Militant cyclists stage a soggy Coup in central London.
A damp mass of hippies and all manner of urban cyclists. Approximately 400 souls, huddled with their bikes beneath Waterloo Bridge, as the drizzle escalates steadily into a downpour. They are waiting on something, although nobody seems quite certain what that something is. Some of the lycra clad enthusiasts make mysterious references to ‘Critical Mass’. Whatever the qualities of this phenomenon might be, they are obscured by the excited and contradictory statements of participants.
Some hint that it may be some arcane principle of crowd dynamics; an almost physical property to be measured by those with the correct instrumentation. As if there might be an invisible tipping point in the growing potential energy of the gathering. A fulcrum, beyond which it can flow without impediment, through the snarl of London traffic.
Others seemed to consider Critical Mass in terms of military strategy, as if we were a legion forming up to march on war. They were waiting for the optimum force, the momentum required to deflect incursions of police officers and irate taxi drivers alike.
More still appeared to regard it as some sort of religious fervor. A collective thought, like a species of hysteria building to its ultimate crescendo. Sound systems, lashed to the back of bicycles, fed the infectious atmosphere which spread through the mass of people. The acoustics of the bridge over our heads helped to amplify the chatter of cyclists. Something invisible indeed seemed to be taking hold of the crowd.
Riding into the Rain.
Whatever Critical Mass might be, it eventually arrived. At some imperceptible cue, the procession began to move. The mass drifted at a relaxed pace towards the deadlocked carnage of Waterloo roundabout at rush-hour. What possible results could be expected to follow? Lycra clad limbs twisted into impossible shapes, bicycle frames contorted and wheels brutally despoked.
Despite these fears, at the point of collision, the unseen force of Critical Mass was clearly manifest. Hundreds of cyclists merged recklessly with the traffic but each infernal machine, despite growling engines, seemed inexplicably defanged. The hidden masters behind these behemoths goaded them into viciousness with no avail. Horns sounded furiously but the cars sat like beached whales behind a wave of cyclists. Occasionally these drivers would reveal themselves and hurl expletives at some straggler who, with a burst of speed, would swoop like a sparrow back into the flock.
So we were off, gathering cyclists as we went, while the diffuse consciousness of the crowd spontaneously determined our route. The police were noticeably absent from the whole proceeding. Previously they have harassed cyclists and thrown them into armoured vans, using minor misdemeanors as an excuse for aggression. It is possible that they had a lucid moment of common sense and realized that running around with bright yellow uniforms and truncheons might be antagonistic in itself. Conspiratorial talk from some cyclists cast innocent eccentrics as cunningly disguised policemen. Alternatively, perhaps the authorities felt that there wouldn’t be any cyclists to police in the rain. Either way it made the ride considerably more pleasant.
The mass was not restrained by roads, as a mere car might be, and it often took to pedestrian areas. It turned monuments into sudden roundabouts and indoor shopping malls to chaos (to the horror of impotent security guards). At one point, much to my confusion, every cyclist stopped and got off their bikes. They then turned around almost in unison and started cycling the other way. The front of the procession wasn’t in sight and the reason for this u-turn is still a mystery.
Every time a junction was reached, cyclists peeled off from the mass and used their bikes to block the road. These human barriers served the important function of preventing cars from pushing in halfway through the procession. This would be a dangerous place to have an impatient motorist and would have undermined the strength in numbers. The tactic did leave individual cyclists vulnerable to the wrath of drivers. Once or twice this came close to inspiring physical violence on the part of motorists. On other occasions however, it simply provided an opportunity for good natured discussion between those on two wheels and those on four. While some were unable to contain their fury at having to drive slowly for five minutes, many drivers seemed to see the spectacle as something colourful and fun to break up the endless commute.
What is achieved?
The whole experience was certainly entertaining (for bemused spectators and for those involved), but why are all these people careering around the capital, causing chaos and gratuitously angering motorists? The answer to this question is different for every participant. Indeed, as a confluence of individuals instead of an organized march, it circumvents many of the laws surrounding protests and requires no preset route.
The event has the straightforward and obvious benefit of getting lots of people on their bikes. It gets them all fit and generally makes them happy. It has more subversive strengths in that it highlights the sheer impatience that driving in London seems to generate. Ironically, people who are obsessed with getting places fast, don’t seem to feel like they have any time to spare at all.
Finally, with its party atmosphere, the critical mass bike ride creates a suitably bizarre spectacle. It raises the profile of the neglected cyclist on the roads of the capital. While the car has been bequeathed hundreds of miles of perfect tarmac, cyclists are all but ignored by motorists and town planners alike. Critical Mass forcibly takes some of the power back into the hands of the self propelled minorities.
Unfortunately, although probably inevitably, this post has failed to capture the exact atmosphere of a Critical Mass bicycle ride. If you have reached the end of this article and you are still confused, perhaps more confused than when you began, there is an easy solution. The last Friday of this month, clear your diary, ensure your bike is in a reasonable working order and pack your panniers with a poncho. Then you too can set out on a surreal meander through central London and judge the Critical Mass phenomenon for yourself. You might find that you have fun and it is just possible that it might even be sunny.