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License to Pedal

Ah . . . biking. The sun in your eyes, the wind in your face . . . the exhaust fumes knocking you out cold. The blaring horns, the screaming lunatics at the wheel, the broken glass and discarded fast-food lunches booby-trapping the margins of the roads.

The official rules of the road say that bicyclists are allowed "assured clear distance." But on the streets, they often get assured clear disrespect.

On the first Friday of every month, an informal band of bicyclists calling itself Critical Mass weaves its way through the downtown hazards at the height of rush hour. Their mission: to get motorists to notice them rather than crowd them into the gutter.

Dressed in a mix of street clothes and serious biker togs, the cyclists look like a pickup team, but this is no Sunday ride through the marigolds. It's a world of motorheads out there: Very few dare brave rush-hour traffic, when tens of thousands of cars race in and out of the city, crowding each other and any other vehicle, burning petroleum, pumping out noise and exhaust. Once in a while, someone throws a spent cigar or crumpled pop can in the bikers' line of fire.

"Anyone who cycles regularly knows," says Critical Mass rider Rob LaBuda of Westlake. "Harassment by motorists is a universal and unavoidable phenomenon." Even en masse, the group endures some shouts and belittling comments from drivers, but so far, nobody's come to blows.

A kind of rave on wheels, Critical Mass rides — also called "organized coincidences" — started in San Francisco ten years ago as a way to lobby for more bike lanes on major roads. One of the San Francisco group's slogans was "We're not disrupting traffic, we are traffic!" The communal spirit started here a few months ago at the Cleveland group's first organizational meeting, on the threadbare couches at Speak in Tongues nightclub. It's a demonstration without picket signs, yet there's an air of laissez-faire — no one wants to take credit for organizing the ride.

Besides safety, the group also aims to promote the enviro-friendliness of commuting by bicycle. Bike paths in the Metroparks are beautiful, but they avoid commercial areas and are of little use beyond pure recreation.

LaBuda says he doesn't think cars should be abolished, but says they're "a tool that many people take for granted."

"My goal is to promote biking as an alternative form of transportation," he says. So keep that road rage to a low roar and that stogie to yourself. — Michael Gill

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