On Friday, for the first time in four years, Denver's streets reached Critical Mass when the local branch of the national organization took downtown on two wheels. But the mass mobilization wasn't all smooth cycling: As riders promoted consideration of a world without cars, eight members were ticketed on Denver's closest street equivalent to that idea: the 16th Street Mall. Denver police impounded all eight bikes.
Founded in San Francisco more than a decade ago, Critical Mass is a global community bike ride geared at promoting sustainable transportation and taking a pointed look at car culture. in hundreds of cities across the planet, cyclists meet on the last Friday evening of each month and embark on a large-scale cycling trip around their home cities. The movement is unofficial, and until the day of, it is organized. Riders choose their routes by consensus during the ride, which ends when they want it to.
There is no heirarchy and there are no leaders. There's really not even a central website: Feel free to visit Critical-mass.org, but you will likely see only the message, "Sitting under the Bo tree, the server ponders while you wait."
Denver's Critical Mass group has a brief history of unhappy endings. Because the cycling-centric procession takes up most lanes of traffic on any street it travels, drivers and law enforcement occasionally grow frustrated by the action behind its message. In Denver, previous ventures years back earned regular tickets and several borrowed bikes when officers impounded the property.
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But for four years, since roughly the time of Denver's spot hosting the Democratic National Convention, the local chapter has taken the back road. Traditionally, cyclists ride once a month from March to October, but the group temporarily dissipated several years back. The decision to reintroduce the city to its message came with spontaneity, with the same unofficial process echoed in its organization: Bikers began distributing flyers about two weeks ago, and forty met in Lincoln Park on Friday.
The gathering then launched a ninety-minute tour of downtown, circling Lincoln and Broadway and gaining followers before eventually ending at the 16th Street Mall. But according to city ordinance 54-44, it is illegal to ride bikes on the mall unless in a designated area or on a Sunday. That explains why police officers caught up to the group and ticketed eight cyclists for trespassing on the mall, arresting two with warrants and impounding all eight bikes. With police in sight, some riders turned their wheels around, while others opted to stay.
One member of last Friday's troop, who asked to remain anonymous, described the decision as a mistake for the group's first Critical Mass in four years. For the first time back, he said "it didn't work so well. People get angry sometimes. We'll wait a few more rides before trying something that big again."
More from our Politics archive: "Critical Mess: Denver bicyclists get taken for a ride."