What on earth is all this about? That was my overriding thought as I stood in a warm and still St Peter’s Square in Manchester. It was half past six in the evening, office workers were drifting home and bar staff were going to work. But for me it was the last Friday of the month so it must be Critical Mass.
As the clock ticked by I was thinking it was about time we set off on our group ride around town – but folk just kept on arriving. Some guy produced a can of beer from seemingly nowhere, another sucked on his roll-up and then came the bomb: the bicycle sound system. It seemed that our rag tag group were getting more eclectic by the minute.
Now I’ve ridden thousands of miles, seen life from a bike’s eye view, met plenty of cycling people and seen any number of crazy gadgets but nothing, and I mean nothing, comes close to the bicycle sound system. I can only describe it as a ‘fairly chunky’ public address system. It sits on a bike trailer and pumps out the tunes from the rider’s iPod. By now I was beginning to think this might be fun.
By seven o’clock we were 280-strong and comprised everything from hipsters on their fixies to an old guy on a shopper with just about every type of bike in between. There were now three sound systems, a polish guy called Zim with a cargo bike that doubled as a mobile cafe and a lady with all her three kids on a single bike. And then we set off.
This was going to be slow. Our instructions were shouted from a loudhailer. We were to ride with no gaps between us around town following no particular route until we ended up in Platt Fields Park. Our only rule was “if you find yourself at the front, slow the f**k up; if you find yourself at the back speed the f**k up”. Riding as one group meant we could ignore traffic lights so long as they were green as we approached and this, it seemed, was the key to taking over the streets and, in turn, taking over the streets was where the fun began.
Watching the faces of drivers and pedestrians as nearly 300 cyclists crawled by cheering and smiling made the night for me. Some were aghast, most laughed, many cheered us on, some wound their windows down and high-fived riders as they went. I didn’t see anybody get really annoyed even when we blocked their green traffic lights.
A personal highlight was high-fiving almost all of a huge traffic queue down the curry mile in Rusholme with Bohemian Like You by the Dandy Warhols blaring out from the next door bike.
So what on earth IS this all about?
Well the science bit is that critical mass began in San Francisco in 1992 and since then the event has grown so that rides now occur in major cities all over the world on the last Friday of the month. There is no organisation behind it, no money changes hands, no police escort and, interestingly, no stated objective. This leaves plenty of room for speculation. Some describe it as monthly protest rides, others as a social movement.
For me though it was simply about having a good laugh. One student Critical Mass rider put it well saying: “I just ride it to show people how we roll”.
Critical Mass rides can be found all over the North and indeed the world. They’re in Blackpool, Lancaster, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle Upon Tyne, Nottingham, Preston, Sheffield, Stoke on Trent and York. As there is no organisation behind the rides the arrangements differ for each. Do check online before you turn up. Remember there’s no cost; all you need is a bike.
By Andy Groves
Andy’s next piece will tell us about his ride of the Yorkshire route of the Tour de France 2014. You can follow Andy via twitter and instagram @riding_north.