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SNIA and Ciemmona (Rome Critical Mass part two)

Saturday, the “Big Critical Mass” (“Ciemmona” in Italian) began at Piazza San Giovanni in Laterno, where I’d coincidentally visited a couple of days earlier. We started our day by going over to the Ciclofficina “Don Quixote” at SNIA, a former chemical factory squatted and converted to a Social Center (Centro Sociale: Italian social centers are often occupied abandoned industrial sites, sometimes held for decades and generations, outside of normal business and property relations. The social centers, two dozen in Rome alone, collectively provide a staggering amount of physical space to radical groups, social experiments, performance groups, DIY bikeshops, gardens, and often serve food and drink for free or for steeply discounted prices.) Several dozen visiting cyclists camped on the grounds of SNIA and it felt like a mini-Convergence Center for any of you summit-hopping readers. Giuso is one of the animating characters of SNIA and the whole cycling scene in Rome and he gave me a great account of its history:

I visited SNIA four years ago with Mona and Francesca and it was great to come back again, reconnect with Giuso, and see it in its full glory right before Ciemmona. I’d visited after midnight too on Thursday and seen Anthony the watchmaker’s wild creation” an impossible contraption of drums and tubes towed by a lone bicycle, capable of painting bike symbols on the street. Giuso and Pietro were both working on their Tall Bikes that night too, rushing to finish them in time for Friday night’s opening ride.

The gathering began around 4 on Saturday, and people were flowing in for an hour longer. Some came prepared, like this friend, whose name has disappeared for me, who made me several delicious Mojitos from her handlebars:

Others found other things to do while waiting:

The Big Ride finally commenced about 5 o’clock on Saturday and right away we were riding on fresh yellow paint, everyone’s tires picking up their own signature.

But it wasn’t too far before we overtook Anthony and his wonder, stalled after a minor malfunction:

Other people were stenciling the road ahead, keeping the spirit going along the entire ride, including getting a few down on the freeways that we surprisingly took.

On we went, back in the direction of SNIA on via Prenestina, which is connected to a local freeway. By the time I came up, the ride was doubling back on to the highway. Roman CMers had talked about taking the freeway before but this was the first time they did it. (The ride in Toronto did it this past weekend too)

Thus commenced a hilarious 1-hour-long gridlock on the freeway system as we looped quite a distance, only to pull the same maneuver a second time in a new spot” hundreds of cars completely stuck, motorists milling about on the road (almost like a scene from Godard’s Weekend!), police often helplessly embedded in the same traffic nightmare. The few times I saw police directly speaking with cyclists they seemed quite cheerful and understanding, surprisingly.

Most people took it with good cheer or resignation, but you could understand the severe exasperation that plenty of folks were experiencing.

One thing quite different in Rome from San Francisco is the ability and persistence of scooters, motorcycles and even occasional cars to drive into the middle of the Critical Mass flow and then aggressively move forward to try to go all the way through it” as though it were just another typical traffic situation in Rome. Quite frustrating from a CM point of view, bad enough when it’s the police barreling up behind you on motorcycles, but totally unacceptable when it’s just an impatient shithead on his motorbike. Anyway, the Friday night ride wasn’t corked too well, but Saturday at the Big One, people did a much better job. Dozens of cars and motorized scooters or motorcycles got surrounded and blocked again and again. In fact I only saw about four or five spots where tempers got really hot” one just as we left Piazza del Popolo and a guy melted down under the reciprocal taunting (the trash talking here can be really intense) and accelerated about 5 feet, grazing a cyclist before 30 others closed in on him (and his girlfriend on back was not happy either) so he angrily turned his motorcycle off and sat resigned and fuming. Surprising! No blows, no fisticuffs all day, not even any shoving! I went back and forth from front to back a lot so usually if things are getting out of hand in SF, it’s happening ¾ to all the way back, but I didn’t see anything. A lot of successful defusings, talking-downs, negotiations and conversations”¦ a lot!

A Belgian woman I met on the beach ride on Sunday, Sylvan, described an experience she had on Friday night (she speaks perfect Italian, lived in Rome five years and it was her 30th birthday so she’d come back to celebrate in Rome with Ciemmona): An elderly man, blocked in his car, was pleading that he was just trying to go shopping for food. They talked a bit, she trying to explain he could proceed soon, and she asked him if he remembered the “old pre-supermarket days” when a greengrocer was on the ground floor of almost every apartment building? Of course! He wished it were still so, then he wouldn’t have to drive a distance to buy food. He then reminisced about getting around Rome on horseback, so she invited him to join Critical Mass next time on a horse!

After finally leaving the freeways we headed into the center, pausing from time to time to “mass up.” Here’s one of “˜em amidst the ubiquitous ruins, with a bike lift for good measure:

Made it to the Piazza della Repubblica, pausing a bit,

then down and right through a long tunnel sort of like the Stockton Tunnel in SF but better lit and longer, past the Spanish Steps where tourists were mobbing and we altered the sounds and sights for a half hour as we passed through:

Another pause in Piazza del Popolo, our numbers considerably smaller by now, nearly 9 p.m.

Finally up the hill to Pincheto in Villa Burguese Park where a new parking garage is being built (and whre the hardcore have a bicycle picnic every Wednesday night). A huge picnic and party with great food, wine, singing and talking lasted late into the night”¦ It was magic”¦ the best feelings and experiences of Critical Mass multiplied by being in Rome with such a big crowd of interesting, engaged people”¦

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