SAN FRANCISCO -- The sea of bicyclists surges up this city’s Financial District, a boisterous mass of freewheeling humanity, 1,500 riders strong. Pedaling six abreast, they send pedestrians scurrying as rush-hour traffic hits the brakes.
A cable car slows, engulfed by riders who whoop and holler or chat on cellphones. A traffic light goes red, green and red again. Still the bikes keep coming.
As a bystander high-fives passing cyclists, one car in a line of idling motorists lets loose with a long, blaring, impatient horn blast. A tourist snaps a photograph and asks: “Are you protesting global warming?”
“No,” one rider shouts back, “we’re taking over the streets!”
Some call it a bicycle insurrection against the thoughtless motorists who hog city streets. Others say it’s about nothing more than fun.
On the last Friday of each month, the cyclists of Critical Mass embark on an unrehearsed crosstown jaunt that -- for a few hours -- transforms the urban landscape.
When Critical Mass hits the streets, bikes rule. Sometimes with sharp elbows, riders brush aside the cars, trucks and buses that stand in their way. And often, tempers flare.
Bicyclists and drivers get into fights, cyclists slam their locks onto car hoods and police make arrests amid pointed turf battles. A decade ago, former Mayor Willie Brown declared war on the marauding cyclists, whose exploits he dismissed as “the ultimate arrogance.”
But Critical Mass stubbornly survived, and even flourished.
Started here in 1992 by a handful of idealists, the free-form events have spread to every continent but Antarctica and to 300 cities worldwide, including Los Angeles.
Next month, the ride celebrates its 15th year. But it still has no leaders, no route plans, no spokespeople.
“How the rides unfold is always a mystery,” said Chris Carlsson, a ride co-founder and editor of a book, “Critical Mass: Bicycling’s Defiant Celebration.”
“They’re predictable yet unknowable. People keep coming back to see what will happen.”
Critical Mass riders, who refer to themselves as “massers,” insist that they’re not tying up traffic -- they are the traffic, albeit a two-wheeled variety. Their aim is to force cars to share the road and leave enough room for bike lanes, so cyclists won’t have to fear injury and death.
“For 29 days a month, cars call the shots. It’s Auto Mass,” said Kate McCarthy, a member of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. “But for a few hours of one day, we turn the tables. We take the streets back.”
The rides develop their own loopy anarchy. One thing is certain: Cyclists gather at 6 p.m. at the foot of Market Street. After that, anything goes. False starts are common as would-be leaders try to lure the group in one direction. No one knows where the ride will go or when, exactly, riders will depart.
There’s even a Critical Mass lexicon, with words such as “xerocracy,” to describe the way riders record ideas about proposed routes and photocopy them for distribution at the event. A motorist who pushes into a group of cyclists is a “homicidal maniac driver.” Aggressive, overly confrontational massers are a “testosterone brigade.”
Anger at arrogance
Many criticize the cyclists’ holier-than-thou arrogance.
“There’s an incredible self-righteousness, like the traffic laws obviously aren’t made for them,” said blogger Rob Anderson, who has written about the massers. “We’re all trapped in our tin cans, while they ride unfettered. They run people out of crosswalks, yelling, ‘Get out of our way! We’re not burning fossil fuels!’ ”
Though his predecessor feuded with Critical Mass riders, Mayor Gavin Newsom has extended an olive branch of sorts. Last year, he named the head of the bicycle coalition (which claims independence from Critical Mass but advertises the rides on its website) as a commissioner overseeing the city’s powerful Municipal Transportation Agency.
Meanwhile, in the 15 years since Critical Mass began, the number of San Francisco bike commuters has doubled to more than 2% of the population. Bike activists have successfully lobbied for more cycling lanes, bicycle racks on buses and a weekend ban on cars in popular Golden Gate Park. The city charter even guarantees that “bicycling shall be promoted” in any drafting plans for traffic flow and public safety.
“Critical Mass energized the bicycle movement here,” said former Berkeley cyclist David Cohen. “It lent a sort of spiritual energy, the idea that we could gather en masse. There were no leaders. We were all leaders.”
That’s one point of view.
Four years after leaving office, Brown still steams at the mention of Critical Mass. “They’re bad for the city,” he said. “They disrupt honest people trying to get home from work. That’s their whole point.”
The riders swarm up Van Ness Avenue looking like Grateful Dead groupies on wheels. The scent of marijuana is in the air as a woman with orange dreadlocks pedals a bike with a milk crate for a basket. A man in a fedora croons rap lyrics, blasted from a strapped-on boombox. One man rides a tricycle shaped like a silver fish with twinkling mesh scales.
There are pricey bikes and Wal-Mart specials. A rider calls to friends on his kazoo. Another rings his 1950s-style bicycle bell like an excited 8-year-old.
Suddenly, a woman wheels a stroller into a crosswalk as the bikes surround her. “Stop!” she shrieks. “I’m with a baby!”
Nearby, a driver noses his vehicle into an intersection, causing bicycles to veer to avoid him. Immediately, massers known as “corkers” position their bicycles in front of the car.
Only after the pack is gone do the bikers call out, with a tinge of sarcasm: “Thanks for waiting!”
A taxi driver trying to make a left turn against the pack sees a police cruiser shadowing the cyclists: “Officer,” he says, “how can I make a left turn here?”
The cop shrugs.
On the first ride in 1992, a few dozen cyclists rode up Market Street handing out fliers before hitting a bar for beers.
They were bike commuters tired of motorists yelling, “Grow up! Get a car!” recalled Carlsson. “They treated you like a kid riding your toy, like you didn’t belong in the road.”
Founders called the stunt “Commute Clot.” The name didn’t stick. But the idea did. People flocked to the event.
“San Francisco has a reputation as a contrarian place,” said Carlsson, 50, a desktop publisher. “People have a different idea how to make life richer and more artistic and profoundly more emotional than the capitalist world wants for us. Critical Mass seized that spirit.”
More rides, new cities
The rides were replicated elsewhere, as were the confrontations.
In New York, arrests of bicyclists are common. In Santa Monica, one cyclist was arrested in June, prompting a meeting between police and ride organizers. But those incidents are rare, said Monica Howe, outreach manager for the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition.
“You can’t really take over the streets when you only have a posse of 50 people,” Howe said. “We don’t have the history of run-ins. We can’t get away with it.”
In the summer of 1997, Brown issued a crackdown on the San Francisco rides, ordering bikes seized and rogue riders punished. That July, 5,000 massers jammed city streets, with more than 100 riders arrested. None was charged.
New strategy on cyclists
In time, tempers cooled as police developed a less aggressive strategy. Nowadays, about 40 officers monitor the rides on bikes and in squads cars.
“It’s not practical to think 40 officers can ticket every rider who breaks the law,” said department spokesman Sgt. Steve Mannina.
“Our goal is to preserve public safety and prevent property damage.”
“TUNnel! TUNnel! TUNnel!”
The snakelike line of cyclists roars into a Chinatown tunnel. Riders shriek as they enter, their echoes deafening.
So far, there have been no dust-ups. But some riders test the limits: One sneaks up behind a bus to yank the electric cable from a power line overhead, laughing as he rides on.
A cyclist blows kisses to glum-faced bus passengers. Another yells “It’s OK to smile!”
Some passengers do.
Detractors point to the March 30 ride as just one example of Critical Mass spinning out of control.
Riders clashed with motorists in two incidents. Limo driver Dennis Webb says the melee started after a female cyclist blocked his path, then stuck a lollipop into her mouth as a subtle challenge.
When Webb got out of his car to confront the cyclists, one dented the limo’s hood with a U-shaped bicycle lock. Another slashed his tire. Someone else grabbed his car keys and rode off. The hood-denter was charged in the incident.
“Some of these people try to provoke motorists,” said Webb, 46. “When you start that, you’re looking for trouble. It’s only natural you’re not going to let them get away with that.”
Another altercation came later in the ride, as cyclists made their way through Japantown.
Susan Ferrando, who was driving with her two kids in the car, said a throng of riders attacked her.
Others said a frustrated Ferrando plowed into the cyclists, struck one and tried to drive on. Riders surrounded her until police arrived.
No charges were filed. But Ferrando said she remains in shock. “It’s been traumatic,” she said, her voice breaking. “I’ve got a child standing here saying, ‘No, Mommy. I don’t want to talk about it.’ This isn’t over for us.”
In a play off Critical Mass, a new cycling event recently was launched here. Its few riders make a point to observe traffic laws and stay out of fights.
They call it Critical Manners.
By 8:30 p.m., two hours after it started, the Friday night ride is thinning out. As the pack eases through the crowded Mission District, motorists become more daring, challenging stragglers at the end of the bike line.
Carlsson rides alone amid the holdouts, using drumsticks to bang a pair of cymbals on his handlebars. As always, he’s elated, even a bit baffled, by the success of the event he helped create 15 years ago.
“Every once in a while, I’ll see someone who was there for the first ride,” he said. “We’ll make eye contact and smile, as if to say, ‘Can you believe it? That it’s gotten this big?’ ”