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Wheeling and Dealing

Critical Mass is a mess to handle.

For the past thirteen years, Carolyne Janssen has used her mountain bike to commute from Governor's Park to downtown, where she works as a graphic designer with Denver's Department of Community Planning and Development. On June 30, she'd had a drink with co-workers in LoDo and was just heading home when she saw about sixty bicyclists riding up Wynkoop Street. It was the monthly Critical Mass ride.

Janssen had heard about Critical Mass, which started in San Francisco in 1992 as a way to promote bike culture and has since spread to more than 400 cities around the globe, a pedal-powered convergence of "unorganized coincidence." Even though, at 52, Janssen is far older than the ragtag collection of students, bike messengers, anarcho-hippies, lanky progressives and young families that join in the monthly rides, as a bicycle commuter she's often experienced the ire of motorists, and she's always felt a kinship with her fellow urban riders.

"And I thought, 'I really should go to this. I really should support this,'" she remembers. Not that she had much choice: As her route along 17th Street took her close to the unofficial bike parade, a police officer on a motorcycle ordered her into the right lane and corralled her in with the group.

Janssen didn't understand why a simple bike ride necessitated such an aggressive law-enforcement presence. "Ten motorcycle cops and three or four police cars?" she says. "Boy, it just really seemed like overkill." She also balked when a young man riding next to her was suddenly stopped by an officer and issued a ticket for pedaling through an intersection just as the light turned red.

The Denver Police Department has been cracking down on Critical Mass since the March ride, when four cyclists were arrested -- and their bikes impounded -- for breaking traffic laws. Nineteen-year-old Chris Woodard was one of the cyclists who spent the night in jail. "A cop got out and just randomly grabbed a woman from the back and was arresting her," he remembers. Woodard and another rider stopped, asked the officer why he was arresting the woman, and requested his name and badge number. The officer ignored him, Woodard says, so he continued asking questions. "Then he puts her in the police car and gets out a couple of plastic handcuffs and points to me and said, 'Get off your bike. You're going to jail tonight, too.'"

Woodard was charged with "interference with police authority" as well as failing to ride to the right, charges that he eventually pleaded down to a fine and community service -- although the Community College of Denver student still hasn't been able to retrieve his bike.

In April, a few Critical Mass members -- there's no organized leadership -- met with DPD brass to discuss ways to avoid such confrontations, and police officers distributed a pamphlet explaining bicycle traffic laws. But rather than going smoothly, the next ride devolved into a melee, with police issuing $410 citations to seventy riders, mostly for running red lights ("Critical Mess," May 4, 2006).

The concept behind the rides is to gather bicyclists together into a "critical mass" large enough to assert their right on roadways usually dominated by motor vehicles. In cities like New York and Seattle -- where ride participants regularly number in the thousands -- keeping the pack together requires blocking traffic with a method known as "corking." Cyclists at the front of the group will pause like crossing guards at intersections until the multitudes have passed, a safety-in-numbers strategy that prevents the group from being split apart and susceptible to auto infiltration. But a strong civil-disobedience sentiment also runs through the rides.

Cities that have seen their streets momentarily taken over by throngs of two-wheelers have responded with varying strategies. In 1997, San Francisco mayor Willie Brown attempted to ban the activity -- but mass arrests didn't stop the ride, and officials in that city now allow the event to cruise by. The first Critical Mass ride in Denver took place in 1999 and involved a total of six riders. The March ride attracted 150 -- a number that the cop crackdown has cut in half.

The increased police attention came as a result of the increased impact that Critical Mass was having on downtown streets, according to DPD District 6 commander Deborah Dilley. "This spring, when they started having bigger rides, our main concern was both the safety of the cyclists and the motoring public," she says. Dilley has consulted police departments in both Portland and San Francisco, where officers go so far as to change traffic lights so that the throng of bikes can have the right-of-way.

But that's not something Dilley's willing to try in Denver. "If the police department goes out and shuts down lights for Critical Mass, do we shut down intersections for other groups as well?" she asks. "Where do I draw the line?"

Even after Denver participants agreed to not run red lights and to leave one lane open so that cars could pass, the June ride was tense, with police closely shepherding the group and ticketing bikers for any infractions.

"People are like, 'Well, I don't want to go out and get arrested or get my bike impounded,'" says Woodard. "It's extreme, and $410 is a lot of money for minor traffic violations. So people are put off by the police activity around Critical Mass."

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