It was a wonderful four days in Porto Alegre, February 24-27! I met hundreds of people, was wined and dined, interviewed nearly 20 times in local and national Brazilian media (including a bit for their equivalent of ESPN, SportTV!), and got to ride in two big rides including the largest ever Critical Mass in Porto Alegre.
One year ago, a madman (who is also a vice-president of a local bank) decided he wasn’t going to be delayed by a bunch of cyclists in the road. They had just departed from their customary starting point, turning onto an avenue adjacent to the plaza, and this guy accelerated his car through a block and a half dense with bicyclists. People went flying, bicycles were crushed, and dozens were injured. By some strange miracle no one was killed, but rarely could you find a more obvious case of attempted mass murder. For most of the year since, the local press and population felt sorry for the cyclists and saw them as victims. Meanwhile, hundreds of people started bicycling during that year, some in solidarity and others because it was just so outrageous that it was a way for them to respond directly. (On Critical Mass a young woman I spoke with explained how she started riding after that event, and now had become a daily cyclist. “Since I started bicycling, I’m just happy all the time!”)
About two months ago local cycle activists were worried that the tone in the local media had changed, with bicyclists being accused of being too aggressive, being out of line, being threatening and causing chaos. They decided to organize the first (as far as they knew) World Bike Forum (one might note that there has been a lot of other gatherings of cyclists over the past two decades, from the “Towards Car-Free Cities” conferences to the commercially-minded “VeloCity”; in the U.S. we’ve had the gathering of bicycle cooperatives called Bike!Bike! going on now for a few years). That’s how I came to join them, since they reached out to me to see if I would come and when I said yes, as long as they’d cover my costs, they organized a crowd-funding campaign and over 120 people contributed to my airfare and the costs of the conference.
The many workshops brought together folks around different aspects of cycling culture, from tourism to teaching kids to women’s self-organized cycling, and more. Folks from Caracas Venezuela came, one guy from Chile, a woman from Holland, me from the U.S., and mostly the rest were from around Brazil, including Manaus in the Amazon, Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Brasilia, Curitiba, and a fair number from small towns in Rio Grande do Sul, the state in which Porto Alegre sits. There was a bunch of films screened on the last day too, and they showed “We Are Traffic!” on the walls with Portuguese subtitles many times during the conference.
The Critical Mass was truly epic. They had their biggest ever Critical Mass after a long day of workshops with hundreds in attendance. About 1700 riders, way over their hoped for 1000…. perfect weather, fantastic spirited participants, whenever we stopped people would clap their hands over their heads, a lot of chanting along the way: “Mais Adrenalina, Menos Gasolina” (more adrenaline, less gasoline) or someone would yell “Bicicleta” and the crowd would roar its answer “Um Carro Menos” (BICYCLE! … One Less Car!)… We rode for about 3 hours all over the city, including up and down main avenues, through the heart of downtown, up and down hills, overpasses and freeway-like ramps (there don’t seem to be any actual freeways here) and through two tunnels, which drove the riders crazy with excitement since they’d never been able to visit these spots by bike before. More »