Is Rollin' Coal the Mirror Image of Critical Mass?

It’s been said that for every activist there’s an equal and opposite reactionary. So I’m just asking: Are these “Rollin’ Coal” trolls just the natural polar-opposites to Critical Massholes?

Coal Rolling a Bicyclist
I’m blowing smoke on you because I’m blowing smoke on you.

Rollin’ Coal, if you haven’t heard of it, is a phenomenon where people modify their diesel trucks to make them less fuel efficient. The modifications, which can cost up to $5000, allow the driver to belch out thick black smoke on demand as a way of expressing “anti-envrionmentalism.” Often this smoke is directed at pedestrians, cyclists, and fuel-efficient automobiles.

Critical Mass, if you haven’t heard of it, means you are a sweet and innocent person visiting a bike blog for the very first time, bless your heart. It also refers to events where bicyclists take over public roads in large numbers in order to “reclaim the streets.” These events are often held without permits, and can cause inconveniences to other users of public roads.

So there are some similarities. Can we admit that? Both phenomena are provocative and they both are undertaken by people who are assertive — belligerent even — when it comes to their respective forms of transportation.

But is Rollin’ Coal the mirror image of Critical Mass?

It depends.

Many people who commute by bike are simply that: people who use a bike to commute and for other utilitarian purposes. These people do not think of themselves as “cyclists” anymore than they think of themselves as “motorists” due to the fact that they occasionally use a car.

But then there are the cyclists — people whose psyches are very much wrapped up in the fact that they own and use bikes. The bicycle is the central venerated object of their tribal identity. They want everyone to know it. You could be talking to one of them them about stratocumulus clouds, and he or she would say, “That cloud reminds me of a bike, and while we’re on the subject of bikes…”

Within this tribe of cyclists is clan that doesn’t at all mind being dicks about it. They won’t wait for a chance to change the subject to bikes. They show up waving their bikes in everyone’s face. Being a dick about it is the point — the only point.

Critical Mass Bike Lift
Look! We have bikes! Let us hold them up so you can see them better!

Roving gangs of these clan members constitute one type of Critical Mass. They are the bicycle equivalent to Rollin’ Coal. The are the Critical Massholes.

An important difference between Rollin’ Coal and Critical Mass is that Critical Mass events are not always expressions of this kind of tribalism, and the participants are not always members of this clan of bullies. At the right time and place Critical Mass serves a useful advocacy purpose.

In a municipality that is turning a deaf ear to facilitating bike use and the rights of people who use bikes — say anywhere at all in Alabama, Montana, or Kentucky — a Critical Mass event might be an excellent tactic for getting the attention of decision makers. You don’t have to be cyclist to see the point and to participate; you just have to be someone who wants the freedom to use a bike safely in the town where you live.

In places such as Portland, Boulder, or the other cities over which we bike types fawn, it would be asinine and counterproductive to hold a Critical Mass. In these communities the problem these events create is disproportionate to the injustice experienced by cyclists.

In other words: Someone who views Critical Mass as an advocacy tactic, not a way of life, is not a Critical Masshole and has nothing in common with Rollin’ Coal.

Rolling Coal is indefensible. It achieves nothing as an advocacy tactic. It’s a schoolyard bully with a flamethrower. Its pure tribalism. And for all these reasons this idiocy will likely backfire.

Ted Johnson lives in Flagstaff, Arizona. Follow his hardly-ever-about-bikes blogging at Half-Hearted Fanatic, and tweeting at @TedJohnsonIII.

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13 thoughts on “Is Rollin' Coal the Mirror Image of Critical Mass?”

  1. Island Dave says:

    This is a timely subject, happening around the country and even here on Martha’s Vineyard.

    It happened to me just two weeks ago. A black Dodge pickup flying a huge American flag from the bed of the truck, this idiot left me twice in a big black billowing cloud of smoke.

    I was doing 40 + mph in a 40 mph zone when this truck passed me at 60 +/- mph. He cut in front of me and slammed on the brakes as did I. He then floored leaving me in a billowing cloud soot.

    I was bringing it back up to speed when there he was again waiting for me. He floored it again and left a cloud of soot that I rode through for over a mile and a half.

    I ride a velomobile and fortunately have a roof and a windshield which I am able to close and keep a great deal of the soot out of my lungs. I would hate to be on an open bike and be smoked like this.

    Martha’s Vineyard is a small Island. I have seen this truck around for a while. This kid can’t be to swift to think that he will be getting away with this. I have already spoken with the Board of Selectmen and the Police.

  2. Island Dave says:

    On an added note. I am car free and ride year round with over 31,000 miles on my Velomobile alone in just over 4.5 years. I do all my errands and shopping. My bicycles and Velomobile are my modes of transportation.

  3. Bruce says:

    It should be noted that modifying a vehicle’s exhaust system in a way that defeats its emission control systems violates the Clean Air Act and, as such, is a federal offense.

  4. I would hope that modifying the exhaust system in such a way as to billow black, polluting smoke into the air would result in bone crushing fines. Perhaps that is wishful thinking on my part. Thanks for posting, Ted. I had never heard of this level of asinine-ness until today.

  5. BluesCat says:

    All of you Arizonans out there should be aware that somebody who commits Rollin’ Coal in our state is guilty of harassment, a class 1 misdemeanor, under the provisions of Arizona Revised Statutes §13-2921; they can get up to six months in jail for it. Get their license number and make it a bad day for them.

  6. Brooks says:

    I recently heard of Rollin’ Coal and, at first, couldn’t believe it. As I thought about it a little longer, I guess I wasn’t all that surprised. I’ve been on the receiving end of some pretty unbelievable behavior from drivers, both when on my bicycle and in the car (driving at the speed limit – how dare I).

    I recently had another interesting experience at a nearby pharmacy, where there is a drive-up window for prescription pickups. I was told that I can’t use the window when I’m on a bike. They have no provisions to lock a bike either, so the last time I picked up a prescription, I took my bike inside with me. Although nobody said anything about it, I couldn’t help wondering if I wasn’t crossing the line myself, although all I was trying to do was to make sure I had a way to get home again.

  7. Island Dave says:


    You did absolutly right. You had no other choice.

    I had the same issue at a drive in window at my bank. I told the clerk at the window that if she would not take my deposit that I was ready to slip into the drawer and I would have to come inside it would be to empty my three bank accounts.

    They took my deposit.

  8. John M. Hammer says:

    Brooks and Dave- I’ve tried the drive-up window at fast-food places and been denied service every time. Each time I was told that they couldn’t do it because of issues with their insurance but in some cases did invite me to bring the bike inside with me. Bringing the bike inside, for me with my somewhat large and awkward recumbent, is more trouble than locking it up nearby and activating the bike’s motion alarm. So maybe this policy is saving me from eating some very bad food but I sure would find it convenient were it permitted.

    I haven’t tried a bank and there are no pharmacies around here (NYC-Queens) I know about that have drive-up windows. The pizza places that have service to the street or sidewalk through a window have been happy to sell to me while I was sitting on my bike.

  9. BluesCat says:

    Brooks, Dave & John –

    I’ve found a pretty good way to deal with the No Bikes in the Drive-Thru nonsense, at least when it’s a big chain. I send a genuine letter (NOT a text or an email) to the corporate headquarters explaining a few things:

    1. Down through the years, I have not found a single instance where a bicyclist has been injured or killed by an automobile at a drive-thru window; I have seen some instances where an automobile exiting a drive-thru has run over a bicyclist out in the road, but that just means the bicyclist is actually safer in the drive-thru.
    2. Bicycling is healthy, car exhaust is not. Which would they rather have their employees exposed to through the drive-thru window?
    3. A bicycle stopped at a drive-thru emits no pollution, a car idling at that same window emits a lot. How would they feel about their establishment being characterized in the media as being poor stewards of the Earth?
    4. If they do not want my bicycle in their drive-thru, then they really don’t want my business; and that’s another thing I wonder how they would feel about the media hearing.

    So far, I’ve done this twice, and both times I received a genuine letter back from the manager of the store telling me my bike was welcome in their drive-thru anytime.

  10. Tim Sherman says:

    I ride with little to no problems with my commuter bikes. When I see the recent rash of recalls on autos I have to laugh and think of how lucky that I am that those car commuters are subjected to recalls on vehicles that they pay so much for. It serves them right. Right? Well it just happened to me. I looked into my mail box and found a letter telling me not to ride my bike. Me? Just a guy on a bike trying to get to work and back without interacting with the crazy high speed red light running horn honking automobile commuters having to submit to a safety recall on a bicycle seems like I’m being dragged into the whole “blowing smoke” thing. I feel like holding my bike up so they can see it better. So in my own best interest I called my dealer for the safety recall. It makes me that guy that just needs to get to work safely. I hope the new forks aren’t ugly.

  11. Rolling coal made it onto Stephen Colbert’s radar: Right up there with paint canning and dolphin corking.

  12. listenermark says:

    Last month’s critical mass in my hometown drew about 150 folks (that’s a big number in Fort Worth yall.) We had riders from the age of five to seventy five along for a friendly jaunt thru the city. We received cheers, claps, and laughs the entire way while we reciprocated with raucous bell ringing and joyous hollering. CM can be a positive, bike friendly, and highly effective advocacy tool (it can also be a ton of fun and a great way to introduce new cyclists to the local culture.) If your local CM has been taken over by Massholes, it’s time to stage a friendly coup.

  13. Nox says:

    @listenermark I am in town for the holidays and usually ride in Clevelend’s CM, who are also just good natured and yell happy friday to everyone while ringing bells! I was going to try to make the Dallas event, but it looks like they aren’t having one, or no longer exist? Will Ft Worth be having a CM Dec 2014??

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