A Revolution Per Minute

A few cyclists hope they have enough Critical Mass to fight Denver's car culture.

Juana Barrera was the first one to arrive.

She pedaled up to the fountain pond in Civic Center Park last Friday, propped her mountain bike against the stairs and sat down to read and wait for the others -- if there were any others.

Finally, about twenty minutes later, Shawn Kumar rode up, still in the pressed shirt and jeans he'd worn all day at his job. He was followed by three more riders and then a pair.

J. Hadley Hooper

"Last week there were only four of us," Kumar says, "so we didn't do it. You need a minimum of fifteen; otherwise, it doesn't have any effect -- it doesn't do anything."

Otherwise, he says, there's not a Critical Mass.

Critical Mass rides have become the primary way for bicyclists in other cities to tell a world full of cars that, as their fliers cry, "The Revolution Will Not Be Motorized." On the last Friday of every month, cyclists roll into the streets -- and sometimes onto the highways -- to raise bicycle awareness. Some are protesting the sprawl that has led to traffic gridlock, some are pressing for more bike lanes, others want to promote the ecological, health and social benefits of bicycling. Most just want to have fun.

The rides are well-known in Seattle, Chicago, Toronto and especially San Francisco, where they began in 1992 and where an estimated 10,000 people ride their bikes to work. Critical Mass riders in those cities hit the streets in groups of several hundred to several thousand, blocking traffic, clogging the streets at rush hour and, when that's not enough, running red lights or disobeying traffic laws as a mellow form of civil disobedience -- one that occasionally leads to arrests.

In the summer of 1997, San Francisco mayor Willie Brown threatened to crack down on the riders -- who had previously been escorted by police -- because of the traffic jams. But his fuming only created a larger turnout, and a July ride drew nearly 7,000 people and ended with about 250 tickets or arrests. A few months earlier, three people had been arrested during a Critical Mass ride in Seattle after a scuffle with police. This year, citations or arrests have been dealt out in Toronto and in Asheville, North Carolina. In Santa Fe, an angry motorist rear-ended a Critical Mass rider and pushed him off his bike. The cyclist was uninjured, but he was cited for riding on the street.

Kumar participated in several rides in San Francisco where "they block cars and cause traffic jams and go through red lights." He moved to Denver last year and discovered that there was no Critical Mass ride, so he called a few friends, printed fliers and sent e-mails to as many people as he could think of. "We hit the coffee shops and the bicycle stores and some restaurants, and we put fliers right on people's bicycles," he says. The first ride was scheduled for August 27.

Four people showed up.

"Denver's a tough city because it's more conservative than San Francisco or Boulder," Kumar says. "And the bike clubs say that although they support the idea, they can't sanction it or be associated with it because it's semi-rebellious."

In a letter to Kumar, Martha Roskowski, the executive director of Bicycle Colorado, wrote that the last time her board of directors discussed Critical Mass, "they decided not to officially affiliate or sanction the action, as some felt that the events antagonize motorists and encourage illegal behavior.

"Personally," she added, "I figure that anything that raises awareness of bicycle issues is a benefit, and given the current 'build bigger highways' mentality, bicyclists need to be more active and visible. Critical Mass may be the way to go. I'll put a notice of your activities on our Web site, though we'll probably have to include a disclaimer that Bicycle Colorado is not officially affiliated with CM."

For his second attempt at organizing a ride, Kumar used a guide called How to Make a Critical Mass: Lessons and Ideas From the San Francisco Experience, written by some of the ride's San Francisco originators. (Proponents of Critical Mass rides claim that there is no official organization and that the movement has no official leaders.) "Whether they are commuters, couriers, or ride just for the fun of it, every city has a population of bicyclists that are marginalized and threatened by the current transportation system," the guide reads. "Beginning the ride in some downtown area is obviously a good choice...You want to meet early in the evening to gain visibility by making sure Critical Mass is part of the rush-hour traffic." The guide also suggests tactics for dealing with traffic rules, cops and motorists who "aren't amused" and try to force their way through the riders, creating the possibility of an accident or injury.

Kumar had also asked for help from the four people who'd shown up that first day, including Barrera, who had just moved here from Chicago and had seen a flier at Turin Bicycles. She'd been disturbed by the death of a boy in Chicago who had been run over while he was cycling on a bike path in an alleged act of road rage by the driver of a sport utility vehicle. "The license plate was stuck right to his body," she says.

The second Denver ride was scheduled for 6 p.m. on September 24. By 5:50 p.m., only a few more people had shown up, bringing the total to ten -- five short of Kumar's goal of fifteen. "We still have a few minutes," Barrera said, pointing to a small group of riders who were approaching.

Steve Dreher was one of them. He had pedaled down the Cherry Creek bike path from his job at eCollege.com in southeast Denver. "I bike all year round," he says. "Denver has a lot of bikers, but until now, no public awareness for bike paths or bike lanes." Dreher commutes ten miles every day by bike from his house in the Baker neighborhood. "Half the reason I work there is because you can get there on the bike trail and because they have a shower," he says.

Dreher and Kumar both admit that Denver has some nice cycling paths and that the city has made an effort to create bike lanes, but they would like to see more. Kumar cycles to his downtown office every day on Lincoln Avenue or Logan Street, "on the sidewalks basically," he says. "Otherwise, people run you over. A bike lane only takes up three or four feet. It is something that should be examined -- if not downtown, then at least on Lincoln and Broadway."

"We've all been run off the road," Dreher adds. "That's a risk you take." He isn't nervous about riding in Critical Mass, though, even if it does anger car commuters. As with any revolution, there is always danger. But he would like to see more riders, he says. "At least a hundred would be great."

At 6 p.m., Kumar counted. There were eighteen eager people. Would they do it?

"Yeah, we're going to ride," he said.

And so Denver's first Critical Mass ride began. The group -- with helmets for everyone -- slowly rolled out of the park and down 15th Street. They took up two lanes, and rush-hour drivers, their heads turning, had to hit the brakes and swerve to avoid them. The riders turned onto Glenarm Street and pedaled under the Denver Pavilions shopping mall. There were no bike lanes along the route they took. In some places there were barely enough lanes for the automobile traffic, but the group sailed past dozens of other cyclists who were using the streets anyway.

As they swept around the corner onto 18th Street and then turned on Blake, the group picked up four more people, and they spread out so that they occupied all lanes. Cars honked -- a lot of cars honked -- and one man in a Volkswagen Jetta sped angrily through the riders. A few people cheered. Some of the riders called out for people to join them; one screamed, "Cars fucking suck!"

"We needed that guy, though," Kumar says. "We need more each month, and we need people to get excited and more involved. The size that Denver is, anything above 100 people is going to be dramatic. We want it to be peaceful; we don't want it to be violent. But it can get violent. You never know what people are going to do, bikers or cars."

There were no police -- but that could change. In fact, Sergeant Tony Lombard, a spokesman for the Denver Police Department, says he has already heard of Critical Mass. "We'd have to determine what it was," he says. "Is it a protest? Is it a parade? If it turns into something like a parade, they'd have to have a permit. If it is a direct protest of automobiles, we'd have to look at it a different way and start enforcing the laws pretty strictly."

On this day, however, the group zigzagged peacefully through the streets for another thirty minutes or so, up California Street, down Champa and over to 15th again. They finally ended up at Market Street Station. The route will be roughly the same for the next ride on October 29th and again on November 26th, and on the last Friday of every month after that, Kumar hopes. "We figure if we can keep the motivation, then we can get it going, and if we get a turnout of dedicated followers, maybe we can survive the winter. It's something that doesn't take a lot of time to do.

"We're going to have our own rush hour, I guess."

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