Once a week, the true after-hours action in Milan doesn’t go down in speakeasy clubs or dive bars – it unravels right out in the open, in the famous Piazza dei Mercanti. There, a twisted parade of bicycles covered with LEDs, single speed racers and free-riding acrobats gather for a night on the town. And there’s no need to flag a taxi to this party; tonight, everyone has their own ride. This is Critical Mass.
More than a social gathering, Critical Mass is a protest of pedal power in a city dominated by automobile traffic. “The cars bother us so much every single day, taking away the possibility of enjoying the city,” explains fellow insurgent Jaspar, a regular rider. “So, we show them that navigating Milan by bike is possible.” Jaspar has been doing these rides since they began over a decade ago, and claims to have never missed a single "meeting”. For him, and most of the crew of cyclists gathered here, the aim is simple: “To annoy, even if it’s just for a night each week.”
Those around us are drinking beer and wine, cracking jokes and laughing. But rather than settle in for a moonlit party by the Duomo of Milan, everyone mounts up and soon takes to the streets. We’re over two-dozen strong, and as we approach the first red light we’re told to keep pedalling – a few of the more gonzo members of the group have already sprinted ahead to stop the cars. We glide through the first crossroad, forcing the cars to watch in our wake. Running red lights is a thrill that never gets stale throughout our joyride.
The overall route is entirely improvised, which is par for the course. The riders blaze a different trail every week to keep the municipal police on their toes (so they don’t have time to let motorists know we’re coming) and also keep the experience fresh. As we ride along, Jaspar tells me that rain or shine, summer or winter, there’s no off-season for the expanding crew. “The winter rides are beautiful opportunities,” Jaspar tells me. “We help each other defeat the cold by sharing hot drinks.” Bad weather, pesky red lights, frustrated cars, annoyed cops – nothing will stop these night riders.
Critical Mass Rides have been raging across the globe since the 1970s, but our friends in Milan seem to be giving all other international riders a run for their money. Ever hear the whoosh of a swarm of bikers while you’re out hitting the town? Let us know about your own experiences with Critical Mass rides!
All photos courtesy of Roberto Navazio Cassa.