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Critical Masturbation 

The long-running pro-bike protest known as Critical Mass is a form of ritual self-abuse that hurts the cause of city cycling

Wednesday, May 14 2003
I ain't going to spend me no money
On women or drink
I'm saving for a Schwinn Pixie
Painted shiny pink
I'm going to ride around the block
And make all the girls think
Oh yeah
That I'm the baddest dude who ever rode
On a Schwinn Pixie

Gonna buy a Schwinn Pixie
Gonna buy it brand new
It's gonna have a Snoopy horn
And sparkly grips, too
I'm going to cut quite a figure
Cruising down the avenue
Oh yeah
On my brand-new shiny pink
Schwinn Pixie

-- Song I'd sing to myself while assembling bicycles at Lodi Schwinn, circa 1980-88

There's no nicer place for learning to ride a Schwinn Sting-Ray than the vineyards surrounding my grandmother's old house in St. Helena. I remember crashing into the hot soil dozens of times until I got the hang of it. Once I was able to keep my balance, I made sport of running over the vineyards' softball-size dirt clods. They were crisp and powdery, and popped when I hit them.

Later, during grade-school summers, my friend Jerry Tallerico and I took five-hour bike rides along Kidder Creek and the Scott River and on a dozen or so other routes crisscrossing Scott Valley in Siskiyou County. Jerry died of AIDS 20 years later. As I looked at his embalmed skin in a San Francisco mortuary, I recall imagining, fondly, the faded blue paint of my old Hercules English 10-speed.

At 14 I rode my navy blue Raleigh Grand Prix from Elk Grove, Calif., to Caldwell, Idaho; day after day, I went hoarse cursing head winds. I missed my last year of high school racing bikes. Later, during college, I taped French verbs to my handlebars to study on the way to class.

So it was that throughout my life, important memories have always included bicycles. And like good thinking people everywhere, I've come to see bicycles as one of the keys to making a better, more peaceful world.

This week is Bike to Work Week in San Francisco. Thursday is Bike to Work Day. There may be no better moment to say the obvious: Isn't it about time this city's bicyclists relegated Critical Mass to the memory bin?

Critical Mass is, of course, that monthly festival of traffic-ordinance-breaking that, participants say, will somehow, someday, convince people to give greater rights to bicyclists. A thousand or so bicyclists gather at Market and Embarcadero the last Friday of each month, then ride together through congested streets at rush hour, briefly tying up traffic by blocking intersections.

I've cast my mind back over the six years since the famous Critical Mass demonstration in 1997, when police ran amok and over bicycle protesters. And I can't for the life of me figure out how breaking traffic laws -- which are the only real friend bike riders have when it comes to surviving amid cars -- is supposed to make streets friendlier for bicyclists. The monthly demonstration infuriates motorists, and most voters in San Francisco, for good or ill, are motorists. It pisses off the police, and police are the only people in San Francisco charged with enforcing laws on the street. It undermines bicyclists' claim for equal rights. (It's hard to ask for equal protection when you're breaking the law without expecting to be punished.) It's made hoodlums of bicyclists, who, in any other city, are considered a wholesome, all-American group.

Mainstream environmentalists routinely denounce their nasty, tree-spiking little brothers in Earth First! AIDS activists publicly distance themselves from radical groups such as ACT UP. What better way to celebrate Bike to Work Week than for bicycle activists to likewise jettison their own nasty, mud-throwing little brothers?

Leah Shahum, bless her heart, is the energetic, earnest, affable executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, the nonprofit group that lobbies for bike lanes and bike racks and other public accommodations that will spread the joy of cycling throughout the land. I was talking with her last week about the group's attempts to help police do more to crack down on automobile drivers who harass bicyclists. In the past, cyclists have complained that police systematically fail to pursue motorists who hit and injure those who locomote on two wheels.

"I've been working with the police four years on this same thing; the same things will happen with different people every year," says Shahum. "There will be a new traffic captain every year. Every time we sit down with them -- and I can't tell you how reasonable we are with them -- what we hear from them every time is, 'When you guys stop doing Critical Mass, maybe we'll help you.' We have to explain to them, 'We're not Critical Mass. We're the Bicycle Coalition.' We would basically have to do this every year. It's one of the biggest problems we have."

Don't you know it. There isn't a week of my life when I'm not reminded that bicyclists are regarded as arrogant hoodlums here. It's an attitude I've found in none of the other dozen or so cities where I've lived, and when I ask non-cycling people about this view -- that cyclists are irritating brigands, at best -- sometimes the non-cyclers explain by invoking the drug-inspired bicycle messengers of San Francisco legend.

Usually, though, the anti-bikers bring up Critical Mass.

Here's my theory: Despite this city's pacifist pretensions, many people live here precisely because San Francisco is a permanent war zone. We have dog wars, back-porch wars, dot-com wars, AIDS wars, tree wars, live-work-loft wars, park wars, library wars, freeway wars, museum wars, rent wars, homelessness wars, taxi wars, and bicycle wars, to name just a few. It's possible to move to San Francisco in the late spring, join a fight that summer, and by fall possess an interesting group of energetic, fighting-mad friends. In San Francisco, this is known as "making oneself at home."

About The Author

Matt Smith


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