As the light leaks out of the sky over downtown last Friday, mechanical gears squeak in the distance. Slowly, small groups begin to gather at Government Center. Before long, the groups swell into a crowd, then a swarm.
By 7:15 p.m., 4,000 people line NW First Street as if it's Tahrir Square. There are hipsters in tight jeans and tattoo sleeves, curvy Colombian women packed into spandex like sausages, and marching bands of Cubans in matching T-shirts. But instead of political placards, they've all brought bicycles. Instead of slogans, they offer sweat. Critical Mass is once again taking Miami's streets by storm.
Not everyone is happy about it, however. Motorists stranded in the sea of bicycles angrily blast their horns. Some try to push their way through the peloton. Meanwhile, half a dozen City of Miami cops lounge on their motorcycles at a gas station on the corner, not lifting a finger to rein in the riotous traffic.
"We were called here to make sure there were no fights, but that's it," says a hulking officer with salt-and-pepper hair and a stogie smoldering in his mouth. As he puffs on his cigar, the sea of cyclists begins moving west on its 12-mile route through Little Havana. The cop stays stoically seated.
"Look, they go right through the red light," he says. "We can't help them because what they are doing is illegal."
This ambivalence over Critical Mass pervades MPD. As the monthly bike movement has swelled in size over the past six years, Miami cops have steadfastly ignored it. While other cities including Miami Beach and Coral Gables have embraced the bikers, MPD continues to treat them as an annoyance, even arresting one rider last month for selling ice cream from his tricycle.
But there are real dangers to dismissing Critical Mass. Miami is one of the most dangerous cities in the country for cyclists. At least three bikers have been killed by cars in the past three years, yet many perpetrators of car-on-bike crime either aren't caught or face farcical penalties. Just last month, two Critical Mass participants were struck by a Mercedes-Benz belonging to a prominent local surgeon, yet MPD has yet to even interview the doctor. On Sunday, another car hit a cyclist on the MacArthur Causeway and sped off.
Mayor Tomas Regalado likes to boast that Miami is becoming a world-class cultural destination. But even as new museums go up downtown, the city is undermining one of its few real civic movements. It's time that Miami motorists, politicians, and cops embrace Critical Mass.
"Ideally, the police would embrace it and not clash with it," says Critical Mass Miami founder Rydel Deed, "because we're not going anywhere."
Before Critical Mass came along, this city's bike scene was limited to a couple of cruisers on Miami Beach and the occasional soccer dad pedaling through the suburbs. But in 2007, Deed imported the idea after a visit to Chicago, where he joined thousands of other cyclists on a short tour through the city. The monthly bike rides, which began in 1992 in San Francisco and spread worldwide, are equal parts cycling celebration and civic activism for bikers' rights.
Miami was one of the last major American cities to get on board. It was slow going at first. For several years, only 30 or so riders came out. But Deed and his fellow die-hards kept it going. By 2009, the rides had reached 100 members. They grew steadily until last September, when Dwyane Wade and Gabrielle Union tweeted photos of themselves at #CriticalMassMiami. LeBron James joined the movement two months later. Suddenly, Critical Mass was mainstream.
These days, the ride is in danger of getting too massive for Miami's comfort. Last Friday, the starting line stretched more than three blocks. The crowd was a mixture of Miami hipsters with sleek, ultralight fixed-gear bikes -- or "fixies" -- and moms sporting Walmart specials with ultrawide seats. Some people swigged beer from bottles. Others slurped water out of high-tech CamelBaks.
It's clear Critical Mass has become its own social scene. At Friday's ride, curvaceous young women wore see-through spandex with nothing underneath. One donned fuzzy devil horns, black tights, and a low-cut red halter-top. Many dudes, meanwhile, blared pop music from speakers mounted on their bikes. A heavyset woman in pink spandex balanced atop her bike like a bear on a unicycle. "Nowadays, some people buy bikes just to come to Critical Mass," Deed points out.
The mass began moving at 7:15, undulating westward along NW First Street. Like a marathon, there was some self-selection in the order, with those at the front racing away while those at the back of the peloton were forced to wheel along patiently. Near the back, one man with spiky hair immediately crashed right in front of the cops, who did nothing. The heavyset woman brought up the rear.
Spirits were high. But without the help of city officials or Miami Police, things quickly became disorganized. After the first 1,000 feet, a drawbridge rising above the Miami River chopped up what should have been a steady flow of cyclists into sporadic waves. Cars quickly surfed the spaces in between, honking their horns and occasionally swerving around cyclists. "Motherfuckers!" one SUV driver yelled.
"Yo, I'm riding a bike here, bro," shouted a scruffy dude in a yellow bandanna as a silver sedan tried to pass him in the left lane on Flagler. The cyclist slowed to taunt the car. "Where you going?"
As the riders swung past 16th Avenue, music echoed from the second floor of the Latin Quarter Shopping Plaza. It was dance night at Poder de Dios Presbyterian Church. The bikers then swung south onto Beacon Boulevard, past sweaty gyms and bemused firefighters, before heading west on SW Seventh Street. Everywhere, people on the street whipped out their smartphones to record what was until recently the rarest of species: Miami cyclists.
This route, west on Seventh and returning east on Eighth, is one of Critical Mass' mainstays. But recently, organizers of Viernes Culturales, the monthly Little Havana art gathering, have complained that the bikers are delaying visitors attending the area's galleries. "We love Calle Ocho because it's three lanes, one way, with roosters along the street and Brickell in the background," Deed explains.
On Friday, however, many riders couldn't complete the trip. Around 8:30 p.m., storm clouds began carpet-bombing Calle Ocho with rain. Some cyclists ducked into Little Havana stores for cover, but most kept on pedaling.
They probably shouldn't have. By now, it was dark, but few riders had lights. As the crowd got stretched out, cars began passing at dangerous speeds, sluicing around cyclists despite the driving rain. Many bikers decided it was safer on the sidewalk, but that only pissed off pedestrians.
"What was most irksome was when the rain fell and the cyclists began to ride on the sidewalks under the awnings and then parked with their bikes," wrote one commenter on a Reddit thread titled "Critical Mass Douchebaggery." "That meant the pedestrians had to walk in the rain so no one's precious bike would get wet... It used to be a cool spectacle to see all the bikes. Now you can hear the merchants and festivalgoers talk about 'those assholes.' "
Indeed, the debate over Critical Mass has never been more virulent. Some drivers would happily hit a cyclist if it didn't mess up their wax job. As Critical Mass has grown, so have the delays -- and anger -- it causes.
Meanwhile, a string of deadly, high-profile hit-and-runs have sown anger among bikers. First, playboy pop musician Carlos Bertonatti killed cyclist Christophe Le Canne on the Rickenbacker in 2010. Two years later, Michael Traverso fatally hit cyclist Aaron Cohen on the same road only to be sentenced to less than a year in jail. Several other recent deadly hit-and-runs have never been solved. In May, teenagers with BB guns repeatedly attacked Rickenbacker cyclists.
The standoff between annoyed drivers and outraged cyclists came to a head in late June, when Mount Sinai surgeon Irvin Willis struck two Critical Mass bikers with his black Mercedes. According to a police report, Willis was trying to pass cyclists on the 79th Street Causeway when he hit a father and son, injuring the latter.
The incident ignited an internet war. "The problem is NOT critical mass but the fucking stupid car drivers in Miami," one New Times reader commented. Another posted a video of a car barreling like a bowling ball through a Critical Mass ride in Brazil and wrote, "I'm waiting for this to happen [here]."
The hit-and-run also reflected poorly on the Miami Police Department. More than a month later, investigators have yet to even interview Willis. Instead, they seem more concerned with punishing cyclists. After last June's Critical Mass, Miami cops arrested local chef Aleric "AJ" Constantin for selling ice cream from a tricycle without the proper paperwork. (Constantin will go to court on the charges this month.)
Despite the setbacks, Deed insists Critical Mass is gaining momentum. Indeed, hundreds of cyclists endured last Friday's monsoon and joined him at Grand Central Park afterward. Music thumped from loudspeakers. Food trucks dished out much-needed carbs. Fire dancers spun flames around their hips. And bikers lined up to have the Critical Mass logo stamped on their T-shirts for free.
"We're not trying to piss people off," Deed says. "We don't do this during rush hour. We do it one hour a month. That's 12 hours a year. But people complain like it's the end of the world."
Contrary to news reports, Critical Mass isn't demanding the city spend millions on bike lanes, Deed says. But he admits that disrupting Miami's mindless everyday traffic is part of the process. "Countless people have told me that their first experience with Critical Mass was being stuck in a car," he says. "Then the next month they come out on their bike.
"The city needs to learn to deal with it," Deed argues, pointing out he publishes the Critical Mass route ahead of time on his Miami Bike Scene blog. Police in Miami Beach and Coral Gables have taken to blocking -- or "corking" -- intersections for the riders, but MPD has received no such order. Police help block intersections in San Francisco, and cops even ride along with the group in Chicago.
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Sgt. Freddie Cruz, an MPD spokesman, says he plans on meeting with organizers to discuss the idea of blocking streets. "There's no bad blood," Cruz says. "We want to come to a solution with them so everyone will be happy."
"These are growing pains," insists Deed, wearing an upturned biker hat over his close-cropped hair. "Sooner or later, the city is going to realize that this movement is bigger than some guy getting stuck inside his car in Brickell for 20 minutes once a month. This is about biking every day in Miami. Embrace it, bro."