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Wheel fun, or a wheel pain?

Muscular bicyclists take over Boston's streets monthly, but do they rub others the wrong way?

"What's going on?"

Stranded motorists mouthed those words behind rolled-up car windows. Perplexed pedestrians hollered them from sidewalks. Bus riders, stalled on a summertime Friday evening, yelled them, too.

Before them, blocking their way: an armada of bicyclists funneled into a free-flowing, unorganized stream of wheelers around Copley Square. "What's the revolution? Bike evolution!" the two-wheeled tribe chanted throughout the Back Bay. "Bikes kick ass, cars suck gas!"

Not subtle, their mission to raise awareness about the healthy, non-polluting and fun alternative to their four-wheeled counterparts. (Translation: drivers.)

Throughout the evening, they literally pulled drivers over or stopped them in their tracks to make way for their Critical Mass, the name of their wheelbound movement.

They ran red lights. Stop signs. "Losers," some shouted to pedestrians, "buy a bicycle!"

Hooligans? Anarchists? Rowdy rolling obstacles?

To the bicyclists, this represented payback. They weren't blocking traffic. For once, they were traffic. Reclaiming, even if only temporarily, a piece of pavement in a town so singularly unfriendly to cyclists.

And, whether they were seen as assertive or obnoxious, everybody else got out of their way.

Dedicated to a cyclist killed on the streets of Cambridge, the July 26 ride, with more than 100 riders taking part, was the latest in what has become a rolling monthly protest to promote the perks of pedal power. Also heightening interest: the fact that most bicycle crashes occur over the summer, peaking in August, according to a 2001 study by the Governor's Highway Safety Bureau. Most occur between 3 and 6 p.m.

"Ride your bicycle!" shouted Julia Steinberger, wheeling her weathered green-hued bicycle, ringing a red bell and wearing a flowing skirt that billowed with the breeze. But her yellow and red bucket helmet showed she's no pushover: it was emblazoned with the words "Bike free. The revolution will not be motorized."

Although fond of Critical Mass and of her green contraption, which very much resembles the bicycle Julie Andrews employed in "The Sound of Music," she said she was aware that the group has attracted its share of troubles. Last year, at least one rider was arrested for failing to ride on the right side of Memorial Drive in Cambridge. And there's always the rage from the other side of the road: drivers who hurl insults as they inch behind them.

When Steinberger encountered one irate tailgating motorist, she looked back and said smugly: "Calm down, you are just going to have to wait."

A bike lane that wasn't

On July 2, 36-year-old Dana Laird was cycling north on Massachusetts Avenue from Central Square to meet a friend at her apartment. In the 400 block of Mass Ave, the driver of a parked SUV opened his door as Laird - riding in a dedicated bike lane - was approaching. She hit the door, lost control of her bike and fell under an oncoming bus, which crushed her.

As a nod to Laird, Steinberger, who has taken part in several Critical Masses, carted a sign that read "SUVs Kill" on her back. The MIT physics major from Central Square has cycled all over the world, joining the masses during visits to China and parades in Geneva, Switzerland. But this evening she had a rare, floating feeling while pedaling and gliding through Boston: security.

"It's a safe space for a bicyclist," she said of the monthly rides. "You don't have to be afraid of cars."

Alongside her, some bikers paid tribute to Laird by wearing black veils. Others threw out safety fliers and pamphlets. Amy Battisti-Ashe went one step further: she sported black feathered wings and a tinfoil halo in Laird's memory.

"That could have been any one of us," says Battisti-Ashe, an English teacher from Somerville who bikes to work and for everyday city living. "I want to make a positive difference on earth in every way I can."

For her, that's through Critical Mass, which began to denounce car culture in San Francisco a decade ago. It has since spread to more then 300 cities, beginning in Boston with get-togethers in 2000. (The name? It came from Ted White's 1991 film on international bicycle culture, Return of the Scorcher, which chronicled the crush of cyclists in China as they crossed busy streets without stoplights. They waited until a large group, a critical mass, gathered so they could forge ahead and force opposing traffic to halt.)

In Boston, bike buffs log on to a Web site (www.bostoncriticalmass.org) for information on upcoming bike-a-thons. The active Web site and mailing list crackle with comments and e-mails on other bicycling issues. For example, how far from parked cars should one ride? What to wear for the next ride (set for Aug. 30)?

These cyclists say they get no respect sometimes. As they attempt to make right turns at intersections, motorists constantly cut them off. Bike paths suddenly fracture or end. And of course, there's the rude motorists, some of them already upset at their rude two-wheeled cousins: bike messengers.

Watching the cyclists flow

Not that this is a shy group. During their June ride, the group turned heads and stopped traffic on Church Street near Harvard Square, shouting "Boycott Loew's" and "Union Yes" at moviegoers in-line outside the Loew's theater. The handlebar hoard were supporting the theaters' projectionist protest over a stalled contract.

Unlike those protesters, the cyclists have no organization. Come if you want. Leave when you want. There is no designated route either. It's people rolling with the flow, an "awesome" scene to some pedestrians.

"The sight of this is beautiful," said Steffi Karp of Newton, a passerby whose curiosity lured her to Copley to see why so many cyclists were gathered. "I've never seen anything like this."

More than 100 callers to Cambridge police did not share in the wonderment, Police Officer Timothy O'Brien informed the entourage when it reached Cambridge City Hall in Central Square. "You call this a protest?" O'Brien asked the cyclists on Mass Ave. "You're not making any friends here. Get out of the way."

Such protests suit Fenway's Lucas Brunelle, a computer instructor who goes the extra mile for the rides, just fine. In previous gatherings, he hitched a trailer to the back of his bicycle and towed a sofa, with people sitting on it, as he whipped and weaved throughout Boston.

On the latest ride, he ditched the sofa and added the band Human Shield, dressed in skintight zebra-patterned leotards, who blasted and blared their music throughout the city on a wide-load trailer.

He said he understands there may be a negative reaction from drivers to the Critical Mass gatherings.

"Maybe it's a casualty, and maybe it's a plus, but it gets people to think," he said. "It may get negative attention but it brings attention to the issue."

"It's a celebration of bicycles and everything they can do for the environment," Brunelle said. "It's a much better alternative to getting around."

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