James Daley: Cyclotherapy


I had some friends in town, visiting from Texas last week, and decided that there could be no better way to show them my city than by taking them on the Critical Mass cycle ride. For those of you who aren't familiar, the London "Mass" (as it's often known) meets on the last Friday of every month, setting off from under Waterloo Bridge at around 7pm. It's simply a gathering of cyclists (around 700 last week, I reckon), who reclaim the streets of the capital and block off the traffic for a few hours, allowing the cyclist to enjoy their great city without the hindrance of any motorised vehicles.

It's not just a London thing, either. Critical Mass takes place in some 400 cities around the world, including Brighton, Glasgow and Manchester (and others) in the UK. A quick Google search should help you to find if there's one in your area.

In London – due to the ride's sheer size (sometimes as many as 1,000 take part during the summer) – around a dozen or so police accompany the pack. Although they occasionally take to badgering the participants, they're mostly there to keep some sort of order and to break up any fights between irate motorists and cyclists. But the police don't tell us where to go.

The route is always completely unplanned – and, having not been for a few months, I'd forgotten how much fun it can be to try to get 700 cyclists to follow you. I was out front for most of the ride last Friday, and at a couple of junctions, my friends and I managed to persuade the pack to follow us. At other points, however, I'd find myself 200 metres up a road, only to realise that someone else had talked the pack into heading off down a different route.

Although I love Critical Mass, my one frustration is that when it comes to anarchy, nothing gets done in a hurry. While the London ride is meant to begin at 7pm, there's no organiser to blow a whistle or wave a flag. So instead, there's always a lot of hanging around, until enough people get impatient and start ringing their bells. Suddenly, everyone cheers, and finally the pack starts to roll.

Once we're going, there's a lot of stopping and starting, too. The police have developed an annoying habit of holding up the pack for ages at every major junction – and once everyone's come to a stop, it's tough to get them going again. But I guess Critical Mass is not about speed or rushing – it's a celebration of the bicycle and our great city.

Given that I was keen to show my friends all the most attractive parts of town, I was disappointed that we spent so much of last Friday evening in not-so-scenic east London. Next time, I'll just have to try a bit harder to persuade the pack to come with me out west.


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