It's one of those Friday nights where I just need to stay in, get some work done and recuperate from days on end of debauchery. Work is getting done, and before I can look at the clock, my stomach tells me what time it is. I check the air in my tires, grab my lights and I'm out the door. I run into my neighbor and we share an extended moment of male bonding over cigarettes before I'm off through the streets of Koreatown on a Friday night.
I stop at a fruit truck and grab a dollars worth of bananas for breakfast on my way to the tamale ladies that I like on Irolo and 8th. Bananas and tamales in hand I'm riding back home on 8th. I hit a red on Western, and then...neon lights, LEDs and fluorescent bike wheels spinning up the street! I have always said I wanted to ride a Critical Mass one day, and my urge to procrastinate one more time with the excuse of tamales is obliterated by the echoing invitation of all the riders passing by. Fuck it. I turn into the pack and up Western, the exhilaration building as I get to the crowd waiting for us at the train station.
What a scene! Luchadores in full uniform, witches, and the undead are sprinkled around the crowd. Halloween is on Sunday so a lot of riders are dressed up, but I have a scary looking bat-demon print on my shirt with blood coming out of its mouth so I think I'm okay. A guy on a tall bike orbits the already surging mass, and a group of about twenty or so riders, that in any other instance would look substantial, pulls up from the north side of the street, adding only a tiny bit more density to our small army of about four hundred. The energy is frothing off of the sidewalk, and bicycle police are swarming around trying to keep everything safe by threatening citations.
After about five minutes the pack heads out, at whose lead I can't tell and I don't care. I'm literally high from the spontaneity of my decision and the heat of all the riders all around me as we pour through the city stopping traffic for minutes at a time. We cut through the darkness of Hancock Park with only the blinking LEDs (and the occasional car passing in the opposite direction) illuminating the way. I try to imagine what that driver must be thinking as this blinking herd of wheels and testosterone rolls toward them. Some of the drivers are noticeably freaked out, others supportive. Both react with their horns, honking long and abrasively or beeping rhythmically.
The cops are more helpful than anything else, though they hold us up for a second on the corner of Highland pointlessly splitting us up for only the minute or so it takes us to reform. I see one send a kid home possibly for messing around in the oncoming traffic lane of a two way street. "You're done!" he says sternly, then tells the boy to go home. The boy looks all of 12 years old, and the judgement carries the sort of severity for him that it would had he been kicked out of the public pool for splashing. His face says it all. Some riders are more exuberant than others, jumping off of sidewalks or walls; I spent at least two minutes next to a guy that kept a consistant, controlled wheelie going.
People all over Melrose and through Hollywood turn their heads on the corner or from their dinner at their window table. Our hoots and whistles are reciprocated by applause from many. A mother out with her family shouted a question in vain as to what this was for..."A celebration of freedom" would have been a good answer; instead incoherent shouts from amidst all the screams flood the air.
The cops leave us on a good note around Olympic and LaCienega--a couple of squad cars intersect La Cienega from Olympic and stop traffic ,waving us through and on our way with Maglights. There might be other police here still but the main entourage is gone. We whiz under the 10 and take Venice into Culver City...the streets are a little more desolate now and the ride has started to gain a feeling of calm. As this is my first time I have no idea where we are going so I ask the guy next to me.
"I think we're going up to Malibu." No shit. I've enjoyed having my critical mass cherry popped and I want to get back home and do some work, so I peel off around Venice and Robertson. On the long peaceful ride home I run the events of the ride through my head, an unexpected journey that I'll be sure to plan for next time. I also notice that the bag with the tamales and the bananas has been rubbing against my front wheel and the tinfoil of the tamales is peeking out through the yellow plastic. I cradle my food in my arms the rest of the way.
When I got home that night I found most of my bananas had been smushed and they were slippery from tamale grease. I started to write and do some research. In doing so I discovered some of the critical mass philosophies and also opened my eyes to just how big cycling has become in Los Angeles. The fact of the matter is that if you want to go on one of these rides, there are enough different ones that go on in different parts of the city, at different times, for different levels of riders and styles riding, so you can undoubtedly find a place where you feel comfortable giving it a shot.
The ride is a festive rolling celebration, an organized coincidence with no leaders and no set agenda. People come together for many reasons, to assert their right to cleaner air, less congestion, safer roads, and to celebrate and ride in solidarity with other cyclists and like minded individuals. (C.I.C.L.E)
critical mass, n. an amount necessary or sufficient to have a significant effect or to achieve a result. [1940--1945] (Random House)