“Benjamin Ortiz rides with cycling’s guerrilla gang”
NewCity, 11 May 1995
Last October, thirty cyclists riding under the name Critical Mass drove up Michigan Avenue from the Art Institute, blocking north-bound automobile traffic in order to promote human-powered transportation. On May 6, the group re-forms for its second run, meant to coincide with a downtown rally, against the “Contract on America.”

The riders meet at Wrigley Field. A frantically waving white banner reads “Chicago Allied Messenger Union” below the people’s power fist. Waving that flag, Carlos “Desperdicio” sports Guatemalan-design shorts over a black body suit with a bicycle helmet and headpiece covering nose and mouth. He tells me in excitedly halting bursts that the term “critical mass” refers to bicycle traffic in China. Specifically, when enough bicyclists take an intersection and make their own lane, with its own right of way.
The U.S. version of Critical Mass can be traced more recently to “Berkland,” the Berkeley-Oakland axis of Northern California. After he read about similar rides in the alternative press, Carlos says, he sent out the call to arms in Chicago. His mission: “We want to light a fire under the ass of commuters and municipal government, to recognize bicycle riding as a form of transportation to be reckoned with, so that motorists will start sharing the road with us and maybe even ditch their cars.”
By 11am, the tribe is fidgeting to hit the road, festooned in everything from sportswear to Halloween gear, including propeller beanies, Zorro shades, and a particularly spooky Richard M. Nixon mask. Carlos passes out whistles and announces, “Welcome to the second not-annual-but-more-frequent-than-annual Critical Mass!” Cheers and bicycle horn honking. “We’re going to go down Clark Street, hook up with messengers at Federal Plaza, then end up at Michigan and Monroe with the rally.” Twenty of us hit the south-bound lane. Chants rise up: “Two wheels good…four wheels bad,” “No more fossil fuels,” and the eloquently direct “CARS SUCK!” Our bicycles amble in a cluster spread out on Clark, effectively blocking traffic. Reaction from the drivers blends dumbfounded amusement with impatience, from those trying to nudge us from behind. A few cars even honk encouragement. Two errant cyclists sheepishly join the fold along the way.
But right around the Gold Coast things get a little more icy. Two cop cars follow up the rear, and one of them asks Nixon, “Who’s leading this thing?” Nixon pleads the fifth. The spacious Million Dollar Mile thins us out, but the mass remains critical enough to block south-bound traffic. Hostile BMW’s are trying to break up the flock from all sides. One miffed visitor to the Magnificent Mile seems displeased with our intrusion on his Chicago Experience. Da guy screams, “Get the fuck outta the road you moron!” More riders slow, to ease the guy’s hurry.
Having crossed the Chicago River, Critical Mass turns down Monroe to find the isolated political gathering at a clearing on Columbus Drive. But there’s too much energy in the bike masses to kick back just yet, not with the thousand or so passively sedate lefties who are straining under various banners and legends, craning to make out slogans hissing from a bad PA system. We turn back for another spin around the Loop. And then we wait, the agitators growing agitated with the proceedings. Finally, the call to march is made. I’m ready to take to the streets again, but from behind I hear a grating PA command, “Stay on the sidewalks!” Zooming by, a female Masser chuckles, “Fuck that. Riding on the sidewalks is illegal!”
—by Benjamin Ortiz

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