Using their bodies and their bicycles, groups of people all over the world organize and pedal to support and defend a multitude of political causes. Riding a bicycle for transportation, for deliveries and for recreation is an obvious solution to many of society’s most considerable issues, and political activism through bicycles has become more prevalent as concerns about global warming, health care and oil dependency grow in the United States and throughout the world. Utility cycling is goal-oriented and tangible cycling, and although activists on bicycles may not achieve their missions in a single ride, using human-powered machines to bring awareness both to political issues and potential solutions is a powerful and valuable use of the bicycle.Critical Mass rides are diverse in both their organizational structure and in their purpose, but these rides represent a large portion of the political protests that take place on bicycles. The modern era of Critical Mass began nearly two decades ago in San Francisco with a relatively small number of cyclists. The event quickly increased in participation, and before long, Critical Mass rides were taking place in cities across the country and around the world. In San Francisco, the rides were an attempt to increase the public’s awareness of cycling and bicycle advocacy efforts, and these group rides are often still in support of that original and straightforward cause. As Critical Mass rides have grown and transformed, activities such as corking, or blocking intersections, have been born, and often corking is practiced to draw attention to a dangerous intersection or stretch of road where a cyclist has been killed or injured. In any large ride, particularly a more spontaneous Critical Mass ride, some participants pedal with a defined purpose and others join in simply to enjoy the ride.
One example of an international protest ride is the World Naked Bike Ride (WNBR). These rides are organized to protest oil dependency and other harmful environmental practices as well as to celebrate the power and individuality of the human body. With rides in Australia, Germany, Brazil, Russia, Italy, Spain, the UK and the US (just to name a few), the specific issues vary from ride to ride, but overall, the WNBR aims to expose (pun intended) the issues that we face around the world regarding oil dependency and environmentally unfriendly practices. Many cities have created their own series of clothing optional rides with many of the same guiding principles. Seattle organizes multiple rides every summer; the Seafair Cyclists in Seattle believe that to stay true to the meaning of the WNBR, it needs to be a locally organized and community-centric event. The annual Seafair clothing optional ride specifically supports a cleaner Lake Washington, an anti-oil dependent culture, and a sustainable local community.Other rides and organizations have been formed for causes such as freedom of speech and human rights. In New York, the FreeWheels Bicycle Defense Fund was created to protect and defend cyclists who choose to participate in Critical Mass rides, believing that these rides fall under the First Amendment, or the constitutional right of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and participation in peaceful protest. While the Summer Olympics were taking place in Beijing, China, ride organizers from Free Tibet in London encouraged fellow riders to bring Tibetan flags and ride through the city to the Chinese Embassy to protest China’s occupation of Tibet. There are many other examples of advocacy groups using group rides to draw attention to their causes, and both the visibility of a large group of cyclists as well as the environmental, societal and health benefits of choosing to go by bike can be an effective method of political activism when properly organized.