When my friend Michael Burton first started talking up bikes and bugging me to get on one, I told him my most recent encounter with a cyclist had been with a bike messenger who spat on me because I was in his way as he ran a red light. Michael was just starting to get involved in a group known for its spotty regard for traffic laws. Critical Mass, an informal agglomeration of cyclists, is named after the unwritten rule that governs bike traffic in Chinese cities–cyclists wanting to cross the prevailing flow gather at intersections until there are enough of them to burst through to the other side.

In many cities, and since 1997 in Chicago, Critical Mass has used similar tactics to assert cyclists’ place in traffic–once a month during rush hour. They take over whole lanes and intersections, sometimes stopping under the traffic lights to raise their bikes overhead in triumph. But what for? “To raise awareness about bikes” is the most frequent answer. But what for? If the main purpose of Critical Mass is to win converts to biking and to promote safety and respect for cyclists on the road, why use tactics that provoke drivers and aggravate police?

Michael described Critical Mass as a spontaneous gathering of people who have nothing in common but bikes. So the question might not be “Is there a purpose?” but rather “Does there need to be one?”

I would not have struck you as a person who would care. A die-hard pedestrian, I’d let my driver’s license expire years before. I was in no hurry to own any kind of vehicle, and I didn’t follow the progress of Critical Mass as it grew last summer (from 50 riders to 100, 200, 300, approaching 400) or notice when the police started to make arrests.

But Michael did convince me to meet Jim Redd, describing him as a 56-year-old hell-raiser, famous for his wild adventures and police evasions. When we met at the Exchequer, under the Wabash Avenue tracks at Adams, Jim looked at me skeptically. “What’s your angle,” he wanted to know. “I’m a pedestrian,” I said. “Kristin was once spat on by a bike messenger,” Michael offered helpfully. Jim sipped his beer. “Is there a place in this mass for pedestrians?” I asked him. Pedestrians and mass-transit riders–aren’t we natural allies against the lumbering car? Jim thought a minute and then said, “Pedestrians have a place. They’re called sidewalks.” He had a point: it’s illegal to ride your bike on the sidewalk in Chicago if you’re over 12.

I asked him about some of his more famous exploits: dodging the police through the plazas of Sandburg Village, losing them just long enough to lock his bike and wait it out at a bar; or even once, in Austin (where a white man passing through is often presumed to be pursuing some other kind of illicit traffic), outracing them.

He didn’t want to talk about that. That’s not what the ride’s about. What is the ride about?

“Bikes are better,” Jim likes to say. That’s the short answer. He has lots of others. There’s economy, safety, ecology, and the burden of justice. Did I know how much paved space it takes to accommodate a car? “Every car needs about seven times its own size in pavement just so you can park it every place you take it,” according to Jim. It creates huge watershed problems and throws off ecologies. Why did I think we had to build the Deep Tunnel? Did I know how much governments–federal, state, and local–have spent, still spend, to subsidize that pavement? In fact, government subsidies helped the automobile trounce the streetcar in the first place. And now that it’s all built, cars aren’t willing to share the roads we all paid for. And that’s the really crummy thing about cars–built for speed and dominance, they breed impatience and an inability to share. What did I think road rage was about? There are 42,000 deaths by automobile accident every year nationwide. In Chicago, there were over 350 road rage deaths in 1996, the last time someone counted. “Cars think they own the road,” Michael said. Where cars run amok, there is Critical Mass. “We’re not stopping traffic,” Jim said, repeating the Critical Mass mantra, “we are traffic.”

But that’s also a sticking point. Aggressive bikers can be even more lawless than those drivers in their chugging behemoths, and Critical Mass as a group defies the laws of traffic–and not just when it stops in intersections. Chicago’s vehicle code says cyclists must ride single file, so it’s illegal to ride in Critical Mass just like it’s illegal to drive over the speed limit or to use the horn on your car just because you’re pissed. This rule’s also open to selective enforcement. In the case of Critical Mass, the only enforcers are the men and women in the north-side 18th Police District. In other districts, the police wave them benignly by, or provide an escort without being asked. Critical Mass has been avoiding the 18th District since last fall.

I know this now because after I met Jim I agreed to ride with Critical Mass in January. Jim set me up with a bike and Michael brought a helmet, and they rode me downtown to work. I was afraid to bike by myself because I hadn’t been on a bike in about nine years and the thought of riding in car traffic filled my heart with ice and dread.

I was wobbly; they rode slow. I hadn’t expected the thrill of riding among vehicles much larger than myself, moving faster than I was used to going. At intersections Jim and Michael would ride up between the seething lanes of crabby commuters. I would have been too afraid to go there on my own, but I was too afraid of being left behind not to follow them. I was afraid of the patches of ice and piles of snow, aware of every grate and rail we crossed, every spill of gravel. Any of them might send a person reeling into the heavy vehicles. When we got to the Loop the buses sped up to pass us so they could cut us off at their abrupt stops. Pedestrians pushed their signals–playing chicken with us as they started into the crosswalks. I was sure I’d hit someone, but I didn’t. I made it. By the time I got to work I could barely settle down.

It was winter, it was dark, and the ride later was small, with 50 or 60 riders, and lopsidedly male. “The dynamics improve in the summer,” Michael assured me. Before we took off, we voted on a route from maps being passed around. Michael called Critical Mass a leaderless “xerocracy,” named after the practice of handing out copies of proposed routes.

It was fun in the Loop–there were people to watch us and wave, and if you’re new on a bike, traffic is a lot less threatening when you have numbers on your side. We zoomed in briefly to add our numbers to a rally for the homeless, who were being gated off from the warm air grates on Lower Wacker Drive–an entirely different fight over public space and who uses it. Then the ride wandered on, west on Adams, north a little way, then up Milwaukee for a while. A squad car from the 18th showed up to tail us so the cops could pounce on anyone who strayed over the district line, and that added a little excitement to what otherwise was getting to be a really long, really cold ride. A couple of the riders herded us around a school yard, then we backtracked quickly to shake the squad car. Someone bought the cops doughnuts, which they refused. They must have gotten bored, because they disappeared and we streamed on to a triumphant finish in that six-pointed snarl at the heart of Wicker Park before retiring to the Subterranean for refreshments.

It was interesting but not that interesting. The arguments for economy, safety, ecology, and justice have been made well elsewhere, and it was still unclear to me how Critical Mass contributed to the concrete advancement of any of them.

On a mild night in February, Michael invited me to come along on an “urban assault.” I’d heard about such adventures at the Exchequer, night rides through rail yards, industrial areas, wasted space by the river. Where Critical Mass jockeys with traffic on the busiest streets, the urban assault travels the empty, underdeveloped, and forgotten places, pushing the limits of what’s public and what’s not.

Today I couldn’t re-create our route. I remember biking through the Elston corridor, vague impressions of racing through industrial yards, dogs hysterically barking behind fences. We rode across broken pavements and up over a collapsing bridge, passing among huge vats, a yard of shadowy boxcars paused in their travels, and heaps of rusting stuff. Everywhere we went we’d come up on construction sites–scrap yards being reinvented as real estate. I’d wonder, “Who’s going to buy a town home here?” Someone believes people will.

At any rate, new development meant fences and dead ends. Diverted, we’d invent detours. Sent churning through the heavy gravel of the rail beds, we traveled along the Amtrak lines, past the dozing, humming trains. The workers we saw would smile and wave at us–which I was beginning to realize is a nearly universal reaction to the sight of a bunch of people on bikes.

We emerged by the south branch of the river, crossing somewhere near where the Loop falls off abruptly into improbable wilds. There were once rail lines here; planners ground their teeth at such a senseless intrusion on the valuable land near the heart of downtown. The rails are gone now. Now there are trees, grass, and prairie–and signs of impending development. The earth was soft, deep, and hard to navigate. Sometimes we had to carry our bikes. Sometimes we couldn’t see the ground as we charged through thick brush and onto some ancient pavement, puddled with standing water, traveling now at choking speed. Suddenly we stumbled into a refuge.

A friend once described coming upon a wildcat’s den–you don’t see it until you’re in it, then something odd makes you pause. For my friend it was the throaty sound of the cats circling around. Here it was the scent of flesh and sweat. Brush and dirt had been pushed around. Maybe it was one of the men pushed off the vents on Lower Wacker. We went on, up a rise and past parked cars where a couple copulated in a pickup, and then we lifted our bikes up and over a railing and we were at Harrison and Franklin.

Back on the smooth pavement we fairly flew. Gliding north under Wacker and Michigan we came to rest outside the Billy Goat. We dragged our bikes inside and scarfed down hamburgers and Old Style. The guys talked about how all that development was encroaching on their night rides. They’d have to scout out new routes, maybe down the river where the old meatpacking plants were. “There’s just not as much wasted space anymore,” Jim sighed into his beer.

Listening to them talk about the urban assault, I thought I saw, for the first time, some sense in Critical Mass. The connection made no sense to Jim. “They’re different rides. Different origins, different purposes,” he said with a shrug. Still, more than any lecture about ecology, fairness, or sensible growth, that ride showed me that a bike is something more than a mode of transportation–it’s a different way of being in the city. I’d probably never again be able to look at a long line of cars waiting in rush hour, heaving and impatient, without seeing them as slow and clumsy–massive steel exoskeletons with soft bodies inside. I’d just gotten started and already I was on my way to the radical fringe.

One weekend in March Jim put off doing his taxes to help me buy a bike. He wanted to make sure I’d take a few test rides and get something comfortable. “You want to be part of your bike, not on your bike,” he counseled, leading me over different surfaces, around tight corners. “Don’t feel like you have to buy one here. Don’t feel like you have to buy a bike today.” But I wanted to buy one right away, and it’s not hard to choose something you know nothing about. It fit, I could control it (sort of), I could afford it, I bought it–along with a lock, a light, and a helmet, all in one afternoon.

My first weeks on the bike meant long hours at the office, because I’d arrive early and leave late to avoid the crush of rush hour. I was still nervous in traffic. Highways are designed for drivers whose skill level falls in the top 80th percentile. You forget about that, that drivers vary in skill and judgment from zero to 100 percent, until you’re out there on a bike, trusting their competence and restraint in a vehicle so big they’d barely feel it if they brushed you off yours.

They say that a car will almost never hit you from behind. They’re more likely to lurch out in front of you or open a door in your path, and you have seconds or less to decide whether you’ll plow into it or swerve into traffic. They say it’s usually better to crash into the vehicle you can see than to throw yourself beneath the tires of the one you can’t. Oblivious pedestrians pose a different kind of obstacle–I’d like to think I’d throw myself into moving traffic before I’d run over a pedestrian (you can kill one, you know, just like a car can), but luckily I have yet to be tested.

I was still limiting myself to off-peak hours in April when Tom McBride got killed by a guy in a sport utility vehicle in Austin. The story spread quickly: a messenger heading to work, McBride had been riding in from Oak Park on Washington when the SUV cut him off. He struck the car with his fist; he and the driver exchanged words. Outraged, the motorist maneuvered around behind him and hit him several times, knocking him to the ground and finally running him over. (“What was he doing, provoking someone in an SUV?” would be one of my coworkers’ first questions.) One story has bystanders chasing the driver to his house. I don’t know if that’s true, but the driver, who lost his license plate at the scene, turned himself in to the police. He’s been charged with first-degree murder.

Within a few days, a hundred-odd cyclists had been rallied by word of mouth for a memorial ride from Daley Plaza to the site of McBride’s death. As the riders gathered under the Picasso, they traded stories about accidents they’d had with cars. The McBride family came and passed out black ribbons. There was a megaphone and a few people spoke about the hostility bred by driving and how this event might affect it. Someone asked cyclists to wear their armbands for a week and drivers to stay off their horns for the same period. From the back of the crowd a sunburned drunk expressed his sympathy in a profusion of profanity, until a clean-cut young man went over and told him to stop. The drunk swore a little more and then went quiet.

Plenty of cyclists don’t ride in Critical Mass. Some dismiss it as a congregation of scofflaws who only aggravate tensions, making things harder for everybody. Some think it’s a little silly, or they just aren’t interested in joining a movement. But cyclists of all kinds came out that Sunday afternoon in memory of Tom McBride.

The ride rolled out down Washington, empty on a Sunday afternoon, past the restaurants west of the Loop and out along the string of neighborhoods in various states of slow recovery from the riots 30 years ago.

We took the road like Critical Mass does–riding shoulder to shoulder, a whole ragtag parade. Riders fell in with each other and chatted for a few minutes, until the shifting bike traffic brought new companions. There was a man who makes videos for the Web, a lawyer-doctor still pursuing new professional degrees, an elderly eccentric with a long beard who waved at people on their porches.

The young man who scolded the drunk, it turned out, teaches blind veterans to navigate traffic. “I’m afraid of traffic myself,” I told him. And he told me about the nearly blind vet who still rides his bike, or did until recently. He wants the man to get back on–he can still see peripherally–but the vet recently took a fall, and he’s still a little shaken. “But he wasn’t on the bike when he fell.”

Near Garfield Park a man came out to join the ride as it passed through his neighborhood, smiling shyly, on a bike propelled by a purring motor on the back. “He doesn’t get the point,” one cyclist said to another, though others rode beside him and asked admiring questions about his handiwork.

There was one minor confrontation, with a big Cadillac. There are two schools of thought on a Critical Mass ride: those who get madder when an irate driver tries to press his way through, and those who argue safety first and plead with the others to give drivers the left lane. I call the latter the uncles. One time one of the uncles brought walkie-talkies to the ride so that, with one up front and one lingering toward the back, they could communicate and shepherd the ride in the event of road ragers or angry police, or in case the riders got spread out. But they got too much flak from people who thought radios were an inappropriate accessory to a free-flowing xerocracy, and the walkie-talkies never reappeared.

The Cadillac rode right up on the cyclists in the left lane, trying to intimidate them, and one of the guys who just gets madder was not about to give in. He stuck to his lane, glaring back over his shoulder. One of the uncles called out, “Come on, that car doesn’t have insurance! It’s not worth it!” Finally the angry guy got tired of it, gave up the lane, and the car rushed past in a hurry.

Out in Austin, we came to a stop in front of a big brick apartment building, laid down our bikes, and sat in the road. A curious crowd gathered on the corner to watch us sitting in silence. Were any of these the brave people who’d chased the driver down? A big old boat drove up alongside us, and a woman leaned out the window to ask what we were there for. “A memorial service,” someone told her. “Oh,” she said, “I’m sorry to hear that,” and the car passed on.

After the silence a few people spoke. Someone talked about Buddhism as a source of calm in the midst of traffic, someone said a prayer in Hebrew, the drunk guy said a sentimental word or two, and Tom McBride’s brother thanked us all for coming. Then we got on our bikes and rode back down Washington–the parade a little looser as people straggled off home, a little more ragtag but still a parade.

Bikers elsewhere think Chicago is one of the most bike-friendly cities in the country–thanks partly to Mayor Daley’s enthusiasm for cycling. On Bike to Work day in May, the city served breakfast to bicycle commuters in Daley Plaza. Some of the usual suspects decided to hold a Critical Mass Bike Home From Work Ride later that afternoon. They thought city-sponsored Bike Week could be the right time to make a return to the 18th Police District after months of avoiding it.

The 18th District is cradled by the main stem of the river and its north branch, all the way up to Fullerton. It’s neither particularly large nor populous as police districts go, though its residents represent a wide range of incomes–it lumps together North Michigan Avenue, Old Town, and the Gold Coast, along with Cabrini-Green.

So far, it’s the only district where people have been arrested for riding in Critical Mass. Last fall, as arrests were mounting and riders were dropping off, a few of the riders tried to work things out in a meeting with a Sergeant Clark. But Sergeant Clark didn’t want to talk–“He told us we were a bunch of savages who beat up old people,” recalls Gin Kilgore, who had been a member of the delegation.

As Jim had said back at the Exchequer, the arrests were getting too much play. So the ride began to steer clear of the 18th. Which was probably fine with Sergeant Clark. Now that some time had passed, there’d been some talk about going back to press the point. Gin’s boyfriend, T.C. O’Rourke, was one of those who thought it was time to return. He faxed the 18th District office a copy of the route he was going to propose, hoping to help secure their trust. In the end, they arrested him for attempting to incite a riot because he was chanting “Biking’s not a crime.” So were a lot of other riders, but most of them stopped when the police told them to.

Officers also gave out four tickets to cyclists for making illegal left turns, and took two of them in to the station because they didn’t have Illinois IDs. One of these was Tribune photographer John Lee, who came away sympathetic to the cops’ concerns. What the police were really afraid of, more than a riot, he said, was motorists going over the edge and running someone over–like what happened to McBride. They didn’t want anything like that to happen on their watch. They wanted to know why Critical Mass couldn’t pursue its goals through more effective and less annoying means. Why weren’t they down in Springfield, getting laws passed?

But that assumes the goals of Critical Mass can be obtained through legislative means. It’s already legal to ride your bike on the street. Would bicyclists be better served by more bike lanes or stronger enforcement of the ones that already exist? (Cars tend to drive in them, like on Elston, or to double-park in them, like on Wells.)

Accuse Critical Mass riders of breaking the law and they will talk about civil disobedience. Complain that Critical Mass only causes contention all around and they will talk about how Martin Luther King Jr. suffered similar accusations when he led blacks on walks through white neighborhoods.

The goal of Critical Mass is to raise awareness about bikes. But that suggests the rides’ success is contingent on the positive reaction of motorists, which is not always forthcoming.

Nick Jackson from the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation said he would not join the Critical Mass ride in May–the ride had changed. When he first rode in it, he did it for the joy of it, all those people from all walks of life coming together just because they like bikes. More and more, he said, that spirit of spontaneous celebration gives way to the bravado factor, to the drama of returning to the 18th District, and the excitement of confronting motorists and the police.

Jackson said he knew he was lucky to be able to be an advocate for bikes for a living and that other cyclists still need an outlet like Critical Mass in an often hostile environment. On the other hand, Chicago just recently hired Ben Gomberg to help draft and implement the farthest-reaching scheme of bike lanes and routes yet–Critical Massers call him the Bike Czar–and the CBF has been working closely with him to get community input and help fine-tune the plan. Some professional advocates fear that the more confrontational Critical Mass becomes, the more potential it has to undermine what they’ve achieved.

When cyclists gather once again at Daley Plaza for the May Critical Mass, there are two maps up for vote. One route is heavy on the 18th District. The other runs around the Loop, then passes quickly through the 18th at the end to stop beneath the statue of Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln Park. There are lots of cyclists and it’s hard to hear the guys up under the Picasso pitching their routes, but the group votes for the “18th-mellow” map.

And then we’re off. About 150 bikers pour into the street and head up Dearborn. A tough guy on a motorcycle rides among the cyclists and asks what’s going on. “It’s a celebration of bikes,” someone tells him. We surge around the corner, east on Wacker, spilling into the gold evening sun.

Someone has a sort of metal drum on his handlebars and he keeps time with a rhythmic clatter. Someone else plays his bike frame with a stick. Dozens of people ring their bells or play little plastic pipes. When we pass under the elevated tracks at Randolph and the Chicago Stock Exchange on Congress, everyone whoops and yells to hear the sound ascend and reverberate.

The CBF people come after all, and Nick Jackson has a device on his handlebars that spills out streams of soap bubbles behind him. The cyclists wave to bystanders and cafe patrons, who smile at the weird parade. Most wave back.

We run into a rager, in a big old sedan on Congress. He bears down on the cyclists, trying to intimidate them, yelling “This is an expressway!” in righteous indignation. “Give him the lane!” the uncles shout, and one by one, the riders do.

We turn right, gradually heading up north to Elston then east over the Division Street bridge, and then we pass into the 18th. It’s like being in a neighborhood people say is dangerous–you’re a little impressed by how safe you feel until something happens. But nothing does. We pass a squad car, some officers on the street, who watch us pass without expression. One of them is talking into a radio, but still nothing happens, except that the drivers in Old Town seem a little more irritable than drivers elsewhere.

“Why is it as soon as we get to a rich neighborhood people get snippy?” one cyclist asks. We arrive at Lincoln Park and are walking our bikes to the Lincoln statue when she tells the bike cop there, “See, we’re nice people! You don’t have to arrest us!”

“I believe that,” he replies sympathetically.

Someone else says bike cops are generally cooler than other cops anyway.

Once we are gathered at Lincoln’s feet, Jim Redd reads from Carl Sandburg’s poem “I Am the People, the Mob,” emphasizing the last line, “the mass–will arrive then!” And having arrived, having raised the poetic equivalent of bikes over our heads, we straggle off. People go home or head out to share a beer.

I think of one of my coworkers, a driver who periodically complains about cyclists: how they take up so much space in the lane, how they block traffic and it’s not safe. I usually want to say, “The reason traffic sucks is not that there are too many people in the street on bikes.” I know I’d be wrong to say it, since it’s obviously a matter of perspective. Instead I’d like to tell her, or anyone else, that the next time you’re held up in traffic for the fleeting minute it takes 150 bikes to ride by, don’t think of ecology, economics, or the politics of sprawl; think how much more fun you’d be having if you were on a bike.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Ken Wilson.