Illustration by Audrey Fukuman.
The whirring of thousands of bicycle chains is a magical sound. And, not so long ago in the grand scheme of things, thousands whirred up Market Street. Male cyclists were dressed as ladies. Bikes were done up to look like boats. Another resembled a coffin, bedecked with a skull and crossbones and an inscription "warning all Supervisors of the political death that awaited those public officers who heeded not the demands of the people."
The people watched. And the people cheered. And then they attempted to flip a streetcar that a cyclist claimed nearly hit him.
Some 5,000 bicycles jammed the city's major artery, per the next day's newspapers. In San Francisco, there's a term for this: a voting bloc. "It was easily apparent that a new element had come into local politics," predicted a front-page report. "The very fact they stand together as a body proves their prominence as a public factor will be considerable."
True enough. "The people who use the bicycle in their daily travels around the city demand that the city appropriate enough funds to make their progress about the city comfortable and safe," bellowed the city's congressman to the crowd. "San Francisco should be placed in the front rank with other cities." With safer roads for bikes, contended another event-goer, "urban workers could ride to their places of business."
Investment in bicycling, however, wouldn't merely benefit those on two wheels. "I am in favor of generous appropriations to pay for the improvement of the streets and highways not for the bicyclists alone," a future senator told the crowd, "but also for the horse."
In July of 1896 there were, after all, still plenty of horses on the road. Cyclists of the day were forced to contend with their prodigious leavings, as well as cobblestones and impassable unpaved roads. But not for long. The city's thoroughfares were, in short order, paved. And, the cyclists were, in short order, run off them as America began its long and enduring obsession with the automobile.
But, on the final weekday of June this year, a rider coasted down a newly repaved section of Market Street. "It's so smooth, you don't even have to pedal," he cooed. Had he tumbled off his seat, he'd have been even more appreciative, as he was one of a coterie of nude cyclists dotting the most recent Critical Mass ride — as always, on the last Friday of every month.
There were male cyclists dressed as ladies on that night too — some in bridal attire. A few hours earlier, the city had begun issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. On this day, rolling through the city in a Critical Mass procession alongside a guy in a lace veil had all the fixings of a quintessential San Francisco experience. The 400-odd cyclists exchanged cheers with the newly betrothed in front of City Hall; the sheriff and police chief smiled and waved at the Critical Mass riders as they blew through red lights and pedestrian crosswalks.
A few angry motorists, displeased by cyclists lazily circling the intersections awaiting consensus on which street to clog next, took the bait. They leaned on their horns and yapped that they'd call the police. It was a risible threat, and played into the hands of the more confrontational riders, who quickly swarmed offending automobiles and leered at their occupants. "The police are here," shouted a cyclist. "The police are with us."
Indeed. It's a strange spectacle when a cop on a motorcycle is hustling to block the intersection for an unwarranted bicycle ride (last year the Police Department paid out $188,000 to the officers minding Critical Mass). So, while the Critical Mass ride was fun, uplifting, and — to evoke the most overused word in San Francisco — empowering, it's important to note what it wasn't: important.
Sixteen years ago this month (and 101 years to the day after the 1896 demonstration), Critical Mass was important. Some 7,000 riders inundated San Francisco and were violently confronted by police. It was a watershed moment for cycling in this city; Critical Mass served as a catalyst in changing San Francisco. But, like all catalysts, Critical Mass itself didn't change, even as the landscape around it did, both literally and figuratively.
Instead, a movement created 21 years ago to shake this city out of its institutionalized torpor has, itself, become institutionalized. It has become yet another San Francisco experience, a ritualization of something once vital and meaningful in a city increasingly preoccupied with celebrating what it once was.
"I don't find it to be the same ride anymore," says Joel Pomerantz, a Critical Mass co-founder. "The Haight has museums of counterculture — but it doesn't have any counterculture. Critical Mass doesn't have critical mass anymore. People go to see it the way you go to see the Exploratorium. It's more like an amusement park ride."
San Francisco has staked out a controversial, far-flung, and expensive path to become the cycling Mecca of its dreams. But like its riders aimlessly circumnavigating crowded intersections, Critical Mass continues to ride in circles.
Ask the longtime city cyclists who founded Critical Mass how pedaling a bike through San Francisco has changed over the ensuing decades and you induce a mental bottleneck. They can think of many examples, but have trouble listing any particular one. It's not unlike asking someone to name a Matthew Modine movie and reducing them to blurting out, "Oh, a million things."
By all means, this city has experienced a physical transformation in the past two decades, whether you're talking about biking or anything else. But, for veteran cyclists, the most noticeable change has been attitudinal. "It used to not be uncommon that people would yell at me for being on the road. They were mad at me for being in their way," recalls Dave Snyder, the former longtime head of the city's Bicycle Coalition, a cycling advocacy group. "Now, that never happens." For Chris Carlsson, a Critical Mass co-founder who has served as something of the bard of the movement, "There was the daily aggravation of riding through the streets and being treated like a child. In obvious fact, we were doing [drivers] a favor. They don't have to salute us, but they don't have the right to treat us like shit."