Thursday, June 18, 2015

Slow Roll versus Critical Mass

Last night I attempted my first ever Slow Roll ride. As part of Chicago's Bike to Work Week events, there was a sparsely attended (approximately 40 riders), Slow Roll ride leaving from Daley Center, right smack downtown in Chicago's Loop. The Daley Center is also the traditional starting point for Critical Mass rides. Slow Roll has been going on in other communities around the country, and is supposed to be all-inclusive and more about outreach like getting more timid cyclists onto the road to build confidence riding with other people, cars, etc. I guess I easily forget that I was kinda of timid when I first started cycling in Chicago, but now I usually fearlessly take lanes and bull my way through traffic snarls with confidence and a high level of alertness about my surroundings. So, I guess Slow Roll may not necessarily be my thing. I was intrigued though about the possibility of a more low key group riding experience different from the raucous "Woo!!! Par-tay!!" atmosphere of Critical Mass rides.

There were some introductions to Slow Roll organizer folks, rules about not falling behind the SAG rider, or getting in front of the ride leader. Also there was some stuff about not going out past the riders on the sides of the group - I forgot what they were called. It seemed like the Slow Roll folks create this insulating cocoon around the less experienced riders and thus shepherd them through the dangerous streets of the city, all at a glacially slow pace. I mean, these folks were riding so slowly at one point that I think it was actually more dangerous than just riding faster. Try riding cheek-to-jowl with about 40 other people tottering along at 2.3 miles per hour where bikes are wiggling back and forth and weaving all over and tell me if your sphincter doesn't start to pucker when someone acts like they're about to careen right into you.

I've never yet ridden a Critical Mass where the same thing pretty much happens as the whole ride hits a bottleneck. So, Slow Roll seems to fail about as miserably as Critical Mass does in that when you pack a lot of bikes together and make everybody ride super-sloooooowwwwww, then the likelihood of accidents goes up exponentially. Every 'Mass ride I've ever been on suffers most of it's bike crashes during these bottleneck slow-downs. Eventually, I couldn't take it anymore. And by, "I couldn't take it anymore," I mean that I was less than about one mile into the ride which took about twenty minutes to cover, when I decided to bail. I saw a familiar cross-street, looked back and saw the street was clear of car traffic, and just broke out from the group and went east while they continued south.

I get the concept, and the need to have an all-inclusive ride that is less intimidating and somewhat less "douchey" than Critical Mass. However, I'd like to add that even Slow Roll must elect to blow some red lights and cork some intersections which apparently drew the ire of some pedestrians who ranted about cyclists not obeying the law by not stopping for red lights. Note, these pedestrians were not trying to cross but were walking parallel to the direction the ride was going. Still, it's a valid point. How does one introduce neophyte riders to being on the mean streets and at the same time hypocritically break some of the rules that they decry Critical Mass for doing? Anyway, I suppose someone needs to be the helping hand for more timid riders. I don't know how to do that and frankly I don't know that I have the patience.

Clearly, I'm not the target audience for Slow Roll, and even as a group ride I found it too "shepherded" and a bit too "directed" if you take my meaning. I've heard of a concept called "Bike Party" which sounds like it falls somewhere in-between Critical Mass and Slow Roll. Bike Party is a huge ride en masse like Critical Mass, but whereas Critical Mass almost seems to arrogantly snub it's nose at car drivers with it's happily sarcastic "Happy Friday!" shouts, Bike Party apparently doesn't clog all lanes of travel, or ruthlessly block intersections while riders stream through against the light. It's perhaps faster than Slow Roll, but not quite as confrontational as 'Mass. Chicago doesn't currently have a "Bike Party" ride that I know of so for the time being those who want the "riding in a crowd" experience will need to choose between the chaos, potential intimidation, and potential danger of a 'Mass ride, or select the kinder, gentler, coddled experience of Slow Roll.


  1. Matt, I did not realize you were there. Slow Roll works better in the neighborhoods. Not that it moves any faster, but downtown streets even at 6:00 is not a good place for it. On most Slow Roll Rides, (and this did occur later in the Wednesday ride) we do cork intersections and get everyone through even though the light has changed. Average rolling speed for the ride ended up being about 6.7 MPH which is pretty consistent for Slow Roll rides. For those of us who are regular riders, the only way to "enjoy" a Slow Roll ride is to be part of the "squad" (the word you couldn't remember) and be a corker or one of the shepherding types.

    Slow Roll's purpose is more to show people in neighborhoods that lots of different kinds of people can and do ride bikes. As one of the squad, I find it pretty gratifying to have neighborhood folks on the south and west sides have fun riding through their own neighborhoods and having the neighbors come out and cheer. On the other hand, I would not ride with Slow Roll just for the sake of riding. It can be reeeaaaallly frustrating. :-)

  2. Lisa - that sort of confirmed my initial opinion. I'd debated riding one again but it sounds like it would still be as frustrating. It sounds like it does serve a purpose, but not one I'm ultimately interested in taking part in. I find I can explore neighborhoods and new areas a lot better on my own, at my own pace or with a couple select friends.