Santiago cyclists reclaim the streets in monthly show of support

Thousands of bikers met in Plaza Italia on Feb. 1 before riding for two hours through along the streets and avenues of Chile’s capital. The rally was one more manifestation of the worldwide cycling phenomenon which takes place monthly in over 300 cities around the world.

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Around 1,500 cyclists filled Santiago’s Plaza Italia – the downtown square usually reserved for football celebrations or spontaneous national parties – in a blaze of whistles and bells.

The show of public support for bicycling in the city is a sign of the changing times in Chile’s capital city as more and more cyclists join the parade each month to demonstrate an environmentally-friendly way about town.

The thousand-plus cyclists lead a two hour tour of Santiago, first heading to the southern edge of the central district, then north and east into the up-market neighborhoods of Providencia and Las Condes. Cars tooted their horns and onlookers appeared at their balconies, many affirming their support for the worldwide social movement for city-cycling.

Many of the people present do their daily commute on bicycles and feel the monthly event to be a staple in Santiago’s biking community. “It was empowering and invigorating,” said Michael Snyder, a participant in the rally. “I think it’s good for the biking community to get together like this, it shows a sense of pride and ownership of the city-–that’s what we’re all about.”

Critical Mass-style bike rides began in Stockholm, Sweden, in the early 70s, as tours through the city with hundreds of participants. A documentary about overseas bicycle culture by American filmmaker Ted White discussed an informal agreement in China where both motorists and bicyclists had an understood method of negotiating intersections without signals. Traffic would “bunch up” at these intersections until the backlog reached a “critical mass”, at which point that mass would move through the intersection.

The turn-of-phrase was applied to biking events like the one in Santiago by bicyclists in San Francisco in 1992, and has since spread to 325 cities worldwide and counting.

Bicycle culture has burgeoned in Santiago in recent years, and the Chilean government has been ahead of the curve to developing alongside it. Various new bicycle paths, routes and tourist projects have enabled visitors in need of some exercise to visit some of the most beautiful places in Santiago and around Chile, with no more than a pair of wheels and a bit of endurance.