Edinburgh Critical Mass, oh how I miss you!

My name is Harry Walton; a former student of the University of Edinburgh, I rode with Critical Mass for the past year before moving back to London. The regular massers will remember me best as the beardy guy with the sound system…

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The prototype sound-system in its earliest incarnation

…but this post isn’t written for the regulars who already know about Critical Mass – I’m writing this one for those of you yet to take the plunge on the last Friday of the month. Through my story I hope to get you off the fence and out there onto the streets to join the mass in celebrating all that is wonderful about riding bikes and making new friends.

A picture of me with some of the wonderful friends I've made through Edinburgh's Critical Mass

A picture of me with some of the awesome friends I’ve made through Edinburgh’s Critical Mass

Fresh from the mature cycling culture of Amsterdam’s bustling streets I arrived in Edinburgh last September (2013) full of bike riding zeal. Having grown up in London, I knew that Critical Mass was a fantastically dynamic and creative event in every city’s cycling calendar, so it was with high hopes that I embarked on my first ride north of the border. However, things got off to a rocky start; with fewer than twenty riders, aggression from motorists coupled with a lack of cohesion in the group to make the experience rather more stressful than anything else. It certainly wasn’t what I had hoped for, and something needed to change if the ride was to capture the essence of what Critical Mass is all about.

Although Critical Mass is a fundamentally unorganised and leaderless event (see our FAQs), for such a small ride to take place in a motor-centric transport culture it clearly needed a carefully planned strategy to become safe, fun, and appealing to riders of all ages and abilities. Although there is an unwritten philosophy of Critical Mass, the reality is that ‘one-size-fits-all’ does no justice to the myriad ways in which cities around the world have embraced this celebration of cycling. Edinburgh needed its own unique approach, and it needed it quickly if Critical Mass was to survive the winter.

Thousands of cyclists hold up their bicycles at Budapest's city park at the end of the Critical Mass ride across the Hungarian capital.

Critical Mass may only happen twice a year in Budapest, but thousands of attendees embrace the essence of the mass with traditional ‘bike lifts’ throughout their rides. Though they defy the traditional philosophy of a monthly ride, the Hungarians definitely capture its spirit.

Regular monthly meetings quickly became the vehicle of the ride’s resurrection. Held mainly at the Forest Cafe, attendance grew steadily as new and curious riders were attracted. The campaign was by no means professional, we had only our own money to put into it, and were all ultimately just enthusiastic amateurs. On the recruitment side, creative flyering campaigns coupled with our growing presence on social media to spread the word that Edinburgh’s Critical Mass was alive and kicking. On the ride side, new protocols were employed to make sure that everyone knew the basics of what we were doing; by openly discussing problems with previous rides, we were able to come up with solutions to make future rides better. This critical self-awareness kept us on our toes, and made sure that rides were constantly improving to meet Edinburgh’s specific requirements. From implementing tried and tested techniques like corking, to simple things like making newcomers feel welcomed, the rides became safer and at last the mass was able to grow.

Happy riders

To begin with we were a small but unfailingly committed group of happy riders

By April 2014 we had a solid core of committed riders who were prepared to represent Critical Mass at one of Scotland’s biggest cycling events: Pedal on Parliament. It was an important opportunity for riders to come along and stand up for the mass alongside other cycling groups. As an occasionally controversial and fundamentally ‘disorganised’ group, it was essential that we made a good impression on the day. Flags were painstakingly (if somewhat unprofessionally) stitched and sprayed…

Seriously, if anyone didn't know better it might look like we were organised or something. How absurd!

…and a brand new monster sound-system was unveiled for the occasion

Quite a bizarre artefact when you look at it...

Quite a bizarre artefact when you look at it…

We brought our A-game on the day, and handed out a lot of flyers. People seemed receptive to our message, and they certainly appreciated the music, but the real question was: would they turn up at the end of the month?

The flags were a great success, and the sound-system turned plenty of heads

The flags were a great success, and the sound-system turned plenty of heads

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Underlying the serious protest was a lot of fun and frivolity from the Critical Mass crew

Party on Parliament 2014!

Without a doubt, we turned PoP into a real Party on Parliament!

By May’s mass it was clear that everyone’s efforts had paid off. Attendance was at an all-time high and parents felt happy enough to bring their kids along. It was incredible to see children on the ride and it was a real privilege to be able to provide a protected environment for them to cycle in. After months of work, we had truly achieved Critical Mass – the rides were fun and had a great atmosphere, people were working together to keep everything moving, and at last the honks from cars and taxis turned from angry and aggressive to jubilant and supportive as the party vibe became irresistible!

An offshoot of Critical Mass rides everywhere is the internationally celebrated World Naked Bike Ride. Although not strictly part and parcel with the mass, the WNBR stands for a lot of the same things as the mass, and so there is usually a significant crossover in the participants. Indeed, apart from the lack of clothes, our WNBR looked a lot like a typical Critical Mass ride:

What a riot coming round the corner!

What a riot coming round the corner!

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and before you ask, yes, it was pretty chilly!

Again, fun was had by all, and for me personally it was another triumph of the mass. What I mean by this is that without the commitment and organisation of people brought together by Critical Mass, it is doubtful that Edinburgh would have taken part in this brilliant global protest against oil dependency. It was such a success that even our police escort said they’d enjoyed themselves and were asking if we were planning another ride any time soon! Watch this space guys…

Even our police escort joined in the group photo. They said they'd had a great time and were impressed by our organisation - this bodes well for future rides!

Our police escort was happy to join in the group photo. They said they’d had a great time and were impressed by our organisation – this bodes well for future rides!

Miraculously, the rest of the summer’s weather held out, and we enjoyed long rides around our beautiful city bathed in glorious and unprecedented sunshine.

Holyrood park

Edinburgh – frankly beyond description

Given the social nature of the mass, it was normal for our summer rides to end up in one of Edinburgh’s many beauty spots for a picnic and a chin wag. One month we ended on Calton Hill…

on calton hill at the end

…and the following month on the Meadows.

Meadows finale

Sharing and squatting with new friends in the summer sun, what more could you want?

By the time I left at the end of August, the mass had been transformed into something that Edinburgh can be truly proud of. It took many meetings, hours of hard work, and a boatload of flyering, but the success of the rides and the friendships forged through this labour of love made it all worthwhile. Retrospectively speaking, I feel that promoting Critical Mass was one of the most important and worthwhile things that I did during my time in Edinburgh, and I would encourage anyone who is thinking about giving it a go to get out there; there’s nothing to lose, and it might just be the best thing you’ve ever done.

Kristina and I miss our Critical Mass friends tremendously, and we welcome you all to come and visit whenever you’re down south. Hopefully we’ll see you again before too long.

Wherever we are in the world, on the last Friday of the month

The Critical Couple: we miss you Edinburgh!

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About Cycle Chic

A student in Edinburgh with a passion for Dutch bikes and Dutch cycling culture.
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