Bicyclists, Motorist Clash in San Francisco

An angry clash between bicyclists and a motorist still has tempers flaring in the Bay Area. Hundreds of cyclists taking part in the monthly Critical Mass ride allegedly surrounded a woman's minivan and violently attacked the vehicle. The bikers claim the woman hit one of them and then attempted to flee.

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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Cohen.

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With all those hills, San Francisco looks like hell for bicyclists. Maybe that explains the bad relations between city residents who ride and those who drive. The latest incident - an ugly, violent skirmish between a woman in a minivan and a band of bikers with pedals, not Harleys.

NPR's Richard Gonzales reports.

RICHARD GONZALES: Susan Ferrando and her husband were celebrating their daughter's birthday. It was a night out in San Francisco. They had five pre-teens in their minivan, and Ferrando says she had just left the parking garage when she found her vehicle surrounded by bicyclists.

Ms. SUSAN FERRANDO: They were on the right. They were on the left. My car was sort of getting manipulated by the riders as to where I could drive or go. I was being inched to the left. My first thought was, maybe I've been in the middle of a bike race.

GONZALES: Nervous and confused, Ferrando said she tried to keep driving, hoping to get away from the bicyclists. But when she stopped at the next red light, her confusion turned to terror.

Ms. FERRANDO: The back window is smashed out, and we're surrounded by bikers. And two or three bikers pounding on the front windshield and my side window, the driver's window. And all the while, I'm yelling out my window because I am inches, inches from this person. There are children in this car. There are children in this car. Just let us go.

GONZALES: Neither Ferrando nor any of her passengers was hurt. However, her minivan sustained $5,300 in damages. Ferrando later learned that she'd been in the middle of Critical Mass. It's an organic and leaderless bike ride held on the last Friday of every month in San Francisco, drawing hundreds, if not thousands of cyclists.

One Critical Mass rider, Kate McCarthy, was an eyewitness to some of the events that night. She says the cyclists had a reason to confront Ferrando.

Ms. KATE MCCARTHY (Critical Mass Rider): I saw the driver hit a cyclist and flee the scene. And cyclists chased after - about four cyclists chased after her, and I caught up with them and they had stopped her at a stoplight.

GONZALES: McCarthy says the unidentified cyclist was not injured and did not file a police report. The incident has rekindled an ongoing controversy surrounding Critical Mass. Back when the group started riding 15 years ago, it was pushing for all bikers to have safe access to the roads.

But later, as the group grew larger, there were complaints that many bikers were openly aggressive to motorists and others in their path. Mayor Gavin Newsom tried to downplay the Ferrando incident, calling it an anomaly, even as he called for more self-policing within the bicycle community.

Mayor GAVIN NEWSOM (San Francisco, California): It does the bicycle advocacy community no good to have people that are aggressive and dispirit the entire movement.

GONZALES: But Leah Shahum, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, says the incident is overblown and that Critical Mass is getting a bad rap.

Ms. LEAH SHAHUM (Executive Director, San Francisco Bicycle Coalition): Most of the folks are out there looking to be peaceful and respectful. They really are celebrating bicycling. They're looking for a joyful experience. There is always, though, a small percentage of, kind of, hooligans who want to mess things up for everybody else, who do get violent, who do send their own message. And that's unfortunate for everybody.

(Soundbite of car horn honking)

GONZALES: Not everyone in the cycling community would agree. Among the professional bike messengers taking their lunch break on Market Street downtown, no one is a fan of Critical Mass. Its ideals were great at the start, says Josh Richmond. Now, he says, it just makes his job harder.

Mr. JOSH RICHMOND (Professional Bike Messenger, San Francisco): Now it's just a bunch of people just stirring up trouble and making problems. And when they slam somebody's car hood, you know, and somebody gets pissed off, they take it out on us, and we have to deal with it all day when we're working and deal with everybody else's road rage.

GONZALES: As for Susan Ferrando, she says she had never heard of Critical Mass before her run-in with them. And now she says she's unlikely to return to San Francisco anytime they're riding on a Friday night.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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