Slow Roll Bike Ride Takes Critical Mass to New Places

    Crowds gather before Slow Roll takes off.

    Twenty-two years ago, on September 26, a group of a couple dozen cyclists rode through the streets of San Francisco, coining themselves the Commuter Clot.

    It started small, the group weaved through a few streets, and ended up at the notorious biker bar, Zeitgeist. The next week was different—a few hundred people showed up, and soon enough, every third Friday of the month drew thousands of riders. The ride was re-named Critical Mass, and has kept its title ever since.

    Like many other things weird, catchy, and born in San Francisco, it caught on. Critical Mass rides can be found in more than 300 cities worldwide now. What started as a literal moving protest and a sort of “stick-it-to-the-man” movement has transformed into a larger version of the latter, and morphed into many other purposes as well.

    One of those is Slow Roll, a movement started by Jason Hall and Mike MacKool in Detroit, Michigan in 2010. The duo also founded Detroit Bike City, an organization that promotes cycling in Detroit. Slow Roll begins every Monday night at a different location. About an hour before the ride begins, the bikes start showing up.

    They come in pairs, fresh off a bike rack from Livonia, alone, tires warm from a commute from Eastern Market, or in swarms, massive tires adorned with lights and skinny road bike tires, fixed-gear and all. Classical, electro, and hip-hop music blasts from speakers attached to bikes, wedged into backpacks, and bungee-corded to bike racks. Multi-colored lights line tires, LEDs glow from spokes and tiny lights wrap around frames. They aren’t all beautiful bikes, they aren’t all road bikes, mountain bikes, or BMX bikes—there are no categories.

    There’s no pressure, either. There’s no bike-shunning, fixies or BMX, it doesn’t matter, at least in the Slow Roll bubble, for a couple hours. Four thousand people show up, and 8,000 wheels take off on their way through the pothole-laden streets of Detroit.

    The bikes are just as diverse as the crowd. Toddlers ride in the back of pulled mini-trailers, playing with toys. Gray beards entangle with helmet straps. Every skin color holds onto handlebars, and every spectrum of economic background pushes forward on two, and sometimes three, wheels. For a few hours, the material objects fall away.

    “Everything is equalized, you’re just a person on a bike,” said Maria Nash, from Detroit. The bright orange letters on her yellow shirt read #Squad, and she is one of the organizers for Slow Roll. She and the squad help lead the route, control traffic so the ride can pass through safely, provide air for those who need it in their tires, and generally keep the ride on track. Their yellow shirts can be seen from afar, and there are plenty of them.

    Bikes sit ready to ride, as the #Squad readies the route.

    Bikes sit ready to ride, as the #Squad readies the route.

    Nash has been with the ride for three years, and it has affected her life greatly. She’s met friends and her now boyfriend through the ride. Seeing the positive effects it has on other’s lives means a lot to her, and keeps her coming back.

    The ride didn’t start with big numbers, or big plans, though. Co-Founder Hall and his friends had extra time on their hands, he said. After the ride started to gain popularity, he realized the potential.

    “We said ‘Let’s start picking places maybe they’ve never been to,’” Hall said. “There’s always a cool new thing a lot of people hadn’t seen and I think that helped us change the focus and connect to the community in a way that we were willing to show people the good, the bad, and the everything.”

    The ride has turned into a sort of Detroit tour, by bike. Every week people come down to go for a bike ride, sure, but they’re also coming down to be safely led through streets they might not normally take, neighborhoods they might not know of, and routes they wouldn’t consider.

    Every week’s route showcases a different section of the city. Hall, a Detroit native, serves as a tour guide in a way.

    Now the movement has gone global. Hall has been reached out to by more than 100 cities that want to implement a Slow Roll. Chicago is one of them, with the south and west sides often reflecting the same image that Detroit can be known for. Organizers in Chicago kicked off their first ride this past Saturday in hopes of changing negative perceptions of the neighborhoods.

    Hall sees the movement becoming a part of every city, and the organization is working with many larger cities to start their own, hoping a Slow Roll will trickle down into the smaller cities over time.

    For Hall, it’s personal. He grew up in Detroit wanting to make his mark on the city, and do good along the way. He never thought this would be the mark he leaves. “I want Detroit to be the epicenter of global movement and change,” he said. This is his way of putting Detroit back on the map.

    There are first-timers, even with the approaching end of the season, and long-timers. Ray Durham, another Detroit native, was riding for the first time.

    He came out just to have some fun, he said. “I think it’s good, it gets all sorts of races together without violence,” Durham said. “There’s some stuff that needs to be shown instead of violence.”

    There’s no violence during Slow Roll. Of course, the occasional flat tire happens and the resounding “Awww” from the crowd when they pass a lone bike pedal lost in the midst of the ride, but like magic, no one crashes into each other. Even in the beginning, when riders have yet to pick up speed and attempt to balance along, everyone’s aware and respectful of their neighbor. It’s a rare time where massive numbers of people come together every week and do it smoothly, without much trouble.

    Slow Roll, like Critical Mass itself, has evolved over the few short years it’s been going, and continues to add riders and bring people down into the city of Detroit, a place commonly written off as being unsafe. The ride isn’t shy of showing the unsafe places, but also showcases the reality of Detroit, that there’s safety, movement, and life there. As Slow Rolls spread over the world, they will continue to shed light on otherwise dark parts of cities.

    Images by Chelsea Hohn

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