Monday, May 12, 2008

My First Crank Mob Experience

If the sight of a bicyclist being tossed in the air like a baton by an oncoming car wasn't enough to sober me up - the sight of some bro's Nissan Pathfinder's back window being smashed by angry bicyclists surely did the trick.

For the record, the bros had been asking for it when they made the mistake of trying to muscle their SUV through a mob of bicyclists who'd just seen one of their own have an unexpected meeting with a windshield in the opposite lane. They'd made a bigger mistake by getting out of the car and starting a shoving match. For the record, it was plain stupidity on the part of the bicyclist who'd pulled out onto oncoming traffic and gotten hit that had set the whole thing off in the first place.

And to think, we hadn't even been riding for 10 minutes.

For almost half a year now I'd been hearing about the famed bicycle street party known as the "Crank Mob." From what I'd been told, it was a departure from Critical Mass in that there was a small group of folks that knew the route ahead of time and more importantly, the idea was not to try and tie up car traffic. It was suppose to be a chill party on wheels.

Arriving at the town clocktower a quarter till ten (the start time) Friday night, I had briefly considered popping into the Rush Inn for a last minute pint but the atmosphere outside was too alluring. It was like New Year's Eve for bicyclists, with close to 200 riders, all crowded onto the concrete island generally known as the town protest site - everyone just itching to tear up the road.

But this was a party, not a protest. The tone being more Andrew W.K. than Fugazi. Case in point, when the clock struck ten, and hoots and shouts reached a fevered pitch, the party organizers stood on the nuclear attack monument and briefly stoked the crowd with what sounded like, "We Want Fun!" peppered with "USA, USA!" Upon hearing this, I turned to a fellow rider and asked, "They're joking, right?" He just shrugged.

* * *
With one foot on the sidewalk, I am watching sirens approach. A crowd has gathered outside the Front Street parking garage across from Longs and Trader Joe's. The girl who got hit is standing and seems to be fine. A middle aged man is commenting to his wife, "Those guys in the SUV should have just waited for the crowd to disperse on its own." He's right - As the cops arrive, most of the riders have already disappeared, and the bros are standing around w/ a broken window.

Figuring I'd seen enough action for the night, I start to make my way home. A few riders pull up next to me asking for directions to the 711 on Ocean Street - Apparently, the ride is only just beginning. I tell them just up the street on the right, figure what the hell, and follow along.

At the corner of Broadway and Ocean it's as if the accident never happened. There are more bicyclists out here than even the Mystery Rides of years past. (At least it feels that way) Someone blows a whistle and we're off again, this time, heading up hill towards Seabright.

The road is a dark sea sprinkled with little blinking red lights. Of the occasional cars that come by in the opposite direction, most slow down to a crawl, either out of concern or consternation at the spectacle of so many people on bicycles. We ride in both lanes, kamikaze style, I'm cringing at the thought of witnessing another collision but so far, everything seems to be fine. We reach an intersection and circle around waiting for everyone to catch up.

The more impatient drivers start to honk and rev their engines but more and more bicyclists keep coming. Before the situation comes to a head we're back on the road, aiming for the boardwalk.

Despite whatever disapprovals mainstream bike advocates may utter when put on the spot about unpermitted (e.g. uncontrollable) rides such as these, none will say they aren't exhilarating experiences. Given the choice between spending a Friday night dishing out $10 for a few hours inside a theater and riding with hundreds of people down a wide mostly empty road, anyone with a pulse will pick the latter.

But the dominant culture doesn't appreciate unexpected glitches in the TGIF, dinner, movie, bar-hopping, max-out-your-credit-card-because-there's-nothing-else-to-do matrix of post-industrial America; No, by the time the Crank Mob started circling the intersection at the entrance of the Pier, tempers were flaring up again.

As car horns began to blare, the circling Crank Mob continued to hold the space, then as often happens, one driver decided to push their way through the crowd, leading to a few bicyclists yelling and spanking the car in retaliation, leading the driver to step out and do his best John Wayne impression. In an effort to de-escalate the situation, Crank Mob organizers tried to coax folks away from the intersection towards the Pier. But like any party that has had too many fights, the mood was going sour. Some bicyclists yelled at others to quit antagonizing the drivers, while others took the opportunity to cool the angry cars off with water (this resulted in some very intense shouting/posturing from said drivers).

As I rode away, figuring this was about as good as it was gonna get, I kept thinking back to what a bystander had asked me at the site of the first incident, "What happened here?"

"Gas prices protest. Oil hit $126 a barrel today, haven't you heard?" I replied, too embarrassed to say this had all been a bad case of one bicyclist's reckless riding amplified by a bunch of fools in an SUV, amplified by a mob of rebellious bicyclists, amplified by a dominant culture that leaves no room for any adventures outside of the ones that can be bought and sold.

"Are you being facetious?" She asked.

"Yes, no. Sort of..." I really wasn't sure. What I am sure of is if the intentions of the Crank Mob had simply been an apolitical party on wheels, it certainly didn't seem to be ending that way - if not in words, at least in deeds. And for me, that's the definition of a good party.

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