Bike ride shows cyclists belong on the street, too

From the Omaha World-Herald. Sounds like their ride is much like ours!

Mention the cycling event “Critical Mass,” and it may bring to mind images of hundreds of bicyclists fouling up automobile traffic in Seattle or San Francisco. But Friday afternoon in Omaha, “Critical Mass” involved five guys — six if you include the reporter assigned to cover it — enjoying a pleasant, half-hour bike ride through north and downtown Omaha.

“Critical Mass” is a mass bicycle ride held on the last Friday of the month in hundreds of cities worldwide. Typically two to four times as many Omaha cyclists take part in the monthly local event, regulars said. But turnout suffered on a weekend dominated by a concert in Memorial Park, the Omaha Summer Arts Festival and high temperatures approaching 90 degrees.

“It’s hard riding alone,” said Tyler Magnuson, 20, of Omaha. “Cars can be very violent towards bikers … It’s very empowering to be in a group of people.”

Often such events are attempts to call attention to how unfriendly some cities can be to bicyclists. And while some of the Omaha riders said they were interested in raising awareness of two-wheeled traffic, most of Friday’s participants said their primary interest was getting together for a bike ride.

“I don’t consider it a political activity,” Magnuson said. “It’s just something you do.”

Riders described “Critical Mass” as typically leaderless and informal. The unorganized nature and lack of a formal political agenda keeps riders from having to notify police of a political gathering, particularly in foreign countries not under the protection of the First Amendment.

The bicyclists assembled in Gifford Park, just south of 33rd and California Streets. Things were supposed to kick off at 5 p.m., but the riders chatted while waiting for stragglers.

There was no pre-planned route. There never is. Someone suggested they ride downtown to the Summer Arts Festival and the Old Market, and no one argued. The group pulled onto 33rd Street and peddled north. The small band of cyclists took up the whole northbound lane.

The group hung a right onto Burt Street and sped past the district headquarters of the Omaha Public Schools, where participants waved and said hello to a young man riding a bicycle in the opposite direction. Riders described a community among cyclists, sharing the common experience of being shouted at or treated rudely by motorists.

They went north on 24th Street to Nicholas Street and then east, still occupying the eastbound lane. Behind them, a line of vehicles stacked up. One by one, the drivers of cars and trucks gunned their engines and sped past them as the opportunities arose, but no vulgarities were shouted, soda cans thrown or middle fingers extended, which, they said, is not always the case.

A couple of months ago on North 72nd Street, a motorist zipped up from behind and bumped one of the “Critical Mass” cyclists, knocking him to the ground. He was uninjured, but the bike was wrecked. The police were called and the matter settled when the motorist paid for a new bike.

On Friday evening, the group rolled south, first on 14th Street then 10th. Near Dodge Street, a line of cars got caught behind them, but again, no gestures or shouts. The ride ended near 11th and Farnam Streets. Some cyclists stayed for the Arts Festival; others continued to ride alone.

This “Critical Mass” was the first for Stephen Horn, 69, of Blair, and probably his last. He enjoyed the ride but would rather not put himself in a position where he has to depend on the good sense of drivers. He prefers bike trails.

“I don’t like putting my life in someone else’s hands,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of crazy people driving cars, frankly.”

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