Critical Mass in Rome (part one)

Just as incredible as you might imagine”¦ maybe more so”¦ Wild bikes, warm people, a sweet scene late in the ride when a woman sat on her boyfriend’s handlebars facing him, with her arms wrapped tightly around him in a loving embrace, her head buried on his shoulder, while he pedaled along in the ride. Riding through Rome, through thousands of years of history at every turn, is simply incommensurable! Nothing like it”¦

In just a few days in Rome I have been so welcomed, and so warmly embraced, it’s almost embarrassing, but in fact it has been the thrill of a lifetime! I have more than 50 new friends, and I’m sure there are at least several thousand more whom I will meet eventually. Rome could be a second home, without doubt.

Critical Mass is an unusual prism through which to experience a city. For one thing, it’s always unique in each place it happens, but on the other hand, it’s a eerily familiar experience. Well, I’ll take it from the top, knowing that I have already forgotten way more than I can remember and write down here. I headed out at 5:30 on Friday to find a small group gathering at a nearby “ciclofficina” (the local DIY bikeshops, of which there were four, but as of yesterday at the Ciemmona a fifth one announced itself) but in the dense streets of Monti here in the center of Rome, I could not find them. Luckily I was loaned a cellphone so I made a call, simultaneous to Ilaria calling to see where the hell I was, and she found me a few minutes later. There were already a group of about a dozen Spaniards there, including one fellow from Mexico, and Rebecca with her ferret in her front basket (she later that night danced to pulsing funk and Motown with the sweet animal draped around her shoulders!). The rest of our entourage soon pulled out and 30 of us or so headed towards the gathering point at Piramide. Here’s Ilaria with her sound system in tow.

At Piramide about 1000 cyclists assembled (this was the local, smaller “normal” ride on Friday night), including a bunch of us internationalistas who had already made it to Rome for the Big One to follow on Saturday. Piero, whom I’d met the night before at the ciclofficina Don Quixote at SNIA (more on SNIA in the next post), was in fine form, juggling with a bunch of friends, and a vehicle called “Ciclo Ludo Muzga Bus” decked out in several drums, getting everyone dancing a bit as we enjoyed the late sun streaming over the Pyramid (stolen from Egypt by the Romans more than 2000 years ago and rebuilt here).

One of the many new friends I met here is Giorgia and she came in a spring dress with a blue parasol and a small box on the back of her bike overflowing with fresh cherries, and this sign attached, “For a Rome clean, fresh, sane & secure, free of petroleum and its victims”¦ Pedal in Rome”.

I ran around taking photos of t-shirts (I was also gifted with several to add to my ever expanding collection!) and these older fender stickers to capture the something of the creativity that Critical Mass keeps displaying:

The inventiveness that produces strange hybridized Tallbikes and Longbikes was on full display too. Here are several of the more interesting ones I came upon during the day. Giuso is on this one. He is one of my favorite people of all time! I met him when I came to Rome the first time in 2002 or 03, and they had just started the ciclofficina at SNIA. He’s a very charismatic and smart man, who is in the middle of many initiatives that I would characterize as Nowtopian”¦ for one, he’s an awesome chef and last time when in Rome I ate a meal he prepared while we talked about him wanting to start a Food Not Bombs chapter. I asked him about it this time and he talked about the problems of finding people who would dedicate themselves enough to maintain the continuity, but how they do have several food-related initiatives going on, including a Grupo Acquisitivo (like a CSA) in which they are able to ask the farmers to grow specific things to be ready at specific times of the year. I shot a video of him yesterday at SNIA explaining the amazing history of the place which I hope to post to YouTube for inclusion in a later post. While we were talking during this ride he told me about a new(er) ciclofficina called Lavanderia, which is in a former asylum, and that now there are “crazy” people there working on fixing up bikes for the sane!

Yes there are a half dozen or more of my yellow signs floating around here, always fun for me to come upon one!

This is Piero, who was juggling at the beginning and clowning throughout

The last one is the tallest, and on it sits Olivier whom I met last night after the “big one”” he turns out to have just gotten out of jail after a sentence of 4 months for trying to give yogurt to French President Sarkozy, a story that I will try to understand better, but apparently it is as simple and preposterous as that.

Here is Betsy from Lyon (I may have gotten her name wrong) and a fellow from Mexico City via Madrid whose name escapes me:

Finally, here are a bunch of photos of the Friday, May 30 Critical Mass in Rome. Afterwards we ended in a Centro Sociale called Acrobax, a former dog-racing track in the southwest of Rome amidst freeways and factories, where we were served a fantastic 3-course dinner for 8 euros, followed by a few hours of sweaty dancing to some talented DJ’s who know how to lay down the funk and keep the booties shakin’! (though it was too dark and I was too drunk to take any photos)

And after a long night of cycling and partying, we headed home, back through the center of the city only to find that the Italian Army had occupied the place, thousands of troops mustering for a middle-of-the-night rehearsal of their big military parade tomorrow, June 2, a big holiday here. So about 20 of us went cycling by thousands of troops and suddenly a particular regiment started waving and cheering at us! Later, Paolo told me he had a equally surreal experience: the military band was playing some well-known Italian song and he and the folks he was cycling home with stopped and danced with the soldiers for a few minutes… hmmmm…. maybe there IS something you can do with the military after all! Anyway, I snapped this dark shot of troops coming in on the bus:

The Big One is next (I already rode in it, but trying to keep the stories separate!)…

5 comments to Critical Mass in Rome (part one)

  • rotafixa

    charlotte: no words on it. we are just shocked.
    we cannot do anything but opposition as ever, more than ever, even more tiring.
    but opposition.
    that’s all.

    ps to cc: thanks to your kind words. all folks here appreciated your person.

  • Mauro

    Just a small comment: The Pyramid in Rome was not stolen from Egypt, but built where it is now 🙂
    I was in the big CM on saturday: HUGE and WONDERFUL!

  • cc

    in a nutshell, they’re worried and horrified… and embarrassed (about the election of a true, overt fascist to Mayor of Rome, a decades-long bastion of the left)… ultimately it speaks volumes about the collapse of the institutional left in Italy and Europe more generally, the dearth of creative thinking, the abdication to capitalist society, etc. I think it’s probably a good thing (not the fascist Mayor, but the collapse of the institutional left) because it is palpably clearing the way for some new thinking–I think that’s part of why I was received so warmly…

  • Ari


    I was there in the mass as well..

    Well.. i’m the only Asian in the crowd so I think you must have saw me 🙂

    Great event isn’t it 🙂


  • Charlotte

    How do the Roman Critical Mass folks feel about the recent election of Gianni Alemanno, a neo-fascist, as Rome’s new mayor? Do you get the sense that the political landscape in Rome is becoming increasingly polarized?

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