Bike Party! (Almost Critical Mass in San Jose, Calif.)

January 16th, 2010 by Joel Pomerantz

When Hugh invited me to yesterday’s San Jose Bike Party, I was pretty busy launching (shameless plug!) but I agreed to head there for the ride. I didn’t have time to look at the “very organized” Web site the ride has. Ironic. I’ll look at your Web site if you look at mine!

I’ve only been to SJ a couple times, and think of it as one big suburb. In other words, conventional American car culture. When we got down there, I had some surprises, along with confirmation of my cynical judgments.

As we rode the many miles from the train station to the ride start (at a mall, um, of course), we ran into a small pack of other cyclists. They, too, were riding many miles to the start, in the dark of winter, in a scary leaf-pile-and-debris-strewn bike lane along a multi-lane mallway street (called Tully) designed for fast-moving cars.

I had been riding all day in SF, getting these Wiggle shirts printed, and my aging knees were already tired. After about five miles beside freeways both literal and figurative, we arrived at the mall, half hour ahead of ride time. The crowd was already big (hundreds), and flashy. Folks were clustered in a couple dozen small groups of cyclists, some speaking Spanish, some English, a few Asians among them and even a scattering of folks my age.

It felt like home to me. There I was happily among celebratory and unpredictable crowds, preparing for a thronging of the streets, it seemed. There were lighted trailers, music boxes, a number of weird costumes, wafts of wacky weed and testosterone brigaders bellowing “Bike Party!”

There were also people unloading from their cars, selling ride shirts, and announcing departure times from bullhorns—all things that rarely, if ever, are part of Critical Mass as San Francisco knows it.

This was not a Critical Mass. Or was it?

Yes, when we started out, it was in a dense pack. We definitely had mass. Near a thousand easily, perhaps as many as 1500. But because of a combination of the strict policy that all bikes must stop at red lights (which can be many minutes long), and the very long stretches between, the ride thinned out quickly.

I lost no time in connecting with the locals. “Excuse me! How do I know which way to go for the ‘mellow’ ride?” (There was also a slightly steeper option.)

When a cop car blazed by, sirens waling: “Sorry, but can you tell me: How much have you seen police monitoring these rides?”

Each person I asked for information gave me some version of, “Oh, just follow along and you’ll be fine,” as a reply. (Was that friendly, or insidious sheep mentality? Maybe both.)

It was a pretty fast ride already when I finally found someone who could tell me how the ride’s organized. The first thing she said was “Oh don’t worry. It’ll open up and get faster.” She wasn’t sarcastic. She thought we were sad to ride so “slowly” (about eight to ten mph) because Nellie was mentioning how slow the SF Critical Mass rides can get.

Jackie says she’s been riding monthly since July 2009. The rides have been going for a couple years. Jackie told me that in addition to the monthly ride, there are rides two or three times between, to plan the fifteen to twenty-something mile route. These planning rides are attended by ten to fifty, anyone welcome. But the final say rests with one person who has taken on this volunteer role. Scott is the name she gave. “John M used to do it, but it’s a lot of work and he retired. A couple other guys help Scott make the final route, but it’s really on him. If you want to volunteer to help, that’s what it’s all about.”

She told me that the people who guide the ride are called ‘birdies’. I saw only two, at important junctures. They tried, also, to keep us out of opposing traffic with their hollers and bullhorning, but often people went where they wanted to, with no resistance from car drivers.

When we were most spread out, in the low hills of the east parts of town, it was most chaotic, with bikes cutting off cars at lights, and spreading out across all lanes. Of course not one person ever stopped for a stop sign. How could they? The pressure to keep up was enormous, or so I thought until I saw crowds resting in 7-Eleven parking lots along the downhill stretch.

As it turned out, there were way-points, three of them on the advance published map that some people (including Hugh) carried. At these stops the entire crowd regrouped for twenty minutes or more. When restless, they headed out again in packs. At these rests, vans and tents were again present, selling shirts and putting out waste bins for the crowd. One guy selling shirts said they sometimes can drive to the next way-point before the bikes, but often have to leapfrog ahead to the way-point-after-next.

Our little San Francisco contingent split for home after the first way-point, since we still had many miles to go back to the train and then home from the Caltrain in SF. Overall, this month’s ride route was 21 miles, of which we did about eight, plus ten or more on our own in San Jose, using the Santa Clara VTA bike map I’d brought along.

I came away having great respect for the event. I spoke with a dozen people who don’t ride other than this monthly party—and a few who do, but only for recreation. I found four who ride for transportation, all of whom said this Bike Party ride had started them on that path. I would love to know how many people rode the whole length. It seemed excessive to me. Twenty-one miles!?

Now I can add San Jose to my list of places I’ve ridden Critical Mass. Heck, yeah! It was enough like a Critical Mass, I think, to warrant that. SF, NYC, Budapest, Rochester, Chapel Hill, Rome and San Jose, baby. Yes I’m bragging. But I’m sure others have ridden more. Fess up!

7 Responses to “Bike Party! (Almost Critical Mass in San Jose, Calif.)”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Pee Wee Herman and collect intelligence, Autonomous Brand. Autonomous Brand said: @sfcriticalmass 2 posts on @SJbikeparty Can SFCM learn from SJBP? Yes! Almost Critical Mass in SJ […]

  2. routescouter says:


    Glad you and Hugh were able to join us. Not sure if the timing would have worked out, but we did have two pre-rides (6:45pm and 7:15pm) that left dt SJ at the Camera 12/SJ Rep area with 35-45 riders each.

    Look at the sjbp website and facebook pages for test ride and route information.

    This ride was a bit different for many reasons. We don’t normally start at a big mall (was this a 1st?), go up a hill almost immediately, nor split one ride into two rides, have a ton of stop signs to go thru, etc. Each ride was different and this one was a bit of an experiment in some ways (even though we had 2 test rides).

    This ride was also unique in that the regroup #1 had a bit of a life of it’s own, it took us 10-15min to get them going. We needed more BIRDs there….Part of the reason you didn’t see a lot of BIRDs is that we split the ride and a disproportionate number of BIRDs went the steep route that was 2 1/2 times steeper than the one you and Hugh went on.

    BTW, Jackie is one of many that has a son or daughter in the ride, and vice versa.

    Correction is that the test rides were started about a year ago and John got involved and eventually led the anniversary ride that had 3 starting points and 4200-4500 riders. He did such a great job that he was asked to help more “globally.” So the route scouting keeps going on, with him as a part of it as well, not “retired.”

    Lastly, 15-20-something miles? We’ve pushed up the mileage where that is now the normal bottom range of the mileage we ride, with 25 miles as more of an average, with 30-33 miles the maximum. This does not include the “pre-rides” to the actual rides… these are 4-12+ miles.

    Looking forward to seeing more from SF, etc. Please feel free to look at the web site, to find out “How We Ride” and I’m sure SJBP is always looking for great volunteers (BIRDs and non-BIRDs) whereever they’re from. Ride On!

  3. Well, heck, routescouter, Why do you make it so long? If the BIRDs tend to go the harder way, that mean to me that they are hard core. Yet the majority went the mellower way, meaning they are voting to go less hard core. Seems like you could get a lot more in touch with the people who attend the rides by making the rides less than 15 miles long. Just think how big they’d get then! I mean, if size matters.

    I truly don’t understand the things you say about pre-rides. I guess that means rides to add even more miles to the route before others begin.

  4. Amber says:

    The rides are 20 miles long so people can’t drink too much and cause problems.

  5. The energy and enthusiasm of the SJ Bike Party folks reminds me of Critical Mass in it’s first few years, 92-95. We used to plan routes and do fun stuff like that too. But then we got busy with other stuff. I love the themes — we should try that on SF’s ride!

  6. The rides are 20 miles long so people can’t drink too much and cause problems.

    Is that widely perceived as the reason? This intrigues me. Is there some reason that people might cause fewer problems if the ride is long? I mean they might drink a lot, cause problems and go for only part of the ride. Are there other methods of reducing problems that are part of the discussion?

  7. John M says:

    Interesting. I wish i could have read this sooner and helped with some of the fact checking.