It was a thrilling experience to own the road with perhaps 50 other cyclists. Our host, the redoubtable Mr. Mournian, observed: it felt right. Here in LA the car reigns. It's a car city. They define much of the environment - apart from the vehicles themselves, there's the infrastructure that supports them: roads, signs, traffic lights, gas stations, billboards, freeways. They dominate the senses with exhaust fumes, tire and engine noise, visual noise, and the ever-present threat of impact. And this is to say nothing of the wider economic, political, environmental, health and ethical problems.
Now I like cars. I grew up with them (thanks to my dad, an incorrigible car nut). I love the sense of freedom they provide, the convenience they offer, and the visceral aspects: acceleration, cornering, the beating rumble of a V8, the curves of a 911, the whistle of a turbo.
But what a terrible price we pay. Sometimes I say about my cat, Vlad: "It's his world, we just live in it". I am not sure where I picked this up, but it works for cars too: "It's their world, we just live in it."
Except for tonight. Tonight we locked King Car out of his palace and staged a food-fight in the banquet hall. To ride with serene confidence in the middle of the street, leveraging the security of numbers to ignore traffic signals and irate motorists, is more satisfying that it sounds. Judging by the whoops and laughter of the other riders, I wasn't alone in feeling this way.
I would divide the attendees into three groups:
- "Admins" - while the critical mass concept doesn't include the idea of authority figures (it's basically an anarchist concept - but that word is so loaded and abused as to be useless), there were a few riders that took the lead. They reminded me of the self-appointed "safety officers" I'd sometimes encounter in various weird forest-raves. People who are getting off on selflessness. These were the riders who parked in front of SUVs while the rest of us glided safely by, who made decisions (on the fly) about which route to take, and who led us to the unique Santa Monica eatery Cha Cha Chicken (caution: large image) at the end (for Ropa Vieja and beer, ginger beer in my case)! One of these "admins" (my term) had ground effect flouros on his bike. Sweet.
- "Serious Cyclists" - these folks had expensive or otherwise cool-looking bikes, usually featuring elaborate but sturdy cargo carrying capability. One guy was effortlessly lugging an acoustic guitar in a hard-shell flight case on the back of his bike. Others had musical equipment (miniature timbales, to be precise) attached to their handlebars, which they used to attract the attention of bemused onlookers. These people have a stake in a movement like critical mass, since they are likely sharing the road with King Car on a daily basis. Increased recognition of the rights of other kinds of vehicles - especially one as benign as the bicycle - is in their interest.
- "The Rest Of Us" - people who were quite literally "along for the ride". First timers like Amy and I, plus a bunch of generally more low-key riders. "The Rest" are crucial, like the toast that surrounds the raisons. Critical mass doesn't work without numbers.
I explained to Amy recently that I am happiest when my life goes "off script". Most of us spend a lot of our time inhabiting roles that society defines for us. We generally know how we are supposed to behave, and what responses our behavior will elicit. This is mostly automaticized. Taken for granted. Invisible. I call that "on script". Going "off script" means deviating from these expected norms, seeing what happens when you don't know how to behave, when you don't know what responses you're going to get.
In my experience, "off script" is always more interesting, and usually more fun.
Critical mass is a wonderful off-script experience. I encourage anyone with even a passing interest in cycling to try it.