See what a Critical Mass ride looked like in 1994, at the movement’s start
In the beginning, The San Francisco Chronicle covered the Critical Mass bike ride as entertainment.
Instead of the front page or Bay Area section, the movement first appeared in the pages of Datebook on June 16, 1994, with photos of colorful bicyclists taking over the city streets, and an information box telling readers how to participate in the next event.
The frustration from motorists and even the police was acknowledged, but as a rally that numbered in the hundreds traveled from Justin Herman Plaza to Candlestick Park for a Giants game and fireworks show, politics seemed secondary to the spectacle.
“(The) pack resembles a cross between a contrary Tour de France and the Hells Angels run to Bass Lake,” Chronicle reporter Sam Whiting wrote. “Irritated motorists in their tin cans are met by raised fists inside fingerless gloves. Drivers lean out windows to inquire what’s going on, and a small chorus retorts, ‘Critical Mass,’ as if that would explain it.”
Critical Mass was founded in 1992 in San Francisco as a leaderless ride down Market Street initially called the “Commute Clot.” The future would be as volatile and memorable as the gathering itself, which became synonymous with radical bike activism in the city, while being viewed as a menace by some city officials. It would swell to several thousand riders in 1997, before Mayor Willie Brown led an attempt to end the ride by force — a move that backfired spectacularly.
A series of arrests only made the movement stronger, spreading the idea to other cities and countries. The ride continues in San Francisco on the last Friday of every month to this day.
Looking now at the Critical Mass photos, taken by Chronicle photographer Lea Suzuki and rediscovered earlier this week in the archive, little of that tension was visible in 1994. While police monitored the ride, they were barely in sight. Instead there is a diverse group of smiling two-wheel commuters, on mountain bikes, 10-speeds and a few pieces of machinery that would now be called art bikes. (Burning Man was just seven years old in 1994.)
A few characters expressed their individuality. One man wore a gas mask, as a protest against automobile emissions. Another rider wrote “cars are stupid” on his handlebars, and a man tied yellow caution tape around his head. But about half of the bicyclists looked as if they could have been working at a bank.
Whiting quoted a police sergeant monitoring the route express his displeasure (“Anarchists. That’s what they are, anarchists.”) and a rider comparing oil production for autos with heroin. Mostly, the article treated the ride as something between exercise and artistic expression.
“It’s like this weird euphoria that is indescribable,” said Chris Carlsson, a ride co-founder. “It’s like a rolling party. There’s a real fluidity.”
Chronicle readers were not silent. The entire San Francisco Parking and Traffic Commission signed a letter to the editor, criticizing Critical Mass while suggesting bike messengers caused more accidents than motorists.
“There is plenty that needs to be done to make San Francisco streets a more bicycle-friendly environment,” the commission members wrote. “We welcome the Critical Mass enthusiasts to join in that hard and useful work, instead of pulling their monthly sophomoric prank.”
The next time The Chronicle photographed a Critical Mass ride, on July 25, 1997, bicyclists were being handcuffed and their bikes thrown in the back of an SFPD truck, as Mayor Brown and S.F. Police Chief Fred Lau tried to stop the ride by force. Brown said Critical Mass leaders were “lawless, insurrectionist types” and that arrested riders should spend time in jail.
After arresting more than 100 riders on charges of unlawful assembly, failure to disperse and impeding traffic, Lau called the bikes “an instrumentality of crime — like a rock being thrown through a window,” and said they would be donated to charity or auctioned off. (Most were returned the next day.)
Though it still has its detractors, Critical Mass ultimately outlasted every one of its critics.
The Critical Mass bicycle movement looked a little different in 1994, when The Chronicle first covered the controversial street-closing bike rides in the Datebook section. We show a dozen photos from that session and cover some of the early history of the ride.
Critical mass photos
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