I went to Hamilton's critical mass bike ride Friday night. I’ve missed a few rides, but Friday was a perfect day to get back to it. The weather was beautiful. Even though I was feeling a bit tired, I look forward to being with other cyclists at the monthly ride, out in the streets making room for bikes. While riding I get to catch up with people I don’t get a chance to see often enough. It’s a nice melding of action and community.
Coasting toward the meeting site I see two police cruisers move slowly up Queen Street side by side. At the next corner, Hess and George streets, I see about 10 people waiting with their bikes, and a few feet away an idling police van and two bike cops.
It's going to be one of those rides.
"Hi," smiles the cop as he saunters over, "whose the organizer here?"
“There’s no organizer,” says one rider, "we've been meeting and riding for what, five years?"
"Since 1998," I chime in, "and it’s alright, we don't need a police escort."
"Is it a protest, do you follow the rules of the road?" the officer asks.
"We ride," is all the answer he gets.
A small group (we get anywhere from a dozen to 50 or so - did some avoid the ride because of the police presence?), 13 of us head out on a route that will be decided as we go. The two cops tail us.
Because of the police bringing up the rear we don't get the usual open threats from hostile drivers, no revving engines inches from your back wheel, everyone’s on their best behaviour.
About 20 minutes into the ride, the cops find an excuse to interrupt the ride. They try and squeeze us into one lane (we were taking up two of four or five lanes on Cannon) - the ride quickly halts as the police force the issue, angrily demanding I.D. from one rider who refuses to move to the right lane.
The argument goes something like "you are free to ride but you've got to stay in the right lane, it's rush hour and you can't ride in a mass."
"I thought you said it wasn't a protest!" the officer adds, insulted.
Riding our bicycles didn’t feel like a protest until the police intervened; now it becomes political.
Every day millions of cars ride in a mass, we point out. The traffic system daily grinds to a halt with one wrong move by any one of the drivers. Look how many bikes can fit in the space of one car. There are no bike lanes downtown. The arguments pour forth.
The police seem to be wanting a way out of this pointless antagonism. The law is grey on the issue of bikes on roads, open to interpretation. So after a bit more verbal jousting, we manage to get on our way without a ticket, still refusing to promise and stay in one lane, opting instead to reserve the right to ride safely.
There are no more incidents and another 40 minutes later we finish the ride back at Hess. The cops continue past, not bothering to waste their breath on lecturing us about how we're crazy anarchists, naive idealists, bad drivers, or just poorly dressed trouble-makers.
Despite the minor harassment I felt refreshed after the ride.
Riding a bike in a supportive environment with proper facilities is still something we’re working toward. We get closer with each new bike rack or bike lane, and, most importantly, each time we ride.
photos by Mei Ling