The “Clown Question” On What Should Have Been the Anti-Critical Mass Ride


Crain’s Chicago Business published in its 10 things to do in Chicago this weekend the following information about the Jewish-Muslim ride put on by the ChainLink

PEDAL. The Jewish-Muslim Community Building Initiative is sponsoring its first JEWISH-MUSLIM BIKE RIDE. Start at the Downtown Islamic Center, ride by several of the city’s mosques and synagogues and stop for lunch in a park. The ride continues to the American Islamic College, for a screening of the movie “The Light in Her Eyes” (trailer at right). July 8: ride at 10 a.m., movie at 2 p.m., reply through website to RSVP. Free. 231 State St., (773) 965-3396,

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The Planning

Our Ride Planners

I am fairly certain that the planning group (or a friendly ChainLink denizen) for this ride were responsible for seeding this article with Crain’s. At any rate it was a welcomed action and was quite right for them to have done so. Rides like this need all of the seriousness of purpose possible to help bridge the gap been these two communities.

I just hope that in future Christians will be brought into the mix as well. As a member of that branch of the Abrahamic Religions it is clear that there are deep pockets of mistrust and understanding there as well that need to be healed. And frankly healing of this type is really only possible as we reach across the chasm to one another at a personal level. There is so very much that we do not understand about our common heritage.

Proof that organizing this kind of even is more than choosing a route can be discovered in this exchange on the ChainLink forum:

Comment by Julie Hochstadter on Friday

  • It’s Tzom Tammuz. Never thought to check other fasts in summer on the Jewish side except for T’sha Bav.  I hope you can come Sunday, September 2 for the next ride.

Comment by Dan Dorfman on Friday

  • Chaya: My deep apologies. I’ve known about the date of the ride for a while & I completely missed that the date is the 17th of Tammuz. A serious error that cuts out a major segment of the Jewish community & this should never have happened. Kathy & Suzy – I hope you will not take this the wrong way, but Chaya’s observance of the fast day that occurs on the 17th day of the Hebrew month of Tammuz is no more a personal choice than a person’s observance of any religious tenet such as Yom Kippur and Ramadan. I would be glad to explain more off-line (or on-, if folks would like).

Comment by Kathy Schubert ‘n Suzy Schnauzer on Friday

  • This is probably a personal choice for you, Chaya.  It is NOT Ramadan yet, nor is it Yom Kippur.  So we can carry lots of water on our bikes and besides the weather is supposed to go down to only 80 degrees on Sunday.  Everybody – carry water – and carry a spare tube appropriate to your bike so somebody can help you if you get a flat.

Comment by Chaya Samantha Brick on Friday

  • Sorry I can’t come, This is a fast day, and I will not be able to bike 1) while not consuming H2O and 2) in this disgustingly hot and humid weather.

Comment by Julie Hochstadter on Thursday

  • Anshe Emet and Moishe House are helping cover part of the cost for lunch.   We are asking $5 to cover the rest so everyone can eat.  Any extra money will go towards planning and food for future rides (save the date: Sunday, Sept 2, 2012),  We will be ordering only vegetarian food from a famous Lebanese restaurant.  For those of you who keep strict kosher, contact me separately so we can also provide food for everyone.

In addition it was very nice to see that someone had taken the time to print out a route map. This was actually a better option (for me at least) than a cue sheet since the route was essentially a straight line up the North Shore corridor with a few special stops in the Loop area before heading north. What was a bit curious was the fact that the ride listed at least one Catholic Cathedral among the buildings we should be careful to observe. It would be nice in future if there were even a stop at that Cathedral.

Finally a breakfast was arranged for the group to allow interaction and to develop a sense of community prior to setting out on the roadway. We contributed to the requested $5 and while I stayed downstairs, Connie went in to see the prayer halls.

The Execution

The ride itself turned out to be a success in many ways. Some 60 riders gathered along 231 South State Street at the site of the Downtown Islamic Center. It is a nondescript building that sits next-door to the DePaul University Building named after Maggie and Richard Daley (our previous mayor and is wife).

As the riders approached they dutifully dismounted their bikes and lined them up on the sidewalk as there is an ordinance that prohibits anyone sidewalk riding:

9-52-020 Riding bicycles on sidewalks and certain roadways –Permalink

  • (a) No person shall ride a bicycle upon a sidewalk within a business district.
  • (b) No person 12 or more years of age shall ride a bicycle upon any sidewalk in any district, unless such sidewalk has been officially designated and marked as a bicycle route. (c) Bicycles shall not be operated on Lake Shore Drive or on any roadway where the operation of bicycles has been prohibited and signs have been erected indicating such prohibition. (d) Whenever a usable path for bicycles has been provided adjacent to a roadway, bicycle riders shall use such path and shall not use the roadway.
  • Added Coun. J. 7-12-90, p. 18634
  • Source:

9-52-050 Riding in single file required—Exceptions – Permalink

  • Persons riding bicycles upon a roadway shall not ride other than single file except on paths or parts of roadways set aside for the exclusive use of bicycles.
  • Added Coun. J. 7-12-90, p. 18634

What would prove to troublesome was the second of the two ordinances above. This ordinance prohibits bicycles from riding two or more abreast. That one means that rides like those being sponsored today where folks are intended to talk and get acquainted are nearly impossible on city streets excepting at the designated stops along the route.


Actually before we ever pedaled a stroke in anger there were a few things that cropped up which members undertook to “fix”:

  • One fellow’s rear derailleur had completely dislodged itself from the rear dropout area and was hanging precariously. A rider what was well equipped with tools stepped in and gave the bike a masterful overhaul on the spot and got the bike in proper working order.
  • Another lad arrived with two under-inflated tires. I remember looking on in astonishment that he had ridden from home to here on those tires. But another rider with a frame pump got him back on the roadway (assuming that under-inflation was the only issue) in short order.

Crowd Management

Groups this size are terribly difficult to handle even under the best of conditions. They were not unruly. It was more a matter of trying to negotiate turns on a day when a fair amount of traffic in the Loop was now out and about. And the interaction with automobiles was becoming troublesome.

There was a square loop that we took to view the first of the synagogues which lay across the street from the Chase Plaza. The group had split into several sections as some were now riding along the left side of the street while the remainder were dutifully riding in the bike line on the right. Before long the bike lane riders were merging into the lefthand lanes before trying to make a left hand turn.

We got around safely but it was obvious that with a group this size some sort of “downsizing” would have been helpful. The most obvious option would have been to break the 60-person snake into bite sized chucks of 15 persons or so. With a set of well trained bike ride leaders they should have been able to manage the smaller groups with greater ease.

As it was there was one docent for all 60 persons who without the aid of a megaphone or amplified system could not be heard beyond a few feet so it was pointless to even try to hear what was being said.

Convoy Issues Are The Worst

Anyone who has ever driven in a military convoy knows the truism that the guys up front near the lead vehicle get to travel at or near the speed of the leader. But as you move further back in the convoy the trucks towards the rear (assuming they are maintaining a single file order) are having to speed up to ever greater speeds to overcome the “accordion effect“.

This occurs when a vehicle must speed up to try and keep pace with the one in front but everyone is reacting to the need for movement at a delayed rate. Before long the last vehicle is racing at top speed trying to stay with the convoy. It happens in any group ride whether it be automobiles (rush hour traffic) or bicycles on a club route.

The Critical Mass Approach

Critical Mass approaches this problem by allowing its members to do several things at once:

  • They ignore the ordinance requiring single file bicycle operation in favor of riders spreading across the width of the roadway in a random pattern. This is effect makes the line of bikes shorter by allowing more riders to occupy  the space that is the same distance from the leader at any given moment.
  • The other approach they take is to use “corkers“. This is a technique that has been a longstanding one for motorcycle mounted police helping a motorcade make its way through city traffic. The corkers physically block crossing traffic routes and encourage the riders to hurry through the intersections to keep pace with the head of the peloton.

Corker Issues

On the Jewish-Muslime Ride this approach did not develop immediately. Folks did try to occupy the bike lanes in single file until it became clear that making left hand turns on one way streets was easier if you ignored the right hand positioning of the bike lane. This of course is a recipe for disaster where motorists are concerned. What they see in front of them is a mass of riders (some in the bike lane) and others strung out across all four lanes and no indication that there is a reason for this until riders start to move across all four lanes to make the left hand turn.

Further north the problem that emerged was the difference in travel rates of the individual riders. The blocks are fairly short and there are plenty of stop lights. So the group was getting fragmented. Corkers started to appear but that brought on its own problems. Some corkers were wearing yellow vests to visually identify them as they blocked the roadway. Other corkers were dressed in non-riding attire and apart from standing in the roadway could not be seen as directing bicycle traffic.

The worst problem was that some of the corking being done was ill-timed. At one point a pedestrian (like the motorists) was appalled at the fact that we actually began to cross an intersection after the light had turned red. It happened because the ride leader was dutifully trying to wait while the rearward portions of the peloton caught up. But the ride leader entered the intersection just as the light was turning red and it was at this point that the corker rode out and began blocking cross traffic as they were prepared to cross through the intersection.

The pedestrian who was watching from the corner loudly complained and was frankly correct in criticizing what we were doing. We either needed some off duty police to help out in terms of traffic control or better planning as to how corkers should be dressed and when and how they should perform their duties.

But we got through the worst sections with hopefully few motorists irritated at having a group of cyclists usurp the legal control of the intersections by traffic lights. Clearly however a larger number of folks properly dressed as crowd control would have been best.

Sharing The Road

In the Lincoln Park area another situation erupted. The ride leader again stopped to allow the rear of the peloton to catch up. In the process the riders (who consistently ignored the ordinance to ride in single file) bunched up around the ride leader and effectively blocked the passage by motorists around a corner. There was much honking and I am sure swearing going on but the riders were behaving a bit like startled sheep. They seemed oblivious of the problems they were causing until the rider who had served as a mechanic at the ride start shouted out something that was very telling.

The rider said “This is not Critical Mass. We are sharing the road today!” Up until that point no one had evidently stressed this point enough. It was a conformation for me that Critical Mass is a deliberate attempt to piss off motorists by not allowing them to travel the route being used by the peloton. In effect the ride is all about not sharing the road.

This is a problematic approach for a couple of reasons:

  • It is a mass act of civil disobedience, which all by itself is part of a longstanding tradition of protest here in the United States. But is is dangerous when you are protesting in front of vehicles weighing a ton or more and you are astride a flimsy bicycle without body armor. Not a good position to be in if you confront an angry motorist. And the slapping of vehicles startled the drivers and angers them simultaneously.
  • But the most pressing problem when using this approach to traveling in the city is that it robs newbies and veterans alike of the sorely needed practice of conducting a peloton that is consistent with the city’s ordinances. When you want to conduct a safe and legal ride you suddenly realize that your peloton members have little or no experience in traveling legally along the cities roadways.
  • We had at least one rider who studiously rode alongside a Muslim female while he and she debated religious issues while consistently ignoring the pleas of riders from the rear to move to the right so that automobile traffic could pass. The rider was a longtime Evanston Bicycle Club member whom I have seen on other rides before and is old enough and experienced enough to know better.
  • Disobeying stop signs is a longstanding issue amongst cyclists. The one sign we did studiously obey was at an intersection when a police car was stopped and waiting to make a right hand turn. I almost chuckled out loud at the braking that was going on. Clearly if we really were as dismissive of stop signs we would have plowed through that intersection as well and perhaps have had to explain to the police officer our dissatisfaction with that particular impediment to a higher average speed rating.

The Clown Question

The low point of the ride (for me) was just about the time when one of our earlier Good Samaritans (he was the one who offered to pump up the under inflated tires of a rider) decided to inject what he must have felt was much needed levity into the proceedings. But first understand the context of this situation.

We were leaving the Lincoln Park area and heading north again. We reached an intersection where a few streets more than two were feeding into it. An ale house was on the corner not far from where we were waiting to make a right hand turn. He shouted out that the ale house for him appeared to be a place worthy for consideration as a “house of worship“. He turned and asked if anyone else agreed with him? I looked at him and wondered if he even vaguely understood what he was doing.

This as we learned at the run-up to this ride was a Muslim fast day which some of the more observant members of the Islamic Faith had chosen to follow rather than ride along with us. But Muslims are a group who have (like Mormons) renounced the use of alcohol in their daily lives. So offering up the notion that an ale house was akin to a house of worship could be seen as offensive to those Muslim riders in our midst. At the very least it was a “clown question“.

Bryce Harper the 19-year old member of the Nationals MLB team was asked a similar kind of question. He is after all a Mormon and he was asked about how he celebrates following games:

Bryce was well within his rights to ignore the question assuming that the reporter was even remotely aware of how offensive the question really was. I would like to believe that the question was made in ignorance but I am afraid given the general decline in public civility that this was not the case.

Asking about the ale house while Muslim women are literally within feet of you is simply in poor taste. But this is not the first time that a ChainLinker has shown me that at least some of them are clueless at the very least.

Too Nice A Bike For My Own Good

In some ways being the owner of a recumbent bicycle is a lot like having burn scars covering your face. Polite folks want to sidle up to a burn victim and say something that makes them feel comfortable in the group setting. Others find the scars distasteful and avoid standing near the person altogether.

Recumbent riders grow used to (and in my case weary) inane questions. The first is whether or not the bikes are comfortable. Then they want to know if they are faster and why you are using a fairing. Of course few know the word fairing and call it a bug catcher or windshield or thingy. One person at the ride proceeded to tell me that this windshield appeared to keep the bugs and wind off my face but then asked me “What does it do?” I try to answer as quickly as possible to avoid further inane conversation.

One rider however shortly after the posing of the “ale house” question rode up alongside my right ear and stated that “The bike was truly nice but it was probably too nice for my own good.” I ignored the comments not wanting to take my attention away from the navigating that was necessary to keep from running up the backside of someone in front of me. Besides it was a response to the bike that caught me off guard. At the very least that last bit sounded like a threat.

At the next stop which was a synagogue a rider was standing behind me and it appeared to be occasionally using his bike to bump the rear of mine. Having not seen the rider who made the earlier comment I could not be certain this was not the same person. I asked him to move back and stop the irritating action. He tried to appear surprised at my request but I was getting the vibe that he might have indeed been the one to make the comment. I wanted to have no more of this group if at all possible.

A Story From My Paternal Grandfather

When my grandfather was still alive he was very dismayed that I had decided to attend an all-white Christian college. He had grown up in Arkansas and had picked cotton in his youth. He eventually married my father’s mother (whom he later divorced) and they bought a small general store which provided sleeping quarters for traveling blacks in the days when public sleeping accommodations simple were not allowed.

I remember him explaining that a member of his family had bought a Ford automobile. It was such a rare thing in those days that the police routinely stopped him while he was driving and asked him all sorts of questions about whose car this was and if it was stolen. The police often explained that they were dubious of his claim of ownership since it was unheard of during these times for blacks to even own a car, at least in that area of the Deep South.

So a person questioning my ownership of a nice bicycle in 2012 on a joint ride for religious tolerance seemed the furthest thing possible from reality and yet here was history repeating itself. Someone was deciding on their own that the bike I was riding was inconsistent with who I was. How about that!

Like my grandfather I had worked and paid for that bicycle and yes I like it. It is a pretty bicycle, very shiny and well equipped. And I do not see how its ownership is in any way “too nice for my own good”. I had had enough of boorish ale house questions and inept traffic management and decided that it was better to part ways at the Clock Tower site where the group was headed.

Assessing The Ride

It was nice to hear some of the true “adults” in the group giving push back to their own. We cyclists are in sore need of more of the same. Our riding skills are sometimes in sad need of upgrading and group rides done in the Critical Mass Style are seldom very effective at helping people learn safely to ride in groups.

Kudos to the group that did the planning of the ride. It is the kind of event we need more of in a world where hate and violent and dismissive language are the norm. I just with that there was even more pushback to the verbal assaults that occur on the ChainLink on a very frequent basis.

I would do this ride again but at the same time hope that the ride organizers find a way to keep it safe and manageable in the fall.