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Midnight Ramblers

Buffalo's Midnight Bike Ride: a glimpse of bike culture, a party on wheels, an exercise in anarchy, and plain good exercise

The corner of College and Allen is overcome with a small horde of people and bikes, both in all shapes and sizes. College kids sipping beers, adults chatting, repair-savvy men and women alike squatting in front of tires pumping air—all of this packed onto the sidewalk and slightly overflowing into the street and the gated parking lot.

Suddenly, a group of riders honk their horns, ring their bells, and for a second, the crowd goes silent. Then, after a brief shuffle of noise, the crowd divides into shouts. “Gates Circle!” “Glenn Falls!”

The shouts go back and forth until evidently a consensus is reached: The first stop will be Gates Circle. In minutes, everyone assembles and the drove of bicycles takes off down Allen, all the while clogging the streets while turning on to Delaware. They fly through red lights, overflow into car lanes. This is Buffalo’s Midnight Bike Ride.

Moe Potter is new to the ride. “I started riding it in June. Before that, I hadn’t ridden a bike in over 10 years,” Potter says. “A bunch of us actually get together a few hours before it every Sunday and have dinner, hangout, and ride to Allen together to meet up with everyone else.”

As the group reaches Gates Circle, some riders do laps around the fountain, yelling and shooting fireworks. “I almost got hit. I was not happy,” says Kate Bobbett, one of the riders, after the ruckus has ended. “We’re just a bunch of kids who wanna have fun and sometimes there’ll be someone who wants to act stupid and ruin it for everyone else.”

“It’s really devolved,” adds James McMillan, another rider. “Two years ago, going down towards Tifft Nature Preserve, there was about one third of the people who were really rowdy. There were cops involved.”

The group starts to divide. Some ride off to the next mysteriously decided destination, some retire their bikes for a while and sit on the grass in small groups, and some go home. A police officer pulls up to a small group of riders. “What’s up with all the bicycles?” he says.

One rider replies, “I dunno, they went that way.”

* * *

The Midnight Bike Ride appears to have no hierarchy, no organization, but every Sunday, close to 100 riders experience a common impulse to gather and ride. Some semblance of order is found in the ride’s Myspace page. No one person claims to moderate it, but the site details another incident at Tifft farms this past April: “It’s cool to go to the nature preserve and hang out, if we’re being respectful about it. But we don’t live there; the deer and the geese do. And by trashing the place and being disrespectful, we do them a disservice.”

Jenna Murray is a frequent Midnight Bike Rider.

The page also offers instructions on what to do in the event of an encounter with the police. “I personally have not [had trouble with the police],” says Matthew Schaefer, another rider. “I have, however heard thrilling stories, jam-packed with police chases and fence-jumping.”

In recent years, the community of active bicyclists in the city has swelled and sought improve conditions for their brand of alternative transportation. It’s a community as diverse as they are fast—and boy, are they fast.

In 2005, Greener Options Buffalo, a division of the Wellness Institute of Greater Buffalo, started Buffalo Blue Bicycle, which operates a bike lending program and a volunteer bike shop. “Very early on, we collected bicycles by garbage-picking them,” says Justin Booth, leader of Greener Options’ environmental initiatives. “As word spread about what we were doing, more bicycles were acquired than we knew what to do with. The community bicycle workshop was launched as a community resource open to the public three days per week. Anyone can come to a regularly scheduled workshop and learn bicycle repair and maintenance and even build their own bicycle from the hundreds of used bicycles recycled through our program each year.

“At the workshop, sweat equity also counts as dollars, allowing volunteers who help build a bicycle for us to have access to our tools, bicycles and parts to use for themselves,”

So far Buffalo Blue Bicycle has been a hit. On any given night that the workshop is open, all the work areas are crowded with cyclists young and old, building or customizing bikes. “My goal was to not be a helpless woman and actually learn how to fix things for myself,” says Stacy Sauvageau, a volunteer at the shop. “I was also hoping to become skilled enough to help other people learn how to do the same.”

Gregory Wilder, the workshop manager, is proud of what Buffalo Blue Bicycle manages to accomplish. “I think it’s getting more people on bikes; people that wouldn’t be able to afford bikes.” Sauvageau agrees: “I think the program helps people who are financially disadvantaged, as well as people who have a desire to learn to fix bikes that may not have the proper resources to do so.”

However, Buffalo is not kind to bikes. In the entire city, there are approximately seven miles of road that include bike lanes. In 1996, the Common Council adopted a bike route network plan that proposed 128 miles of bicycle lanes in the city. Obviously, that plan fell by the wayside. “I think there are three streets in Buffalo with bike lanes and they all run north and south and none of them are connected,” Wilder says. “I think Buffalo needs a lot more bike lanes.”

Green Options Buffalo seeks to do something about this. The organization worked with the city to adopt a “Complete Streets” ordinance amendment.

“The policy works to ensure that when a roadway is designed, constructed or maintained, equal consideration will be given to commuters of all kinds—including bicyclists, pedestrians, public transportation users, children, people pushing baby strollers and the disabled,” Booth explains.

* * *

While people like Wilder and Booth are committed to improving conditions for the city’s bike-riding community, the Midnight Bike Ride professes no such agenda and occasionally sends a few mixed messages. “I get really angry when they leave like cans of beer all over the place,” Bobbett says. “Pick up after yourself, you know? They’ll also throw stuff in the lake. It really upsets me.”

Bikers gather each Sunday night at the corner of Allen and Wadsworth Streets.

Riders also have a tendency to get injured.

“I haven’t personally had a bad experience, but I’ve seen some people fall from being intoxicated on the ride and get seriously injured,” says Jenna Murray. “It’s happened to a few of my close friends. And it’s actually really funny.”

“A few of my bad experiences involve falling off my bike and hitting or cutting my head,” Schaefer says. “I didn’t even remember falling.”

With incidents like the fireworks on this ride, or the disturbances at Tifft Nature Preserve on previous rides, and various run-ins with unfriendly police, the Midnight Bike Ride has earned a reputation much different from that of a Critical Mass ride. Critical Mass bike rides, held during the afternoon rush hour on the last Friday of each month in cities across the country, including Buffalo, are purposeful and organized, and follow a code of conduct, and are often (though not always) tolerated by police. Critical Mass rides aim to raise consciousness about biking as a means of transportation.

Christopher Fecio has participated in both the Midnight Bike Ride here in Buffalo and a Critical Mass in San Francisco. “Compared to the Critical Mass in San Francisco, it really isn’t much of a big deal,” he says. “For one, since it’s every week, it takes away from some of the power that the Critical Mass has. Obviously, they both have some things in common, such as the dedication of the riders to the idea that cycling isn’t dead.”

Fecio had a good time on the Midnight Bike Ride. “It was a really enjoyable experience. More or less, it is just a bunch of people who like cycling and drinking and they get together and do both. It was enlightening to ride through some parts of the city and down some streets that I hadn’t experienced before.”

Unlike Critical Mass, the Midnight Bike Ride does not promote any political agenda and does not recruit riders into its ranks. Its vagabond image is the largest part of its charm.

“It’s just word of mouth,” Bobbett says. “I would call it a freak party, in a way.”

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