My afternoon with Vélorution – Critical Mass Paris style

As a bike lover and former San Franciscan, when I heard there was a Masse Critique movement in Paris, I was determined to see what it was all about.  Critical Mass, an informal gathering of cyclists that meet at a given point and ride in a group throughout the city, started in SF in 1992.  It has since grown into a decentralized, international pro-cyclist movement with a much more political bent, and greater traffic disturbances, than originally envisioned.  In most cities, this takes place on the last Friday of every month, right before the evening end-of-the-week rush hour.   I remember leaving my office near Market Street and getting stuck in a few of these, thankfully on foot.  With all the hills, being a cyclist in SF is a serious commitment, and this event definitely highlights the sense of identity that goes along with it.  There’s a huge turnout.  The bicycles are often elaborately decorated and carrying all sorts of signage.  Sometimes riders are in serious cycling gear, in costume or au natural (At any Bay-Area protest, outdoor event, or impromptu Saturday afternoon, someone’s getting naked.  It’s just the way it is).  Watching downtown San Francisco grind to an angry hault — financial district types lividly tapping away on their Blackberries and cab drivers yelling or cranking their seats back totally resigned — as a huge group of jubilant cyclists stream through is an image I will always associate with that city.

So, on Saturday I showed up at Place de la Bastille at a few minutes ’til 14h, the advertised meeting time.  I was worried maybe I had read an old message board or something because things seemed to be business as usual: traffic was normal and other than the occasional vélib‘er there was nothing to indicate a bicycle event was going on.  No bike lifts, no crazy costumes, not even a cluster of bicycles.  This wasn’t looking good.

I headed for a few banners I spotted over by the opera house.  It was a disapointingly tiny group at first — the main idea behind the movement is to reach a critical mass of people, enough to shake things up.  Thankfully, I soon realized I was just the idiot américaine that showed up on time, and the group continued to grow.  And, I was happy to see I wasn’t the only one sans vélo personnel and some other vélib‘ riders showed up as well!

At about 14h45, this switched on somewhere in the crowd, followed by a cacauphony of bells, horns, hoots and hollars.  We were off!

By this time, the group had grown to a decent size.  We rode through the city on what I was told was an improvised route (which became pretty obvious when we passed through a maze of pedestrian alleyways in Sebastopol), but for the most part it was well done.  At each large intersection, a few of the bikers up front would act as “corks,” branching off and stopping traffic to let everyone else through.  The ride lasted about an hour and a half and rode through the 2e, 3e, 4e, 5e, 10e, 11e, and 2oe arrondissements.  The overall attitude was fun, welcoming, and despite the slight drizzle and chill, downright happy to be there.

It was a really diverse group, with people of all ages riding everything from smart racing bikes to beloved clunkers put together with bits and pieces here and there.  A few stood out, including this stylish lady and her bright green double-decker bike that caught my eye.

One of theorganizers of the event also had one of these bikes, with a speaker strapped to the front.  He and a few others played music the whole way, ensuring a soundtrack no matter where you were in the group.

And then there was this super cool converted yellow postal worker’s bike.  I now need one of these, perhaps in a steely gray.

But, I think the winner of the ride was this gentelman.  The hat, the teal vintage Pugeot, that he was one of the oldest people on the ride, the guy pretty much outcooled everyone without even trying.  When I stopped him to tell him how much I loved his bike, he said you used to see them all over and now they’ve just diappeared.  Trop vrai. 

Following in the Critical Mass tradition, the rides aren’t usually cleared with any authorities beforehand.  It defeats the purpose of perturbing traffic if you have the police barracading the way for you already.  But, if you want to take part, do know this is not following the proper procedure for protests in Paris, and that you are doing so at your own risk.  We did come upon a group of police vans with cops in riot gear around Châtelet.  A few people tipped their hats and helmets, the police did so in return, and we were on our way.  So, unless things get uncharacteristically out of hand, there’s nothing to worry about there.

Organized by a group called Vélorution, the rides here take place on the first Saturday of the month, which rules out gridlocking rush-hour traffic, giving Masse Critique a much more polite exterieur.  However, I was happy to find the same spirit and love of cycling and goal to actually make a statement were alive and well here too.

Un peu d’ambiance:

On avance, on avance, on n’a pas besoin d’essence!
On rigole, on rigole, on n’a pas besoin de pétrole!

L’auto, ça pue, ça tue et ça pollue !

Pollution zéro, solution vélo!

Libérez les piétons enfermés dans les voitures!

That last one was chanted in chorus when a man stuck behind us decided to rev his engine and honk his horn — not the best way to endear yourself to a group of protesting cyclists.

The ride ended up at Cyclofficine (15, rue Pierre Bonnard, 75020) a meeting place for Paris bike enthusiasts where you can buy a restored bike, repair your own, or just get advice on biking in the city.  It’s run on a membership system (between 15 € and 25€ for the year), and is run by volunteers and a few paid employees, all of which are avid bike lovers devoted to promoting two-wheeled transport in Pairs.

Overall, it cost me 3 € overtime on the vélib‘ (I didn’t actually get a bike until everyone had started on the ride, but I’m pretty sure the others who showed up at the meeting time with their bikes paid a bit more.)  Regardless, a wonderful afternoon à vélo for less than the cost of a round-trip metro ticket?  Worth every centime.

If you want to join in on the fun, the pace is adapted to just about any level, and the group will stop to make sure everyone stays together.  Anyone’s welcome, so just show up

Vive la Vélorution!  On adhère!
RDV Place de la Bastille, in front of the opera house
1st Saturday of the month, 14h(ish)

à plus,


You might also like:

Tips and tricks for using the vélib’ in Paris.

Vélib’ et Moi, the official vélib’ blog run by the city.

La Maison du vélo (37, boulevard Bourdon, 75004) is another great resource for Paris cyclists.

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One Response to My afternoon with Vélorution – Critical Mass Paris style

  1. Pingback: Thieve Took Your Bike? Lamp-pole It « « French News Online Blog French News Online Blog


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