It's an ordinary Friday afternoon in the City Beautiful, and you are weaving in and out of the herd of flag-adorned SUVs along Robinson Street, racing home to start your weekend. Suddenly a few dozen bicycles, their riders clad in slick raingear, pedal across an intersection, leaving you perhaps momentarily stalled, and certainly flabbergasted.
The temporary takeover of traffic that is Critical Mass a rapidly growing cultural phenomenon happening all over the country has reached Orlando. It took a decade to get here, as all good cultural phenomena do, but better late than never. In cities across America, cyclists gather to celebrate their chosen vehicle, shun the auto for an afternoon, exercise their right to be on the road alongside oblivious and dangerous drivers, and, well, ride their bikes.
The Orlando ride, scheduled for the last Friday of every month at 5:30 p.m. from the Lake Eola Ampitheatre, began in January thanks to the efforts of Joel Mann. Mann participated in Critical Mass rides in Chapel Hill, N.C., while attending graduate school, and rode in a 300-rider Mass in Chicago on New Year's Eve. When he returned to Florida, he was motivated enough to put up flyers in an effort to bring together O-Town cyclists for a little collective pedaling.
"One reason I took interest in creating a ride in Orlando was because I wanted to participate myself," says Mann, 26, a city planner who moved to Orlando a year ago. "My primary interest is bringing together people who like to bike."
Critical Mass was born in San Francisco in 1992 as a gathering of bicycle enthusiasts who wanted to assert their right to share the road with motor vehicles and encourage people to think about alternative transportation. The first ride drew 48 cyclists. Today, there are Critical Mass rides in more than 250 cities, from Portland, Ore., to Portland, Maine, from Anchorage, Alaska, to Havana, Cuba. Florida boasts seven cities currently hosting rides, including Sarasota and Miami.
Mann isn't the "organizer" of the Orlando rides. There isn't an organizer in the traditional sense of the word. As the group's website (www.critical-mass.org) states, "Critical Mass is not an organization, it's an unorganized coincidence. It's a movement … of bicycles, in the streets."
Without a structured leadership, the rides can ebb and flow in their participation and effectiveness as people drift in and out of town, or in and out of dedication. For instance, Orlando once briefly hosted Critical Mass rides before, for a few months, back in 2002.
Still, Mann is confident about the potential for Critical Mass to be around awhile in Central Florida this time. The first two rides have been a mix of young professionals, students and older bike enthusiasts, numbering around two dozen despite the cold and drizzly Friday afternoons that have rained on the parade.
"People ask, 'What kind of bike should I bring?' or 'What kind of shape should I be in?'" says Mann. "It doesn't matter. There is no level of endurance, or biking skill, necessary. We move very slowly and are very social."
The attraction and success of Critical Mass lies in its simple, approachable nature. Mann calls Critical Mass "an open, free-formed social activity that celebrates the end of the week and the end of the month."
Critical Mass was first known by the alliterative but less friendly moniker "Commute Clot." The current name derives from the 30-minute documentary Return of the Scorcher, an ode to bicycling in a car-crazy world. In the film, bicyclists in Beijing, China a city without traffic lights would gather at intersections until the group was large enough to stop vehicular traffic and cross together, "a kind of … critical mass thing," according to the Ted White film.
Critical Mass rides tend to become more tense as they become political; for example, when cyclists attach signs to their bikes or conflicts arise between cyclists and their four-wheeled counterparts. Websites from rides around the country provide tips on how to handle the cops, should they try to drag you by the handlebars down to the station.
While some riders are more confrontational, and some cities less welcoming, Critical Mass is generally a peaceful event.
"It is possible to protest peacefully, and we strive for that," says Mann.
The group also strives to have some fun and get some exercise. Many of the more established rides around the country feature water-pistol matches, unicycle "gangs" or teams of tandem riders. Some routes, such as those in San Francisco, are appealing because of the extreme physical workout of rolling hills and spectacular cityscapes.
Orlando, of course, is not so blessed. "The fun about route planning is to find a way to show off good parts about the city," says Mann. "The problem here is that it is not dense enough, and there are fewer attractions."
In cities like San Francisco, with a route that runs from the Financial District to the Mission, there are plenty of sights and stops along the way. In downtown Orlando, where empty storefronts and construction projects are the biggest attractions, the route could easily become stale. Still, the first two rides have been enjoyable and manageable treks, measuring roughly four miles each and stretching to Lake Ivanhoe and College Park from the Rosalind Avenue and Washington Street starting point. All rides start at the Lake Eola Ampitheatre, but from there they take different routes.
"We just want to establish a bike community in Orlando," says Mann. If the success of the first two rides are any indication, it appears that they already have.