Every last Friday of the month, hundreds of cyclists join forces and take to the streets of London, stopping everything in their wake. Kevin Choi investigates the biking phenomenon that is Critical Mass
It’s a grey and muggy Friday evening on the South Bank. Not exactly the most beautiful weather in which to go out for a cycle. Yet hundreds of cyclists have spontaneously descended upon the area, the sound of bicycle bells drowning out the usual tourist hustle and bustle. The number of bicycles seems to increase exponentially every few minutes, some turning up trailing PA systems, some ridden by Super Mario. The sound systems soon add their blaring dub and reggae to the chorus of bells, whilst everyone gets ready to down their last can and prepare for the ride. As the clock strikes 7pm, the bells reach a crescendo, and the huge swarm of bicycles spills out onto the roads of central London. For the uninitiated, this is the London Critical Mass.
Essentially the biggest mass bike ride you’ll ever see, Critical Mass started life in 1992, on the streets of San Francisco. What began as a spontaneously organised ride to reclaim the streets from a decidedly hostile motoring population soon morphed into a global cycling phenomenon, an outlet for cyclists to ride proud and free on their city streets. Initially known as ‘Commute Clot’, the name soon changed to ‘Critical Mass’, a term taken from the cycling documentary ‘Return of the Scorcher’.
The film describes how motorists and cyclists negotiate busy junctions without signals; by queuing up at junctions and building up a huge backlog, a ‘critical mass’ of road users would be able to pass through. Today’s Critical Mass rides across the world still operate on the same basic principle – safety in numbers. In a car-dominated world, cycling on city streets is still terrifying for many, especially in cities without good cycling infrastructure, such as London. Having begun in 1994, the London Critical Mass is just one of the countless Critical Mass events happening worldwide every month, collectively representing a cycling protest movement running for the past twenty years.
However, Critical Mass can’t really be described as a traditional protest movement. There is no organiser, no leader, no set route and no ‘goal’ or ‘aim’. Mass participants range from curious tourists on (wobbly) Boris Bikes to grizzly cycle couriers who can deliver a letter across London faster than you can say ‘fixie’. Some are here to stick it to the man, whilst others are simply along for the ride.
Whatever their reason, it’s the huge number of riders that makes Critical Mass work. The huge number of cycles stops for nothing, riders peeling off at junctions to block cars and maintain the ‘Mass’, even after lights turn red. Riding in the middle of the pack gives you an incredible sense of safety, even when a long-boarder barely scrapes between you and the drum’n’bass trailer you’ve been following through the night.
Rarely in London does anyone feel as safe as one does in the middle of Mass. Without any set leaders or route, the mass moves organically through the city streets, taking over particular parts of the city by the general consent of the crowd. Briefly surrounding the Old Street roundabout in a flurry self-powered motion feels like an exercise in democracy, even against the cacophony of irate taxi drivers pounding on their horns.
Critical Mass is seldom mentioned in the media, perhaps because of the difficulty in pinning down what exactly it is. Without an overt political aim, it is legally a ‘Public Procession’, as backed up by the High Court in 2005, after police threatened to ban the ride if a pre-determined route was not provided.
Though the sheer number of riders sometimes becomes a brief inconvenience to motorists, the ride is almost always peaceful, and the Met Police often struggle to have any reason for a presence. The only real ‘goal’ of Critical Mass is to provide the experience of riding through a city in relative safety and security, sadly a rarity in London. If you’ve got a bike, give it a go. You might just see a London you’ve never seen before.
The London Critical Mass meets at 6pm and leaves after 7pm, by the British Film Institute on the South Bank on the last Friday of every month. Always wear a helmet and fit your bike with lights – be seen, be safe!