Saturday, 30 November 2013

The Critical Mass Tour

Always on the lookout for new tour experiences, I got on my bike and joined the Critical Mass Tour yesterday. It is easy to know when and where to find it: 7PM on the last Friday of the Month from under Waterloo Bridge. It has been like that for as long as I have known and I was on a Critical Mass ride quite some years ago, maybe as far back as 10 years ago. It was therefore an overdue and exciting proposition, as it offered a wildly different sort of tour to those so far covered on the blog.

I made my way to Waterloo Bridge and found quite a crowd already assembled. Many hundred cyclists gathered on all sorts of bikes, including quite a number on the so-called 'Boris Bikes': the rental bikes named after the populist conservative Mayor of London, administered by the city and sponsored by a bank that does not need promoting. It was surprising to see so many as I thought Critical Mass was for hardened cyclists only. Also, since this ride was of an indefinite duration, I thought it would be unattractive to those renting bikes by the hour. Happily, I was wrong. The protocol is you arrive anytime after 6PM to be ready to start cycling at 7PM. While cyclists gathered there was a lot of chat and some, mostly, restrained drinking: I saw a guy next to me swigging from a bottle of Captain Morgan but most contented themselves with a single beer.  

At 7PM there was a swelling of noise: horns, bells, cries and inarticulate bloke-ish guttural sounds. It was the sign; we were off! We slowly emptied the Southbank and cycled past The National Theatre on our way up to the main road. This site is for me a curious one that I can't help but read more into than was probably intended. Maybe that's simply because I was previously much more involved in these spaces through the arts than I was through tours and so I come to them with an eye that still sees them as stages. I did in fact make a short POPLAR TV video outside the National Theatre last year: National Theatre To Screen Sport.

We set off and headed North over Waterloo Bridge. This is Somerset House on the right. It was not so easy to take pictures and ride at the same time but I tried my best to juggle the two. Crossing the bridge took us into the heart of London and I had to ask myself if this  happens every Critical Mass time or whether the group sometimes heads off on a very different tact. 

We descended into a road tunnel that is usually reserved for motor vehicles. There was much excited yelling as the bikes accelerated down into the tunnel, deep into the car zone. The relationship with motor vehicles is particularly bad at the moment owing to a spate of fatal accidents in the last month. Earlier in the day there had been a mass "die in" outside Transport for London's offices in protest at their transport policy and inertia at implementing agreed to improvements to the cycling infrastructure. All of this was still very much in the air as we made our way through the city.

Once we got going and settled into a rhythm I started looking a bit more at how the ride functioned. One quality that makes it deliciously slippery is the fact that there is no designated leader or organiser. There is a webpage, which is no longer updated, and this, I can imagine, might be so that nobody may be held responsible for the Critical Mass. That said, I did notice that there were people at the front of the group who did have opinions and were were not afraid to express them. For example, we were at this point approaching Oxford Street and I heard three cyclists say between them that we should avoid that road as it would mean battling buses. They then disappeared at speed towards the front to try and have their sway and lo and behold we avoided Oxford Street. Another quality is that some people dressed up. This man is wearing an animal costume. The tricky thing with it must be the tail, I hope he managed to avoid getting his tail caught up in the spokes of his back wheel. 

Predictably enough the people who hate Critical Mass the most are the taxi drivers. This chap in particular was a nasty piece of work who drove into a stationary cyclist who was standing in front of him in order to try and clear her from the road. No excuse. Lizard brain.

This then sparked off a heated exchange with a passerby who seemed to have a lot of opinions and thought of himself as a peacemaker. To be honest I thought of him as a twit in a shiny grey suit who was covering the driver. Instinct was to take my lock and smash the drivers windscreen so he could have a taste of his own medicine but of course I was far too polite and just took pictures.

Not everyone was in such bad humour however. There was actually quite a varied response to the ride from the people in cars and those standing by the sides of the street. Some smiled and waved, others stared disapprovingly but everyone noticed: you could hardly not see 700 bikes stream past. The cyclist standing here is blocking the car from going into the mass of bikes and this was a common activity. At junctions bikes block the way so cars can't force their way into the pack and it was this job of enforcing the blockade which was the one that the more experienced 'Massers' took on more readily and which also put them potentially into conflict situations like that with the white taxi.

I saw a few people drinking beer as they cycled but most kept their hands on the handlebars or reaching to their phones to take pictures. There was however a bit of a Friday night atmosphere about the ride all the same and quite a number thought things through enough to take a supply with them. This was not just a demonstration or a ride, it was also a party.

That was underscored by the music. This bike was trailing a sound system and it was just one of 4 or 5 that were playing different sorts of music, everything from dance music to opera. The opera in particular was unexpected and not the typical soundtrack for a demonstration.

We headed West along Piccadilly and then down into another road tunnel. There was a bit of a thing with the tunnels, enjoying the forbidden fruit. 

And then after passing near Victoria we came to Buckingham Palace and the bikes gathered around this famous monument whose name I have never bothered to learn. Many of the riders sat back and opened up those cans of beer they'd been saving, others made circles around it, this man with two skateboarders in tow. There were quite a number of young skateboarders who mostly raced around the front of the pack. I remember last time I went on a Critical Mass it also stopped at this same spot and this gets me asking, what is the geographic palette it works with? I can't imagine a mass of bikes making its way to Crystal Palace in South London, that would be too far to get home for anyone living in the North and so my guess is there must be some unwritten rules. I did in fact cycle at the front to find out how the direction was chosen and I heard people shouting "LEFT!" from time to time so I guess it is mostly self-regulating. 

I left them to it as it looked to me as if the evening was settling into a bit of a party in front of the palace.  I was wrong on that front, that's for sure. The video below was posted on youtube which more or less shows what happened after I left: the night had quite a bit more cycling still to go.

My current Tour of All Tours research is centred on Shoreditch and today's tour did not go there, the nearest it got was Tower Bridge, which you can see in the video. Critical Mass could visit Shoreditch however so there is no reason why I cannot mention it as a tour that sometimes passes that way, even if it is an infrequent and irregular occurrence. It will be back East I go tomorrow however as there are still quite a number of tours still to cover in the area.

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