Now it's time to return to the story of how I had ten years scared off my life by going on a short little bike ride with my brother. If you're still with me by the end, then good on you :)
For a while we were just riding through neighborhoods (with only one dodgy moment), and then we were on a nice safe bike path. This was all fine, and I can absolutely see why so many bicyclists are so thrilled to live anywhere near an official path. Comparatively speaking they're so wonderfully protected from cars, and you don't hardly have to worry about driveways or speed bumps or dogs or semi-trucks turning out of shipyards (don't ask). After a while, I actually started to relax and chat with the family. However, the bit on the bike path did not last long, and soon we were on a surface street again.
Not just any surface street. More like a main thoroughfare in an industrial part of town. Granted, this road did have its very own bike lane, but that didn't help too much when you consider that most of the traffic on the road was huge trucks. A standard size car does not fill a lane, so when near a bicycle they can simply hug the center stripe. A big truck does not have this option since it fills the lane entirely. This led to one of two strategies on the part of the truckers. Either swerve out into on-coming traffic (lots of honking and excitement) or ignore the bikes and pass within a few feet of them (people on bikes nearly fall of from the wind and the terror). My brother and his friends (oh they appeared at some point, but I was petrified to notice) seemed unconcerned about the situation, but Big Niece and I were pretty much white with concern.
Eventually we left the industrial neighborhood. You would think that would be a relief, but since we'd traded trucks for the thick traffic of downtown Seattle on a Friday evening, we were still pretty much on edge. Add to all that the fact that there are NO BIKE LANES around there, and it was (amazingly) even more frightening than before. You have to just ride in a lane with the cars and hope it all turns out okay. I was literally vying with busses for space. Taxis and other cars cut us off on purpose. I do have to say that this is incredible exercise because you don't dare stop for a rest. The light is turning green so PEDDLE FOR ALL YOU'RE WORTH! You can see why the automatic bike was such a good idea.
After a while we made our way to the gathering place for the official ride. I felt like I'd been through the fire already, but really we hadn't even begun. Big Niece was also looking peaked, so we sort of huddled together and made fun of the other bicyclists (hey, I never said I was a GOOD influence) who'd gathered. Then, out of the corner of my eye I noticed a chocolate shop. It is a well-known fact that one of the best things for strained nerves is chocolate. We dropped our bikes with Elder Brother, and made a beeline for the goodies. The ladies in the shop were quite horrified by our attire (helmets and sweat), but they were (thankfully) still able to sell us orange bon bons.
Thus fortified by chocolate, we gathered our bikes and joined "the circling" as Elder Brother called it. Just as I was mounting up, I saw my first really bad reaction to Critical Mass. A man who looked like a bike commuter (button up shirt, slacks, backpack, serious bike) was slowly crossing the square to join the throngs. A pedestrian suddenly reached out just as the bike passed and gave the hardest possible shove to the bicyclist. There was absolutely no provocation. Great! now I had something other than cars to be anxious about! Luckily, the victim had excellent sense of balance (and self control for that matter) because he swerved a bit and then righted himself without falling over (or swinging around to beat up the shover).
I must confess that once critical mass gets going you actually feel safer than before. The huge group works to shield most of the crowd from trouble, and the only real risk is from the press of bikes around you. The response of the people on sidewalks and in cars is quite surprising. I would say roughly one third just don't have any idea what to make of three hundred bikes taking over a street in downtown. The stare, literally with mouths open, as the crowd passes. You can almost see the tourists mentally filing away the story to tell back home.
About another third are royally, rabidly pissed off by the disruption. My poor sister-in-law got a nasty stream of abuse from one woman who did not like having to wait at an intersection. Cars do sometimes try to rush the mob hoping to make the bikes scatter, and those people who use their bikes to "cap" intersections really are taking a personal risk. The struggle for me is that I can understand why some of these people are upset. They were going along, following the rules, and suddenly things change on them. Nevertheless, that is no excuse for rudeness or hostility.
The last third are in love with the idea of all those bikes. They wave, they whistle, they lean out of their cars to take pictures. It's kind of a strange feeling to be delighting, confusing, and enraging people all in one go, but there you are. I guess I should just be glad that somebody is happy.
After riding just part of the route Elder Brother realized that his girls were all feeling like noodles. We left the main group, and headed back along the route we'd taken before. Since a few hours had passed by this point, the traffic was not nearly so bad, and the ride home was practically calm. Two of us did resort to walking up the last few hills, but we felt we'd earned a little wispiness. Upon reaching the house, both nieces and I agreed on three things:
1. That was scary (Small Niece did want to mention that it was fun too in her opinion)
2. That our bottoms were "mashed to mush"
3. That we needed lots of tasty food, and we needed it immediately
Elder Brother and his wife went off to a grown-up birthday party with his friends. The nieces and I went off to Whole Foods and then my house for a large dinner and a sleepover. No one got up early the next morning.
Critical Mass is certainly an experience. I can't say I agree with the law-breaking part of events, but I can certainly see why they want to make their point. Would I ever want to ride it again? Probably not, but at least I can now say that I've ridden my bike all the way down Spring street without stopping for anything. Yikes!