Thursday
August 24, 2017

Once a month, bikers take back the streets en masse in Masa Crítica

Friday, December 10, 2010

A peaceful army on wheels

Riders line up at the start of Masa Crítica Buenos Aires.

By Pablo Toledo

Herald staff

When you’re riding your bike along a highway (very much an illegal place to be riding on, for starters), there is one sound you definitely don’t want to hear: “psssssss.” After 10 years of flat-free riding, a shard of glass  — a memento of some fender bender, for sure —  had stabbed my rear wheel. Sure enough, I was not carrying a patch kit or spare tube. I was toast.

But I was not on a solo suicide mission to explore Autopista Illia (the short elevated curve at the end of 9 de Julio Avenue) on two wheels: I was part of Masa Crítica Buenos Aires, the local Critical Mass ride. Over 1,000 riders were in on it with me, and as I pulled over to a side I asked one of them if he had been wise enough to carry tools. “Not me, but somebody’s bound to have something.”

Lo and behold, Orange T-shirt  Biker stopped by 10 seconds later, asked what the problem was, gave me a stern “you should know better”  look and offered a choice of either a new tube or a patch. Three more riders joined in to offer a hand, and even a second spare tube. Orange T-shirt proceeded to flip my bike, remove the wheel, replace the tube barehanded, reset the wheel and pump it up faster than Michael Schumacher’s pit crew. Two minutes later we were chasing the other riders, out of the highway and safely on our way for the rest of an afternoon of biking fun. The Mass, I had just learnt, takes care of itself.

we don’t block traffic: we are traffic. In physics, a critical mass is the smallest amount of material needed for a sustained nuclear chain reaction. In the biking world, Critical Mass is a global movement which started in San Francisco in 1992, when a group of fed-up riders tried to raise awareness of how unfriendly the city was to cyclists by the simple act of getting together and riding as a block down the streets.

They first called it a Commuter Clot, but then saw a documentary on how Chinese cyclists negotiate crossroads without signals: they wait for enough bikes to bunch up, and when they have a critical mass of bikers they cross the street as a safe unit. And that’s how Critical Mass rides were born. Soon the number of participants grew to 1,000, and other cities started immitating the event: today, there are CM rides in 300 cities around the world including 6 in Argentina, with Buenos Aires as the pioneer in October 2008.

So what is a CM ride? Simple, and at the same time very complex: cyclists get together in a given place at a given time and take to the streets. Some CM rides decide on a route before they set out, whereas others (including BA’s) simply start pedalling, with whoever happens to be at the front calling out turns and new destinations that the others may or may not follow. It is a benevolent anarchy, or what French philosopher Gilles Deleuze calls a rhizomal structure , with knowledge and decision-making disseminated and with no top-down hierarchies.

A CM ride goes wherever it feels like going for as long as it pleases. Safety in numbers is put to good use here: some bikes block lateral traffic on the crossroads, and the back of the ride acts as a “cork” that keeps cars from getting between the cyclists from behind. There are regular stops to regroup, and when there is trouble (impatient drivers and the like) the mass stops and takes care of the situation as a bulk.

Sounds provocative? CM rides are a pretty controversial subject in the urban cycling world. Some call it a fair response to the conditions of regular city traffic, others say its subversive, irritating ways are actually a disfavour to the cause, and in fact the authorities of cities like New York and Boston have tried to crack down on CM events.

ride daily, celebrate monthly. Masa Crítica Buenos Aires gathers at the Obelisk the first Sunday of each month at 4pm. Me and my 15-year-old metal steed arrived on the dot to meet a tiny group, including three tourists on the bikes of a popular rental shop and a couple of Spaniards on a break from a South American biking tour.

The mass started to swell with bikes of all sizes, colours and denominations: road bikes, mountain bikes, cruisers, vintage bikes, folding bikes (both modern and classic), a tattooed punk sporting a pre-BMX muscle bike with an actual shift stick on the top tube and a fake plastic fuel tank, a crew of chopper bikers showing off their dolled-up super-low-riding babies, tall bikes (a bike frame welded right on top of another, almost a circus bike), a crazy oversized tricicle with an architect’s drawing board mounted at the back and an executive chair, even a unicycle... The riders also donned wigs, clown noses, superhero capes and all sorts of regalia – yet, in keeping with the CM spirit, no Lance Armstrong spandex costumes.

By 5pm, the critical mass had gathered and the ride was ready to take off. Bikes took to the nearest traffic light, and when everybody was lined up (a good, solid block and a half long) there was clapping, cheering, bell-ringing and a rolling, roaring start. CM was on.

The feeling is intoxicating: used to the adrenaline rush of dodging cars and squirrelling on the side of traffic, finding yourself in the middle of a crowd of bikes, not a car to worry about, enjoying the city at a leisurely 10km/h, is absolute bliss. Just cruising, taking in the transformed urban landscape, is a gas, and it only gets better when you realize that all of it happens because the crowd that you’re a part of took a stand and appropriated the streets.

It is a true celebration, nothing short of biketopia – smiles all around, conversations with strangers, music (someone managed to strap a pair of speakers to the rack of his bike; an even craftier rider mastered the art of riding one-handed while playing a drum), thumbs up from bystanders, sheer joy on wheels... There is, if you roll close to the back or sides of the mass, quite a bit of honking from anxious cars (even on a Sunday afternoon), but it is met with smiles, bells and friendly thank yous that only make the honkers more honking mad.

As the mass rolled along 9 de Julio towards Libertador, there was a buzz in the riders near the front, some shouts and whispers that heralded a critical moment for the Critical Mass: when the group got to Arroyo street, the border between 9 de Julio and the Illia highway, the riders on the front did the unthinkable and just rode on... and everybody else followed. In previous months there had been attempts at taking to the highway, but the crows had never gone along – last Sunday, the line was crossed and it just happened.

Bikes on highways are illegal, and downright suicidal in any other conditions: traffic was near zero, and the bulk of the riders was so massive that it held what was left of it back. There was a moment of hesitation for several riders, but nobody was being pushed: if you didn’t like it you were free to pedal away at any time. For those who didn’t, there was a unique ride down a path that hovers over the Villa 31 shanty town, and the surreal landscape of looking back and seeing one half of a highway full of bicycles as far back as the eye could see, plus the bewildered looks on the tollbooth employees and the helpless cops on duty.

That is when the full power of the Critical Mass hit: together, a big enough bunch of bikers can do anything – even dangerous, foolish stunts. Further down the ride, my limits were tested once again when the mass rolled down Lugones Avenue (an avenue only in name, more like the unofficial BA speedway) for a little over 200 metres, taking all but two lanes of the road. With more traffic than the Illia and more potential hazards for cars and bikes alike, I gave some serious thought to quitting the ride at that point, and moved on only after finding a narrow dirt path at the side of the road, over the rails, which was closer to my personal boundaries – nobody was hurt and no harm was done, but that was beyond my comfort zone.

From the Illia highway the ride moved on down Costanera all the way to the Ciudad Universitaria campus, then a loop and a bridge to River Plate stadium, left towards Palermo, up Monroe, down Libertador through the tunnel (another legal no-bike zone) up to the polo field, another loop to Santa Fe and then several twists and turns around Palermo and Barrio Norte until, at 8.15, just as it was getting dark, the ride naturally wound to a close at Las Heras park. Much of the route was scenic, cutting through the Palermo park and along pretty trendy stores in Palermo Hollywood where people were more receptive to the Masa Crítica spirit.

It was 30 kilometres in all, at a regular pace that never got tiring or even remotely competitive. The weather was ideal, and the atmosphere was truly carnivalesque. The average age of the participants was predictably in the mid-to-low-20s, but there were some children (either at the back of their parents’ bikes or riding on their own) and even a few biking grannies having the time of their lives.

If you would like a more organized bike riding experience, or at least something with a little less chaos and unpredictability to it, Buenos Aires City government is pretty active on the biking front and organizes monthly rides along predetermined paths with cops closing the streets, pack leaders, a show at the end of the route and some raffles of biking material. They usually take place on the third Saturday of the month, but December’s ride will be on Sunday 19 at 7pm at Plaza de Mayo. If you don’t have a bike, you can even loan one of the new public bikes inaugurated last week (pre-registration at www.mejorenbici.gob.ar).

Whatever flavour you prefer, Buenos Aires is a perfect city for biking: no hills, manageable distances, a growing bike lane network and reasonably maintained streets offer no excuses to stay out of the saddle – so hit those pedals!

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