Critical Mass vs. Bike the Drive
Thursday, May 31, 2012
Marcia

This past Sunday was my first Bike the Drive. After sleeping fitfully and waking every hour or so worrying I'd miss my 4:30am alarm, I got up in the dark, downed a smoothie I made the night before, bought a fresh water bottle from the bleary-eyed clerk at the all-night Qwik Mart near my house, and hit the trail downtown. It's about 7 miles downtown and I really pumped, fearing I'd be late to meet by bike group, but even with a stop for a banana and orange juice, I met my group at Balbo and Congress just minutes after the official 5:30 start time. The sun was just coming up over Buckingham Fountain.

At 6am I headed north, hoping to keep a fast pace. I completed the thirty miles(north to Hollywood, south to the Museum of Science and Industry, then back to the start at Congress and Jackson) at 8am in 2 hours flat, averaging 15 miles per hour, then walked around the tents set up to promote biking related groups and events, and the free Sabra hummus vendors who were passing out pretzels and cold hummus tubs (score!)

Was it a lovely ride? Yes, indeed. Would I pay 50 bucks to do it again? Well...maybe.

Now the thing is, I've been a pretty regular fair-weather Critical Mass participant for about four years. Yes, the monthly ride where cyclists "take back the streets" and the Chicago Police tolerate it, often grudgingly. Chicago drivers, well, some tolerate it. Some look at the sudden appearance of thousands of cyclists as a huge pain in their ass. In one case I recall, a drunk guy in a tuxedo hopped out of his car as we crossed at Roosevelt, kicked a girl off her moving bike, screamed slurred profanities, then hopped back in his expensive Audi, careening around the cyclists who stopped to help her, and shot out onto the expressway.

But then there are the majority of drivers, who--as you ride past waving and smiling and greeting them with the ubiquitous "Happy Friday!" find their curmudgeonly expressions melting, and eventually smile back, even waving. And there are those who cheer, and who roll down their windows and don't care if they are corked in for upward of twenty minutes, they are gonna enjoy the show, and they'll reach a hand out to hive-five as many cyclists as they can. And there are the truckers who you can get to honk their loud horns. And the kids who swarm out on hot summer nights with their tanned bellies and cheer because this impromptu parade just choose their street to turn down. And all of this can make for a really lovely way to see the city--and not just the city we present to tourists, but the side-streets where people of all ages, races, income levels, and cultures make their homes. And it can be a really beautiful thing. When we humans come together in large groups we are capable of really great things...

And also of profoundly stupid ones. A few years back I almost biked the drive when Critical Mass stopped at the Balbo bridge entering Grant Park. For some reason, some of those at the front of the pack decided tonight was the night to "take back" Lake Shore Drive. When you are in a group, and the pack starts moving, you go with it...until you see it turning left onto North Lake Shore Drive. A number of folks stayed with the flow, and there was an almost instant police response, paddy wagons appeared out of nowhere at Jackson. I had--along with many others--hopped the fences put up to keep Lalapoloozers away from the lake front, and watched, horrified, as police took out batons and beat cyclists down. I decided to head north up the bike path to Grand, then beat a path home.

Of course, there was no such issues with the officially sanctioned Bike the Drive, but there were still some assholes. Setting a 15mph pace, I rode predominantly in the left lane, and I would say I was faster than about 90% of the cyclists there-- most of whom were just enjoying the scenery. Thing is, I feel like I already get that great scenery on the lake front path (which I avoid like the plague most summer weekends), and clearly I was not alone in just wanting to use the ride as a venue to push myself as a cyclist and take advantage of an unlimited 30 miles of riding, devoid of stops. Some of those folks were "Lances" who rode in packs. Some of these folks--mostly men, a few women-- passed me and graciously signaled "On your left," as they passed. Others said nothing, and passed me with bare inches between us, even when I was to the far right of the left lane and there was five feet of space to my left.

I mention this because I'm constantly hearing motorists complain about cyclists, and also hearing cyclists complain about motorists. And the complaints are valid, usually. Here's why: it's not the vehicle that makes a person a bad driver, it's the person, and there are enough assholes to go around for both sides.

What I wish is that we could try better to see the other driver's point of view. I roll my eyes at the idiots who text and drive on bikes and in cars. To those who say that participating in Critical Mass invites tragedy (as in the 2011 Brazil mass), I'd say that is akin to blaming a rape victim for the crime because her outfit was too sexy. I wish more cyclists would wear helmets and respect that just because they have great manoeuvrability that doesn't mean they should always use it. Signals are courteous and help other motorists and cyclists know what's up, so we can be safer. And I wish motorists would realize we can't react as quickly as a car, and that roads were originally intended for people to get from one place to another--just because they are now paved and cars are in the majority doesn't mean cyclists don't belong. Share the road.

And I kinda wish that sharing meant that the City that says they promote cycling wouldn't gouge us so much to ride LSD one day a year. Yes, I know, I know, some of the money goes to a good cause--the Active Transportation Alliance, and to support teams, police presence, toilet rental, etc. I guess I'd rather they skip the T-shirts and pancakes, and the stickers you have to wear and the arm-bands you flash at the checkpoints so they know you paid, and just close the streets for one day and let anybody cycle for free. Because I don't think segregating cyclists and motorists for a four-hour ride once a year is enough to teach us how to share the roads and respect each other.

But maybe I'm an idealist. I'm still gonna do Critical Mass, because I have hope that at some point we're all gonna get better educated about how cyclists and motorists can share the public thoroughfares. And because one of the best parts of Critical Mass is something that cannot happen at Bike the Drive--that moment where the driver of a car gives you the look that says, "Hey, I get it," and smiles, turns off his car engine, and stops to enjoy the view.

 

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