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Miami Critical Mass riders find strength in numbers

The Miami Herald: Miami Critical Mass riders find strength in numbers

Scores of cyclists are taking the roads of Miami as part of the monthly Critical Mass ride.

BY ANDRES VIGLUCCI

FREEDOM: The rides take place all over the world, and most cities tolerate them. `We’re not going to take them on,’ says Miami police Chief John Timoney.

We are riding our bicycles right down the middle of Flagler Street at dusk, 180 or so strangers and I, and the feeling is slightly illicit and totally exhilarating.

Traveling in a solid mass, we occupy nearly the full width of the street, to the astonishment of a knot of early evening drunks outside an East Little Havana cafeteria who whoop and screech, in a mix of delight and derision, as cyclist after cyclist rolls by.

It’s safe to say they have never seen a spectacle quite like this, and neither has Miami.

We have taken to the road -- actually, we have taken the road -- in the monthly Miami Critical Mass ride, a festive display of cyclist power that has grown exponentially over the summer and into the fall.

On this sweltering Friday evening, we are traffic. By design, the sheer mass of cyclists keeps motorists at bay as the group follows a 15-mile circuit at a moderate pace through downtown Miami, Little Havana and into Coral Gables, then back downtown through Coconut Grove.

The goal: Fun, above all, and safety in numbers, for another. But the overriding idea is to be seen exercising a legal right -- regular people riding their bikes on busy city streets with little of the fear of heedless or hostile motorists that every cyclist in Miami knows all too well.

In the group are men and women, mostly though by no means all young, and a couple of kids. Most wear everyday clothes. Some are pierced and tattooed. Next to me, a woman pedals in a lacy white skirt and gold sandals.

We ride cruisers, road bikes, mountain bikes, fixed-gear track bikes and old beaters.

``It was so much fun, and there is such a feeling of safety when you’re in that pack,’’ said Ellen Haas, 46, who brought her 12-year-old daughter along after delighting in the convivial atmosphere on two previous Critical Mass rides. ``It was such a hoot to be on Coral Way the last ride and have it silent on our side because of all the bikes.’’

It’s not typically so, as anyone who has attempted to ride the city streets on a bike can attest. Haas’ experience commuting daily from West Miami to work in the federal courthouse downtown has turned her into a bike activist.

``The abuse you take from people is incredible, in all sorts of languages. Because I take my lane. I don’t think they know it’s legal,’’ Haas says. ``They think I’m some screwball who’s blocking their way.’’

The Critical Mass ride, which takes place on the last Friday of every month, is cyclists’ riposte. (And, actually, taking the full lane for safety is legal).

BENDING THE RULES

There is rule-bending aplenty on the ride, even rule-breaking. The group does stop at red lights. But at green lights and unsignaled intersections, some riders pause to block cars until the group has gone through, even if the light turns red. It’s called ``corking,’’ perhaps the most controversial -- and debated -- aspect of the rides.

Critical Massers say there is no other good way to keep such a large group safe and together, though they know riders could be ticketed by police.

``We’re not out to annoy motorists,’’ said Rydel Deed, who selects the monthly route and runs the website www.Miamibikescene.com. ``I would like to not take the lights, but it’s like an 18-wheeler. You’re a quarter of the way through, you can’t stop. That little delay, by you stopping for a few seconds, ensures our safety as a group.’

Astonishingly, only a minority of motorists honk or shout in disapproval. Very few get nasty. In Coconut Grove, one motorist clips a corker’s rear wheel as he roars by. Luckily, no one is hurt.

Most motorists seem content to wait. Some wave and honk in support. Some ask the corkers -- who are supposed to engage drivers in friendly banter -- if it’s a race.

It’s not.

Critical Mass rides have been around for more than 15 years, since the first was launched in San Francisco as a rowdy and anarchic demonstration for cyclists’ rights. Over time, as the rides spread, there have been clashes with motorists and police and some unsuccessful attempts to ban the rides.

Now they take place all over the world, in some places with thousands of riders. Most cities tolerate the rides, like Chicago, where police on bikes accompany them.

In Miami, police Chief John Timoney, an avid cyclist who is often seen astride his official bike, said he takes no issue with the local Critical Mass.

``We’re not going to take them on,’’ Timoney said. ``We are all pro-bikes here. We should all just get along, right?’’

But he advises the cyclists to behave. ``If they piss off some motorist, they can ruin it for all of us, because that guy might try to run over the next cyclist he sees.’’

Some cyclists say Critical Mass has become counterproductive, alienating even sympathetic motorists. Because the rides have no organizers, there’s no way to enforce proper road behavior, said David Moulton, an English former racing pro and legendary bike-frame maker now retired in South Carolina.

``What bothers me is they’re abusing the right to ride a bike on the road,’’ Moulton said. ``And like most minorities, you’re always judged by the worst-behaved members of the group.’’

But Critical Mass activists are credited with pushing some big cities, like New York, to improve conditions for cyclists by adding bike lanes and designated bike routes.

In Miami, Critical Mass has caught on only this year. Starting with a dedicated corps of perhaps 30 cyclists, the ride reached nearly 200 participants in September. Veteran participants expect the ride to keep growing.

Why? A combination of factors, said Dave Henderson, Miami-Dade County’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator. More young people are moving to the city, and they see cycling as an integral part of the urban experience.

Urban planners increasingly embrace cycling both as recreation and practical transportation, and see adding bike lanes as a means of enhancing livability -- in part by taming or slowing auto traffic.

BIKE MASTER PLAN

In Miami, several Critical Massers helped activists press Mayor Manny Diaz for a new bicycle master plan, approved last month, that calls for hundreds of miles of new bikeways.

``It’s all coming from more people living in the city and trying to make the city a more livable place,’’ Henderson said.

In Miami, the ride vibe is friendly and celebratory, not militant -- ``nothing too crazy, just a great chance to get out and ride your bike,’’ says first-time rider Eric Kernish, 30, of Coral Gables.

After lingering in the heat at Miami-Dade’s Government Center, the riders depart with a cheer, chatting and shooting pictures and videos as they pedal. The departure time, officially 7 p.m., avoids rush hour to lessen the inconvenience to motorists. Soon the group is stretched for a couple of blocks.

There are no leaders. Though several riders sometimes urge others to keep to the right lane to let motorists pass, the group is too large to corral. Legally, the riders shouldn’t occupy two lanes. But they do.

As we approach Douglas Road, a man in an old Jeep Cherokee refuses to stop for the group. Thankfully, he drives slowly, all the time honking angrily as his passenger, a woman, screams obscenities at the cyclists. Riders calmly part like a school of fish to flow around the Jeep.

The ride will pass numerous police officers. Only one, a Miami officer, erroneously tells some riders to ride on the sidewalk. They comply, briefly.

In the Gables, the mass hollers as one under the echoey tunnel at Village of Merrick Park, and a startled officer jumps on his motorcycle until he realizes it’s just a bunch of people on bikes. Then it’s through the crowded Grove, down Brickell Avenue -- where a Metrobus driver follows too closely, gunning his engine -- and onto Flagler Street to cheers and applause from sidewalk diners.

``I love it. This is why Miami is so cool,’’ said rider Nicci Reiter, 34. ``In South Florida, being a single rider is kinda dangerous. But what are you going to do with 150 people? There’s not much you can do.’’