Earth Mass ride 4/2009

Andrew had/took the privilege of doing route design for the April Chicago Critical Mass.

I'm very happy with it as a fine production, for the clear presentation of dense data, the vast experience it distills, and the quality of collaboration. Extensive post ride review posted on CCM website includes links to tons of photo albums and videos from the event.

This article, Chicago Critical Mass April 24th 2009 Earth Mass post-ride review, is for posterity, as writing practice, to codify and share lessons, and because I enjoy storytelling. Target audience is cyclists, skaters, and people with some familiarity with Critical Mass events.

Andrew Bedno here. If you're a Chicago cyclist, you may know me by now from my years of inline skating with Chicago Critical Mass (CCM), from coordinating the World Naked rides, and from other major local bike/skate outings such as Long After Twilight Ends, Boulevard Lakefront Tour, Sunday Parkways, Midnight Marauders, North Side Critical Mass, etc. Most of my dearest friendships are from this realm. I'm also known for publishing the and websites and for local Circus involvements.

This month, with the support and assistance of many dear cyclists, I had the privilege of producing and directing the Chicago Critical Mass route, as best those terms apply.

Earth Mass took well over a thousand cyclists (counts range from 1,100-2,000) and at least a dozen skaters (including me) and a few boarders on a 14- to 17-mile cruise through major Chicago parks. Participants commented on "unprecedented mellowness" and rainbows. Neighborhoods, roads, pace, distance, and variance were within expectations, and friction with cars modest. Even the weather and wind were kind.


Several conditions lead me to propose this month's route. I saw the prior month hunger for a route, it would be just after Earth Day, I typically create and print a World Naked Bike Ride flyer for April distribution anyway (WNBR-C6 is Saturday, June 13th), and I felt able following last October's Mass de los Muertos success. Some months are anarchy, some are xerocracy, and I had the skillz and willz and billz to step up. After weeks of uncertainty, I am now profoundly relieved and beaming proud of us all.

The West Side chain of parks and connecting boulevards was literally designed for such promenades. I learned this while skating in Active Transportation Alliance events. For CCM the question is how to get west into that system. So I overlaid some prior routes in Google Earth and started pursuing the optimal route. In some ways such a tour can only be accomplished by CCM, since it takes a Mass to make it safe from cars.

Route planning is a balance of MANY attributes and variables. It requires mastery of technical and temporal data, the hard-earned experience of multiple sharp people, and hope. I differ from some in my opinion that the Mass can go 1.5 miles (length of the Mass itself?) without zigs, which is important for simplicity. I also say, "Why not Lakefront Path?", having seen Masses pass narrower points. Finally, I expect the Mass to surmount simple obstacles like cul-de-sacs. All these risks were taken.

With a rough route I seeded a ChainLink thread on the topic of CCM route planning. Over a week we went through nine major revisions, dropping two large parks to reduce length and adding small parks. Eventually I was adequately happy with every compromise, and even produced a virtual fly-through video! The final handout includes alternate paths, and numerous Mass Ups specifically drawn, but really the basic idea is to stall at each big park. Main loop is an easy 14 miles in three legs, each roughly five miles in one hour, or extended ride to 17 miles.

Overview / Assumptions and Constraints:

Leg 1 - West to the parks:
Westbound, the Mass is strong which can be used to leap out of downtown and through some neighborhoods. Leave on Randolph with Mass rotation, a few overs and unders and wide avenues to Union Park. A few jogs passing through United Center and continue west on streets chosen for capacity, greenery, calmness, etc.
Leg 2 - North through the parks:
Upon reaching Garfield Park, the parks' lanes and boulevard system naturally guides us North in several steps through Humboldt, Palmer, and Logan parks through wide, tree lined lanes. Palmer and Logan are both good circling opportunities. Finally, a wide Logan Blvd. guides us back east to the highway underpass.
Leg 3 - East back to lakefront:
The bowling bridge and Diversey stretch are narrow but calm enough, and one can skip to adjacent streets as needed. This leg in particular is highly self-determinable. Some likely head home at this point, some rally at Lincoln/Fullerton/Halsted, some proceed by the North Pond. Continue north on lakefront path for additional miles as desired.

Lead up:

Thursday I did the printing, bought fresh skate wheels and bearings, and joined a small party assembling The Derailleur ("an unofficial publication of CCM"). Not coincidentally, this month's Derailleur carries an advice article I wrote about skating with Critical Mass. Thanx, willow! This article is also available from the CCM website in the FAQs.

Friday, dear pal Susan came out for a rare ride, and that turned into all kinds of traffic stories: Her crawling drive to my place, us discovering trains don't allow bikes during rush hour, and our crawling urgent cab ride downtown. Ugh! Many thanx for always reminding me to thoroughly stretch before, which makes a real difference after. Hanging out, packing protein bars, changing my wheels and bearings, and watching Susan accessorize a perfect pirate hipster outfit, I can imagine the hundreds of other getting set to Mass stories just like ours brewing all over Chicago. In all, a dozen people I would describe as close friends were in attendance, yet we saw little of each other.


424 (for April 24) neon green maps (half-page to conserve paper) were distributed with The Derailleur and another 30+ full-page versions were distributed to those helping lead the Mass. Others distributed over 666 smaller copies of same route differently rendered on a CopWatch/Mumia piece. Total maps count should have been very high, but at the head I feel we had few. If I do this again, I may print all copies full-page for several reasons, include a text version, and make it mobile-accessible.

Upon arrival at 5:40-something, Daley Plaza was lightly packed. Several news crews were active, since cycling is hot. I hear it was on TV, and maybe even on the giant screen abutting the plaza, but am not aware of anyone with a captured copy. Roller derby people were heavily promoting, but only some were on skates. There were a few sound bikes and instruments but no band(s). A few best buds said hi, some on skates, back atcha bros! I also ran into more than one friend unseen for YEARS! While passing out Derailleurs I may have briefly glimpsed the WC inline clique, but they seemed to form a tight inward facing circle uninviting to greetings.

The ride:

As 6 p.m. passed I became antsy, feeling the Mass was notably inert for the hour. It mattered since we'd have only a few hours of sun to make it through the parks. Eventually Glow and I addressed from the Picasso, several minutes later some started to circle, and a few rotations later some started off west with the help of nice traffic control ladies. Next time I won't stress about time, things always work out. In fact, this Mass ended earlier than planned (but for other reasons), and there was mention that in haste we lost some early bike cop escorts. By the way, as always I give great thanx to the Chicago Police's tacit facilitation of CCM, tangibly proving Chicago's commitment to being a notably bike-friendly city. It was obvious though that these were not the usual escorts. We usually get a number of nice bike cops, this time I saw only a few gruffer ones and several ATVs.

As a personal policy and mantra for the day I focused on just gently enjoying my way through it. I figured if I, as a skater likely slower than the bikes, simply kept a gentle stride, it'd help set the head's calm pace. But nervous energy, and surrounding bikes, kept me slightly faster. The cruise west on Randolph was beautiful. I love the wide rolling avenues and the rail underpass, and it was pure mellow to own the street. By Union Park however, I lost some certainty (horizon from ground looks different than ground from space) and several wrong turns ensued, detailed later.

Though not exactly as planned, the westbound passage through several neighborhoods seemed perfectly positive, and we were well received by locals partying in the streets and out at small parks. For their Mumia work (sound trailer) Todd said "I don't think ever felt such an outpouring of support during a ride." For only the second month the mobile messaging group was active, and I bulletined our revised actual route in progress to some 50-odd sms trolls.

Passing through Humboldt Park many commented on the ponds and rainbow, and for a stretch the pavement and companionship was just profoundly beautiful. A hushed feeling of awe seemed to spread out as if time slowed. As planned, next the park boulevard system naturally flowed the Mass to and around Palmer Square, and Logan Square for some rare circling where much joy was announced.

Peeling off Eastbound on Logan for the last leg the wide boulevards lead to 90/94. There we passed the happy city skate park tucked in the underpass, and there was much rejoicing! Next passing the Diversey Bowl and over the Diversey bridge is always a treat. For this leg I had counted on a reduced and thinned Mass. I'd expected most to treat Diversey as a home stretch, and the ride as done wherever they wanted to bail, probably by Lincoln. I indicated no Mass Ups and expected much diffusion. But ultimately a fairly long Mass fed onto the Lakefront park at Fullerton!

I know the users and capacity of the lakefront path there well (had expected largely deserted Fridays late). I can still wonder if we may have been less disruptive threading our way at least to Diversey as mapped, but in the future I'll treat it as a skater only option. Bottom line, wherever the sound trailer(s) stop(s) IS the party. Thanx everyone for not taking LSD. I hear y'all had a great time!

A dear few and I continued North as mapped, pausing a while at Diversey to ponder our unexpected solitude. After a while we few finished the 17 miles to Montrose (skate park, beach, pier, bird sanctuary). I eventually came all the way back to Fullerton (against the wind) to hang with remaining pal, then skated home for a total of 23 miles. Along the way, despite being dark and at the end of an extreme night, on the pristine plateaued landings North of Fullerton at the lakefront I did some of the most extreme jumps I've ever accomplished. Thanx again; I've gotta give credit to good pre-stretching.

Major lessons:

1. Uncertain directing led to missing Garfield Park.
I was unfamiliar with several points westbound and though near the head I lead poorly, causing an undershoot after Union Park, and confusion on underpass at Rockwell, and finally the Mass continuing North at Sacramento rather than jogging onto Fifth Avenue SW.
At any of these had I been more certain or if others who knew the route had been handy we may have made it. But the flow just continued naturally and in moments it's too late. Ultimately this left us on Sacramento too long, and made the whole ride shorter.
Passing Fifth Avenue, where we should have gone SW, it looked wide and calm ending in distant green. We also could've turned at Madison/Warren/Washington.
2. I could have gone slower.
I thought skating in front with a relaxed stroke would naturally regulate, but got repeated reports of strung out Mass. Sorry. I'd estimated target times for major points based on just 5 mph, and knew we were arriving too soon. Also, some at the front of the Mass pushed through lights where I should have asserted the need to Mass Up.
3. The Mass will not take the lake front path.
I'm going to revise this route into a generalized "Parks Mass" route, which we can use again in the future. Now familiar with the route, next time we WILL make it to and through Garfield Park.

In closing:

In a lifetime of artistic and technical accomplishment, helping CCM has been among my most interesting and rewarding endeavors. CCM serves both my skate punk AND parental sides. It demands the detail skills of a datatech, the passion of a chef, and the patience of a pre-school teacher. We produce an unparalleled happening, a monthly evening of joy and clean fun for thousands, at the price of just a few hissy fits.

C'est la Mass!

April 2009 CCM photos:
Bob Kastigar:
Dan Moran:

The Derailleur, April 2009 issue, PDF:

"Filmed with a cheap bike camera mount" 80 minutes cut down to under 9:

"Critical Mass Chicago Style: Why Do You Ride?"

"Critical Mass in Chicago April 24 2009" video: