(Belo Horizonte, Brazil) Critical Mass is a once-monthly bike ride that takes place in cities worldwide to create awareness about the bicycle as a legitimate mode of transportation. The last Friday of each month riders gather to strengthen the cyclist community and peacefully protest the lack of infrastructure, such as bike lanes. Major cities regularly attract over 1,000 riders and the twice-annual Budapest group has been 80,000 strong.
In theory, blocking the streets temporarily is meant to remind motorists that bicycles, by law, belong on the road, not on the sidewalk with pedestrians. In practice, however, these bottlenecks tend to aggravate already aggressive drivers into fits of rage.
I’ve participated in two Critical Mass events, one in Austin, Texas, the other in Curitiba, Brazil. In both instances I witnessed surprising behavior from cyclists and motorists alike. Some cyclists, drugged by the strange euphoria of being the majority, intentionally spited cars by swerving in front of them or returning warning honks with middle fingers. Likewise, drivers displayed animal-like impatience with minute delays that could avoided with simple detours. Violent encounters do and have happened.
[Video of hit-and-run in Porto Alegre]
Last Friday in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre—the first major city I’ll visit after leaving Florianopolis—a disturbing incident happened during the Critical Mass. A driver, supposedly intimidated by the thick of bikes around him, barreled through the peaceful protest leaving more than 20 participants splayed in his aftermath.
[Brazilian news report of the incident]
Though the driver was arrested, many details are yet unknown. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn later that cyclists taunted him or intentionally blocked his route; just as I’m sure the driver happened upon the group with an anxiousness that was already on the brink of violence. Neither are acceptable in my eyes, not on roads that both groups claim as public spaces.
What this driver did is sickening, and quite disturbing for any cyclist. Luckily, no one was killed, but only out of pure luck. The adults rolled over the hood could easily have been toddlers in bike seats. This post could easily have been a homage to an innocent child taken too soon. These scenarios shouldn’t even be within the realm of possibility, not in our supposed civilized society.
Through my short career as a bike commuter, and now long-distance bike tourist, I’ve been intentionally swerved at on downhills, nearly grazed on highways, had bottles thrown at my head, been honked at, yelled at, and in general despised as a two-wheeler stealing precious seconds from drivers’ schedules. Fortunately, this is not the norm, but these acts of aggression happen more often than I report on this blog.
Not everyone who visits this blog is a cyclist. More than a cycle blog, this is a travel blog, a personal documentation of my experiences in South America. I welcome and appreciate anyone who takes the time to read my words. In light of this horrific incident in Porto Alegre, I’d like to ask drivers and cyclists alike to slow down, to respect one another’s agenda. It’s quite trivial to hate or harm someone for their choice of transportation. It’s not only trivial; it’s counterproductive to the happiness to which everyone is trying to arrive.
Life is short, please relax and enjoy the ride.