Thursday, April 03, 2003


by Randy Kay, April 3–9, 2003

Critical Mass Hamilton came out of hibernation last Friday with a “Pedal For Peace Critical Mass Bike Ride.”

Perhaps it was the mention of the word “Peace” but as the first cyclists arrive at the usual meeting spot at Hess and George Streets, squad cars of Hamilton’s finest are there, one idling in the pedestrian zone, another slowly cruising the area. Two beat cops stroll by to add to the police presence.

The threat? Today it is a peaceful group of cyclists who will ride together in a “mass” and feel safe on city streets as they celebrate alternatives to the private automobile. In a ride that’s too fun to be fully understood as a protest, Critical Mass has the power to fleetingly transform streets normally dominated by exhaust–spewing, carnage–producing motor vehicles and aggressive drivers.

At 5:10pm, one officer suggest he is unimpressed with the numbers, as only a dozen cyclists are on site greeting each other, talking amongst themselves. But slowly, steadily, more riders appear, cruising in from the north, south, east and west, until 20 minutes later the area is filled with 50–60 cyclists, in–line skaters and an intrepid McMaster student on an unicycle. The officer doesn’t mention numbers again, but begins vainly searching for a “leader.”

Fortunately, the cliché about leaders is easily disrupted by a gathering of Critical Mass. For example: police want to know the route, but the route is organic and depends on the mood and initiative of the Mass.

The Mass weaves through the downtown as people make decisions on the fly, ride “leaders”constantly in flux. Tired of hanging around with the paternalistic police, bicycle bells start to chime and at 5:38pm the bicycles coast out of Hess Street toward downtown, two police cruisers, lights flashing, now in tow.

Making their way through wide, one–way streets lacking basic infrastructure for cyclists, the Mass slows the pace of the city to what is arguably a calmer, saner, safer speed.

As cities in Iraq are bombarded, some on the ride equate the profligate burning of fossil fuels with the burning of human flesh in oil wars. “No more oil/No more war/Time to take our bikes out more!” goes the chant.

This sort of pro–active peace–mongering has police on edge? From sidewalks, pedestrians watch in amusement or disbelief as the group glides by Copps Colosseum, the Library, the Farmer’s Market. A cyclist with a knack for alliteration shouts out: “For fossil fuel–free fun/Bicycles are number one!” On his back a home–made sign “Burn Fat, Not Fuel.”

The grins on the faces of cyclists gives indication of just how liberating a ride like this can be. The lack of safe routes in the city acts as a deterrent to thousands of would–be cyclists; for some, Critical Mass is their first positive experience cycling downtown.

The riders wave and smile at drivers and pedestrians as they go, pedaling over downtown streets George, Caroline, Main, MacNab, King, Bay, York, Wilson, Hughson, Cannon, James, King William, John, Queen and finally Hess, 45 minutes later.

As the ride coasts to a stop back at Hess Village, riders give a cheer, followed by a pause of anticipation as the police clamber out of their cars to begin an over–the–top lecture. Clearly frustrated, the two officers invent and exaggerate incidents, including the presence of a TV crew from CH who will, it seems, broadcast the “reckless” and “embarrassing” display to innocent children. (A call to CH assignment editor Mike Miles dispels the officer’s claim.)

Sergeant Paul Johnston claims that they were “invited” and bemoans the fact that the riders spurned their offer to “help.”

Officer Bob Nelson arbitrarily assigns leadership status to one person and hands out a couple of laminated cards detailing Bicycle Fines. Nelson berates the citizen cyclists, calling them “idiots” and threatens to interfere with the next ride by charging cyclists for any infractions.

In a city with high rates of cars running red–lights, drunk drivers and a legacy of hit and runs leaving behind dead cyclists, when it is suggested that cars — not bikes in a Critical Mass ride — are the real threat to children, Officer Nelson just scoffs and tells the cyclist to “grow up — cars are here to stay.” (Ironically, for a week in October, police will be busy shutting down large portions of the city to accommodate cyclists in town for the World Road Racing Cycling Race.)

Despite the dressing down, departing cyclists seem buoyed by the buzz of the communal ride. The next Mass is set (as always) for the last Friday of the month, Friday April 25, 5:30pm starting at Hess and George Streets.