A New Breed of Biker

    On the last Friday of September, my bright red spandex
    biking outfit left me feeling out of place, even though I had just joined a
    group of hundreds of fellow cycling enthusiasts. I found myself at Balboa
    Park’s fountain with a different breed of biker than I had expected. I did not
    see the old men with gray chest hair poking out the top of their skintight
    jerseys, nor did I see the wives they often tow along in small groups, a common
    sight along my standard route through Del Mar that makes me curse the invention
    of form-fitting fitness gear.

    Held in September, Critical Mass in San Diego started in Balboa Park and flowed down El Prado.

    No, this group was younger and sleeker even without the
    aid of spandex. The clothes were mainly casual, and the thickest form of
    protection for many was not a helmet but a pair of denim jeans. As a boom box
    blaring from the front basket of someone’s bicycle added to the feeling of rebelliousness
    in the air, a man coasted up to me on
    his bike and handed me a flyer with a heading that made our mission clear:
    “Critical Mass isn’t blocking traffic
    —–— we are traffic!”

    And so began the event
    that takes place the last Friday of every month. Critical Mass, as the group
    ride is called, started in San Francisco with the goal of reclaiming the street
    from man and nature’s metal enemy: the automobile. For just a few hours every month,
    concentrated pulses of cyclists attain this goal in cities worldwide as they
    navigate the urban terrain. That night in San Diego — my first Critical Mass —
    there were 400 hundred cyclists in attendance.

    Cyclists that participate in Critical Mass bike in the streets to “take back” their rightfully owned roads.

    Had I known more about the event beforehand, I would have
    taken more steps to ensure my safety. I had forgotten my headlight, and was
    wearing clip-in bicycle shoes to keep my feet unfortunately fastened to my
    pedals in case I lost my balance. As the mass circled the fountain in the last
    minutes before launching into the streets, it became evident from the stop-and-go
    flow of so many bikes that my plan to take photographs during the ride might
    come at the price of some road rash.

    At least I had a helmet on, so as a photographer I was
    concerned with more esoteric matters such as what aesthetics my images that
    night would take on. Shooting at night is tough, and so is shooting moving
    objects. So, to be photographing nighttime cyclists — while on a bicycle myself
    — posed some interesting challenges. Moving bicycles started to disappear from
    my shots because of long exposure times.
    The technique of panning the camera to follow my subjects dominated my
    shots when I was off my bike, and without exception I used flash while spinning
    with the pack. To avoid crashing, I shot most frames without looking. I was
    confident something interesting would develop since in photography, chance
    really does favor the well-prepared.

    Toward the end of their ride, Critical Mass participants returned to a bike path.

    After circling the
    fountain enough times to get comfortable with my bike, my camera and the rest of the riders, an unseen
    force guided us away from the fountain and through Balboa Park. Riders cascaded
    down the steps as some swerved to the smooth ramps on the sides. The first
    traffic we encountered was at the beginning of El Prado, but it was no match
    for us. A minute later Hillcrest’s one-way roads were a joy. Intersections were
    a breeze, as leading riders would stop in front of crossing traffic so the
    whole pack could continue through as one. When there was oncoming traffic,
    shouts of “Stay to the right!” would come from the front. At an intersection we passed a solitary cop
    on a motorcycle trying to keep the pack from obstructing traffic. There was
    some confusion at this point, but we continued on once everyone realized the
    cop was impotent and no one was in trouble.

    For about an hour the pack cruised through Hillcrest,
    Mission Hills and Old Town until it hit the end of the ridge and faced a steep
    decline down through Presidio Park. The pack spread out, and with few streetlights or other riders near me, I was aware
    again that a headlight would have been useful. The road was clean, though, and
    so smooth I could barely feel it through my bike. I could not even see the asphalt; it had
    dissolved into an abyss and I felt like I was flying. The wind dominated my
    senses. It howled in my ears and left me chilled despite miles of
    pedaling. Winding down the steepest
    slope, the collective effort of 400 bikers squeezing 800 brakes left the smell
    of burned rubber in the air. A few felt
    no need to resist gravity and zoomed down the hilly road, disappearing around
    corners. Once or twice we stopped amid
    shouts of “Regroup!” This afforded me the rare opportunity to view the ride
    from a stationary perspective. For a few seconds before moving on I could watch
    the length of the group that was behind me, individuals known only by their
    gleaming headlights, swooping and crashing down a hill like a swarm of
    phosphorescent locusts.

    The final stretch of the ride was on a bike path, which
    was along a corridor west to the coast at the mouth of the San Diego River.
    This was the quiet portion of the ride, and a time for reflection. Sunny bike
    paths usually offer me peaceful relief from the threats of city cycling, but
    riding on the path at night left me cloaked in darkness and feeling outcast. I
    wasn’t afraid of vehicles any more. I wanted us to be back in the streets, with
    the bright signs of shops and bars helping us traverse the rough city roads,
    rather than pushed out to the edge of the water to be forgotten. Even after I split from the pack and rode home
    with just a couple friends, I was energized by this sensation of empowerment.

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