Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2009 | The departure of a golden sun Friday signaled hundreds of bicyclists across the city to inflate their tires, grab a few water bottles and hit the twilight road for Balboa Park.
They arrived in small groups, congregating near the large fountain and eventually growing into an impressive force. Bicyclists of all ages — as young as 14 — waited in the darkness for the beginning of their 31-mile trek across San Diego.
The monthly cycling event, called Critical Mass, is part of a national movement in metropolitan cities to advocate politically against the use of automobiles. In San Diego, it started around 2003 with 30 to 50 riders and has grown to about 1,000 participants each month.
The sheer magnitude of the ride puts San Diego police in an awkward position. Having hundreds of bicyclists travel through the city at night with no regard for its traffic laws can be a serious public safety risk. Minor crashes are common, and in other cities, fights have erupted between bicyclists and drivers frustrated by the herd’s blockade of intersections.
“Our role is to preserve the peace,” said Capt. Chris Ball, who has overseen enforcement of the event in the past. “That’s brought on by the fact that these guys take over the road and some of the motorists get pretty ticked off.”
About a dozen San Diego police officers also waited in the dark at Balboa Park Friday, literally and figuratively. They had the unusual duty of accompanying the bicyclist herd without knowledge or control of its direction. Critical Mass has no structured leadership so the group could go anywhere.