Ride on!

Hundreds join June 30 Critical Mass — which ends peacefully
by Marlo Campbell (Uptown Magazine)

Two months ago I didn’t even know what a Critical Mass was.

Now I can say I’ve participated in the largest one in Winnipeg history.

The June 30 ride was a big deal for me. I’m not a particularly physically active person and I hadn’t been on a bike since I was a child. As such, I was nervous about my lack of cycling skills, let alone the very real possibility of debilitating muscle cramps and/or a full-fledged asthma attack.

However, I had decided it was important to experience a Critical Mass first-hand if I was to write about it with any credibility. Uptown has been covering the story since freelance photographer and Uptown contributor Jon Schledewitz was arrested while covering the May 3 event, and Uptown deputy editor Mike Warkentin witnessed May 26’s contentious ride, which ended in a melee of arrests and allegations that police used excessive force. In case you haven’t heard, Critical Mass is a loosely organized movement, involving leaderless groups of cyclists who get together monthly and ride through the streets in cities all over the world.

Individuals participate for a variety of reasons — some are making a public statement about car culture and our society’s gluttonous consumption of fossil fuels. Others show up to promote cycling, protest inadequate bike infrastructure or meet other like-minded people. Some just want to have fun in a large group.

Apprehensive but undaunted, I got my partner to show me how to work the gears and brakes of his bike in pre-Mass preparation. I did a leisurely test ride around my neighbourhood and discovered cycling was not nearly as exhausting as I had expected.

Of course, trying to keep up with rush-hour traffic on a muggy Friday afternoon is a different story, and after pedalling furiously down Notre Dame Avenue for 15 minutes, I arrived at Central Park — the rendezvous location — panting, sweaty and ready to pass the hell out.

At least 200 people were there — a huge increase from the 50 to 70 Winnipeggers who had participated in the May 26 ride.

Uncertain-looking newbies stood around waiting for direction while more experienced Massers wandered through the crowd and passed out literature, including a 31-page ’zine, Velodrama, featuring background information, safety guidelines and tips on how to interact with police and media.

For a bunch of activists with no leader, it seemed as though the cyclists had managed to get a lot done. Then again, according to Velodrama “reporters are a crafty bunch. They can and will take anything you say and edit to suit their own purposes.”

Clearly my perception can’t be trusted.

Before the ride started, excitement was in the air, along with an occasional waft of marijuana smoke. An enterprising Dickie Dee guy had parked himself in the middle of it all and was doing a brisk business. Some people were decked out in costumes. Others carried signs.

Police officers on bikes kept their distance but made their presence known. While they weren’t overtly friendly, they weren’t particularly menacing, either, and they all wore yellow Lance Armstrong bracelets, which I thought was cute.

Hundreds of bike bells signalled the start of the ride (how did everyone know?), and we set off en masse toward Portage Avenue — a rag-tag group of cyclists, skateboarders, inline skaters and at least one guy in a wheelchair. Our numbers had grown to around 300, and we stretched out over several city blocks.
‘Corkers’ stood with their bodies between us and the cars as we approached the first major intersection and proceeded through. When the light turned red light and the procession continued, no one was arrested or ticketed. I began to relax.

I had expected confrontation. Instead, the mood was festive. As we crossed Main Street, a man trapped in the long line of waiting cars (thanks to us) actually got out of his vehicle and applauded. People honked in support. When we ended up at The Forks, cyclists lifted their bikes in the air and cheered.

The post-Mass media release issued by Const. Jacqueline Chaput of the Winnipeg Police Service paints a decidedly different picture. It points out that many cyclists disregarded the Highway Traffic Act by taking up all lanes of traffic and riding on the sidewalk (both true). It says by doing so these cyclists endangered themselves and others (debatable — I felt very safe throughout the entire ride, and I’m awkward at best on a bike).

It continues, somewhat ominously:

“Based on Critical Mass’s choosing not to make the ride a peaceful and orderly event, we will evaluate the issue which may guide our response regarding any future rides.”

Huh? I thought both cyclists and police officers behaved appropriately and respectfully. To me, the ride was peaceful and orderly. And it was fun!

Then again, I’m just a crafty reporter, so don’t believe anything I have to say. Instead, show up at the next Critical Mass, on July 28, and judge for yourself.

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