S.F.'s Critical Mass marks milestone

It has been 15 years and one bumpy ride for San Francisco’s Critical Mass bicycling event.

The unofficial bicycle rides have been sweeping The City’s streets since 1992, liberating cyclists, angering drivers and putting law enforcement on high alert. Tonight’s 15th anniversary ride is expected to be more of the same.

“There is definitely a buzz about it,” said Bill Stender, who has been riding Critical Mass in The City for 12 years. “I’ve heard many people talking about it. I hope there is a bigger crowd than usual.”

The rides, which have no organized leadership, are intended to be a regular night of celebration for thousands of bicyclists, who flip the traffic experience by becoming the dominant mode of transit on the road. They are, however, often perceived as unruly crowds who run red lights, taunt drivers and block commuter traffic.

Earlier this year, a confrontation between a Critical Mass bicyclist and a motorist put the monthly ride in the spotlight for the first time since former Mayor Willie Brown attempted to crack down on and dissolve the event in the late 1990s.

The rides have been mostly tame since then, but the events earlier this year attracted the attention of Mayor Gavin Newsom and city bicycle advocates.

On March 30, a Critical Mass cyclist allegedly threw a bicycle through the window of a Peninsula family’s minivan. Police detained a 31-year-old man in the incident, but he was not arrested and no charges have been made.

The City has since doubled the number of police supervising the ride from 20 to 40. Officers in vehicles and on bicycles, dirt bikes and motorcycles travel with the event to diffuse any heated situations.

“There are verbal disputes that arrive between bicyclists and drivers,” San Francisco police Sgt. Steve Mannina said. “That’s one of the reasons we’re out there.”

Originally known as the Commuter Clot, the rides were started 15 years ago today by a group of cyclists who simply wanted some company during the evening ride home.

It quickly turned into tradition, and after one year, there were as many as 1,000 bicyclists participating in the event. Since then, some rides have been known to attract thousands of bicyclists.

On the last Friday of each month, cyclists now meet at Justin Herman Plaza on The Embarcadero during prime rush hour, taking off in any direction and led by the most vocal bicyclists in front of the pack for about three hours.

“I like the transformation that happens to the street,” said bicyclist John Winston, who has been participating since the beginning.

“On a good night, Fell Street is a traffic sewer,” he said. “When we pass by, it changes. It gets quiet. People come out of their houses to see what’s going on.”

arocha@examiner.com

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