a large ramp towards the two towers. I could see them gathered at the top of the ramp and then the gates opened and they streamed through.
I followed the group up there – intrigued to see how they penetrated the gates and what their current plan was.
There was a sign on the gate and it was instructions for how to open it. As such, nothing about “No Trespassing” and no bolt cutters required.
The group was doing loops around the rotunda in the centre of the two towers. A joyride with a message: We’re here.
“What’s going on here?” I turned to see a security guard for the city. He seemed genuinely curious so I told him it was a monthly event to raise the profile of cycling in the city.
He suddenly snapped, “Did you guys write the City an email to let them know you were coming? Or did you just decide to bust in here and mess things up?”
I was not sure how to respond. I had seen the sign on the gate that gave instructions to come into the area so I knew we were allowed to be there but our actions still felt provocative.
He wanted to know who organized it. The fact that there was no organizer felt at once like a saving grace and a liability.
Within a few minutes the group had all descended back down the ramp and gathered at the bottom. The security guard seemed pleased with himself.
Making My Departure
I had read that the ride never follows a set route. The closer I got to the front, the truth of this was confirmed. “Left? Right?” And after an hour of riding, “Why don’t we go past someone’s house – we can drop them off?”
As the group started to head south from College Street into Kensington Market I decided to continue west. I called out good-bye and rung my bell as I waved and moved in my own direction. They called out good-bye, thanks for coming, see you later … Yes, I believe you will.