Thursday, September 22, 2011

Critical Angst

For MOST participants, I think, last night's Critical Mass was an unqualified kick in the pants. According to the Hungarian news agency, MTI, about 30,000 people turned out, and the closing bike lift at Heroes' Square was one for the ages: Perched on the steps of the Museum of Fine Arts, the Budapest Festival Orchestra rewarded finishers with a short but sweet concert starting at 8 p.m. The selections included Tchaikovsky, Dvorák and Brahms.

Co-organiser Károly Sinka told MTI that it had been the best attended Car-Free Day Critical Mass ever. The free-style mode of organisation -- with no cordoned off parade route -- would be "the future" of the event, Sinka added.

My own experience of the ride was less of a success -- partly because there were just so many people this year. We got caught in a jam on the kiskörút and ended up missing the bike lift as well as the BFO's serenade. As I pulled up to the square, Maestro Iván Fischer was taking his bows before an ecstatic crowd, and wishing them "many car-free days." But having missed the performance, the moment was lost on me.

Things started out promisingly enough at the Feneketlen tó, as I finally got hold of some CM 2011 stickers to keep the series going on our refrigerator. Some other activists were passing out stickers for free-range eggs or something, and I got this snap of Lance in front of their giant pink chicken.

It was something to do with "bio" eggs or humanely produced ones or something along those lines.
We stopped in at the Transit cafe to check out a photo exhibition ("Me and my Bike"), and then we met some cycling acquaintances and settled in for a couple refreshments. Then time sort-of got away from us.

It was past 7 p.m. when we finally clamboured back onto our bikes and I knew we were cutting it close with the bike lift scheduled at 8. Sure enough, we got caught in one of the worst Critical Mass jams of all time. Honestly, I don't think it'd been that bad since the giant Critical Mass in the spring of 2008. You'd be in front of a traffic signal and sit there through four cycles of the light before finally getting through the intersection. (The irony of me complaining about a traffic jam that we deliberately set out to create is not lost on me. But damn -- I was getting nostalgic for the CMs of recent years, when there were enough of us to make an impression but not no so many that you couldn't move.)

Damn this traffic jam!
After creeping down the kiskörút for a half hour, Kristin suggested that maybe such a long exposure to traffic fumes (from cars, not us, obviously) wasn't the healthiest thing for our kids. And me, being the stubborn arse that I am, insisted on riding the thing to its conclusion. CM is evidently more important to me than protecting my kids from black lung. What kind of monster am I?

Sequoia was a good sport for awhile, but after we got past Szabadság Bridge,
she started to squeal.
At least Kristin, who was carrying Sequoia, did the right thing and bagged on it before the turn at Andrássy. Sequoia was getting crabby by that point anyway, so it was time to get her home. Lance was also getting crabby, but as he had the misfortune to be on my bike, he was stuck.

Restless Lance tries to frustrate my picture taking.
Poor guy. All of his suffering (and my stupid persistence) was for naught. By the time Lance and I got across Dózsa György and over to the museum's steps, the only evidence of the night's merriment were these empty seats and sheet music holders. We saw a couple musicians idling by with instrument cases over their shoulders, but no sign of Iván Fischer.

I bet that was an awesome concert.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Fall Critical Mass Thursday night

So Thursday night, Critical Mass will be held in the usual "Car-Free Day" style. The starting time is 6:30 p.m. as usual, but the starting point is a little different -- at the Budai Parkszinpad near Móricz Zsigmond körtér by the Feneketlen tó (Bottomless Lake).

It ends at Heroes' Square, with the bike lift scheduled at 8 p.m. on the steps of the Fine Arts Museum.

The rules for the fall Critical Mass are always the same. There won't be a parade cordon. You can choose your own route, although most riders will go down Bartók Béla út, across Szabadság híd, down the Kiskörút, right on Andrássy, and then straight down to Heroes' Square.

Evening commuters who are NOT going by bike are advised to take the tram or Metro if they happen to be in these parts of the city. Buses and car traffic will be affected.

As I wrote earlier, we'll be treated to a concert at the square by the Budapest Festival Orchestra. And later, at the Kertem in City Park (my favourite Bp beer garden), the Dutch Embassy in Hungary is hosting an apres Critical Mass party with music by the local ska band, the Pannonia All-Stars.

See more details (in Hungarian) at

Monday, September 19, 2011

Long-awaited break through

I was away on holiday and I missed it -- the long-awaited, permanent (knock on wood) opening of the Buda Quay bike tunnel under Margit Bridge. This morning on my regular commute, I started taking the customary detour around the tunnel -- and then I noticed that the chain-link fence across the opening of the tunnel had been removed. And cyclists were actually going into it. I guess things do happen to those who wait.

Of course, the bike path on the bridge deck is still a work in slow, agonising progress ...

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Festival Orchestra to Play at Critical Mass

Image stolen from
This year's Critical Mass won't be quite as subdued as I feared. The closing bike lift at Heroes' Square will feature probably the most sublime musical accompaniment Hungary can offer: the Budapest Festival Orchestra.

According to posts on the Hungarian Cyclists' Club site as well as on the Facebook page of the orchestra:
"The Budapest Festival Orchestra, as a sign of respect for the Critical Mass on Sept. 22, at the end of the event, will welcome cyclists with music in Heroes Square."
BFO Musical Director Iván Fischer includes this personal message to CM participants:
"I really like and respect Critical Mass. They give me confidence in our future."
Needless to say, that's some endorsement. And from one of the most accomplished and respected figures of Hungarian society and international arts.

A colleague who saw this news was skeptical of whether Critical Mass and classical would go together. And I can't dispute that it will be an unusual pairing. The background music at past rides has been firmly grounded in popular genres; one particular memory is of a sun-dappled bike lift a couple years ago behind the Petofi Csarnok, and having Bob Marley's "Iron Lion Zion" blasting from a boom box.

I love Bob Marley and I loved that moment, but in terms of evangelistic value, we can do better. The cycling movement already does quite well with students and old punk rockers like myself. It needs to diversify and send a message that cycling is for everyone, no matter their age, hair style or musical tastes. On this score, the booking of the BFO is more than a coup -- it rocks!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Major Upgrade for Budapest-Vienna Trail

Here's a stretch of Eurovelo 6 just south of Szentendre. Hopefully this will benefit from the new project.
 According to an announcement this week, the government plans to spend an unprecedented HUF 12 billion (EUR 43 million) to construct and refurbish the Danube-bank cycling path connecting Budapest to the Austrian border.

As the cycling blog Kerekagy reported Monday, the project would involve construction of 200 km of brand-new bike path. On the remainder of the 282 kilometre section, there will be refurbishments of existing paths or signage would posted along side roads. In addition, according to the blog, the project would include work on 38 bridges, two large ones across the Danube and 36 smaller ones.

The route in question is but a small section of one of the biggest international bike routes in Europe. Euro-Velo 6 runs more than 5,000 km all the way from the Atlantic Ocean to the Black Sea, crossing France, Switzerland and Germany, and following the Danube through Central and Eastern Europe to the river's mouth in Romania.

Here's some of the less impressive signage on the route (again between Szentendre and Budapest).
This is a little unfair, though: the signage is generally good, it's the path that needs work.
The section from Austria to Budapest is a favourite route of Western Europeans looking for new cycling adventures in Eastern Europe, but the quality of the riding surfaces so far has left much to be desired.

At a news conference in the Hungarian community of Komarom, along the Eurovelo 6 route, the government’s special commissioner on cycling affairs, István Garancsi, said the project is in “advanced negotiations.”

Garancsi noted that he didn’t know the intentions of the Slovak government, whose territory lies on the opposite bank of the river over much of this portion of the route. Regardless of that, the basic concept of the project has been established, he said.

Speaking in the presence of Hungary’s State Secretary for Infrastructure Development Pál Völner, Garancsi said the project could be completed within the current budget cycle.

One of the remarkable things about the announcement is that Garancsi was appointed to his position just last April, and at the time he was unknown to grassroots cycling groups. Formerly the owner of the Fehérvár and Videoton football clubs, he was named to the position by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán with the remit of organising recreational cycling and tourism and development of the bike route network and cycling transport.

A Subdued Critical Mass Announcement

BLAST FROM THE PAST? This stolen shot is from 2007.
One of CM's main organisers, Gábor Kürti, is riding third from the left.
The coordinates for the fall Budapest Critical Mass have been announced, albeit in an unusually subdued fashion.

According to a post Wednesday morning at, the ride starts at 6.30 p.m. September 22 (European Car Free Day, as usual) in front of the Buda Park Stage (Budai Parkszinpad). This is by the Feneketlen tó at Kosztolányi Dezső tér.

The destination will be Heroes' Square and the bike lift will be in front of the Museum of Fine Arts. The post neglects to indicate what time the lift will be. Neither is the route specified, although that does accord with the tradition of the fall CM. As opposed to the spring event, the fall ride doesn't have a police escort and there is no prescribed, cordoned-off parade route. You ride in traffic and are expected to obey traffic rules.

I would expect a more detailed notice to be posted in the coming days on, but I'm not certain. As of Monday, the only hint that there was going to be anything was a facebook page that said there would be a ride but, at that point, divulged few other details. The only hint that CM had any future was a survey posted August 24 with questions about people's opinions on about Critical Mass.

As some readers will remember, organisers put up a cryptic post before last spring's ride declaring that it would be the "first last" Critical Mass. At that point it wasn't clear if they were really calling it a day or merely goading participants into pitching in with more support. But over the ensuing months, there were a couple other impromptu rides (one celebrating the opening of the bike lanes on the kiskörút, the other proposing a toast to the new lanes on Margit Bridge). So with with all that activity, it was my impression that things were just going according to routine and I was sort of expecting that this fall's ride would go off as usual.

However, seeing as it is just over two weeks until Car-Free Day and we've still not seen the customary redesign of the CM website, there's been no call for volunteer escorts, and there's been nothing more than a three-line, incomplete post about it -- well, maybe things ARE winding down on the CM front.

I don't have anymore insight on this. We'll see what the coming days have in store ... .