First Critical Mass Wellingborough

Back on Friday 31st July 2020, Wellingborough held its first ever Critical Mass.

What follows is collection of photos and videos from the day.


It was such a massive success.  At its peak, there were 67 people cycling in one big group.  As I have watched some of the videos back, it seemed to go like a never ending snake.  I was so pleased at the turnout.  All of the effort I had put into getting this off the ground had paid off!  This has inspired me to try to do one every month thereafter.

I had wanted to do Critical Mass in Wellingborough years ago.  I had attended my first Critical Mass back in May 2014 in Nottingham and then London’s Critical Mass many times over the years since.  I was tempted to try to launch one in July 2014 but didn’t think there was an appetite here.

During the height of the full lockdown restrictions so many people had experienced the wonderful act of cycling as not only a leisure or exercise activity at the weekend but a legitimate mode of transport to get to the shops or to go to essential places of work.  This occurred on nearly empty roads but even by June this was starting to change as cars crept back. Critical Mass was an opportunity to not only celebrate how great cycling is, but it gave the chance to cycle in the safety of one big group on the road – a right which was being taken away by the increasing number of cars taking up room on that road.  Also it was an opportunity to protest and call on our councils to bring about infrastructure changes to enable and encourage cycling.  More on this later.

Leading up to the ride

Over the few weeks beforehand I had put up a lot of posters, had spoken to so many people and even got a fabulous piece written in the Northants Evening Telegraph!  In the final week I really ramped on advertising sometimes almost standing in the path of people cycling, flagging them down and nearly begging to come along to my first ride and protest to make cycling better and safer in Wellingborough.

On the Tuesday before the cycle, the government launched their rather wonderful and wide reaching policy document called Gear Change and the complementary technical document the LTN 1/20 which led to a flurry of media activity.  Despite the many radical changes these documents set out, the media focussed frustratingly on one particular small piece of news; the government would be giving £50 vouchers to those who needed to get their bicycles road worthy again.  The town of Wellingborough was picked up by the BBC as it was ranked a few years ago as the worst town in the country for active travel.  For a piece for BBC News online a few people, including me, were asked about cycling here and whether the £50 voucher would make a difference.  I made sure I got in a mention of the upcoming Critical Mass ride in.  I was since told this page has been viewed over 250,000 times worldwide!

This led to me being on BBC Radio Northampton the next day where I spoke about cycling in the town and again I plugged Critical Mass.  And then I was contacted about appearing on television on Friday evening’s BBC Look East with the idea of pre-recording a segment about the quality of cycling in the town and then a live segment with people gathering to take part in Critical Mass.  All was coming together!

Friday’s 31st July 2020 – the day of the ride

The day arrived and I was feeling quite pumped.  It was incredibly hot day.  I met the BBC Look East’s presenter and cameraman about 10.45am to do the pre-recording.  Afterwards I went home and got the final bits ready including finalising my speech.  Then I cycled to the station to meet my friend Seb who had come down from Nottingham to support me. We both went back to my house, rested for a brief few moments, got everything ready and arrived down outside Castello Lounge at about 6.20pm.  I had hoped to arrive sooner but was running, or rather wheeling a bit late!  I turned the corner expecting to see a few people, socially distanced of course, gathering and eager to cycle – but the area was completely empty.  I was 10 minutes early but still I expected a few to be there.  About 5 minutes later the BBC turned up with their camera and but still there was not any one else.  Oh dear.  Oh dear.  But thankfully a few moments later people began to to trickle in.  More and more and more arrived.  The BBC filmed their piece with us waiting to leave as their backdrop.

Videos and photos

Here are some videos and photos of the day.  Above I have embedded the BBC Look East piece.  I then made my speech just before 7pm and then we were off. In the final few minutes more riders gathered and we hit 65 people and as we cycled we picked up a further two en route!

Below is the full edited masterpiece created by Dez Dell (@dezzahd).  Credit and thanks to him for capturing the ride so well and then editing it together so quickly and perfectly.  Most of his raw videos are on my YouTube channel samuelshoesmithuncut or quite a few of them are shown below.

Below is the full speech:





Afterwards, we cycled along Northampton Road, back on ourselves to Westfield Road, then Brickhill, Burns Road, Shelley Road, Queensway and then back along Northampton Road merging to Oxford Street, Silver Street and the Church Street, right to Orient Way and then back to Castello Lounge.

What led to the creation of Critical Mass in Wellingborough? The political background

As well visually seeing the plethora of people taking up cycling, as mentioned above, I had a sense that neither county council nor borough council were intent on acting either at all or quickly enough.  There was a very short window of opportunity in which they had to act and the changes needed to be meaningful.

Around about the end of May, a group formed called Northants Streets for All – active travel advocates across the county and when asked me, without hesitation I joined straight away.  As the weeks rolled on, it was noted that Northamptonshire County Council were not following instructions correctly.  There was clear government instruction that councils had to act to bring about a radical reallocation of road space.  The government made the announcement on all the way back on May 9th and soon sent out an invitation to the county council to bid for £351,000 (page 1 and page 2 of letter).

The letter stated that the funding was for active travel measures including pop cycle cycle lanes and temporary measures which would make walking and cycling safer.  It stated there was a need to socially distance and create a safe was to cycle including using light segregation as public transport capacity had decreased.  Other suggestions, as stated in more detail online, included point closures, modal filters, and the creation of ‘School Streets’ and noting the on road measures had to involve a meaningful reallocation of road space.

Northants Streets for All campaigned hard to try to get the county council to listen to our suggestions and get them to move with vitesse.  Eventually and pushing for it, they launched the website Commonplace  where you can drop a pin and make suggestions.   It was up for just under a month and there were an astonishingly nearly 2,000 suggestions made.  We thought that the council would implement changes based on the risk of danger that was flagged, also the benefit it could have on active travel and dependent on how many people gave a ‘thumbs up’ to show their agreement.

Time continued to roll on and there was no action.  On June 25th, finally a few barriers appeared on Montagu Street in Kettering.  This was to enable social distancing a simple measure that could have been implemented so much sooner.  It was not a scheme that the consultation Commonplace had called for.  It was a token gesture that they implemented in order that it would enable a few people to socially distance but not cause much disruption to drivers.  They couldn’t bear for that.

But this time frame in comparison to Wellingborough’s was good.  After leaning on the Northants Highways, they suddenly decided to put cones and a bit of tarmac on Silver Street in Wellingborough on 5th August 2020.  The next day they found some barriers and replaced the cones with these.

It was then midway through August that they decided to implemented their first cycling scheme.  This was near three months after they should have.  It was on St. Mary’s Road over in Kettering.  There were no requests on Commonplace for such a pop up cycle lane.  It was soon realised that Commonplace was created solely to placate the voices who were demanding action.

In terms of Wellingborough, just before I joined Northants Street for All,  along with Tom Jones, I created a lengthy document of suggestions for cycling and walking in the town and sent these to the person in charge of cycling at KierWSP, the company that that is outsourced to run Northamptonshire Highways.  There were some more complex requests such as the alterations of junctions but also some asks as simple as cutting trees to allow people to walk, removing ‘cyclist dismount signs’ and creating pop up cycle lanes on wide roads.  Nothing happened.

Back in June, there was still no action whatsoever in Wellingborough.  I sent this tweet all the way back on June 4th.

A few of us from Wellingborough realised that our town needed a separate voice for active travel.  For decades active travel has been neglected and the coronavirus brought into focus just how unjust it was that people walking have such a tiny sliver of pavement to attempt, and fail, to socially distance.  Generally there is the need for measures such as the need to remove pedestrian chicanes and creating smooth, wide pavements to make the journeys for people walking better but also for prams, people in wheelchairs and those with disabilities easier, safer and more straight forward. The coronavirus also brought to light how there needed to be more emphasis on cycling.  Tom Jones, Councillor Valerie Anslow and I decided to make Wellingborough Active Travel.  At the beginning of July, Valerie and I were discussing ways to make the town better and she mentioned a concept she recalled hearing about where people cycle together in big groups in different cities all over the world.  I told her I knew quite well about this and it was called Critical Mass and the nearest one is over in Northampton.  I decided I wanted to launch one here.  It is something I have wanted to do for so long as mentioned above.  I went to my first Critical Mass in Nottingham when I finished university in May 2014.  I went to launch it in here back then but I did not know any local fans of cycling nor did I feel there was an appetite.   There certainly is right now!


What is Critical Mass?

Critical Mass is a cycle ride that happens in towns and cities all over the world at roughly the same time and on the same day. It happens around 7.00pm.

It started off in 1992 in San Francisco at around 6pm. It was firstly known as the “Commuter Clot”. The idea was to make the presence of cycling known and to cause a big disruption as the group cycled en mass.  That year a film was produced called ‘Return of the Scorcher’. A particular scene in this film shows in a Chinese city and it looks at the the interaction between motor traffic and the many people on bicycles. The producer commented on the how there seemed to be unwritten rules that how after so long, and with such a build up, a critical mass develops and all the cyclists suddenly go together and the motor traffic has to wait for them to pass. It was then from this that the ride in San Francisco adopted the name and it spread all across the world.

Many places now start after the Friday evening rush hour traffic at 7pm or thereafter.  The idea still is about making the presence of people on cycles known.  There are such a wide range of reasons that below take part, touched on in the film below.  Some take part as it is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate cycling whereas others see it as a chance to protest cycle lanes and demand safety on our streets for people in 4 wheels or on two or walking.  Everyone is trying to get from A to B.

Here’s a video interviewing the founders of Critical Mass:

And here’s a video of aforementioned film ‘Return of the Scorchers’:

Thanks for reading or listening,

Samuel x

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