Riding the Critical Mass

By Isabella Bravo, Staff Writer

Whether racing through hilly neighborhoods or meandering through downtown’s neon-lit streets on their pièces de résistance, Salt Lake City’s bicycle enthusiasts are crafting their own culture.

Greg Hebard, a sophomore in photography, does not remember how he found out about Critical Mass, a ride with a faithful following in Salt Lake City. As he stood over the three-spoke front wheel of his carbon-fiber track bike, watching his friends out of the corner of his eye try bike tricks, he summed up the draw to Critical Mass for many cyclists and other en masse rides.

“When you are riding in a big group, it’s more fun,” he said.

Mass participants agreed that the turnout varies greatly, but the themed bicycle events draw the largest crowds, such as Halloween’s Masquerade, the Cranksgiving alleycat race and the upcoming Christmas ride Dec. 26. Regular masses might draw eight people on some nights and 50 to 60 cyclists the next.

Aaron McKinstry-Luepke, an undeclared sophomore, started riding in Critical Mass regularly this September.

“Anybody who has a bike can join, any kind of bike, but it’s also not limited to bikes. If you are on Rollerblades or a scooter, any sort of not electric-powered, not gas-powered, wheeled mechanism (you can also join),” he said.

The more-the-merrier message is more than just for fun, he said.

“What we’re doing is raising awareness,” he said before the mass started. “We want to be in big groups. We want to be in downtown, where people are going to see us and see bikers and (become) aware of bikers.”

Hebard said for cyclists, numbers translate to road safety.

“It’s always safe, safety in numbers,” he said. “There’s more and more cyclists on the roads every day, and I’ve heard some stories. I haven’t heard stories of people getting too seriously injured; still close calls are not good either. We’ve got to share the road. You can’t ride a bike on the sidewalk. It’s illegal. It’s better that (drivers and cyclists) both know each other are there and we get respect both ways.”

An hour into the ride, a car nearly sideswiped two bicyclists as they traveled eastward on 400 South. Several cyclists took off after the car to confront the driver. They blazed through red lights and stopped next to the offending car which was stopped at a red light on State Street. The mass ended soon after at Gallivan Plaza. After the commotion, the bicyclists swapped war stories of close calls and full-on collisions.

“I have almost been hit by cars a few times just riding around by myself, but that’s why we are here to try to get riders aware (and to spread) awareness so they don’t get hit,” McKinstry-Luepke said.

Other cycling events have sprouted out of Salt Lake City’s bicycle community. The UBomb event is a take on Portland’s Zoobomb, said Kemmer Evans, co-founder of the UBomb.

UBombers meet every Sunday night to traverse the rolling neighborhoods between the U and the 900 East TRAX station on children’s bikes. The UBombers build on the social event and showcase elements of Critical Mass, Evans said.

People who ride weird, custom designed bikes to masses typically come out for the UBomb thrill too, said Evans and Emilio Hidalgo, a UBomber and Salt Lake City mass participant.

The mass gatherings offer Salt Lake City’s bicyclists a chance to socialize in a way that fits their in-motion lifestyle. McKinstry-Luepke said environmental awareness motivated him to replace his car with a bike.

“But then I got involved in the culture and got involved in the scene,” he said. “The culture has brought a social network, just being with other riders. If you need parts for your bike, or bike knowledge, (that) spreads around the community.”

Many riders appreciate the group activity, but use the gatherings as means of expressing their individuality. McKinstry-Luepke, who commutes on a recycled, hand-painted blue and yellow-striped road bike said, “I’m pretty much a lone wolf, in that I ride for myself.”

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