Easy Riders

Thousands of bicyclists across the country are creating a monthly Woodstock on wheels.

The second bit of advice I got about urban bike riding was gestural. I was pedaling down a narrow street in the Roxbury section of Boston when a man in a panel truck shaved by at full throttle, shaking his middle finger like a stick. I guessed then that I had mastered the first bit of advice, delivered earlier by a seasoned bike commuter.

"You've got to read the drivers' body language," Adam Kessel said as I followed him and two other riders into the thick of traffic on Massachusetts Avenue, Boston's main thoroughfare. Cars, trucks, buses, vans, and pickups snaked and braided and idled and rushed around us. I was keenly aware that the week before there had been two cycling fatalities in the greater Boston area, a place that Bicycling magazine rates as one of the three worst in the country, biking-wise.

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"Motorists don't realize how vulnerable we are," said Kessel's fellow rider Teresa Eliot Roberts. "That's why I love the Mass."

The "Mass" to which Roberts was referring is Critical Mass, a willfully anarchic gathering of people who ride bikes. Once a month in Austin, Chicago, S‹o Paulo, and Perth; in Flagstaff, San Francisco, Haifa, Anchorage, and maybe 90 other cities -- who knows, since no one is supposed to be organized enough to keep track -- people on bikes find their way to the same place at the same time, thanks to email and the Internet and posters taped to telephone poles, and do something radical. They ride together. Dozens, hundreds, thousands of cyclists take to the streets and for an hour, maybe two, they inhabit a floating, car-free, fantasy island.

This was the idea from the beginning, nearly nine years ago, when Chris Carlsson and some 45 other cyclists took to the streets of San Francisco. They wanted to displace cars for an afternoon, to create a movable commons where people on bikes could get together, not only to ride in relative safety, but to meet and talk and, in the words of Carlsson, "create new organic communities that challenge the very essence of our daily lives."

"The feeling is visceral," explains Peter Rowinsky, a postgraduate student who was arrested near the end of a Critical Mass ride last summer after a Massachusetts state trooper demanded he get off the road. ("You are blocking traffic," the trooper told him. "We are traffic," Rowinsky replied.) "When you're in the Mass and you're riding together, it's pretty quiet. And after a while you've totally forgotten about the traffic -- at rush hour, on a Friday. That's the transformative vision of Critical Mass, that you've created a space like that."

And so, four hours and three close encounters with car doors after Rowinsky says this, I pedal over to Copley Square in downtown Boston, flanked by a tour bus on my left and a city bus on my right, breathing a cloud of diesel exhaust all the way. It is rush hour on the last Friday of the month, and when I finally break through the gauntlet of heavy metal, I see an unusual sight: 50 people on bikes, maybe more, approaching the square from all points of the compass as if they had been called by a whistle audible only to cyclists. And they are not alone. The square is jammed with bikes and bikers -- with women in skirts, fresh from work, leaning on Schwinns, and Rastafarians on mountain bikes carrying authentically distressed messenger bags, and teenagers comparing jury-rigged dirt bikes, and people of all ages with all manner of body art whose wheels display a corresponding variety of knobby tire patterns, and men in fancy cycling gear, and elders on bikes that look as though they had tread the streets of Boston before those streets were home to 600,000 cars per day.

"I'm here for the movement to reclaim public space," a young man in a jester's cap tells me. Since he's also wearing a U.S. Postal Service shirt, I assume he's a mailman. My mistake. He's actually a graduate student in urban planning and design at MIT. "I'm wearing a mail shirt because I'm delivering a message today," says the young man, Josh Switzky, "a message of liberating our cities from the automobile plague and the confines we've made out of modern life." He toots on a noisemaker and goes off to grab some carbs from the free feed being put on by the group Food Not Bombs.

I look around me. It's Woodstock on wheels. It's Seattle before the tear gas -- an intentional community of no fixed address and apparently few shared habits of mind. Anarchism is funny that way. It's a collective celebration of individualism, come what may.

A short woman with a pair of black wings on her back mounts a bench. "Welcome to Critical Mass," she says, cupping her hands megaphonically around her mouth. The crowd looks her way.

"I just want to say that if you want this to be about taking the streets back from cars, that's your prerogative," she continues. "If you want this to be about riding with a group of other cyclists, that's your prerogative. And if you just want this to be an opportunity to dress up in silly clothing and spread your wings, that's fine, too."

The woman -- Amy Battisti-AshZ is her name, I learn from Adam Kessel, who is already astride his bike and ready to go -- hops down and heads for her wheels. And no, she's not the leader -- she's a leader, Kessel says, inasmuch as "there are no leaders and everyone is a leader." People clamber on to their saddles and start rolling into the street, forming a defensive line of bikes that, like a tourniquet, prevents cars from bleeding into Critical Mass.

"What's the route?" I ask as people pass by. Okay, it's a decidedly unanarchic aspiration, this desire to know where I'm going. Still, no one can tell me because they don't know either.

Critical Mass is a "xerocracy," Kessel had stressed earlier, meaning that the group not only "encourages grassroots propaganda production" -- what used to be known as leafletting -- but that it also permits whoever arrives at a ride with the most copies of an itinerary to lead the way. It's rule by copier key -- but not today. Today nobody has come with even a single map.

"What's the route?" I call out to Teresa Eliot Roberts when she pulls up beside me. It is what it is, she tells me. Anyone can decide. "Even you," she says, just as a phalanx of BMWs and Saabs breaches the back line of riders and comes perilously close to rendering that possibility moot.

And so we ride, 150 of us, down Newbury Street, across the Charles River, past MIT toward Harvard Square, caught in the flow of the river of bikes. Car traffic, which is stymied by this flood of bicyclists (most of whom take a decidedly casual attitude toward stoplights), backs up behind us. "What is this? Is this the AIDS ride?" a pedestrian wants to know, certain that the long ribbon of cyclists in his path is part of yet another pledge-per-mile disease brigade. The only time money was raised on one of these Mass rides, though, was a few months before, when a hat was passed to help Peter Rowinsky pay the court fees from his arrest.

"Honk if you like bicycles!" reads a handwritten sign carried by one rider. Horns do blare -- and not always antagonistically.

We tend to think of the process of social change as either cataclysmic or incremental, but a process with an obvious and final and fixed goal, like civil rights or the five-day workweek. Sometimes, though, social change may be something else altogether. Sometimes it may be circumscribed and intermittent, a brief but reliable alteration of business as usual -- take TV Turn-off Week, for instance, or, in the words of Teresa Eliot Roberts, "riding daily, celebrating monthly."

"Critical Mass is successful when it's growing," says Adam Kessel, whose day job is conducting research for a hotel workers union. It's a surprisingly conventional consumerist notion, this twinning of success with growth, but Kessel is right. Social change is as much about expanding the collective vision as anarchism is about the normative value of a single point of view. The numbers matter.

"People ride in the Mass and get politicized," he says, "people who never before considered how things could be different. But they go on a Critical Mass ride and it changes their perception. It shows them how things could be, that this is what the world could look like."

The cars are about 20 rows of riders back, and his point is manifest around me. The immediate environs are festive, multicultural, muscle-powered, good-natured. In this once and future world, wheels turn slowly.

"What's the solution?" a man riding behind me shouts. "Bike revolution!" others respond, a call and response they repeat intermittently for what seems to be miles. Other than that, though, Peter Rowinsky is right: The Mass is surprisingly quiet. Just the sound of bike wheels clattering over potholes, and the friendly hum of strangers who might not have known they had anything in common.

And that is where the story should end -- before the group reaches John F. Kennedy Street, in the heart of Harvard Square, and before a peeved motorist trying to make headway through the wall of bikes rams the back wheel of a freelance Web designer named Eric Krauter. It should end before the police, summoned by Krauter, cite him for riding in the middle of the road, then leave him and his crumpled bike in the gathering dark while they console the woman who hit him.

"If they want to pass out leaflets in Harvard Square, fine," Sergeant Tim White from the Framingham Barracks of the state police tells me. "But hundreds of people riding through Harvard Square at six o'clock on a Friday night -- they're not making a lot of friends."

The Mass, too, leaves Krauter behind, its tail of red safety lights wagging, wagging, wagging, till it disappears around the corner. So the story ends here instead, with Sergeant White having his say -- and being wrong.

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