I rode in my very first Critical Mass ride last night and I did it here in Florence. I had no idea what to expect. It was probably better that way.
I'm not so sure if Italy is really a tolerant country when it comes to civil disobedience. Also, I'm not sure if gathering a bunch of Italian bicycle commuters (a different category from Italian cyclists, believe me you only make that mistake in conversation once) to ride together is really some kind of bold political move or simply an accident waiting to happen.
City commuters follow a different kind of logic than every other vehicle on the road. Their goal is to get from point A to point B preferably "as the crow flies" which means going the wrong way on one way streets and using the sidewalk when necessary. They maintain a slow and steady speed, run red lights and stop signs and seem unconcerned about the cars that barely miss running them over or the pedestrians they force out into the street. They probably don't even see them as they talk on their phones.
Put about two hundred of these very independent thinking and oblivious riders together and you have a group that ebbs and flows like a river and you never know if you're going to be caught in the current or shuffled off to a little eddie along the bank. Or faced with a giant boulder and have to dive left or right....or collide. How anyone escaped major accidents or injuries is beyond me.
There were kids on their kid bikes and moms on their mom bikes with a kid in front and a kid in back (no Burleys here). There were twenty-somethings with stereos in backpacks blasting Italian reggae or speakers mounted on their racks playing classical music and others plugged into their ipods in their own little world. There was a proper Florentine lady, about 60 years old, wearing her beautiful tailored skirt, jacket and high heels with her hair and makeup perfect. There were businessmen in sharply pressed suits and ties and even a few tourists in sweatshirts and shorts. There was a man in an actual ringmasters jacket and tophat on a lowrider bike.
The bikes were just as diverse. City bikes, hybrid bikes, mountain bikes, road bikes, track bikes, bike taxis and custom bikes. There was even a quad that served as a rolling bar passing out plastic cups of wine. Some were perfectly maintained, others probably saw their last maintenance years ago. The one uniting feature were the green balloons everyone fastened to their bike and the noise they made. Horns, bells or shouting, everyone made noise as we rode through town.
We hit all the big spots: Piazza Santa Croce, the Duomo, Piazza della Signoria, and a ride along the Arno River (and several times over it) to Porta Prato. We stopped traffic. The goal as the organization stated it was to "become traffic". We stopped cars and scooters, buses and trams (twice) and pedestrians just stopped to stare. The group expanded from one lane to four lanes as we rode from the center onto one of the major streets and then funneled back down to one lane when needed.
For the most part the other traffic on the road respected what was happening. Tram drivers took a smoke break, motorists (after the first few seconds; they always honk first and look second) sat back and enjoyed the show, buses waited for the group to pass before moving forward and tourists lined the street taking pictures while store owners stepped out to see what all the excitement was about.
I grabbed my only cup of wine from the bar on wheels under the watchful eyes of the police, which honestly made me so nervous I could hardly drink it. But it's impossible to hold a tiny plastic cup of wine while cycling on worn cobblestones without splashing everywhere so I drank it as quickly as possible and kept moving. Obviously it will take me years to get to the point where I can drink a glass of wine or a bottle of beer while riding the mean streets of Florence.
It was a great experience but today I'm a little sore. Riding at a walking pace for two hours is tough on the body. Like holding the top position on a push up for over two hours. For you yoga lovers it was like holding plank position while being dragged over a plowed field. For two hours. I'm surprised I can even type. Of course chances are I'll be back on a bike tomorrow regardless of how my arms feel. I'm funny that way.