I must admit that cycling down the middle of Santiago’s Avenida Providencia, hair flying in the wind and bell trilling at full volume, wasn’t how I had envisioned spending my Tuesday evening. Even less so had I imagined being surrounded by hundreds of other cyclists, all equally enraptured by the experience (and perhaps a slight power trip) of bringing Santiago’s traffic-clogged roads to a standstill as we halted the frustrated rush hour, whisking past in our two-wheeled, fume-free bliss.
This, I discovered, was the “Critical Mass” experience.
The pro-cyclist movement Critical Mass began in San Francisco in 1992 under the name Commute Clot, and has since spread to over 300 countries. The idea is that bicycle lovers from all over the city gather once a month to cycle en masse, promoting awareness of this greener form of transport and providing the chance to meet other biking aficionados.
In Chile’s capital Santiago, the bike-fest takes place on the first Tuesday of every month. Roads are closed and a police escort is provided to ensure maximum safety for cyclists as they make their way around a loop from Plaza Italia, along Avenida Providencia, to Tobalaba and back.
The event attracts a wide range of people: environmental activists, cycling groups, commuters, tourists and even the odd eccentric can all be found among the hoards of people peddling the streets of Santiago. An impressive range of bikes are put on display, with tandems, choppers and even a sofa on wheels all making an appearance. One particular crowd-pleaser had UV lights, a built-in sound system and a rider who looked like a Chilean version of Rambo – obviously, cycling is for cool kids too.
Perhaps the sociable nature of the bike ride is the most attractive aspect of Critical Mass, as everyone is keen to share their two-wheeled experiences. Rodrigo, a lawyer in the capital, introduced himself by telling me he had lost 2 kilos since he started riding his bike to work last month. Just a warning, though: cycling in a straight line, speaking Spanish and being constantly on alert for emergency breaking ahead is quite a challenge.
La Bicicleta Verde’s distinctive vibrant green bicycles were also out in number at Tuesday’s event. The Santiago-based company, set up in November 2007, offers three distinct tours, which provide a unique way to experience the city while promoting a cleaner and greener mode of transportation. Whether it’s a tour of Santiago’s cultural and political legacy, a nocturnal tour of the city, or simply an “urban experience” ending with a pisco sour in the Bohemian barrio of Bellavista, the friendly and enthusiastic Bicicleta Verde team caters to everyone.
Co-director Joel Martínez led the Bicicleta Verde contingent in Tuesday’s Critical Mass outing, and called Santiago’s “monthly bike party” a success. He also highlighted the rationale behind the city’s gradually increasing number of two-wheel fanatics: “Due to the Transantiago (Santiago’s contentious city transport scheme), the rise in fuel prices and the congestion, people in Santiago are deciding to leave their cars and go to work, university or simply move about the city by bicycle.”
Fortunately, Santiago’s authorities seem to be catching onto the long-term benefits that bicycles could have for the smog-blanketed city. Recent figures from the National Commission of Traffic Safety (CONASET) showed that around 350,000 people use bikes to get around Santiago on a daily basis, prompting a new project to increase the amount of bike lanes in the city by the year 2010 from the current 150 km to 400 km. There are also an increasing number of initiatives to install bikes racks around the city, particularly at Metro stations.
For the meantime, Critical Mass provides a great way to raise awareness of environmental issues and promote bicycles as a fun and green mode of transport. To join in next month’s event, check out La Bicicleta Verde’s Facebook page.
If you’re lucky, Helperman, Santiago’s favorite orange lycra-clad superhero, might even make an appearance to help adjust your seat...