The idea was born out of a conversation among friends, over a few beers after work: They would ride their bikes together down Market Street once a month. The first trip included just a handful of riders and ended after a short jaunt to Zeitgeist, a cyclist-friendly bar in the Mission district.
Today, Critical Mass is an institution in 350 cities worldwide, and on Friday thousands of cyclists are expected to take part in another impromptu dash through San Francisco to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the event in the city where it originated.
Egalitarian in spirit, Critical Mass has no directives or central leadership — cyclists just show up in the early evening of the last Friday of each month and a rolling wave of bikers weaves through The City with no predetermined route.
The event can be polarizing. People trying to get home express exasperation as they wait for the seemingly endless streams of bikers to pass by. And there have been confrontations between motorists and aggressive cyclists.
However, Critical Mass was never intended to be universally loved, said co-founder Chris Carlsson. He said the idea of the event is to claim recognition and respect for cyclists, long scorned as second-class citizens who were told to “grow up.”
“The San Francisco Bike Coalition is a mainstream organization that tries to achieve its means through City Hall,” Carlsson said. “And Critical Mass is the exact opposite of that. The mass seizure of city streets can create an important political energy. People in politics think its irrelevant, but that anarchic philosophy brings a muscular presence to bike issues that would be ignored otherwise.”
Leah Shahum, executive director of the S.F. Bicycle Coalition, which has more than 12,000 members, said Critical Mass organically gathers cyclists to advocate their cause.
“We’re not affiliated with the event all,” Shahum said. “But I think the last 20 years has shown that there is room for both groups in San Francisco.”
Although ridership has waned from its heyday last decade when 2,000 cyclists would show up, Carlsson said 1,000 people still attend the regular Critical Mass rides and he expects a big turnout for the 20th anniversary.
Scores of international visitors are already in town for a series of commemoration events.
Despite the extra cyclists anticipated for Friday’s ride, the Police Department will not change its deployment strategy for the event, said police spokesman Officer Albie Esparza. Traffic cops will monitor the cyclists in hopes of minimizing conflicts, he said.
While the route will be decided ad-hoc on Friday, Carlsson said he hopes the crowd of cyclists will end atop Sutro Heights, one of his favorite spots for Critical Mass to conclude.
“There is nothing like ending a ride by watching the sun set over the Pacific Ocean from a beautiful park,” Carlsson said. “There is a euphoria that everyone in the group experiences.”