Uh-oh. Beer Man looks up. He’s six-foot-five and garbed in his blue Superman tunic with a red cape, yellow briefs, a full mane of red hair and a beard. His expression says it all: Is it time?
Because someone’s honking a vuvuzela. People are yelling, “Yeah! Go baby!” at three guys performing wheelies, front wheels way up, ’round and ’round the fountain pond. It’s like waiting for Mount St. Helens to blow. You can feel the expectation. The shine in people’s eyes, the nervous glances, everything tells you we’re about to go.
This is the last Friday in October, around 8:00 p.m. Here at the big fountain in Balboa Park, maybe 1000 people and their bicycles — including me on my beach cruiser — have gathered for a ride, a night ride to, well, wherever the Halloween spirit leads. It’s called Critical Mass. No, not a fault-finding church service, but a political statement on wheels. Two wheels. This mass of bike riders wants to tell Car World: “Hey, we live here too!” And not just here. This leaderless, Internet-driven phenomenon happens once a month, from Seattle to Singapore, from London to Boston. Globally and locally, Critical Mass seems to be reaching critical mass.
“Whoo-hoo!” someone cries.
“This is it!”
It’s like Canadian geese girding their loins for migration with a chorus of squawks. Bugles, cowboy Yee-haws, rebel yells, even cop-car sirens join in with a quick series of whoop-whoops.
“Turn on your light, Abe,” says this gal to her partner. She looks up. “Yes! Yes! Yeah! We’re going!”
Gradually, everybody starts moving around to the west side of the fountain, jumping on their bikes and heading out. Now we’re getting our balance, gathering force, slowly at first, guys and gals, kids, old gents, everyone on bicycles, or tricycles, recumbents, mountain bikes, road-racers, fat-tire beach bikes, even BMXs, pouring down the slope of The Prado past the California Tower and on across the viaduct toward Sixth Avenue. It’s hard not to join the hooting at one poor, frustrated driver sitting in his Mazda, surrounded like a mouse attacked by hornets. The guy is our first scapegoat, standing in for all cars. He can’t move. But, sorry. It’s just so refreshing to be on the attack and not the defensive, timorous, vulnerable also-rans that bicyclists usually are on our roads. The fight-back has begun!
And maybe, just maybe, if recent stats can be believed, the time of the urban biker is nigh. According to Kiplinger’s magazine, Gen Y-ers, the biggest generation in U.S. history — 80 million strong — aren’t buying cars as they used to. Drivers aged 21–30 now account for only 14 percent of miles driven, compared with 21 percent back in 1995. They’re more willing to catch the bus or train. But are they riding bikes to work? Back in 2006, SANDAG (the San Diego Association of Governments) estimated that only .03 percent (point three of one percent) of San Diego county commuters were bike commuters. Compare that to Copenhagen, where nearly 40 percent bike to work. Then again, in ’06, Critical Mass attracted only about 35 riders…
So something’s happening, folks. We fly along University in full swarm. At places like the Alibi, and Ichiban in Uptown, drinkers and eaters come out to the sidewalk to cheer us on and wave their drinks. You feel like Lance Armstrong at the end of the Tour de France. Or like new-age Woody Guthries. This land is our land, these roads are our roads, from the giant fountain, to the Cuyamaca Forest…Whoo-hoo!
I’ve been on this biking toot for a few weeks now, and when I heard about Critical Mass I wanted to try it. I love these crowd things. But, honestly, I’ve never thought of San Diego as a bikey place, even though you couldn’t ask for a more pro-bike climate, and a new bike shop does seem to be opening everywhere you go. In the couple of weeks before this ride, I began to check out the scene, and wow. Either it’s been hiding in plain sight all along, or I haven’t been looking. Bike World San Diego is popping. Here are several biking scenes out of a zillion that I happened across.
The Trail Ride
“It’s 40 psi for beach cruiser tires,” said Tyler Rowden, when I asked. I had popped in to Holland’s Bicycles in Coronado to pump up the fat tires of my decade-old Electra Bike Company beach cruiser labeled the “Hawaii.”
Tyler owns Holland’s, which has been open for bike business since 1924. His two assistants, Mike Shepherd and Conrad Tapia, look straight out of classic Tour de France racing books. Conrad’s wearing one of those old-school racers’ caps, a red one with “Clif Bar” printed on the brim. He also has one-inch metal stretchers in his ear lobes. It seems to be a younger road-racer’s thing, though he says it’s just a personal choice. We get to talking about riding, and Conrad mentions “the donut run” that happens every Saturday morning in Coronado. It’s a ride down the Silver Strand to Imperial Beach and back. Maybe 13 miles. Starts at 7:00 a.m. sharp. Usually takes 40 minutes, he says.
“Then you have donuts and coffee at the Callaghans’ house on Margarita. Pat Callaghan and Tim Sullivan initiated the ride in 1980,” says Tyler. “You might have 30, 40 riders. Some of them are pretty competitive.”
“But it’s not that far,” says Conrad. “I live in I.B. I ride up here to work every day.”
Of course, Conrad is 21, five-six, and maybe 150 pounds max, all of it lean, rider’s muscle. Plus, he owns a mean racing bike.
“Do beach-cruiser, couch-potato types do it?” I ask.
“You wouldn’t want to on that beach bike of yours,” says Tyler. “With fat tires, an upright bike, that’s a lot of road resistance, and wind resistance. They like to stay in a pack. You wouldn’t keep up.”
Huh. Guess I more or less have to do this ride now. I end up renting a road bike and helmet from Tyler for around $30. And wow. The bike’s a $2300 black-and-red Specialized “Roubaix” with Cane Creek “Volos” wheels and Schwinn “Lugano” tires and FACT (“Functional Advanced Composite Technology”) E240 carbon triple monocoque frame “handmade in Taiwan.”