They’ve got a ticket to ride

Andrew Green

At first the answers seem half-baked, almost evasive. The questions are simple enough. How did Critical Mass find its way to Chicago? Why would dozens of bikers assemble downtown on Friday afternoons and ride en masse through the city’s streets, wreaking havoc on the rush hour traffic? Is it a protest? a statement? a holiday?

But everyone has a different answer, or no answer at all.

“It calls attention to urban issues and urban space,” says Jeff Seelbach, a Speech senior and 11-time Critical Mass veteran. “There’s no reason everything should be designed around a car.”

“It’s a good way to get to know Chicago,” says McCormick junior Derek Supple, who has ridden four times. “And it’s fun to bike on a Friday afternoon.” But that’s just his reckoning, and he says that each rider has a distinct reason for participating.

Thus Critical Mass, an organization without leadership, a mission statement or even a set route, can safely call itself an “organized coincidence” without seeming contradictory.

Since September of 1997, an assortment of novice bikers, unicyclists and expert bicycle messengers have streamed into Daley Plaza on the last Friday of each month. Around 5:30 p.m., the crowd turns into “a yelling contest,” according to Supple, as riders present and then campaign for different routes. The last ride took place right before May Day, so the riders organized a course that toured different workers’ rights sites throughout the city. And in a burst of absurdity, January riders chose a polka theme, ending the trip at the Baby Doll Polka Club.

“It’s a fun community to get together to enjoy the Friday afternoon,” Supple says. “Everyone’s real chatty … they ride real slow and shout ‘Happy Friday’ to the people in their cars. Everyone thinks it’s a holiday or something.”

Everyone, that is, except for the drivers spewing profanities out of their car windows. “It is a little inconvenience in your Friday afternoon,” Seelbach says. “But the amount of people pissed off is minimal compared to the amount of people who ask for information.” Riders are encouraged to bring homemade brochures and flyers that explain their interest in Critical Mass.

Periodically bikers will pull a “Chicago holdup,” standing in the middle of a busy intersection with their bikes hoisted above their heads, but usually this is to ensure that the entire stream of bikers is able to pass through the intersection together. “We’re not aggressive,” Seelbach says. “We’re not jumping on the SUV and pounding its windows. Some people are just trying to cause some change … others are trying to get new people out on their bikes.”

Supple says that neither experience as an activist or a biker is necessary. “You’re never going to get trampled,” he says. “Some (of the riders) like to be daredevils and play a little chicken with the cars but usually everyone’s real smart.” Even the police offer assistance to the activists on wheels by blocking traffic until the pack pedals through.

“It’s like a marathon … everyone’s together,” Seelbach says. “That’s the whole point, strength in numbers. It’s just so much fun to get on a bike and ride with a big group of people.”

Critical Mass supposedly started as a protest by a collection of bikers in San Francisco in 1992, although no Web site claims to offer the definitive story. It has since been imported into more than 152 cities across the U.S. “It’s definitely opened a lot of people’s eyes,” Supple says.

About seven Northwestern students make the trek each month, according to Seelbach. He encourages anyone who is interested to show up at The Arch on Friday at 4 p.m. to bike down to Daley Center. Any reason is good enough. nyou