TWILIGHT HAS SETTLED on Palisades Park, and more than 100 bicyclists have gathered at the foot of the Santa Monica Pier, when Alex Thompson, wearing a heavy Army jacket with sergeant stripes, climbs up on a garbage can.

Although he has the makeshift podium, Thompson and the ranks that make up Critical Mass like to make clear that the rolling celebration of bicycle culture that takes over the streets of Santa Monica and Venice every first Friday of the month in fact has no leader.

“All right, we have to figure out where we’re going,” Thompson shouts. “Can I make a suggestion? Let’s just decide which direction.” The crowd starts yelling out places at different points of the compass: Vegas, Alaska, Argentina, London. Each suggestion is greeted with cheers, some louder than others.

Thompson suggests riding past the boisterous demonstrators who have gathered outside City Hall to protest a controversial proposal to relocate or kill 75 large ficus shade trees that are a popular trademark of downtown Santa Monica. But the crowd greets the prospect of riding south toward carefree Venice with far more “whoos” than heading north toward the trendy, yet increasingly uptight, Santa Monica.

Once they hit the streets, those in the front will dictate the improvisational flow of the ride. “It’s sort of democracy of the front,” Thompson explains. “They’ll follow if they like what you’re suggesting.” Michael Feinstein, a former Santa Monica mayor and frequent rider, says, “It isn’t 100 percent leaderless. But it’s 80 percent leaderless.”

Having no designated figurehead is more than a gesture symbolizing that the cause is greater than any one rider, frequent participants acknowledge. It’s also about not giving Santa Monica or Los Angeles police a target to hold accountable when the riders roll in one flowing pack that streams through several cycles of traffic lights as bystanders watch in wonder and many motorists cringe.

And on this blustery October evening that marks the launching of Critical Mass by some four dozen cyclists in San Francisco 15 summers ago, there is some apprehension in the cool evening air. The ranks have been dwindling since Critical Mass — which is now celebrated in more than 300 cities from London to Rio de Janeiro — drew between 300 and 400 riders to Santa Monica this spring.

“They want spontaneity,” Feinstein says, “but people are looking over their shoulders” for police. “There’s no joy.”

THE CHILL SET IN EARLY this summer, when Santa Monica police began cracking down on Critical Mass. During the June ride, a cyclist was ticketed and arrested for failing to carry identification. In July the number of tickets handed out grew to nearly a dozen. More tickets were handed out in August, with one rider cited under the vehicle code for playing music on his boom box loud enough to potentially drown out the sounds of emergency vehicles, a $158 fine.

“The people on the street are hip. The people in control, enforcing the law, [that’s] another thing,” said Brian Davidson, the boom-box culprit. “When I was getting the ticket, the cars passing by were booing the cops.”

The city, which sees itself as a leader in alternative transportation, has some 40 miles of bike paths and lanes. It provided free valet parking this summer for some 1,000 cyclists at a weekly Twilight Dance Series and Sunday Farmers Market — but now it seems to be a bike-unfriendly place.

“It used to be very carefree and nonconfrontational,” says David Pulsipher, a frequent Critical Mass rider. “Now it seems that everyone is riding afraid. It seems a disproportionate response. [The police are] organized, ready for us .?.?. They’re out like it’s the end of the world.”

Adds Thompson, “We make an effort to get out of Santa Monica quickly. It’s ironic. Here we are, a huge crowd of bike activists who go to a social event promoting bicycling, and Santa Monica wants to get rid of us.”

The cyclists, whose ranks swelled on this evening to some 200 and filled the right lane of traffic, paraded past the shade-tree protest and a news station camera in front of Santa Monica City Hall, and streamed past the Public Safety Facility on Fourth Street, when they were stopped by police, who had been tailing them from the start.

One of the three riders cited by cops was Jeff Goldberg, who stopped at Pico Boulevard and Main Street, dismounted his bike and “corked” the intersection to block the traffic so cyclists could stream through. A motorcycle cop stopped nearby, and Goldberg thought the officer was going to help stop the cars for the few minutes needed to let the bikes stream past. Instead, Goldberg says, “They were ready to pounce on someone — and that was me.” The officer, after watching Goldberg allow the masses of bikes to pass, issued Goldberg a ticket for impeding traffic.

“The whole idea is to stand up to the system and say, ‘It’s a car culture, and we’re against a car culture,’?” Goldberg says.

YET TO OFFICIALS IN A LIBERAL city known for official stands like voting to oppose oppression in Burma and aggressively promoting sustainability, the free-flowing actions of Critical Mass pose nothing short of a threat to “the system,” to “public safety” and even to “the social contract.”

Mayor Richard Bloom, a member of Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, the sometimes rowdy, leftist tenants’ group that has controlled city government for most of the past quarter century, sounds more like the establishment he once fought, saying, “It’s something I don’t think we can tolerate if they’re violating public safety laws.”

Council Member Kevin McKeown, a daily cyclist, goes even further, writing in a letter to a constituent that the event is nothing short of a “violation of the crucial social contract” that requires everyone to stop at red lights. He accused the bicyclists of taking “life-threatening risk.”

Police Chief Tim Jackman, a former Long Beach deputy chief who took over Santa Monica’s top post last December, insists that if “people decide not to abide by the rules, regardless of how noble the cause, the system breaks down.”

He notes that Critical Mass riders are clearly breaking the law — you can’t ride more than two abreast and must obey all traffic signals — and could potentially injure pedestrians, motorists and other bicyclists, whom he says have filed complaints.

Jackman says he has urged Critical Mass to use the city’s beach-side bike path, which would be a legal alternative to its spontaneous routes through busy streets, but “They want to cause traffic disruption to draw attention to the issue.”

The chief, whose high-ranking officers met with Thompson and Feinstein after the July ride, also suggested that the group “apply for a permit and pay for the police services to protect them, set up a route and make sure they’re safe. We didn’t get anywhere,” he adds.

This particular evening, the riders reach Venice, where they regroup off Abbott Kinney Boulevard and circle the rotary near Windward Avenue. They form a beeline up Venice Boulevard, turn and ride past the canals up and down the wooden bridges, and end up at a huge parking lot.

There are still some 200 bikers, and several are complaining about the crackdown in Santa Monica. The former mayor, Feinstein, suggests that the city spend some money on police services for the bicyclists, as is now routine in San Francisco. “This should be twice as big in sustainable Santa Monica — ‘bike-friendly’ Santa Monica,” the Green Party leader says.

Suddenly, a man in a vintage hat rides up, hip-hop blaring from a glowing Plexiglas container shaped like a tropical fish set above the back wheel of his bicycle, control lights flashing. Fossil Fool, a rolling rapper from San Francisco who rides the college circuit preaching the benefits of peddling, grabs his microphone, cranks up the volume and starts to rap. The riders bob in their seats as Fossil Fool raps about cabbies in east Africa — and his rides through the much friendlier streets of San Francisco.

People wave from their balconies, teenagers laugh and cheer from the back of a corner store, a woman comes dancing down the street. “Bike culture blowing up,” Fossil Fool sings. “Car culture slowing down.”

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