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Friday, May 22, 2020

Mexico flashback edition: Bicitekas



Prepare for takeoff: by the Angel, Mexico City
Bicitekas is a Mexican cycling advocacy organization with the formidable task of promoting two-wheel transport in a country that is almost as car-obsessed as its northern neighbor. Lately they've seen some positive developments with the installation of temporary cycling infrastructure as biking is encouraged as an alternative to overcrowded public transport amid the current pandemic.

Back when I lived in Mexico City in the early 2000s, I joined Bicitekas on several of their Critical Mass-style demonstrations, which gathered Wednesday evenings at the Ángel de la Independencia monument. What follows are accounts of two different Critical Mass events which I recorded in my journal.



(original date of this entry: Jan. 28, 2004)
I arrived a bit after 9 at the Ángel. There was a substantial turnout this evening, perhaps 40 or 50 people. A cop from one of the many squad cars that line the Zona Rosa side of the traffic circle came over to inquire if we'd need an escort and someone said we'd welcome one.

I recognized some of the characters gathered there: Alán, the wacky purveyor of Brompton bikes and an enthusiastic ringleader; dark-skinned impish Roberto, who was trying to sell Bicitekas handkerchiefs; Ricardo, tall and friendly, a good English speaker; Guillermo, the intellectual with a profound knowledge of Mexican architecture; Gerardo, the oddball with the German helmet and Harley-Davidson limited edition bicycle. We milled around as usual as the traffic encircled the Ángel. Announcements were made. Finally at around 9:45 somebody gave the signal and the dozens of riders moved counterclockwise around the circle. As usual, the command was given to take over all four lanes of Paseo de la Reforma for the block up to the next circle, with the statue of Diana the Huntress.

"We're not blocking traffic — we are traffic!" shouted Alán, a real bicycle revolutionary.

Lordy! This is the ship I need. Now how do you get on it?

So we did it. Strange and wonderful how you feel protected from the auto traffic cloaked in the group of cyclists. It gives you a sense of bravery. You're no longer an insignificant cyclist but a force, a flock, a hundred-wheeled being. We moved slowly, deliberately, ignoring the honking of the pissed-off drivers and the police car megaphone order to move over to the right lane.

"Más despacio!" someone shouted, and the arrogant throng of cyclists slowed down even more. It was definitely a rush, a delirious feeling of power over the oppression of the automobile. We were speaking as one cantankerous voice: "Enough of you lumbering, gas-guzzling deathtraps! There is another way!"

After we reached the Diana monument, we all moved over to the right lane and proceeded up Reforma. The "leaders" would post themselves at the entrance lanes to halt traffic until the group passed.

It was a lovely evening with a cool wind pushing the clouds past a bright half moon. The group was so large it was difficult to coordinate everyone. Someone at the back would shout "Turn right!" but by the time the instruction was communicated by a series of shouts moving toward the front, the group had already moved straight through the intersection.

We were moving along glitzy Presidente Masaryk, with SUVs and sports cars impatiently trailing us. (But in general drivers were surprisingly courteous; there was little heckling.) We circled around the median, headed east a few blocks, then did another 180, aggressively moving into the left lane in front of bewildered drivers.

If the head of the group entered an intersection when the light was green, the tail would follow even after the light changed, as if we were a long caterpillar-shaped vehicle. Drivers in the sidestreets just accepted the situation in most cases. A few aggressively charged toward us and were sworn at in response. Many bikes were equipped with noisemakers of various kinds, including bells and rubber-bulbed horns. One guy had a car-alarm style signal hooked up to a dry-cell battery, which he used liberally at intersections. Another did an uncannily accurate imitation of a police car whoop! The low-budget clamor enhanced the circus atmosphere. As Chris Carlsson, one of the founders of Critical Mass, said, it didn't take much to replicate the concept since people had such a good time doing it.

At some point we shifted over to Horacio. When we reached the bed of the old Cuernavaca railroad, there was some discussion over what to do next. Alán wanted to go up to the northern end of the ciclopista but others wanted to just take it from that point. It wasn't entirely clear to me what happened next: we took a detour past some freeway interchanges and were then heading down the red path between apartment buildings. Some strollers gawked at us and Alán chanted, "Coches no! Bicis sí!"

We continued along the Periférico until we exited on a quiet street at the edge of a working-class neighborhood. There was a kind of traffic jam as all 40 or so bikes filled the street, making it hard for the random vehicle to pass. In fact, the trail did continue up the sidewalk in what may have been Colonia San Antonio.

President López Obrador aka AMLO: ¡Viva Bicitekas!

(original date of this entry: Feb. 4, 2004)
At the Ángel a large crowd gathered again, perhaps close to 50 people, riding up from all directions with all kinds of bikes, from super-duper suspension-spring models to cheap little kid's bikes. The 50ish mestizo fellow who always shows up had his bicycle with the small wheels with cool flashing blue lights. He later told me he builds these bikes himself. The "recumbent" bike guy was back too. He seems so comfortable riding along as he reclines that he is a reassuring presences. I found out this evening that he is also involved with a sustainable transport group that advises the city environmental department on policy for bicycle facilities.

People were asking me if I knew where we were going, but I hadn't a clue. Eventually the word filtered through that we were going to the airport. The airport!

Some cyclists started moving east on Reforma. I was riding alongside the hipster with the Harley bicycle and German helmet. I pedaled hard to catch up with the front of the group waiting at a light at the next intersection. There were a few girls along this week — a tiny girl in a red track suit and a big, chunky girl in yellow sweatpants. I was concerned that they wouldn't be able to handle the long, treacherous journey to the airport. (They made it ok.)

We continued along Juárez. (A mestiza cop asked us what we were doing. I think most spectators assume we're peregrinos on our way to some shrine, since that's the only reference they have available.) We then proceeded down Madero, taking over the street, to the Zócalo. There we assembled and Memo, one of our "leaders," made a few announcements. First, he told us there'd be an official Critical Mass ride on Friday afternoon.

The other announcement was about the route we were going to take that evening, with warnings about potholes and bridges. From the Zócalo we took off down 5 de Febrero (German helmet pointed out to an energetic young Indian guy with rasta hat that that date, which refers to Constitution Day, was just a day away), turned at República de El Salvador and took that past La Merced. We made a left turn at the Palacio Legislativo and looped around to the Circuito Interior where people waiting for buses gawked at us.

I had gotten adept at sticking to the group, keeping to the center. We generally rode two to three abreast in a single lane to the right. I checked the signs: Norte 17. We went through a tunnel, trucks passing alongside us. It was actually a very dangerous thing to do but the term "safety in numbers" definitely applied in this situation. We were a long snaking vehicle and it was impossible for a bus or truck to move into our lane until we'd all passed.

Before long, the lit-up runway came into view on our left. Then we turned right onto a curving street with lots of speed bumps and onto the airport access road. This seemed particularly hazardous since fast-moving traffic kept trying to cut over to the right. At one point we snaked around a truck in the second lane from the right to get around a stalled vehicle in the right lane.

The key thing was to stick together. At certain points, when going over bridges for example, some people would fall behind the more agile members of the group and then the formation would become perilously dispersed.

We turned triumphantly onto the lanes of the airport terminal. Who knows what the taxi drivers and security guards made of this motely procession?

But in fact we were mostly ignored. We rode over the big speed bumps, pulled up at Sala C, the domestic terminal, and parked our bikes, everyone grinning in self-satisfaction. We'd done it damnit!







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