I was the first to arrive at the usual meeting place across from City Hall. I saw other cyclists quietly pass through the square, looking around to see if a discernible group had formed. Eventually a cyclist approached me and asked, “Are you here for Critical Mass?” Indeed I was. We chatted about our previous Critical Mass experiences as more people drew near. Two became five, five became twelve, and twelve eventually became forty cyclists circling the fountain, ready to spill out into the city streets.

Ottawa’s Critical Mass is small in comparison to those of other Canadian cities, usually drawing about 40 or 50 people instead of the hundreds and sometimes thousands that show up in Toronto, Vancouver, and Montréal. No matter what the size, Critical Mass draws an eclectic mix of people young and old, from anarchists to bureaucrats, from seasoned cyclists to leisure riders.

The first Critical Mass happened in San Francisco in 1992 as an attempt to raise awareness about cyclist rights on the road. The idea caught on, and Critical Mass bike rallies now occur on a monthly basis in hundreds of cities around the globe.

Critical Mass is a non-hierarchical phenomenon. There is no leader in the pack. There is no planned route. When you ride on the street, it is simply the people in front who decide where and when to turn. The ride lasts as long as you want it to. Since there is no set route, and no leader to say it’s over, you can ride as a group as long as you please. Simply meander off when you feel the time is right, and eventually the group will dissipate.

While there is no authoritative set of rules, there are, however, some guidelines to making the ride both safe and fun:

1)    Obey traffic laws

Yes, a pack of cyclists will take up much of the roadway and will generally block traffic, but cyclists are not exempt from traffic laws. It is important to stop at red lights, ride on the right side of the road, and signal at turns. This shows respect for drivers, pedestrians and other cyclists alike, and demonstrates a willingness to be cooperative with other people using the roadway.

2)    Stick together

Solidarity is key during the ride. No one should be left behind, and speeding ahead only weakens the group. If a light is turning yellow and you’re at the front of the pack, stop so that no one gets caught at the red light. That said, there will be times where running a red is unavoidable (especially with a massive group). A strategy known as “corking” helps keep the group together and works like this: when going through an intersection, some of the riders at the front of the pack will stop on either side of the laneway to block traffic that might try to turn onto the road while the pack is riding through. When the pack proceeds fully through the intersection, the corkers will join at the back of the group. This creates a constant rotation of people in the group. Even if it’s your first ride, you might find yourself corking the road!

3)    Smile and wave; be enthusiastic and polite

Positivity is important. Before our ride, a more frequent participant welcomed the group and gave out some basic information about what to expect. He made sure to point out the following: “You WILL be antagonized!” Motorists aren’t expecting a group of cyclists to be meandering in front of them during their drive across town. They will be bewildered, confused, aggressive, and downright rude. We know we’re in their way, so we have to show that we like riding anyway. Repel their frustration with a smile, and wave in thanks when they patiently wait at a four-way stop for 60 or 100 cyclists to pass through.

4)    Make some noise

Part of the fun is drawing attention to yourself. Think of Critical Mass as a big parade—the more noise and colour, the better! At the last Critical Mass I was at, one generous and creative participant handed out brightly-coloured whistles to everyone so that we could make ourselves heard as well as seen through the streets. Chanting, singing, and ringing your bell are great ways to keep the atmosphere fun and friendly.

Strength in numbers is what Critical Mass is all about. Increased participation makes drivers more aware of the cyclist presence in their cities, and lets cyclists know that they are backed by others who have the same demand for traffic rights at heart. Celebrate with cheers and bell-ringing when cyclists show up for their first-ever Critical Mass, and rejoice when you manage to draw in random cyclists from the street as you ride through town! The more the merrier!

Ask around or do a quick Internet search to see if there’s a Critical Mass in your area. If not, starting your own critical mass is as easy as posting some flyers, starting a Facebook group, and getting some friends and family to show up at the time you’ve set. Keep showing up, and people will get the idea.

So what are you waiting for? On your bike!

by Emily Jeffers