Critical Mass

At 6pm on the last Friday of every month, a motley crew of cyclists gather in front of the main city library in Manchester to…cycle.

The tradition of massing critically began in San Fransisco in 1992 with a handful of commuters cycling together for solidarity. 16 years later, there are critical mass events in most major cities ranging from tens to hundreds of people. Notably most of these gatherings have no official agenda and are publicised as ‘organised coincidence’ rather than any form of protest or activism.

Cycling around Manchester is in general a very stressful experience. Although the council claims to be taking environmental pollution seriously, there seems to be no great effort for the most part to renew cycle lanes or to think of provision for cyclists. Where cycle lanes do exist, they are exceedingly badly planned and maintained, pockmarked by potholes and drain covers. Furthermore, motorists seem to have almost no awareness of cyclists whatsoever. Having cycled in Manchester for two and a half years, I can recall only one occasion where a motorist actually looked in his mirror and stopped before turning left through a cycle lane. This being the norm in most places, cyclists often feel somewhat disenfranchised as road users. Critical mass gives a much needed feeling of solidarity and safety in a domain which is, more often than not, distinctly hostile.

Here’s a video of Manchester critical mass last May:

Last month I decided that having known about it for long enough, it was now time to finally gain some personal experience of critical mass – more than anything else, to sample the prevailing atmosphere. It definitely was a very peculiar feeling. There is no fixed route, the mass of cyclists simply whoever happens to be at the front. I was definitely not disappointed. The thing that struck me most, apart from the novelty of greatly outnumbering cars was the totally relaxed vibe. Being surrounded by cyclists rather than cars leads to enough of a noise reduction to be able to hold conversations with other cyclists in the middle of roads. The usual feeling of being more than slightly harried by passing motorists was replaced by complete relaxation and well-being.

Come along next week at 6pm 28th March in front of the Main Library in St Peter’s Square.

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