On the Move With Detroit Critical Mass Bikers

PEDAL POWER: Two-wheeled warriors take to the streets in a monthly protest against rude motorists
Photograph by Alex Aranda

Anarchy isn’t my cup of tea. By my age, you’ve come to appreciate the agreeable environment that ensues when everyone follows the rules, from top to bottom. Turn signals, cell phones set to vibrate, inside voices, people who return shopping carts to the corral — these are what make daily life bearable.

So what was I doing on a recent Friday evening, joining in with the monthly Critical Mass ride through downtown Detroit? It’s anarchy served with a side of obnoxiousness, a cri de guerre from those who travel by bicycle through a city known for its cars. Critical Mass, a group ride held all over the country on the last Friday of the month, is meant to be a rolling roadblock to motorists who flat-out refuse to see cyclists when they appear in singles and doubles the rest of the month. For 90 minutes or so, we reach critical mass. And we cyclists become motorists’ problem, instead of the other way around.

Born in the San Francisco Bay area, Critical Mass can be a tense, confrontational event. In New York in 2008, a police officer stiff-armed a cyclist off his bike as he rode by. In Seattle that same year, cyclists trying to prevent a motorist from pulling out of a parking place allegedly damaged his car. And in Brazil earlier this year, a motorist drove directly into the cyclists, injuring as many as 40, news reports said. Some rides start at rush hour, for maximum impact on city traffic — and emotions all around.

In other words, cyclists and motorists are a little like Israelis and Palestinians. But Detroit is not New York. The rides here roll out at 7 p.m., an hour when the Motor City’s core is, if not deserted, certainly depopulated. The peloton I joined was a couple hundred strong, not thousands. If anyone was delayed more than five minutes, if the sum total of a driver’s inconvenience involved sitting through one or two additional cycles of a red light, I’ll eat my hat.

The core tactic of Critical Mass, the thing that bugs motorists most, is something called “corking.” Brave outriders intentionally block traffic at cross streets until the mass rolls through. On most Detroit streets, it’s nothing much. On West Grand Boulevard, it’s something else. I heard the honking horns, the universal signal of a driver who feels unjustly delayed. Most bikers responded with a cheery wave. A few drivers tried to push out anyway; they received jeers. On paper, we were definitely the at-fault party — red lights? Us? But there’s something about strenuous exercise that makes the person doing it feel invincible and right. And on the grand continuum of laws being broken on any given Friday in Detroit, this didn’t feel like much.

Photograph by Vanessa Miller

So where did we go? Rolling out from the Wayne State athletic fields just after 7, we headed down Trumbull to Michigan, through Corktown and then vaguely south and east, back and forth, traveling through most of downtown, Eastern Market, Greektown, Lafayette Park, the Dequindre Cut, Mexicantown, all over. After 10 minutes or so, once I’d settled into a pace and found a comfortable place in the crowd — just like driving the freeway — I relaxed and started enjoying the scenery. Of course, one is free to ride all over the city on one’s own, but how often do you do so? The bitter truth of being a cyclist in this or any –with a car, you lose. You always have to ask yourself, do they see me coming? Are my colors loud enough, lights bright enough? During Critical Mass, you can take that for granted. I’ve driven Woodward between the Fox Theatre and Comerica Park many times. But never has it felt so great and looked so beautiful as when I rode it with dozens of others.

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