28 March 2009

Critical Mass goes underground, but politely

I took part in last night's Critical Mass ride. I'm glad I did, for two reasons.

First, because it re-encouraged me. I've been in two minds about CM lately. I was getting fed up of the provocative antics of a minority of people - generally ones with wispy beards and the bring-and-buy-sale couture of juggling teachers - who block cars and taxis and stand in Parliament Square waving their bikes above their head and shouting witlessly. To me, CM shouldn't be about provocation. It should be a benign show of strength, a smile not a sneer.

But - at least what I saw last night - reassured me: nobody being silly, but quite a few riders assertively stopping traffic to let the Mass go through. (No police cyclists with us this time.) Eye contact, acknowledgement, authority in numbers, thank you for your patience sir have a good evening, that sort of thing. Even the sledgehammer music from bike-trailer sound systems seemed less intrusive than I remembered.

And, as ever, it was sociable. The buzz in the hour before setting off (right) as the riders gather on the South Bank, in front of the National Theatre under Waterloo Bridge, is something special. The couple of dozen cyclists at 6pm grew steadily until 7ish, when it was about 400 or 500. At dusk it's almost magical, watching the riverscape slip into its twinkly evening wear, enjoying a pint and a natter with those cyclos that you run into on these sort of occasions.

Leafletters were out in force. I received flyers inviting me to protest against a corner of Brockwell Park being sawn off to make way for a road; to attend a bike-film screening later that night; to participate in G20 demonstrations; and to contribute feedback on somebody's idea to make folding handlebars.

And that second reason? I fulfilled a long ambition to cycle through the Strand Underpass, that old tram conduit underneath Aldwych from the north side of Waterloo Bridge to the south end of Kingsway. It's verboten for cyclists, but on a select few CMs a year, the wisdom of crowds takes over and we not only ride it but have it to ourselves. Strand's traffic drainpipe is twistier, shorter and brighter than you expect; a kind of shrivelled Rotherhithe Tunnel without the cars. Great fun.

I was too busy whooping with excitement to video it, but there are a couple of clips on YouTube from the CM last September, which went this way: a video of the whole ride (the tunnel bit is at about 1:30 to 2:00), and a brief rear-view clip of the tunnel only (right).

After 45 minutes I needed a toilet stop, and dived into a pub somewhere near Sadler's Wells. I was at the front of the Mass when I did so, and took no more than five minutes. But when I emerged... there was no trace of the ride. I scouted around but couldn't see any evidence it had ever existed. Moaning drivers in jams would just have to find something else to blame their motionlessness on.

Which shows something: that however frustrating it might feel to a driver impatient to rush home and relax, the actual delay it will cause is no more than one pop record on your car radio or iPod, once a month. That doesn't seem a high price to inflict on society.

Next month it'll be even better, with the extra hour of daylight and balmy spring weather. Bags I first in the tunnel.


  1. That tunnel was great! Lots of fun was had by this first time CMer.

  2. So that's where you were ... That underpass moment was just incredible, what an experience on my first CM (bigger than Auckland, smaller than Budapest). The evening continued with mostly good humour, except for a couple of taxi driver moments later on. I headed for home after Tower Bridge - another great moment, especially as I've never been across the bridge at all, let alone on the bike with no cars to dodge. Oh, but did I feel vulnerable cycling home all alone without the companionship of other cyclists...