News » Opinion

Mountain High



By the time you read this, Bikewalkbusweek! will have wrapped up another stoked-to-live-in-Missoula seven days, highlighted by the always-frigid Festival of Cycles and a very interesting Critical Mass ride.

Due to the city’s small size, reasonably flat terrain and moderate weather, bicycle travel in Missoula is often a convenient, efficient affair. While it may be wise to avoid cycling through downtown on weekend nights, and outspoken motorists occasionally holler expletives, cycling in Missoula is typically hassle-free.

Sure, we’ve got some absurdly narrow lanes on Russell St., and a section of the Bitterroot Spur is completely missing, but from the University to North Reserve and from the upper Rattlesnake to the dollar theater, cyclists get around efficiently and rarely experience even a hint of road rage.

The most challenging part of a cycling commute is often just layering appropriately for the daily 50-degree temperature swings—not much of a problem, really.

So when folks convene for a Critical Mass ride, and hundreds of riders posse up for a parade/showdown/alternative traffic display, their intentions are easily misinterpreted by Missoula’s passing and/or delayed motorists. Add dozens of armed police officers providing an apparent confrontation and the message can be ambiguous indeed.

The show of force by the police at last week’s ride was deliberately imposing, and Missoula Police Sergeant Shawn Paul said beforehand that the force anticipated “… as many as 300 riders”—a number realized on the streets.

Police blocked auto traffic and permitted cycle traffic to occupy both lanes along the route. Since the ride was intended as a “spontaneous, non-hierarchical” event, no one had applied for a parade permit, but the police assumed traffic flow duties anyway.

After photographing an arrest (see “Getting kinda hectic” by Chad Harder, April 24, 2003), I passed Missoula Police detective Mike Wood, who was carefully videotaping individuals at many places along the route. “For documentation,” he said.

The arrested cyclist was tackled off his bike for pedaling onto a street the police had “closed”—an ambiguous provocation that cost the rider time in jail and two citations. But whether or not he was “going home,” as some on the scene yelled (others said he was going to nearby Rockin Rudy’s), many found it difficult to understand and therefore honor the show of authority targeting an unremarkable and non-threatening cyclist.

Of course, there are some cyclists who believe the Critical Mass rides are most successful when an antagonistic atmosphere culminates in numerous arrests and scores media attention. Others, like cyclo-cop Paul, envision “seeing all these cyclists riding single file, or two-abreast, in the bike lanes around town. Now that would be powerful.” Others lie in the middle, believing that behavior that disrupts auto traffic and pisses off motorists will likely be counterproductive in the long run.

Still, many participate in the action to challenge the conventional norms of our car-dominant paradigm. Is our nation’s auto-dependence an unsustainable, dangerous, ego-feeding, gas-guzzling, climate-changing, earnings-draining way to support the mega-industries of technology, insurance and petroleum while simultaneously encouraging a pace that reduces our likelihood of living simpler, less chaotic lives? Well, yes.

But is Critical Mass successful when cyclist/motorist conflicts increase and officers aggressively attack cyclists? I don’t think so.

Protestors the world over might do well to recognize the futility of sparring with law enforcement officers—verbally or otherwise. These men and women are charged by the system with the specific duty of providing activists with a thoroughly irrelevant outlet to vent their desire for change. It’s a highly successful street-level front that diverts energy from lockdowns in corporate headquarters and distracts casual activists from truly effecting positive social change. Besides, they are funded in part with activist tax dollars.

There was little strategy exhibited by the fool Islamic militants who headed to Iraq to confront the sharp end of a fully prepared, trained and financed U. S. military, and the same could be said about domestic protestors confronting unrelated law enforcement in the streets.

Certainly it can invigorate a movement to rally with similar minds and “reclaim the streets” from the axles of evil. But this weak justification jeopardizes decades of progress that has steadily been providing Missoula cyclists with a less dangerous, more efficient network upon which to travel. By extending compassion to those unlucky enough to be commuting in a car, we can build an effective foundation for understanding and solving the conflicts that have long existed between cyclists and motorists.

Spring is here in force, and Missoulians on Bicycles (MOB) are pedaling their muscle-bound heinies 55 miles to Alberton (Paul O’Connell—542-2759) on May 3 and 82 miles to Wisdom (Lech Szumera—543-4889) on May 4. Get on your bike and ride, sugar!

Heights gotcha down? Cure that fear with a UM Campus Rec. rock climbing course. For $99 you’ll get a three-day course (two days on rock) on May 7, 10 and 11, so call 243-2804 to get gripped.

Hey skiers! Don’t wait until next season to get in some turns—there are still three months of fine corn skiing on the northern and eastern aspects of Montana’s high mountains. Join New Rocky Mountaineer Jim Cossitt (756-6818) on Saturday, May 3 for a day of skiing at a Montana sweet spot.

Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA) is running outdoor summer camp adventures from 9–5 (and camp-outs, too) for kids and teenagers. Cost is $120/week, and it includes instruction, transportation and equipment, so call Porter at 240-2458 and get the kiddies enrolled in a summer they’ll never forget.

Throw your outdoor wrench at:

Add a comment