‘Everybody hated us’: Critical Mass, a famed bike event, turns SF into Amsterdam

Critical Mass riders on the Embarcadero on September 30, 2022 during the 30th aniverary of the bicycling event.

Critical Mass riders on the Embarcadero on September 30, 2022 during the 30th aniverary of the bicycling event.

Chris Partin/Special to SFGATE

For 30 years, the monthly bicycle ride Critical Mass has mobbed through San Francisco streets and left a divisive response in its wake.?

Are these pedalers contributing to the City’s vision of promoting alternative forms of transportation and eliminating traffic fatalities? Or are they anarchists on wheels hellbent on raging against the establishment if only for one night?

Part of being a San Franciscan is deciding for yourself if Critical Mass is a vessel for progress or as useful as broken spokes. No matter what, one must admit, the event is resilient.?

Critical Mass riders congregate on Kearny Street on September 30, 2022.

Critical Mass riders congregate on Kearny Street on September 30, 2022.

Chris Partin/Special to SFGATE

At dusk on September 30th on the streets of San Francisco, riders converged downtown to celebrate the everlasting appeal of Critical Mass. What started on the last Friday of September in 1992 has grown into a worldwide phenomenon. By 2003, international reports claimed that 300 cities around the world had launched their own version of Critical Mass.

Not bad for a leader-less tradition that took its name from an obscure bicycle documentary called “Return of the Scorcher.”

A social movement in every sense of the phrase, Critical Mass began with a few merry pranksters who were rebelling against corporate influence and the impending digital age. Many of these riders were connected to the bygone zine Processed World and gathered on the last Friday of the month to both celebrate the weekend and promote bicycle awareness. In some ways, they were early adopters of the “strength in numbers” mentality.?

While speaking to the beloved community radio program Roll Over Easy earlier this week, Hugh D’Andrade, an illustrator based in Oakland who's been involved with Critical Mass since the beginning, explained that the tradition began as a celebration of human-powered transportation, as well as a glimpse into how San Francisco would look as a bike-first community.

“I always like to say what it does is open the window onto a different image of our society. You get to see what our city looks like if it was more like Amsterdam. If this was the main, dominant mode of transportation,” D’Andrade said.

“We want to turn this city into Amsterdam! I believe someday it will and certainly 30 years later, it’s way farther along that path than anybody would have thought,” said ?D’Andrade.

Cyclists cheer as traffic stopped dead on Market at 7th Street during the July, 1997 Critical Mass ride.

Cyclists cheer as traffic stopped dead on Market at 7th Street during the July, 1997 Critical Mass ride.

San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst N/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Part of Critical Mass’s charm (or frustration depending on who you ask) is that it has no leadership. There are multiple social media pages and no single person speaks for the masses. Apparently, this faceless policy personally peeved former mayor Willie Brown as he tried to bargain with the group in the 1990s.?

Speaking in a video created by Richard Paul Belcher Jr. in 1995, Chris Carlsson is credited as the co-founder of SF Critical Mass. He makes the case that the ride isn’t a rejection of cars, rather, a promotion of bicycles.?

“The deeper meaning of it as a political act is that it emphasizes the affirmative,” he said in the clip. “It’s not just decrying ‘cars are bad, bikes are good.’ There are a lot of people who come to Critical Mass who have that point of view but I don’t think that’s the real tone of the event. We really struggle hard to make it into a pleasure-oriented event that emphasizes the creative and enjoyable possibilities of collective action. As opposed to the sacrificial and guilt-ridden possibility.”

Such a rosy and pacifying outlook doesn’t always quell its critics.?

Critical Mass riders on the Embarcadero on September 30, 2022 during the 30th aniverary of the bicycling event.

Critical Mass riders on the Embarcadero on September 30, 2022 during the 30th aniverary of the bicycling event.

Chris Partin/Special to SFGATE

In 2010 on the comment section of an old Critical Mass website, a dissenter named V. Isacks wrote that, “Your methodology of doing it by essentially blocking traffic and hurting a city’s productivity makes you seen as only an irritant to people and basically does the exact OPPOSITE of what you want because it annoys the hell out of people – even those who believe in your basic cause of getting out of the car as much as possible to lessen environmental impact!”

Other critics have coined a nickname for the Critical Mass rider:

“Early on, we got bashed really hard. Everybody hated us. Many people really hate Critical Mass. Many people who haven’t been on it think it’s terrible,” D’Andrade said on Roll Over Easy.

San Francisco Police confiscate bicycles and arrest bikers during a July 1997 Critical Mass ride.?

San Francisco Police confiscate bicycles and arrest bikers during a July 1997 Critical Mass ride.?

San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst N/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

“Willie Brown tried to crush our movement. He hated us and hated Critical Mass. He sent the cops to shut us down several months in a row. There was police brutality, lawsuits and terrible press. It completely backfired,” D’Andrade said.

In the face of frequent division, Critical Mass riders assembled on September 30 for the three-decade commemoration. They huddled at the Embarcadero Plaza and rolled out at 6:30 p.m. to take back the streets.

Cyclists at the Embarcadero before the start Critical Mass's 30th anniversary ride on September 30, 2022.

Cyclists at the Embarcadero before the start Critical Mass's 30th anniversary ride on September 30, 2022.

Chris Partin/Special to SFGATE
A Critical Mass rider on the Embarcadero on September 30, 2022 during the 30th anniversary of the bicycling event.

A Critical Mass rider on the Embarcadero on September 30, 2022 during the 30th anniversary of the bicycling event.

Chris Partin/Special to SFGATE
Critical Mass riders on Columbus Avenue on September 30, 2022, including Slimm Buick in front left.

Critical Mass riders on Columbus Avenue on September 30, 2022, including Slimm Buick in front left.

Chris Partin/Special to SFGATE
Critical Mass riders in the Broadway Tunnel on September 30, 2022 during the 30th anniversary of the bicycling event.?

Critical Mass riders in the Broadway Tunnel on September 30, 2022 during the 30th anniversary of the bicycling event.?

Chris Partin/Special to SFGATE
Critical Mass riders in the Stockton Street Tunnel on September 30, 2022.

Critical Mass riders in the Stockton Street Tunnel on September 30, 2022.

Chris Partin/Special to SFGATE
Critical Mass riders on the Embarcadero on September 30, 2022 during the 30th aniverary of the bicycling event.

Critical Mass riders on the Embarcadero on September 30, 2022 during the 30th aniverary of the bicycling event.

Chris Partin/Special to SFGATE

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