The Power of Critical Mass

Critical Mass from the cockpit of a pair of Ape Hangers

It began by accident. In my experiences, most good things do. I was approaching Jackson Boulevard on a beautiful late September day in 2004. And there it was, hundreds of cyclists, of all shapes and sizes, parading through the street, smiling, whistling, ringing, and loving their lives. I yelled out, "What is this?"

Their resounding answer - Critical Mass.

As I studied the mass, an uncontrollable smile grew across my face. Then laughter, as I cheered alongside the throngs of pedestrians around me. Jumping up and down, I thought - whatever this was, I wanted in. Whoever these people were, I wanted to share their world.

Freedom on a bike

Like most children, my first real experience with transportation freedom was with the bicycle I received as a gift for my seventh birthday. I learned to ride it in the gravel alleyway behind our house on Ashland and Montrose where I became very friendly with scrapes, bruises, and cuts in the attempt. I later resurrected the same bike from a basement and used it throughout college. I still have that little bike. I probably always will.

Getting on the L train

After college I traveled for a year, and then I moved to Lakeview in the fall of 2003. I let the following summer slip by in a haze of long hours working downtown. The EL became my primary source of transportation, which after commuting via car for 6 years, was a welcomed change. I rediscovered reading, and arrived to work relaxed and rested, not tired and stressed from the reverse commute to Schaumburg during the years prior.

I purchased a used Diamondback road bike in the spring of 2004. I rode it a bit, nothing special, and before long, the summer of 2004 was essentially over. I dreaded the upcoming winter. An overall sense of discontent permeated all of my actions and perspectives. Shortly after my 24th birthday, I discovered "The Mass." My first ride was in October of 2004, the Halloween Ride, I donned the flying squirrel costume and joined the assembled multitude at Daley Plaza at 5:30 pm. The experience, at first, was quite nerve wracking. I knew no one. Despite the limitations and negative interpretations I imposed upon myself, I proclaimed "The Mass" the highlight of the waning summer.

As I rode during subsequent "Masses" and other events, such as the Chicago Auto Show Shutdown, I began forming friendships with fellow cyclists. Critical Mass rides, and the Chicago cycling community at large, exudes diversity. Messengers, commuters, Rat Patrolers, activists, artists, musicians, entire families - all are accepted - all are family. The Mass is a conduit; a living organism with tendrils that reach into every neighborhood, profession, race, religion, philosophy, creed, and sexual orientation. This power is most evident as one observes the plethora of diversity during the rides themselves. But they are also evident within the bicycling community during the remaining 353 days of the year. During my frequent excursions through the city I continue to form friendships with fellow cyclists at red lights, on the Lake Front Trail, and even via Internet mailing lists. The cyclists' mindset is refreshing, empowered by an outlook and a mindset I had only encountered previously during my backpacking excursions.

Commuters share no bonds, Devin ignores the other commuters while reading a book on the L train

The combination of intelligence, responsibility, adventure, and raw guts , creates a common bond that is seldom present in the residents in my neighborhood, the commuters on the EL, or the business folk I encounter in the loop. The bond the riders share enables conversations that cut through formalities, pretense, and the proverbial weather. Having nothing to hide, and no walls (or windows) to hide behind, the possibility for meaningful human interaction becomes inevitable.

Chicago's Critical Mass

The notion of a community, of re-evolving the interaction between people on the move, is almost radical in today's hermetically sealed, air-conditioned, 55mph car-based society. Imagine, for a moment, your day-to-day experiences with people. On the elevator, in a store, within your office, behind the safe walls of your home. Your attitude and demeanor is strikingly different than the cut-throat competition and consistent aggravation that is exhibited while enclosed within your automobile. The automobile shades us, hides us, and allows us to view every other person on the road not as a human being, but as an inorganic entity, bent on the same competitive goal of moving a 2 to 4 ton consumer item through three densely-packed lanes of the same. There is a safety net, a solace, that people find within their cars. An escape from the world, as it is often phrased. I invite you to consider, for a moment, in actuallity, how free you are within your car?

and unhappy car commuter looks to be angry because of paying so much for gas

When you consider the factors governing and regulating your time within your vehicle, the illusion of freedom quickly evaporates into a checklist of speed limits, traffic, pollution, insurance, payments, gasoline, physical inactivity, elevated blood pressure, and aggravation.

Conversely, the bicycle remains free of many, if not all of these restrictions. Personally, I experience deep relaxation whilst riding. I arrive at my destination exercised, invigorated, and clear-minded. When joined by hundreds, if not thousands, of fellow cyclers, the road transforms into a living, breathing, healthy community. There are no windows to roll up. Cycling is not an escape, but a clear channel into the world, raising your awareness, heightening your senses. Critical Mass amplifies and shares this power with everyone who encounters it , riders and non-riders alike. Pedestrians wave, cheer, and proclaim "Happy Friday" with "The Massive." Every month more cyclists join the ride for the first time. The community is non-exclusive, non-competitive, and most importantly... it's fun.

Chicago's Critical Mass

The first time I experienced the magic that flows through Critical Mass was as I rode on Wacker drive along the river. Being October, it was dark. The skyscrapers of the loop stretched towards the dark sky, patchwork illumination defining each as a unique entity; cities within a city. The other riders surrounded me, enveloped me. I had never seen the city from this perspective before. In The Immortal Class, Travis Culley comments on the mindset surrounding the modern American in motion (Get from point A to point B as quickly as possible). Conversely, here I was, traversing the magnificent city at not more than 10 miles per hour. No destination at hand. None wanted. The only goal was the experience, the community, the freedom of motion, unrestricted by laws, ordinance, and the most oppressive constraint of all, time. Without the hand of time the pace of the city, the speed, the deadlines, the stress of rush hour, washes away as if a flash flood pouring down the Chicago sewers.

The latest ride I participated in was the June 2005 ride. The route was a fantastic, leisurely ride through some of Chicago's oldest South-side neighborhoods, culminating with a sunset at 63rd street beach. This was, by far, my favorite ride to date. It was also my largest ride. Over 1,400 cyclists snaked their way through Chicago that hot, sunny June afternoon. Riders passed out water, Popsicles, and kind words. With music in tow, the Critical Mass shared Chinatown, Hyde Park, the University of Chicago, open fire hydrants, unparalleled skyline views, and a magnificent beach. I learned more about Chicago's south side that day than I had through all of my previous life. Why? Because instead of barreling through the streets in a frantic attempt to get to my destination (as I used to do), I let it soak in. I opened myself up to the faces, the architecture, the unique atmosphere of each neighborhood. The people we encountered are, and always have been, more receptive to our understanding and goodwill than most would believe. They respond in kind, welcoming the pedal-pushers and opening themselves up to the fun we're having. Granted, there are always exceptions. If life was perfect, it would be pretty boring. But exceptions always evolve. At one point in our recent history, the automobile was the exception. As industry changed and the pace of commerce increased, bicycles became the exception. Now, once again, what was the exception has returned as an exceptional movement.

Chicago's Critical Mass

The concept of flow is prevalent throughout Critical Mass. Both the literal sense of moving fluidly through the streets and the metaphorical notion of the effortless chain of positive events that occur before, during, and after the ride. Everyone, at some point, experiences the concept of flow within their own lives. When recalling a day where everything just worked, consider the power you felt over your own life. For cyclists, an excellent analogy of flow is the act of riding in and of itself. During a heavy rush hour street a path suddenly opens before you. Or you discover a faster, less trafficked route from your apartment to work. Flow is contagious and, like a bike rolling downhill, picks up momentum over time. The Critical Mass flows through the streets, spilling out in every direction, generating currents for all who experience it. Become present to the flow in your own life. Listen to it, nurture it, and ride it.

Chicago's Critical Mass

Experiencing the world at human speed. That is cycling's gift to me. This is the gift I am committed to give to others as I share my experiences and welcome them, re-acquaint them, with an old friend they knew as a child, seven years old, learning to traverse the world on two wheels, self-powered, free from restraint, empowered with a freedom of movement that most people deny is possible, but everyone hopes to achieve someday. Why not right now? Try it on. I'll see you at the next Mass.

The Chicago Critical Mass starts at 5:30 pm
at Daley Plaza on the last Friday of every month.

Published on Pedal Pushers online magazine on August 19, 2005.


Jane Healy
8.25.2005 6:38 pm
What an awesome commentary. Makes me want to get on my bike and head out for a ride! Bike on, Devin. And keep sharing your stories.

Steve Samnadda
9.29.2005 7:40 pm
You put into words what all motorists think and feel at some point. Although we can't live without cars, it sure wouldn't hurt to leave them behind sometimes. Great snapshots! I agree with Jane. I thinking I'm going for a ride!