Is Rollin' Coal the Mirror Image of Critical Mass?

It’s been said that for every activist there’s an equal and opposite reactionary. So I’m just asking: Are these “Rollin’ Coal” trolls just the natural polar-opposites to Critical Massholes?

Coal Rolling a Bicyclist
I’m blowing smoke on you because I’m blowing smoke on you.

Rollin’ Coal, if you haven’t heard of it, is a phenomenon where people modify their diesel trucks to make them less fuel efficient. The modifications, which can cost up to $5000, allow the driver to belch out thick black smoke on demand as a way of expressing “anti-envrionmentalism.” Often this smoke is directed at pedestrians, cyclists, and fuel-efficient automobiles.

Critical Mass, if you haven’t heard of it, means you are a sweet and innocent person visiting a bike blog for the very first time, bless your heart. It also refers to events where bicyclists take over public roads in large numbers in order to “reclaim the streets.” These events are often held without permits, and can cause inconveniences to other users of public roads.

So there are some similarities. Can we admit that? Both phenomena are provocative and they both are undertaken by people who are assertive — belligerent even — when it comes to their respective forms of transportation.

But is Rollin’ Coal the mirror image of Critical Mass?

It depends.

Many people who commute by bike are simply that: people who use a bike to commute and for other utilitarian purposes. These people do not think of themselves as “cyclists” anymore than they think of themselves as “motorists” due to the fact that they occasionally use a car.

But then there are the cyclists — people whose psyches are very much wrapped up in the fact that they own and use bikes. The bicycle is the central venerated object of their tribal identity. They want everyone to know it. You could be talking to one of them them about stratocumulus clouds, and he or she would say, “That cloud reminds me of a bike, and while we’re on the subject of bikes…”

Within this tribe of cyclists is clan that doesn’t at all mind being dicks about it. They won’t wait for a chance to change the subject to bikes. They show up waving their bikes in everyone’s face. Being a dick about it is the point — the only point.

Critical Mass Bike Lift
Look! We have bikes! Let us hold them up so you can see them better!

Roving gangs of these clan members constitute one type of Critical Mass. They are the bicycle equivalent to Rollin’ Coal. The are the Critical Massholes.

An important difference between Rollin’ Coal and Critical Mass is that Critical Mass events are not always expressions of this kind of tribalism, and the participants are not always members of this clan of bullies. At the right time and place Critical Mass serves a useful advocacy purpose.

In a municipality that is turning a deaf ear to facilitating bike use and the rights of people who use bikes — say anywhere at all in Alabama, Montana, or Kentucky — a Critical Mass event might be an excellent tactic for getting the attention of decision makers. You don’t have to be cyclist to see the point and to participate; you just have to be someone who wants the freedom to use a bike safely in the town where you live.

In places such as Portland, Boulder, or the other cities over which we bike types fawn, it would be asinine and counterproductive to hold a Critical Mass. In these communities the problem these events create is disproportionate to the injustice experienced by cyclists.

In other words: Someone who views Critical Mass as an advocacy tactic, not a way of life, is not a Critical Masshole and has nothing in common with Rollin’ Coal.

Rolling Coal is indefensible. It achieves nothing as an advocacy tactic. It’s a schoolyard bully with a flamethrower. Its pure tribalism. And for all these reasons this idiocy will likely backfire.

Ted Johnson lives in Flagstaff, Arizona. Follow his hardly-ever-about-bikes blogging at Half-Hearted Fanatic, and tweeting at @TedJohnsonIII.

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