Taking It to the Streets

the progressive start and controversial end of local Critical Mass bike rides

by: David Smuhl

An Eau Claire Critial Mass in 2007

    At six o’clock on the last Friday of the month in any major metro downtown, you’re guaranteed a few sights. One is the masses of people heading home after a long day. Another is a group of hundreds of cyclists taking to the streets en masse for an event known as Critical Mass.

    Critical Mass originated in San Francisco around 1992. Participants often met up in costumes and bring food or pamphlets to share before they literally take over the streets, riding bikes together around the city. What started with a couple dozen people soon grew to thousands around the world.

    According to participant Aaron Ellringer, Eau Claire’s first Critical Mass happened in 1997 or 1998 and left CVTC with 50 to 80 people in tow down Clairemont Avenue. “Police were there to help cork intersections and we were handing out flyers on cyclists’ rights,” Ellringer says. “The whole thing was all about education and everyone got a good laugh out of it. It was a lot of fun.”

    The rides continued sporadically through the late 90s, Ellringer said, as interested people came and went, and rarely saw antagonism from police or pedestrians.

    Enter the second wave, which came around 2003. Participant Jeremy Gragert said, “it was a community bike ride. You got to interact with people in your neighborhood and city in a totally unique way.”

    By 2005 it had grown to a regular monthly ridership of 20 to 40 people. Parents brought kids, people rode tall bikes and choppers and dressed in costumes, shared food, and socialized. It was also around this time, however, that Critical Mass gained the attention of the local police (who chose not to comment for this story).

    Interactions with police became a regular occurrence, Gragert said. “Police got phone calls because it is a strange thing for motorists to see, it challenges their conception of what a street is used for.” With the ride often on roadways like Hastings Way and Clairemont, impeding traffic became a major source of animosity. Some riders were intent on staying in a lane to make their presence known to cars and almost reclaim the streets. But when riders refused to pull over and honks were met with thumbs down or booing, it was clear that both sides would not back down from what they felt was “right.”

    The regular obstacle of police interference heightened tensions and led many to stray from the group. Ellringer recounts one incident when the group was pulled over on Water Street. “I had a trailer with kids and started to get angry. Certain people were very confrontational, and I felt like it just wasn’t safe for me or my kids anymore, so we had to stop.”

    Finally in April 2008 tensions hit an all-time high when over a dozen cyclists were pulled over and cited for obstructing traffic on Main Street. The group of cyclists chose to fight the tickets in court, and in the six months it took, Critical Mass slowly dwindled as they feared legal repercussions. After the drawn-out court process, Critical Mass was effectively shut down.

    Most participants agree the agenda is to educate and build awareness. But at the same time, participants acknowledge the conflicting nature of riding bikes on something most perceive as an automobile-only road. When asked if he thinks that Critical Mass overstepped its bounds in Eau Claire, Gragert had one thing to say. “Riding a bicycle down a public roadway should not be considered suicide, and as long as it is I think there is a place for Critical Mass in Eau Claire and elsewhere.”

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