It’s called Detroit Critical Mass (not to be confused with Critical Mass Detroit, another ride starting in Grand Circus Park). At around 6:30 p.m. on the last Friday of every month, a hodgepodge of cyclists gather on the corner of Trumbull and Warren, ranging from youngsters to sixtysomethings, from all over metro Detroit. You’ll even find some out-of-towners among them.
It works like this: At 7 p.m. sharp (er
or sometime around then) a couple riders plunge south on Trumbull, and the mass of riders follow, grabbing their handlebars and pedaling forward in semi-unison.
Imagine a parade coming down Woodward — roads are blocked, people are gathered on the sidewalks and police are patrolling the side streets — well that’s Critical Mass in a nutshell. Anywhere from 100 to 300 cyclists take over the road (depending on the month), while foot pedestrians watch in awe, cheer, shout or ask in joyful confusion, “Where are you guys from?”
Though Critical Mass philosophy doesn’t allow for leaders, there are usually a couple riders toward the front, deciding on a whim to go left, right or straight. There is never a planned or designated route.
To help keep the mass nice and cohesive, riders voluntarily block oncoming traffic at intersections — a move known as “corking.”
Sometimes the mass begins grouping off, leaving stragglers behind. But for the most part, the ride is relaxed and sociable — intense cyclists can leave behind spandex shorts and performance eyewear.
And this isn’t just a Detroit thing. Critical Mass started in San Francisco in 1992, as a way to help raise awareness of cycling. Years later, bikers from around the country (and the world) gather at the same time and date in the name of pedal power.
But unlike most group bike rides, Critical Mass always offers something extra. For instance, this particular ride, two nights before Halloween, ws dubbed the “Critical Massquerade,” with dozens of riders in costume, including an ersatz Santa Claus on a bike.
Or take rider John Bortell, a recent graduate from Purdue University. He tied a small guitar amp (powered by a 9-volt battery) around his neck, blasting songs like “Danger! High Voltage” by the Electric Six, and even (sigh) “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” by Kanye West.
Bortell explained, “Other than that, I play ridiculous ’90s music and electronic music.”
Such clever conceits are what downshift the mood from what could be an intense bicycle race to a more relaxed social gathering, making riders as approachable as if they were at the bar.
Brian Kennedy, from Chicago, has attended Critical Mass rides for more than three years, but went to his first Detroit ride last September.
“The social aspect of Critical Mass is absolutely fantastic,” Kennedy said, “It’s probably one of my biggest social circles.”
And, though the number of riders will probably fall as the weather grows colder, Critical Mass is noteworthy gathering that happens only once a month — so don’t miss it!