Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Biggest Mass on the Road

Last weekend I went on my first big-group bike ride.  

I'd heard of rides like Critical Mass, where a large group of riders pedal slowly over city streets, a car-shutting-out celebration of self-propelled transportation.  But I'd never participated in one.

I've been lucky to meet a few serious Accra bikers through the local Chain Gang riding group, and one of them called me up to say there was a bike event Saturday morning.  I should come down to Accra's main stadium ready to register and ride.

I expected something small, but boy was I wrong.  This ride had a sponsor - milk-powder brand Cowbell, whose cartoon-cow mascot I think I've fallen in love with - and hundreds of participants.

After picking up my deep blue Cowbell t-shirt (I was Semi-Skimmed Cowbell for the day, though I envied those who were Cocount-flavored) we set out past Accra's iconic Independence Arch.

It was pure joy on the streets, then, as what must have been around 500 bikers - used to being pushed around by cars and trucks much bigger than us - transformed ourselves by mass into the biggest vehicle on the road, claiming the streets for two wheels.

But bigger than the feeling of bicycle empowerment - that heady take-over of the streets that Critical Mass riders in the US celebrate - was my sense of wonder that this was happening in Accra.  I was in Africa, for goodness sake, where it's supposed to be all disease, destitution, and disorganization.  Yet here I was in a band of biking brothers bigger than any I'd experienced anywhere else.  And we'd actually started on time.

I soon discovered that large-group rides have some down sides, like the constant need to keep your own wheels, pedals, and handlebars at least a few inches separate from your neighbor's.  But there were friendly fellow riders to talk to, taxi drivers to shame as they tried unsuccessfully to cut through us, and photos of this to-me-historic occasion to snap.

And, there were fun bike tricks to watch from the hot-shot teenage contingent on the ride: wheelies, spins, a guy standing up on his crossbar, another lifting a friend atop his shoulders.  One of the riders appeared to doing the whole 15 kilometer course with no front wheel.

As I and my 500-or-so friends paraded between Danqah and Nkrumah circles - two of Accra's most iconic and heavily traffic-ed roundabouts - cars, trucks, and pedestrians halted to let us pass.  And then, as one single body, we pulled the largest trick of the ride: getting through downtown Accra on a market-day morning.

The central area of Accra is a blocks-long market spilling over with horn-honking taxis, harried shoppers, calling-out saleswomen, and dozens of teenage girls carrying other people's purchases on their heads.  It's a jammed-packed part of town, and I wasn't sure the planners were thinking straight when they chose this route.  But we all got through ok, a mass of cyclists sticking so tight to each other even the market's thousands of hurrying pedestrians couldn't get across the road till we went past.

After winding through Accra central we soon arrived back at the stadium from which we had started, where entertainment, raffle prizes, and of course Cowbell drinks were offered to the masses.

I rode away with a big smile, a few new friends, and of course a blue Cowbell t-shirt.

Hey, looks like I'm not the only one who is falling in love with that mini-skirted mascot.

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