Fat Lad Reaches Critical Mass: The Ride

We had been in New York City for six days and the hustle and bustle of big city life had been truthfully about 3 days too many. From Penn station we took the overnight Amtrak to Chicago; nineteen hours of one of the last great American train journeys was a faith restoring journey we will never forget. Hitting the Windy City the change of pace, manners and immediate warmth of people was a huge breath of fresh air. Once we checked into our apartment I checked in with Garth. Or at least we tried, after a brief chat on his office number we agreed to talk later. With international numbers barred from Garth’s mobile eventually we organised our first meet up and Critical Mass Chicago would be it. For those not in the know Critical Mass is where the cyclists take back the roads for one evening the last Friday of every month. The idea is to raise awareness and promote cycling rather than to promote chaos and anarchy as some would have you believe.

Daley Plaza at the Picasso Monument was the start point and after a Hope clickety walk with Mrs Fat Lad on the sidewalks of the cleanest city centre I have ever been in we got there early. A few guys were already milling about in groups here and there. The police cyclists were a little way off in the distance keeping apart from the growing throng with professional indifference. As the crowd began to swell the atmosphere became increasingly festival like with musicians playing PA systems blaring and megaphones squawking out to the assembled mass. I can’t lie my pulse quickened and the slight grasp of nausea held true as my nervous state got the better of my rational thought. Sarah wandered round with the confidence of the natural traveller she is, stealing souls as she wended her way through the gaggle. I introduced myself to a lovely woman named Kathy who was riding the mass with her dog in a crate on her rear rack. Time slipped closer to the 7:30 kick off, Garth had prepped me for his arrival with: “You won’t miss me I’ll be the only Scot-ophile there” and sure enough he sailed through the crowd towards me on his British steel classic, kilt flapping in the wind and his Pith* helmet high upon his head.

With a firm handshake and a warm hug a friend for life was made in those few seconds and with the now huge crowd surrounding us it was time to roll out. Two laps of the plaza later and we were pedalling out proper, bikes as far as the eyes could see in front and behind a few in the know were throwing the figure of around 3000 about.

Every type of bike present and every colour and race too the pace would go from gentle to manic to stop in random order. Where the streets narrowed the mass would bottle neck but soon spread out again at cruising speed. With Garth as my intrepid guide we weaved in and out of the two (and more) wheeled jungle heading further towards the head of the cranking stream. It was unpredictable, carnival anarchy at it’s best and the endorphins were rushing through my veins despite the lack of usual trail boosting fixes. As we passed intersections and cross roads a few massers would pull in front of the traffic, stopping bumper close to stop any vehicles accidentally (or otherwise) wandering into the cycling molass. This Garth told me is corking.

With Garth as an introducer I met a whole host of new and friendly faces and ended up having the most bizarre and interesting conversations with complete strangers including a quite in depth discussion of power to weight ratios for small women with a petite rider as we headed through the now darkening Chicago city outskirts. The objective (if you can use such a lofty word with these pedallistas) of the night was a ridge that had been refurbished at great cost that the Chicago authorities neglected to out a bike lane on. When quizzed about it their official answer was “Go around it”. We rolled up at the bridge to a stop the crowd blocking and taking up the entire four lanes and a few guys spoke and flyers were passed around as random members of the crowd performed bike salutes lifting their steeds high into the air.

Moving again it wasn’t long before I was introduced to Don and Martha. Don was shooting away capturing the moments of good hearted madness as it evolved around us. Pedalling once more we braked outside a working forge and I sat in awe watching the molten metal sparking away through the heat haze all the while the foundry workers black faced outside cheering the mass on.

In my moment of wonder I lost sight of Garth and I pedalled hard to catch up with him swimming downstream weaving in out of the river of engineless motion. Pith* helmet sighted we were re-united and rolled on together towards the climax of the ride. At the next intersection we corked for the massers behind us strangely empowered stopping several tonnes of American truck with only the Kona and my flabby body.

Rolling again with Don and Martha we pulled out of the crowd to stop for beer and greek food. Mrs Fat Lad jumped in a taxi to join us and the conversation snaked long enough into the night for the waiters to hover awaiting our conclusions and homewards journeys. Don and Martha rocketed away into the night leading me back to the apartment somehow to try and sleep the rush away

Fat Lad

*Make your own bloody jokes about that