Cycling Embassy of Great Britain)
This guest post is about the renovation of London’s Critical Mass by an inspiring new generation of cyclists. Pearl Ahrens studies at UCL and tweets at PearlMRAhrens.
Photos by Lee Pelayo.
Critical Mass is a mass bike ride which occurs in big cities around the world on the last Friday of every month. At the starting point under Waterloo Bridge, teenagers show off their wheelies in a circle of stones in front of the National Theatre – these are the Wheelkids, skilled riders of BMXs and mountain bikes, or bikes with impressively thick tyres. There are a few bicycle soundsystems, playing mainly trap. The security guards, frustrated, hurry cyclists of all backgrounds off the different-coloured paving stones, signifying the land belonging to the National Theatre.
As Critical Mass moves off, it becomes clearer that each of these groups of riders moves in different ways. The Wheelkids are confident and fast, pulling wheelies for minutes at a time. They cycle erratically, darting sideways across the road, not straight ahead with the rest of the ride. Additionally, they barely ever crash into each other, working well as a self-regulating group, like skaters at a skatepark.
A few times at Critical Mass I’ve met the owner of a well-established DIY bikespace in Hackney called Cycle Pitstop. Once, in Bethnal Green, he gestured at many of the Wheelkids, referring to them as ‘my guys’, telling them to ‘keep out of trouble’ – trouble meant stealing from Sainsbury’s. He explained that Critical Mass was important for social cohesion between the Wheelkids, because it’s a city-wide ride, ‘there’s no ends here, just friends’. He pointed out that cycling keeps them away from other, potentially harmful, vices. This is corroborated by the generally polite and energetic tone of the Wheelkids, who look out for each other.
When interacting with other riders, however, there can be problems. One time, as the ride progressed down Cornhill, a Wheelkid brushed past an older man dressed in Tibetan flags whilst speedily overtaking him, causing him to wobble then shout. He, like many older participants in Critical Mass, cited ‘danger’ as his main provocation to anger – danger of the Wheelkid injuring him or themselves. Although this is statistically unlikely, the largely car-free moving oasis which Critical Mass creates can fool its participants into turning against each other, and losing sight of the main danger to all cyclists.
Interactions with traffic often escalate during the practice of ‘corking’. Corking means blocking the path of a motorist coming out of a side road by placing your bike sideways in front of a vehicle’s bonnet (see here). The job of the corker is to convince the motorist to stop driving, using both words and a physical block. If this doesn’t work and the motorist keeps driving into the cork, fights often start.
According to a convention which has developed over the years, the self-designated corkers ride up front and stop where needed, then let the whole Critical Mass pass until they end up at the very back, then bolt it to the front to do the same thing over again. In this way corking is solitary work, during which friends get misplaced and all concentration floods into placing your body directly in harm’s way.fun.