Writer / Cindy Jo Dietz
You may have been down at Art Walk on first Friday and couldn’t help but notice the parade of cyclists in their funny hats, brightly lit bicycles, and smiling ear to ear, cruising down First Street as if they owned it. Well, if you did, you have been introduced to Critical Mass, a bike club which holds roots in major cities around the world. From anarchist renegade collectives to safety-conscious family rides, none of the groups are affiliated, but overall serve to represent bicycle awareness and a cycle friendly lifestyle.
Rob Seibert, organizer for the local chapter of Critical Mass, could tell you all about it. During frequent visits to the east coast Rob was introduced to the organization through another bicycle enthusiast. After seeing there was a need in our area, Rob set out to start his own version of the group here in Fort Myers approximately three years ago. The group typically meets on the first Friday of each month, coinciding with the Art Walk events, in the large empty parking lot adjacent to the downtown Publix, usually around 7 p.m.
Rides include dogs in baskets to kids of all ages. Anyone and everyone are invited to attend. As long as riders assume a safe and responsible manner during the ride, they are welcome. He reminds cyclists that this is a ride at your own risk activity. “You have to be responsible for yourself and look out for one another,” says Rob. “We’re about positive awareness, bringing family, friends and new friends together. Expect to laugh and have a good time.”
Every few months the group likes to shake things up by adding a theme to their ride. Riders come dressed in appropriate garb and tend to decorate their bikes as well. Although rides may be themed, there is no absolute expectation you must dress up. Riders are never turned away. “You don’t have to, as long as you have lights on the front and back, you’re fine,” says Rob. Themes are picked randomly by members of the group and range from “Tweed” to “Pajama Party,” and everything in between. Even a couple of dedicated riders got married during one of the rides. Many of the hardcore cyclists were there and are all great friends with the couple…Those who bike together, stay together! Rob says a couple potentially themed rides coming up include the 4th of July ride and the group’s third anniversary ride. “Three years already. It has been a trip,” Rob states.
The typical route taken during the Fort Myers Critical Mass ride takes bicyclists initially through downtown, for what could easily be mistaken as a bicycle parade of sorts, then down McGregor and in and out of side streets leading toward the Edison Restaurant and Golf Club. After a quick break, they head back through the neighborhood behind the Edison Ford Estates and finally back to the empty lot where riders either pack it up for the night, or can ride on joining some of the adult members for a beverage downtown at establishments such as the Hideaway or Downtown House of Pizza.
Quirkers, a term for riders who help direct traffic for the group, keep cars aware that riders are moving through busy streets. “I saw enough examples of how they do it correctly and incorrectly,” Rob said. “We stop traffic because there are so many of us, but we are very polite about it. The bikers tend to be very well lit, but to cross McGregor and get to the other side of the street, it’s impossible to do safely one at a time. So a quirker does essentially block traffic, but at the same time they are communicating with the cars and letting them know who we are. They may even give them a Critical Mass card. We’ve had few negative comments from drivers. It’s been a real blessing.”
On occasion, the Fort Myers Police Department will accompany rides as well. “They’ve been a terrific help,” Rob said. “On Art Walk night, the streets tend to be busy and are no longer open to car traffic. The bike cops help us get through without incident. In addition to the Fort Myers ride, we’ve also started a ride in Cape Coral. The police there are actually on motorcycles guiding us the entire way. They embraced our group so quickly and were thrilled to take part. They bring their families. Kids can actually be at work with their dad as he helps us ride through. It’s wonderful. The community at large has a great respect for the police when they take part, because they are being a friend to the community and as cyclists we are riding more safely.”
The SW Florida Critical Mass membership now tops 1,200. That doesn’t necessarily mean each rider comes to every ride, but a typical ride could include numbers ranging from 150 to 225 riders at a time, sometimes exceeding 300. Since membership has been increasing, so have the number of rides available. Starting with the Fort Myers ride, then the Cape Coral ride, members can now enjoy a NE Lee County ride which is just getting underway, and one in Sanibel that is in the making. All the rides take place during evening hours and the group encourages members to light their bikes up adequately. If you are new to CM and you find a group ride of such magnitude a little daunting, Critical Mass also offers a training ride Saturday mornings. Instruction is given to riders on the fundamentals of group riding, how to do it safely, graduating up to a larger ride.
Rob says SW FL Critical Mass’ main objective is to bring a solid bike culture to the area and give it a voice. Biking in a group not only promotes things like friendship, but also provides strength in numbers. Biking also tends to reach out to people in a positive way. There are those who enjoy the ride so much they eventually start their own ride. Rob says awareness of bikes on the road and having the community support biking has a way to go though. “We’ve only just begun. It amazes me that there are so few bike racks in downtown Fort Myers. It’s frustrating. When it comes to our actually being recognized and what the benefits are, it would be neat to see more action behind the words. There are many things needed for an older city to come up to modern times with safe cycling.”
Rob Seibert and SW FL Critical Mass members invite you to come out and join them for a ride! “There’s such a high energy to our rides. People are just so proud of the fact they are even part of something like this, meeting new friends they wouldn’t have otherwise. It’s part of the crux we’ve been building. Forget about your life worries, your stuff, the things of life that are challenging. This is an opportunity for no money to drop your worries, and let it all go for a little while. It’s all ages. There’s no rich, there’s no poor. There’s no white, there’s no black. There’s no politics. All your worries will be there for you when you’re done with the bike ride. Forget about your stuff for a little while and enjoy a bike ride!”
You can find out more about SW FL Critical Mass by searching them on Facebook, their main source to get information about rides out to the public. You can also find information on Craigslist, Meetup.com and Twitter. Rob says the group can be found on a number of online sites, but word of mouth and friends of friends, is what has truly helped build the group’s membership and create such a unique group of riders.