Shamus, Steph, and yours truly all stood within can-toss distance of a deserted garbage bag when a few First Timers coasted into the Steele Indian School parking lot. A Channel 3 news van had also pulled in, but only to leave moments later. Perhaps they just wanted to catch a glimpse of three wild Tempe beasts roaming unleashed in Phoenician territory, waiting to feast upon its citizens, but bailed when they saw one of us already wearing a helmet and holding an insulated water bottle. As far as they could tell, safety was superseding shenanigans.
While still a fun social ride, I understood Critical Mass, which took place on the last Friday of every month, to be more about awareness, especially if we were promoting it to those new to the ride. In short, I expected the mood to be tamer.
I was handed a dented can of warm Rolling Rock as I made my rounds to greet the riders, asking if it was their first Critical Mass and where they were from. I recall somewhere between 11 and 14 first timers. Most were from Phoenix, and a handful didn’t do group or social rides before this.
Familiar faces arrived closer to roll out time, and the group capped at around 35. English Dave fastened glow sticks around our wrists, the bearded teddy bear managed to get his paws on a hit of marijuana, and Catie, the caretaker of Critical Mass Phoenix, gave a brief safety instruction. We rolled out of the park just after 7:30pm.
As we made our first turn, I spotted the news van on stakeout with a small tripod setup on the sidewalk. I waved. Before our next turn, we got our first angry honk when a car wanted to turn right and not wait the extra 30 seconds for the group to pass. I waved again.
A few miles later, some philosophical bastard yelled out an unintelligible, as he and his two ass-grabbing buddies rumbled by in a 93 Jeep Wrangler. A couple more drivers honked and heckled, but a smidge more tapped their horns with friendly fingers. People whistled and raised their thumbs, and toward the end, we received a standing O from Rosie McCaffery’s patio. More support than utter disgust was a positive sign regarding the Phoenix cycling scene’s progress. The slow and painful awakening that, yes, bicycles belonged on the road as well. And that we can even take up a lane. An entire fucking lane.
With all the debates about infrastructure and development aside, the most important aspects of safe cycling were education and awareness. You could have 1000 miles of bike lanes, but if both drivers and cyclists were clueless as to what the bike laws or rights were, or that cycling in a city was actually a thing and should be prepared for, then it could be just as dangerous.
In the country’s most bike-friendly places, both cars and cyclists knew what the hell was going on. Of course, angry drivers and asshole cyclists could still be found everywhere, but for the most part, the cyclists in such places didn’t shock and offend drivers by their mere presence, and traffic didn’t terrify the riders. When used correctly, group rides like Critical Mass were important, particularly in a city like Phoenix, to cars grasping and comprehending the idea of being on the road with a bicycle, and to riders learning how to ride without being assholes or feeling afraid. Ideally, coexistence without confrontation.
Those new to last Friday’s Critical Mass were surrounded by a cozy group of experienced riders. The first timers caught on quick and seemed confident. We had to make a couple hairy left turns, cutting across two lanes of traffic to do so, but one of the benefits of a group ride was to make riders feel more and more comfortable riding in traffic and being assertive in taking a lane. Further, the more that drivers saw cyclists correctly pulling off such maneuvers, the more they would learn to anticipate them in the future.
Nonetheless, we all survived. The first timers seemed in good spirits as the 10-mile ride ended at Pomeroy’s, a dive bar that looked like the old rawhide shitter from The Blues Brothers got a makeover. I mingled with a couple of the first timers for a beer or three. They were interested in finding more rides and getting more involved in the bike community, which was code for hanging out and drinking beer…whether they knew it or not. I steered them toward the BTAU calendar, told them to check out as many rides as they could, and hoped they brought their friends to next month’s Critical Mass.
I decided to call it a night around 10:00pm and said goodnight to my Tempe companions, which was code for me making a pit stop at Casey’s before going to bed…whether I knew it or not.
Written by: Bradley Sutherland