by Vanessa Bell
Photos by Mati Kalwill (color) & Flavio (B&W)
The day of the Critical Mass dawned grey and threatened rain. Buenos Aires has a micro climate, with annoyingly unpredictable weather patterns, so I knew that any decision making would be left until last minute. I badly wanted to start cycling again, and this was to be my first venture out on the streets of the city, yet on a bike I was unfamiliar with, I was taking the fair-weather cyclist stance. Buenos Aires is a mad bad city, where rules and conventions are flaunted at every light, cross section and turn, and that’s just on the traffic front. But as luck would have it, the soot black storm clouds and torrential rain dissipated and made way for the afternoon sun. I threw caution to the wind and embraced its warm early evening gusts to make my maiden voyage on my newly serviced vintage steed down Salta street to the meeting point, the Obelisk on 9 de Julio Avenue.
Critical Mass started in BA two years ago, and a month ago the idea of a nocturnal event by the light of the full moon was trialed successfully. It doesn’t parade as a politically motivated venture and prides itself on not being represented by any one individual, rather as a body of like minded cyclists, involved in spontaneous gatherings which create social space via the bicycle. Originating in China for purely practical reasons, cyclists would negotiate busy cross-sections where there were no lights by pooling together and forming a ‘critical mass’ thereby crossing the road in relative safety.
As the minutes passed and more and more people arrived, the mounting sense of anticipation and excitement was palpable, not knowing exactly when we would pull off or where we were heading, destination very much unknown.
As the ring ring of expectant bells reached a crescendo, it was clear that the start of our adventure was imminent. We pulled off onto the main road encircling the obelisk, to the dissonant beeping and honking of the cars whose flow we’d interrupted, something we’d quickly become accustomed to during the two hour pedal around the city. There was a varied collection of bikes, ranging from vintage sit up and begs to fixed gear, with racers, mountain bikes and ‘playeras’, the ubiquitous beach cruisers, with high arching handlebars, and a counter pedal breaking mechanism. Some people had come on skateboards and there was even a jogger giving Forrest Gump a run for his money, who kept up with the mass throughout.
The silly grins and euphoria was infectious. As we turned onto the main strait of Leandro Alem Avenue my friend Mati Kalwill pulled up next to me on his folding Boardwalk bike, on the back of which he’d strapped his parents old JVC boombox and rigged it up to his iPhone, earning brownie points for both style and ingenuity. We weaved in and out between other cyclists, Of Montreal providing an ideal soundtrack.
The general feeling I got was one of invincibility, in spite of the fact that at one stage I was at the tail end of the group, with the aggressive cars and buses nipping at our mudguards, I still felt this sense of safety in numbers, and that together we were achieving something wonderful, seizing the streets and making them our own, albeit momentarily. There were seasoned participants of the mass who took it upon themselves to oversee the safety of the group, cycling up ahead to form a human barricade to halt the traffic on either side whenever the lights turned green.
We’d pass under bridges and whoop and shriek in a childlike regression. We’d wave at passersby, some who waved back, others who clapped and cheered with approval. Friendships were forged along the way, with animated conversations played out between boys and girls en route, a hotbed of flirtatious activity, with one smitten participant’s quest to track down a mysterious girl in a red cape played out on the Facebook page in the days to follow.
The crowning moment was when we peeled off onto the motorway, making a brief ballsy claim for both carriageways of the Libertador underpass, a steep incline which we tackled, to then to be rewarded as we doubled back on ourselves and made the most of the delicious steep drop to freewheel and howl wildly in unison.
The mass ran out of steam when it reached the Planetarium, it was clear that some were flagging from the evening’s exertions, although I got the impression many were game to continue pedaling well into the night. The lure of an impromptu full moon party was the deciding factor, with a guy selling ice cold beer from a cool box providing the much needed refreshment and tribal drumming the soundtrack into the early hours. For all that the mass had dispersed in physical terms, the energy it created continued to unite and lingered for hours and days after, many already counting the days until the next gathering, others waxing lyrical about the experience on blogs and social networking sites. I ended up going for late night pizza followed by a gentle ride home with Mati, his friend Flavio, the boombox and The Tallest Man on Earth for company through the deserted streets of Palermo, grinning like a cheshire cat as I played out in my head the magical experiences of the last couple of hours.
To keep up on future Critical Mass events, you can visit the official website here.