This is the first of a week-long series about cycling in Houston.
I was 15 miles into a 20-mile ride when my friend veered left and hit the front tire of my borrowed bike, rendering it useless. The front tire jolted to a stop as I was launched off the left side of the bike, my right leg taking the brunt of my injuries and my left palm breaking my fall.
I watched as another cyclist nearly ran over my fingers. I heard people asking if I was okay. I heard others telling me to get out of the way.
This was my introduction to the behemoth that is Critical Mass.
Critical Mass is a social ride that takes place the last Friday of every month. Hoards of cyclists from around the city meet up at Market Square Park in downtown and take off on a 20-mile tour of Houston, taking a different route every month. It's casual, slow-paced and exciting — until your friend cuts you off and you land sideways on the ground. Other than that, I was thrilled.
I'd never heard of Critical Mass until one of my friends, an avid road cyclist, invited me to ride with a group of friends. I've had an interest in bikes ever since I was little and have recently been thinking about participating in a triathlon, so I figured if I was going to get into cycling, doing it in a fun environment with a group of friends was the best way to do it.
My group of eight met up in a parking lot and took the MetroRail (yay, public transit!) into the city center. Only a couple of us had brought bikes — I borrowed one from a friend — so we hopped off in east downtown and stopped by EaDo Bike Co., a bike rental store tucked away behind BBVA Compass Stadium, that was offering Critical Mass bike rentals for $10. Compared to the $20-plus a B-Cycle would've cost for the ride, the price was a steal. Twenty minutes later, seven of us rode off into downtown on bikes. The last person, a friend of a friend of a friend, had brought his own pair of roller blades — he was going to skate the whole route with us.
We arrived at Market Square Park just as the majority of the Critical Mass group had left. We caught the tail end and played follow the leader for the first couple miles of the ride. We rode east, under I-10 and past the Saint Arnold Brewing Company. A couple of industrial warehouses marred our view of downtown, which got smaller in the distance the more we rode.
Our first ride-through was Houston's Fifth Ward. Droves of residents lined the streets, phones up and smiles on their faces as the video taped us. I felt like a celebrity for a little bit and said hello to any of the little kids waiting with their own bikes and helmets, ready to jump right in and join the ride. I kept pace with my group and rode on.
We stopped at Seller Bros. off of Market Street in Jacinto City to rest for about 30 minutes before we trekked on. I led the group coming out of the break and two of my friends caught up to me so that I wasn't riding alone. On Twitter before the ride, I'd read the route called for a lot of bridges. We'd only gone over flat land up until that point, so I knew we had that to look forward to. My legs weren't ready.
The ride had gone over one bridge as my friend I were cruising, pestering each other with questions about life, when he lost of control of his bike and cut me off.
Everything hurt. My leg. My palm. My big right toe. But I had to get out of the way quickly for fear of getting run over by someone who wasn't paying attention. My fingers almost got ran over by a guy who witnessed the fall but didn't react quickly enough to course correct.
I got up, scraped the dirt off my clothes and got back on. By then, we were almost lost. Neither of us had a cell phone on us, so we followed a group of cyclists slightly ahead of us and followed them into downtown, passing by Ninfa's on Navigation, triggering my craving for some sloppy Tex-Mex.
Eventually we met back up with our group at the lot where we parked our cars, and I showed everyone my newly-acquired bruises before loading my borrowed bike into the back of a friend's truck and driving off. I never did get my Tex-Mex.