2015(e)ko abenduaren 1(a), asteartea

Letter from Bilboko Masa Kritikoa

Talking to some friends, we reminded the letter that that we share now and was published in the book “Shift Happens! Critical Mass at 20” (2012) celebrating the 20 years of critical mass in San Francisco

In this time, the bike is more usual in everyday life in Bilbao. But there are things still there and we keep on celebratint, like Bilbao Critical Mass once a month in Bilbao (MCB).

In this time it has been a great change. In march this year, by popular demand, it was decided to change the critical mass day to the last Thursday of every month. Thinking that it would be a better day among the schedubles of more people. But we still ride daily and have fun monthly in critical mass!

Have fun with our history!

Marisa Castro

Bilbao, January 2012 

Hello friends of the world! 

I am the Bilbao Critical Mass, a tiny Critical Mass that has been growing little by little for years, because I’m not in a hurry. I don’t need gasoline, but I want to go far, very far, and continue bicycling through Bilbao and well beyond. 

I’m writing to tell you some things about myself and my friends. I want you to meet some really good looking people that care for me in Bilbao. I encourage you to join us the last Friday of every month so we can enjoy a fantastic ride in good company. 

I was born back in 1990, though they didn’t give me this name. In that year Bilbao was a rapidly restructuring industrialized city where the car was king of the road. On the other hand it was, and continues to be, a place with great affection for bicycling as sport, with many sports cycling clubs, and many cyclists that ride miles and miles every Sunday on the lightest bikes at the fastest speeds. But very few people were using the bike as a means of everyday transportation. At that point, every daily rider knew each other since there were so few. One day six or eight of these sturdy folks decided to bring me into the world and began to ride together one day each month to demand their space in untamed traffic. So we rode together for eight months. My friends would leave little flyers on bicycles that they saw around greater Bilbao to inspire people to join our protest ride, and began to talk about starting an organization of urban cyclists. Nevertheless, there were very few people, and it was difficult to maintain the ride with so few. After those first months I was dissolving and left alone and without friends, hoping that at some point we could start riding together again. 

One year later, in 1992, some people in San Francisco (the one in the U.S., not the neighborhood of the same name in Bilbao), began to get together to do the same thing on the other side of the world, but I didn’t know about it, nor did my friends. Notice how people with the same problems on the other side of the world were doing the same thing that we did! And that began to reproduce itself around the world with the name Critical Mass, a beautiful name that depending on who you ask, refers to cyclists in China, or chemical or nuclear reactions, but for everyone means the same thing: we come together to ride until there are more of us than there are cars. 

A bit later, in 1994, some of these people that originally brought me into the world, got together with some ecologist friends and other bicyclists and started a non-profit organization, “Biziz Bizi”, with a clear political spirit. They promoted the bicycle as an alternative to the car, started classes in city cycling, and celebrated the Day of the Bicycle and other campaigns for social awareness. They wanted to influence as much as possible the institutional decisions so bicyclists would get more respect and that there would be more people cycling in the city, and less making noise and polluting the air. The beautiful name Biziz Bizi, is a play on words: “bizi” means “to live” in the Basque language. It’s a small spelling change from bici, the Spanish word for bike—to live life, to live the bike, bike for life. 

In the following years, I knew people were working for bicycles in Bilbao, but I was still cornered and without friends, though little by little I saw more people on bikes in the city. 

Finally in 2003 I was reborn in Bilbao, now with the name Critical Mass. Again it was the same people that had started Biziz Bizi. With the rush of pleasure that they had after organizing some meetings about bike touring in the Basque province Bizkaia, they asked, “If it is done in Burgos, Gasteiz, Iruña, Zaragoza, Barcelona, Valencia, Valladolid… Why not in Bilbao? So we were a group of noisy and enthusiastic cyclists, playing drums, meeting on the last Friday of September, 2003 in front of the regional government to start the first Critical Mass of Bilbao. Ever since we’ve had a monthly ride, usually with a small group of only 20 people—we think it’s because of the weather—but we still haven’t stopped!” Notice was given of my rebirth in a newsletter of the Association of Urban Cyclists to inspire people to come and join the celebration. 

It was a great moment for me. To discover that I had many sisters in the most unexpected places of the world. Even without knowing each other, we were reacting to the same problems in very similar ways and with the same enjoyment… what a feeling to have hundreds of sisters and many friends! And nine years later we haven’t stopped, and on each ride we find more friends. 

The gathering point continues to be the building of the Provincial Council of Bizkaia (the Basque province) in Bilbao. We start from here because, though it has no power over traffic in Bilbao, it is the home of the people that build the highways throughout our region. In the year that I came back to life they issued the “Cycling Plan 2003-2016” so we thought it would be a good reminder during the following months to have a crowd of cyclists there. For sure it is still necessary to remind them, because they haven’t carried out any of these plans. 

In those first years, I had a gang of three or four friends who always came with me, who left flyers on bicycles they encountered throughout the month, and that tried to maintain the freedom and lack of hierarchy that characterizes Critical Mass across the world. Sometimes people came who were outside of the associative movement, but the core group continued to be animated by Biziz Bizi, my most intimate supporters. But I wanted more friends, I wanted a global gang! 

In those years, many people were united in a group that rode happily together for various motives, e.g. demanding more bike lanes, seeking respect from motorists for cycling, and above all good fun. Also many people lost their fear of cycling amidst aggressive cars with us, and Critical Mass allowed them to feel snug. Many of my friends still followed the sentiment “Ride Daily, Celebrate Monthly”—we helped people to take the daily step of dealing with cars and begin riding once a month during Critical Mass. But then many dared to make the bike what they really wanted it to be: our usual means of transportation. 

We have had various eras, with debates between my friends about how to attract and excite more people to bring me wherever they want to go. I want to go to the favorite places of my new friends, where cars are accustomed to the bicycle being a transportation choice and we have to share the road, and pedestrians see us and envy us so much that they simply have to join us the next month. We had an era of thematic Critical Masses visiting monuments, gardens, and basque pelota courts of Bilbao. Nevertheless, it appeared to us much better to not bring pre-planned ideas, because I didn’t want to be overly associated with a specific group. We want everybody to be involved in the decisions: where we go, what we do this Friday… 

When I was a little girl, the first five years I stayed with practically the same group of friends, my closest family. If they didn’t come, there was no Critical Mass. Still, in a certain moment in 2008-09, more people began to come with great spirit to make it into an amusing ride, bringing with them wigs, bright flags, singing songs. “We are the greatest in the world / and we don’t pollute it.” “We are not from here, we are from Bilbao, so we bring our bikes where ever we go” adapting the lyrics of different songs. In this moment, I stopped having a gang made up exclusively of the Biziz Bizi folks. Still, the new friends kept looking at biziz bizi’s friends to start the critical mass. 

In 2009 a group of twenty-five friends, organized themselves, got all the bikes in a van, and went to the family reunion of all the world’s Critical Masses, the “Madrid Criticona,” the first Spanish “Interplanetary Critical Mass.” That rush of happiness, what a pleasure to know my sisters across the state and beyond. The Bicicletina started there, which is how we decided to label the joy that arose, and has kept on rising, riding with so many people with the same goals, the same desire. In Bilbao we started to be more colorful, more noisy, more musical, and more numerous. We even managed to have at least 20 people show up on rainy days and in winter, doubling or more in the spring and summer months. 

In all this time, we always had enjoyable rides without problems. Some motorists were a little impatient when their progress was impeded, but beyond some beeping, there haven’t been further consequences. Also there was a certain impatience when bicycles kept passing even after a light change, but some of my friends would stand and “cork” the traffic while explaining to drivers what we were doing. We rarely had any problem with local police either. A couple of times they stopped us, seeking those responsible, asking if we had a permit for our demonstration, and were quite surprised when they learned that we were not a demonstration, that nobody organized it, that there was no one in charge. They let us go without any objection, sanction, or further delay, but they were quite bewildered. 

Since three years ago, a small group dedicated to me has produced a monthly bulletin, “kri-kri,” giving news of other Critical Masses in the world, how other cities have advanced the rhythm of cycling, how they’ve resolved conflicts, news of upcoming gatherings, some bicycle humor… We’ve already distributed 28 issues at the beginning of Critical Mass, and new people is invited to send their collaborations to the bulletin. We also distributed from time to time a small flyer with the basic things one should know about me. “Critical Mass is nothing more than a bunch of cyclists riding around together. Nobody is in charge. The only rule is to enjoy the experience and to stick together.” 

2011 was a very good year for me. I’ve continued growing strongly and I hope that soon I’ll be able to become independent and leave to enjoy people from other groups, go to other places, listen to new music… 

After the big “Criticonas” in Madrid, a tiny group of people were encouraged to celebrate a big party in my honor in Bilbao. What a thrill! I’m still smiling when I think about it, how important and happy it made me feel! 

“How many bikes can fit in Bilbao?” we asked ourselves. “KritikONA, Masa Kritika Mundiala,” was the name of my party. KritikONA mixes the word critical, from Critical Mass, with the critique of the system of transportation, with “ona,” meaning “good” in Euskera (the Basque language), as well as being an expressive suffix meaning “big” in Spanish. It would be a big and beautiful Critical Mass. 

More than half a year of preparing the party, the ludic-festive program, inviting friends of my sisters from everywhere. We posted stickers, made calendars that would remind everyone about the date, and beautiful t-shirts as nice souvenirs. We arranged housing in Kukutza, an Occupied Social Center, for all the friends that were coming. And we staged a concert by the group that wrote a song in the name of all the Critical Masses—they premiered another new tune that day… 

People came from Galicia, Asturias, Madrid, Barcelona, Valladolid, France, Italy, Germany, and many people from Bilbao, nearly 1000 people. We rode together for hours and hours through Bilbao, making waves on the Bridge of San Antón, at the entrance to the freeway, blocking traffic, reminding everyone that we are here, that we have come pedaling to stay, that we want to take our bikes on the train, without any incident on the road, because we aren’t blocking traffic, we are traffic. It couldn’t have been a more beautiful weekend. You can’t imagine how many friends I’ve made in other places. 

Only one thing makes me sad. In spite of so many years of work, it appears that the majority of people in Bilbao don’t know who I am, that I am here, because I lack something. In a small circle of social organizations in Bilbao I am very well known and I have many friends. I know many people who dream of coming to ride with me, the girls from the Assembly of Women, from ecological and anti-racist organizations, from pirate radio stations, fixie riders and bike polo players, folks from Occupied Social Centers that gave us shelter during la kritikONA (and that were sadly evicted a few months later, and to whom I send a big hug). Nevertheless, it would please me to expand, to be independent, that people that pass us in their cars every month say, “look, that is Critical Mass, celebrating and riding together every month” and in the following month they get out of the car to join us and enjoy the ride. It would please me to appear in the newspapers, on TV, on radio. Why shouldn’t we be in the news if we are almost a thousand people riding for hours and filling the city with bicycles during a weekend? 

Nevertheless, I see the future with hope and a lot of encouragement. I see a future in which I will be totally autonomous and independent of any specific group. I will be durable, with more friends. Bilbainos will speak of me even if they have never come, and will say that they see “such a great group, that the following month I will inflate my bike wheels and join with those having a good time.” Little by little, we help in this social transformation that we’re all hoping and waiting for. 

May this keep expanding. It’s been two months since my latest little sister was born near here. In November they gave birth to Critical Mass Donosti, and already it has begun to happen the last Thursday of every month. Critical Mass keeps riding! 

Happy 2012 kilometers on a bicycle wherever you are.

Bilboko Masa Kritikoa 

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