Hundreds of cars are speeding underneath the feet of about 30 bicyclists, who are standing on a chain link-gated concrete bridge that overlooks the White Oak Avenue exit off the 101 freeway. For a Tuesday night in October, the weather is fairly bike-friendly – not hot enough to make a rider sweat buckets, not cold enough to require double layers.
“This is awesome,” one biker said, as he watches big rigs zip creakily under him. After three zooming cars honk in recognition of the dozens red blinking tail lights and the bright white LED head lights above them, the bikers then make their way down the pedestrian bridge’s spiral walkway and continue their evening. They ride onto Encino Avenue and gawk at the multi-million dollar homes with lush front yards and driveways perfect for circling doughnuts by bike.
As the riders hit speed bumps, one cyclist at the end of the group yells, “I wanna see some air on this next one!”
They pass by the corner of Encino and Embassy, where they have a few seconds to glance at late actor Phil Hartman’s beautiful home with a front-yard fountain.
“That’s where his wife killed him,” someone informs the rest of the group.
Soon afterwards at a stop on the southeast corner of Reseda and Ventura, a silver SUV pulls up.
“Where are you guys riding to?” asks a woman in her mid-20s in the passenger seat.
“Everywhere!” responds a biker – a lawyer who graduated from CSUN in political science and later went to Loyola Marymount – in a comfy blue zip-up jacket and a black helmet.
The group of cyclists continue on their ride, enjoying the camaraderie and equality of the group.
“It is a leader-less thing, and it’s just an excuse for cyclists to get together and enjoy each other,” said Dan Berlant. “Whoever’s in front leads the way.”
Sixty-nine-year-old J.J., a retiree who formerly worked in the aerospace industry and later sold restored bicycles, is an avid participant in other large social bike rides and has attended every San Fernando Critical Mass ride since it began in September of last year. There are riders from all walks of life, he said, including doctors, lawyers and entertainers. “We’re a bunch of renegades and real nice people.”
After seeing a television program a year and a half ago about the massive social rides, J.J. said he remembered thinking, “These people are nuts! That means they’re my kind of people!”
Six months after seeing the program, he went on his first Midnight Ridazz ride, the largest group of organized riders in L.A., where turnout is anywhere between a couple hundred to over a thousand cyclists. Roughly 1,300 people showed up on that particular one, and “it just happened to be the biggest ride ever,” J.J. said.
Like many other rides, San Fernando Valley’s Critical Mass began as a suggestion.
“Somebody on the L.A. Critical Mass (internet) user group said, ‘Let’s start one,’ so I said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it!'” said 38-year-old Dave Bolog, an active member in the L.A. bike community who helped plan the valley’s ride. “The ideal is to build a community, and you do that through everybody being involved and that’s the idea of Critical Mass.”
After taking into consideration the dates and times of other rides, Bolog and other riders decided on the first Tuesday of each month because it didn’t interfere with other monthly biking events. Because it was in the beginning of the week, they decided on 8 p.m. as the meeting time since rush hour traffic would be over and most people are already home from work.
As for picking a meeting place, Bolog said the planning riders had several different locations in mind before finally settling on the southeast corner of Victory and Woodley in Van Nuys because it “was at the center of the valley.”
Bolog often ends up “leading” the rides, but ultimately, all the cyclists are involved in deciding where to go, he said. Because he has lived in the valley for most of his life and has “gone to neighborhoods they’ve never been to,” he simply just navigates a way to get to their destination.
“The idea of Critical Mass is unity of everybody involved,” he said. “It’s done through consensus.”
Tom Godfrey, a 28-year-old media consultant, learned about Critical Mass in the valley through bikeboom.com, a website that lists upcoming rides in L.A. and Orange County.
“It’s nice to be around like-mind people,” he said.
Godfrey recently moved to L.A. from Madison, Wisc., after graduating with a master’s degree in business. Madison, he said, is a bike-friendly community where families often ride together on weekends.
He had also previously lived in New York, where he ran a bike taxi service, and in Boston, Mass., and used to restore and sell bikes he found in the trash, alleys and other places of abandonment. His personal collection grew to over 20 bikes, but he had to get rid of most of them when he moved west. He commutes five and a half miles to work, and rides like Critical Mass are a way for him to “be more social on my bike.”
Kim Koerber, a CSUN alumna who graduated in the early ’80s in liberal studies and was an elementary school teacher who now sells textbooks, has been riding with Critical Mass and Midnight Ridazz for about a year. Her husband, John Koerber, a computer programmer who graduated from Yale (“Class of ’77!” he exclaimed), heard about the rides with his co-worker and was hesitant at first to try it out.
The Midnight Ridazz’s skull logo seemed intimidating, he said, but eventually he and his co-worker decided it was something worth checking out. About a month later, Kim joined him, along with their 13-year-old son, Jackson. Tonight, however, Jackson is nowhere to be seen. “It’s a school night,” said Kim, who is riding a silver and blue folding bike.
Like the other cyclists on tonight’s ride, the social aspect is what keeps him and his family coming, said 52-year-old John.
“You meet a broad spectrum of folks,” he said. “I’ve picked up all kinds of vernacular and slang that I wouldn’t otherwise know.”
“Everyone’s great. It’s like any of the rides where everyone stops and helps each other,” Berlant said. “It’s a good positive atmosphere, young and old. Any age range is welcome.”
The October ride is the first San Fernando Valley Critical Mass ride for 23-year-old Ro Blvd, a programming assistant at a radio station, and 24-year-old Chris Chavez, a restaurant waiter. Blvd, an avid cyclist who owns a BMX and a fixed gear – a stripped-down, bare-bones bike with one gear in which the pedals and chain are directly connected to the back wheel, requiring the cyclist to backpedal in order to brake, heard about the group rides through another friend and decided to try them out.
Blvd’s first ride with Santa Monica’s Critical Mass resulted in a flat tire, cutting his ride short. He invited Chavez to the Midnight Ridazz’s Big Summer Ride last month. The ride was on Chavez’ birthday, and said it was one he would never forget.
“I love the camaraderie,” said Blvd, describing the bicycling community’s atmosphere.
“It’s cool to get out and meet other people,” Chavez said, “and take over the streets with our bikes!”
Occasionally, taking over the streets is what gets riders in trouble.
When larger numbers of riders stop intersections during green lights to allow for the whole group to stay together, drivers sometimes become impatient when several hundred bikes roll by during their turns.
“It’s a little transgressive,” said Tom Godfrey.
He recently went on the Midnight Ridazz fetish-themed ride (“I didn’t dress up,” but then again, not many others did, he said). The cops showed up when the group rolled through Universal City Walk, Godfrey said.
The lawyer rider on tonight’s Critical Mass ride (who left the ride early without leaving a name) also attended that ride. He negotiated with the authorities to let the riders off, he said, and often times he resorts to using his law
skills to get fellow cyclists out of sticky situations.
Most riders accept the fact that their power in numbers attracts the attention of the police, but not all of it is necessarily negative. Sometimes, police will escort riders to make sure they stay safe on the street. For the most part, the San Fernando Critical Mass stays wary of the other users of the road and tries to stay in the farthest right lane to allow enough room for cars.
Some drivers are entertained by the fact that they get to see rampant riders on the streets or when they see bikers ride circles in the intersections, but that only lasts for a minute or two before motorists get upset, Dave Bolog said.
“If Critical Mass could teach you something, it’s that (?) your transportation shouldn’t be that serious if you’re blocked for a minute,” he said. “Lean over and kiss whoever’s next to you. Enjoy life, smell the roses, do something!”
A quick rolldown of the history of Critical Mass:
The riders are a part of the San Fernando Valley chapter of Critical Mass, which technically, rides everywhere. There are well over 25 cities throughout California with rides and more than 150 chapters nationwide. Internationally, it has spread to Johannesburg, South Africa, St. Petersburg, Russia, Tel Aviv, Israel, Warsaw, Poland, Taipei, Taiwan and over 100 other places, according to critical-mass.info, a directory that lists worldwide Critical Mass rides. But to say that there are “chapters” at all of Critical Mass can be misleading. And if you ask a rider to take you to their leader, the answer might be a bit fuzzy.
The idea of Critical Mass began in San Francisco in 1992 when several bicyclists organized a ride together as “a way to show how unfriendly the roads are for cyclists,” Joe Garofoli wrote in his San Francisco Chronicle article about the event’s ten-year anniversary back in 2002. No one was appointed as the head organizer, and this planned disorganization has continued since. Eventually, the San Francisco ride grew to the hundreds and cyclists in other cities took notice and began their own mass rides.
Critical Mass does not have a president, permits, monetary-backed sponsors or headquarters, and even its website is “completely unofficial,” according to critical-mass.info’s webmaster, Michael Bluejay.
“Nothing can be official in (it), since there are no leaders or governing body,” said Bluejay in an e-mail interview. “I simply list all the rides I can find. Anyone can run a website. One day I just decided to do so. I was motivated to do this because there was another site out there that did the same, but they listed only the city, not the date, time location, last update or even contact information.”
Since there are no rules, codes of conduct or handbooks, rides often operate differently from city to city. The only thing that each Critical Mass worldwide has in common is that they have an organized meeting date and time. Some might have pre-planned routes while others are a free-for-all and cyclists ride in whichever direction they happen to be pointing to and the bicyclists’ behavior ranges on the spectrum from strictly law-abiding to anarchic. Some rides have political agenda in mind, while other rides are simply a forum for bike enthusiasts to connect with each other.
San Fernando Valley’s Critical Mass is more of the latter. You won’t find picket signs, bullhorns or loudspeakers – just people who love riding their bikes who meet on every first Tuesday of the month at the Metro Orange line stop on Victory and Woodley.
You can visit the San Fernando Valley chapter at SFVCriticalMass.com.
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