Critical Mass has been championing cycling on the world's streets since 1992 and is active in cities from Stockholm to New-Delhi. Noa Technologies went along and spoke to a regular to get the inside track on what it's all about.

It’s a cold afternoon in early January. The pale winter sun pierces through the leaden clouds as an icy wind tears through the Berlin streets. The streets are empty but for a few brave tourists left over from New Year’s Eve. But around the Brandenburg Gate a curious gaggle of cyclists is assembling. Amongst them are students, drippy hippies and bespectacled hipsters, but it’s their bikes that grab the attention; designs of all shapes and sizes are to be seen, from fixies to trikes to wacky designs of their riders’ own creation. Then, like a giant awakening from its sleep, the crowd begins to stir and one by one, the riders set off into the streets of Berlin. Make no mistake though, this is no cycling race. This is Critical Mass, a worldwide celebration of bike culture. Noa Technologies spoke to a regular, Bernd-Michael Paschke, to get the inside track on what it’s all about.

This anarchic collection of all-things bike has been racing around the streets of the world since its inception in San Francisco in 1992. Driven by motorists’ aggression, a group of riders came up with the so-called ‘Commute Clot’, which aimed to demonstrate how difficult it was to be a cyclist on the streets of San Francisco and initially attracted only a modest crowd. The event was inspired to change its name by a concept in Asia, where cyclists wait at an intersection for enough riders to gather - the ‘Critical Mass’ - before they then proceed to cross the road, safe within the confines of the group. After the name change, the event grew rapidly and in the proceeding months and years, it drew hundreds and thousands of riders and quickly grew to become a worldwide movement. Critical Mass has now spread to cities in every corner of the globe - from Stockholm to New Delhi.

CM in San Francisco, the birthplace of the movement. Image Source

CM in San Francisco, the birthplace of the movement. Image Source

Critical Mass is now present in over 50 German cities where approximately 15,000 people attend every month. The roots of the movement’s Berlin wing began in 1997. Back then, the first riders of Critical Mass didn’t have the luxury of advertising the event over the internet, so they “Just went ‘round sticking flyers on bikes,” Bernd-Michael laughs. The first Berlin Critical Mass attracted a humble 20 cyclists, but by contrast, it now draws hundreds of Berlin bike-lovers every month, including riders from Noa Technologies.

One reason for Critical Mass’s rapid spread is its flat structure. As Bernd-Michael explained to us, ”There are no organisers. There is a meeting point that people come to and at some point, people start going. More organisation isn’t necessary.” As the motto goes, “No one organises Critical Mass. Critical Mass organises itself.” A website and Facebook page outline the idea of the event: it’s on the last Friday and first Sunday of the month, come along, bring your bike.

This egalitarian ethos extends to the direction of the ride: whoever happens to be at the front gets to choose which way everyone goes. Naturally, that can be a little chaotic, but that’s all part of the fun. Participants are encouraged to go at a moderate pace so that no one is left behind and the unity of the group is maintained. “Most people who ride with us go under 10 km/h,” Bernd-Michael remarks. Outside of competitive cycling, there is little chance for most people to cycle in a mass such as this: “It’s a surprising feeling for people who come for the first time that it’s possible to travel through city in a huge swarm, like a single fish in the midst of a school. A lot of people like that you only really have to look out for those people directly next to you.” This leads to a growing sense of community within the mass; “People at CM are a lot more open. It’s something that many of us would like in our society.”

People at CM are a lot more open. It’s something that many of us would like in our society.

Naturally, as a movement born out of the frustration with motorists’ disregard for cyclists, some who ride with Critical Mass use it as an opportunity to promote cycling and cyclists’ rights. Obviously, such a horde of bike riders attracts attention. As a result, Bern-Michael says, “People see how many cyclists there actually are.” According to him, this could have a positive effect on the number of cyclists in Berlin and worldwide: “It’s like at a snack bar - if there’s a long queue then you know it’s good!”

In recent years, it has become essential for cyclists to make themselves heard. While Berlin was considered a cyclists’ haven until recently, the city’s status has been slipping of late. In the Copenhagenize Bicycle-Friendly City Index, Berlin fell steeply from 5th place in 2011 to 12th in 2015. A mixture of complacency, a lack of investment from a cash-strapped local government and a faltering public rental bike system has allowed the capital to be leapfrogged by Munich, which has styled itself as the 'Cycling Capital' of Germany.

Munich, the cycling capital of Germany? Image Source

Munich, the cycling capital of Germany? Image Source

In a time when state budgets are being cut more and more, it’s critical that cyclists demonstrate how many of us there actually are or risk being forgotten in favour of motorists. What better way is there for cyclists to make themselves heard than grabbing our bikes and carving up the town with a few like-minded people. That said, Bern-Michael maintains he wouldn’t have all the roads replaced with cycle paths, quoting Berlin Mayor, Michael Muller: “‘After the mistake of the car-oriented city, we shouldn’t make the mistake of the bike-oriented city.’ Even if it’s not popular, he’s right. We need a people-oriented city.”

Critical Mass takes place at Heinrichplatz, Kreuzberg at 20:00 on the last Friday of the month and at the Brandenburg Gate at 14:00 on the first Sunday of the month.