my first Chicago Critical Mass ride

Posted: June 25, 2011 in Uncategorized

Sing us a song, you’re the piano man

Sing us a song tonight

For we’re all in the mood for a melody

And you’ve got us feeling alright…

It was Friday, early in the evening. My friend Steffie and I were riding our bikes down a gorgeous tree-lined street somewhere in the Logan Square part of Chicago, along with hundreds and hundreds of others. Someone just behind us had Billy Joel blasting on their sound system, and we around him were singing along. A pretty blonde girl serenely rode her skateboard in front of us, holding up her bubble wand so that we were surrounded with bubbles glistening in the perfect sunlight.

I knew, right inside the moment: I’ll hold this snapshot in my head as long as I live.Later Steffie said the same.

We rode our first-ever Chicago Critical Mass ride last night. We were like gleeful kids about it all week, and so excited by the time we got there that it was hard not to shriek a bit. Getting there had been a bit of an adventure; we put our bikes on the front of a CTA bus to get there faster and then were slightly vexed as Friday afternoon downtown Chicago traffic nearly doubled our anticipated travel time.

Nonetheless we arrived at Daley Plaza in plenty of time. The Plaza seemed full of bikes when we arrived just after 5:30, but more and more came in from every direction until a bit after 6. What a crazy collection of people: young and old, svelte and plus-size, hip and not so much. And – unexpectedly to me – a whole bunch of bicycle cops.

The traffic in front of Daley Plaza is intense – typical downtown traffic. I wondered how we would break into it. But then a few bike riders started doing laps around the block, and and there was shouting and whistling and the blowing of what I believe were vuvuzela horns, and each time the riders passed, more joined, and then suddenly we all jumped in…I guess we had reached “critical mass.” We owned the street! The Critical Mass website says the Chicago monthly ride averages 800 bikes – I think there were at least that many yesterday. Steffie and I intentionally stayed somewhere in the middle. It just seemed safer there.


The slogan for this event is “Happy Friday!” Those riding shout it to everyone as they pass, from those on the sidewalk to people hanging out windows to watch to drivers of oncoming traffic (which was often completely sidelined as we approached.) I yelled so much my throat hurt by the end of the night. Some responded joyously, shouting it back to us, waving, pumping fists, doing funny dances, or making funny faces. Some watched impassively or in astonishment. Some tuned us out in annoyance. And a few were openly unhappy with us – but really it seemed like very few to me.

To my surprise, I rode on the far left the whole night. This meant I was right next to oncoming traffic, often only inches from them as we rode. It didn’t bother me at all, which just goes to show I can be more comfortable than I think I can. It was the perfect position for getting high 5’s from cars with open windows; those were abundant.

The trick of the Critical Mass is to stay together, or “mass up.” This means the whole parade of bikes (and it’s a LONG parade – a little video clip I saw showed that it took about 5 full minutes for us to pass one given point) moves as one. If a stoplight turns red while we’re in the midst of it…we keep riding. Traffic is stopped. Most motorists were cool with that, and mass riders are skilled at shutting down the occasional irate person who seems on the verge of running over someone.

It’s a fun crowd. All different kinds of music play. People laugh and talk. Whenever they pass under an overpass, everyone hoots, hollers, whistles, and screams so that the area absolutely thunders with noise. It’s a pretty cool effect. There were fireworks a time or two. The pace is pretty slow about 95% of the time – neither the little kids nor the senior citizens among us seemed to have trouble keeping up – hey, even I, the Slowest Machine on the Lake Front Path, was easily able to hold my own. I can’t imagine what could be more fun on a Friday night.

The route is different every month. This month’s route was mapped out by someone who is moving out of the Chicago area; she wanted us to pass all of her favorite Chicago haunts. So we turned, turned, turned (and turning is no small feat for such a huge bunch of bikes, let me tell you), and pedaled for 22 miles through an amazing array of neighborhoods – what a great snapshot of this incredible city. We started downtown and went a little west and quite a long way south, ending up at the edge of Lake Michigan almost 4 hours later. And hey, I got through it with nothing more than a bit of “bike seat pain” that is already healed.

The ride was something I’ll never forget. If I were staying here in Chicago, I can’t imagine I’d ever let another ride happen without me. If you live in the Chicago area and haven’t done this: do it! It’s the last Friday of every month and I promise, you don’t know what you’re missing!


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