Last night I attended my first Cleveland Critical Mass bike ride. Don’t feel badly that you don’t know what that means; I didn’t know about it until a few weeks ago. Critical Mass rides happen on the last Friday of the month in about 300 different cities all over the states and in some other countries. Here in Cleveland we had about 400 riders. In other places they have over 1,000.
400 riders strung out along a roadway was an incredibly impressive sight. We must have stretched out close to half a mile. I can’t even imagine 1,000.
The point of Critical Mass is not speed or getting to a destination first. The point is to raise local awareness of bicyclists and our right–nay, requirement–to share the roads. Did you know that in many states, including Ohio, it’s a misdemeanor for adult cyclists to ride on the sidewalk? This is because sidewalks are for walking, and people walking are generally traveling at 2-5 miles per hour. Whereas cyclists are generally traveling at least 8 miles an hour, and easily can be traveling 18, 20, or more. Cyclists are a hazard to walkers. They are operating vehicles, and belong on the street.
And the fact is that cyclists are safer on the street. I have been clipped by a car once on the street, it’s true. But I’ve had many near-collisions when riding on the sidewalk, because people are not looking for a bike on the sidewalk moving at 12 mph when they back out of a driveway or pull up to an intersection. They see me when I’m on the street.
Still, there are people who don’t understand the law who still honk at cyclists, yell at them to get on the sidewalk, and even assault them. A recent instance I read about was someone whose kid was pelted with a milkshake that was thrown from a car window. I’ve had people swerve at me, and someone open a passenger-side door in my face just to frighten me.
I’m not sure where this level of anger comes from. Yes, you might have to slow down and pull over to the left to get around a cyclist. But you’d have to do the same if a UPS truck was stopped there, and I don’t see anyone honking at the UPS guy. I sometimes have a sneaking suspicion that some of the resentment comes from thinking that the cyclist feels superior to people driving the car, or a guilt that the driver feels for driving along, drinking a milkshake while these cyclists are exercising.
I know that I’ve been cursed at with “fatso, get off the road!” As if my wide hips are taking up more space. My very presence offends some people.
I’ve learned to be more assertive in my biking, and also more cautious. I try to stick to roads with four lanes, and to bike toward the middle of the right lane so people don’t try the slip past me when there really isn’t enough room. I also bike at off hours or against the rush hour traffic so that I’m not frustrating tired people who just want to get home from work as soon as possible. I take my share of the road, but try to do so with respect for drivers.
And I obey traffic laws. I stop for red lights. I yield at stop signs–a full stop is incredibly wearing on the knees, so I cheat a bit, but I give up the right-of-way when it’s not mine to take. I signal my turns. I try to be a good citizen.
Still, it’s hard to be a cyclist at times. And cycling alone always seems more subject to verbal abuse than cycling with a group, or even just two.
So last night, cycling with 400 people, was a kind of empowerment. We rode through neighborhoods where kids ran to the fences, waving wildly at us, adults smiled and called out encouragement, and drivers waiting at intersections honked their horns not with impatience but in celebration. We were a novelty, this enormous group of cyclists.
We were a parade.
Maybe the people who smiled at our dinging bells and honking horns and smiling waves will remember us. Maybe when they come along a solitary cyclist pedaling down a narrow street, they will recall the crazy, happy atmosphere of last night’s ride.
And maybe they will be just a little more patient, give just a little more room, and we can all be better citizens on the road together.