A 30th Birthday Ride for Critical Mass London (14th April 2024)

A large crowd began to gather on the Southbank early on Sunday. This ride had been heavily publicised in advance, both in real life and online, with posters and flyers in cafes, bars, bookshops, bicycle shops, radical spaces, and up on walls and hoardings around the city, in advance of the 30th anniversary of the very first CHARM ride on the 15th of April 1994.

The Met police attended on the Southbank, but kept a discreet distance, monitoring the gathering informally from above, only intervening to come down from their elevated position when two riders in full balaclavas appeared briefly in the crowd. The balaclava riders disappeared shortly afterwards and were not seen again on the ride. One of the primary reasons for the callout to have the 30th anniversary on this day, rather than a Friday night, was to mitigate the potential presence of thieves using the ride as cover to snatch pedestrian phones, and causing older or irregular returning riders anxiety or panic. The daylight and larger crowd meant that any activities like this would have stood out, and thankfully there were no reports of any thefts. Mass has been through some negative times in the last three years since crowds began returning after the lockdowns, and it was important to create a safe and positive space to celebrate a huge milestone; and not have to endure any stressful situations on a night ride, which had the potential to cause even more people to be turned off the idea of Mass.

Lots of older faces were evident in the crowd. Many people were chatting who had not seen each other for many years or had not come to a critical mass for a long time. The ride was advertised on “old school” websites, such as radar.squat.net and urban75, to encourage people who had maybe not attended for many years to join in the festivities. Multiple sound systems were in attendance as well as a hugely diverse group of riders, including an older black riders group, a Deaf cycling campaign group, riders with disability bikes, and families with children and teenagers in tow.

Des Kay also reappeared for the first time in many years back on the Southbank, and brought a collection of newspaper clippings, flyers, bike tags, posters, and other ephemera gathered over the course of 25 years of CHARM and Critical Mass, to show to the public as more people continued to arrive.

The weather helped to swell the crowd to near record numbers as one o’clock approached. The ride left on time at the advertised 1pm, heading up the ramp towards the Waterloo roundabout and turning right heading south towards Lambeth Bridge. Here one of the MCs advertised in the promotional material was picked up en route, and joined up with another sound system, to give the ride at the front a bit of extra energy and positivity as it made its way around the city.

The ride stopped intermittently throughout the two and a half hour duration, which allowed riders behind to be bunched back up again, instead of the ride being strung out and fracturing. For the duration of the ride, the Mass stayed together, and was coherent and safe. There were no reported instances of cars or other vehicles becoming entangled with riders in the middle of the Mass, so no reports of cars hitting any riders accidentally during the journey.

After Lambeth bridge, the road headed towards Westminster, and circled around Parliament Square, avoiding Whitehall and the West End, and turned back onto the river on the north embankment. At this stage, it became evident that more and more riders had joined after the 1pm start, with estimates for the ride attendance varying between 2000 to 2500, going on rough head counts from static videos as the entire ride passed by larger junctions.

The ride turned south over Southwark Bridge, towards Elephant and Castle, and then went east along the New Kent Road and turned north at the Bricklayers Arms. On Tower Bridge itself, the ride stopped and people let off some smoke flares and there were some dancing in the middle of Tower Bridge, before heading north towards Whitechapel, and arriving at London Fields around 3:30pm via Cambridge Heath Road, where the after party was taking place.

A 10-piece all-female brass band called She’s Got Brass arrived slightly late (as did the ride) having been delayed in their taxi with their instruments, reportedly by a large cycling demonstration happening in the area on the same day! Approximately half the ride filtered out through the rest of London Fields, with many older riders stopping at Columbia Road market for drinks and food.

Younger and regular went up towards the centre of London Fields where sound systems were congregating. The brass band played for about 45 minutes, including grime, rap and pop tunes, with lots of audience participation. Other people with families who were in the park at the time came along and sat down to watch the band, with young kids dancing and coming up to see the instruments. The band were cheered back for “one more” encore track; and after they finished up exhausted, some cargo bike sound system riders combined their sound systems together, and used the Hackney Council large wheelie bins in the park to mount the speakers, and get more people up dancing.

At 5:30pm two park wardens came over and instructed that if the music wasn’t turned off, four police fans waiting nearby would be instructed to come in, seize the equipment and arrest anyone still trying to play music. By then people had been starting to drift off home. A 6pm switch off was negotiated with the wardens, which was adhered to peacefully, so most people at that point dispersed. Some went to Tower Bridge for drinks by the river. Others went down to Hop Kingdom and St. Johns Churchyard across the street, for a short after-after party.

The feedback from the ride was overwhelmingly positive. Many people felt that it was one of the best masses in the last decade, with a huge array of different tribes of cyclists in attendance. Here is one comment from Urban75:

“I should preface this with a bit of an admission – I’m a bit of an imposter here. I had never been to a Critical Mass before. I’m am absolutley very ‘pro’ it’s cause, though I’m never in London on the day, or have generally deprioritised it, and/or might feel that it’s a fairly tight knit community (and I am of the spandex and carbon (or vintage and steel) sub-tribes of cycling, not the laid back courier vets or wheelie kids that I assume make up most of the CM population…

…But that was an amazing day on the bike, I wish I could do it all over again. :cool: :cool: :cool: God bless the weather, too.

The togetherness and community spirit had a message beyond the promotion of cycling. Too many walks of life the (critical!) masses think they are alone, but when smart shit like this gets organised, it can unlock a powerful group that can show ‘we’ can be ‘the many’.

Any day where you can cycle on closed roads – even from my amateur event do’s like RideLondon – are a blessing, and combined with that real feeling of ‘this city is ours’, made it for a magical few hours on the bike. The feeling when you cycle past the first blocking (corking?), and being part of a giant (unorganised) mass of fellow cyclists, was genuinely pretty moving moment. One or two cyclists each time heroically held up 100’s of cars, (all either irate at the delay or ‘wtf’ at what they were witnessing – ‘where did you all come from’?) to ensure we all had our day. No fucks given. Today, there are more of us then you.

(And shouting “beep if you like Critical Mass’ at said irate honking car drivers is still making me chuckle tbh :D )”

This ride was always intended as a supplementery party ride, after in-person group discussions on the regular rides over the course of a few months in the second half of 2023. It was not intended to replace the usual ride at the end of the month, which would always happen – just an extra daytime celebration with an endpoint, so people who had left London over many years including during and after the pandemic could come back together and celebrate. A good analogy at the time was “sometimes you don’t celebrate your birthday on the day itself!” A few people wanted to have it actually on the 15th which is the first ever CHARM ride birthday, but thought that a Sunday rather than a Monday would help people with kids and who live further out attend, as central London gets more hollowed out of real residents.

Another idea discussed in late 2023 was to have a “Reclaim The Streets” type event, occupying a street and diverting traffic, but with recent changes in the POA and the Met’s aggression towards groups like XR and JSO, doing this ran a much higher risk of confrontation and likely arrests. If an RTS-style action had been pre-advertised, this would also have resulted in much heavier police surveillance from the start. It was felt that the ride, with a large contingent of volunteer corkers, and a slow moving pace, meant that any goal to occupy the street safely for cyclists would be achieved with the ride itself.

It was a brilliant day with an enormous turnout; and hopefully it acts as a springboard for more people to come to the regular last Friday night rides throughout this coming summer.

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