Chicago biking event on a more positive path

A groom was driving down Chicago’s Michigan Avenue to his wedding rehearsal one Friday night when he found himself engulfed by a sea of bicycles.

Angry that they were slowing him down, he started yelling, only to have half a dozen cyclists surround his car and yell back at him for traveling by four wheels.

The groom had stumbled upon Critical Mass, the monthly event that draws as many as 3,000 bikers riding through Chicago’s streets, running red lights and blocking traffic -- all with a somewhat reluctant police escort.

“Riding your bike is fine, but taking over the streets like that is out of control,” said the driver, who asked that his name not be used. “I can’t believe the police allow it to happen.”

He’s not the only one who views Critical Mass as a hostile hijacking of the road.


Since the bike rides began here 12 years ago, they have generated a sizable number of foes. And as more families and those out for a pleasure ride have joined, even some cyclists have begun to complain that fellow riders are too militant.

When Critical Mass began, the rides were framed as protests against cars.

Only hard-core cyclists participated, and police made arrests, said Alex Wilson, who used to print the Derailleur the unofficial publication for the event.

Since then, the ride’s informal organizers have steered it onto a more positive path, adopting “Happy Friday” as the official cheer (they meet on the last Friday of every month) and striving for peaceful encounters with motorists, pedestrians and police.

“Protesting wasn’t great PR for biking,” Wilson said. “We wanted to make it a big party parade, a celebration of biking.”

With the more cheerful approach, participation has swelled, and police have become more permissive. Blocking traffic might not be legal, but it is impossible to ticket everyone when hundreds or thousands of cyclists are ignoring traffic laws, said Chicago Police Cmdr. Christopher Kennedy. Cyclists caught drinking or damaging cars are ticketed.

Last month, about 800 cyclists -- a diverse mix including hipsters on fixed-gear bikes, suburban couples toting young children, environmental activists and frat boys in costume -- gathered for the ride despite a light rain.

The hard-core element also was visible.

Dubi Kaufmann wore a shirt advertising, a website that displays photos he had taken of 1,000 riders holding their bikes above their heads, a move sometimes flashed by Critical Mass participants.

“It’s kind of primal, like a gesture of independence,” Kaufmann said.

One bicycle patrol officer escorting the group said that unless the riders touched cars or otherwise assaulted drivers, Critical Mass would be allowed to proceed unimpeded.

“Sometimes people give us an earful when they see us standing by as these bikers go flying by,” one officer said. “But there’s nothing we can do. I tell them to ask their alderman to ban this thing.”

At the start of the September ride, foghorns punctured the air and the bikers flowed out of Daley Plaza downtown.

Within minutes, the group grew many blocks long and enveloped both lanes, bringing rush-hour traffic to a halt.

Instead of being angry, most motorists stuck in the mass seemed amused.

Some honked their horns to show support. Others slapped high-fives with passing bikers.

Passengers in one car leaned out the window to snap photos.

“It’s really cool to see all the bikes,” said Joe Herrman, among the many motorists not fazed by the 10-minute delay. “I find this very interesting.”

Pedestrians were equally supportive, grinning and waving from the sidewalks.

However, Nikki Jeje was slightly peeved to be stuck on the corner watching the traffic light repeatedly flash from green to red as the group made its way through an intersection.

“It’s annoying that I can’t cross the street,” Jeje said. “But I’d be lying if I said I was really angry.”