Originally published in Ride UK issue 146, November 2010. Appears here in a slightly edited form.
I raised my eyes briefly. A hundred metres ahead the road rose, mirroring the descent I was making. A further hundred metres away I could see the head of the pack. With my eyes I followed the mass of riders back up to my own position, past the pubs on the corners and the cameraphone-wielding patrons outside them, past the 4×4s driven to the kerb, nearside indicators firing nervously. The road was filled with BMXers, tightly but evenly spaced, like strangers in a crowded lift. It was impossible to tell over my shoulder how far this carried on behind, but it ended with a police car or two, everyone knew that.
…moving in the same direction was more important than moving in any geographic direction
We were somewhere in Notting Hill, North West London. With no indication of where we were going—the route had been abandoned—moving in the same direction was more important than moving in any geographic direction. Staying in motion together meant a sense of invulnerability, just as staying stationery together in the courtyard of some council estate had meant invulnerability from whoever might lurk there, or so we thought. Sheer numbers are the draw of these street jams (which is strangely self-fulfilling: lots of people turn up because they know that lots of people will be there). Estimating the exact number is difficult; I heard 150, I heard 500. If you haven’t been to a similar event then it’s guaranteed to be the most BMXs you’ve ever seen ridden simultaneously.
Another draw of these jams is their egalitarian nature. More formal contests put barriers between the riders and the spectators. At a jam like this the riders and the spectators are one and the same, like a swarm of identical bees working as a single super-organism. Each bee follows its elegantly evolved self-interest, and in doing so maintains the order that sustains it. The jam made do with one stickered megaphone and a spot list scrawled on a sheet of A4. Order wasn’t to prevail.
It took a lady in a drab raincoat on an estate near Latimer Road to trigger anarchy in the group. Everything—clothes, hair, pallid face—seemed to hang from her. Dark eyes were her only fixed feature. Looking into them you could see that she was singularly crazier than we were cumulatively. At the first spot on the estate she parted the group, shouting at no-one in particular, on her way to wherever she was going. At the second spot on the estate she returned doubly riled. She kicked and shoved a bewildered kid back into those around him. I’d guess that he was sixteen and unsure how to fight a woman of pensionable age, let alone what the moral implications of doing so were. She turned and walked away from the rising jeers, only to turn back and start again on someone at the edge of the throng. It was an awkward dance, her desperately trying to engage someone in proof that we were a group of vicious thugs, the group throwing nothing worse than half the contents of a beer can and some bizarre insults.
The estate had gone from eerily empty to an eerie sense of being watched. From behind the surrounding windows, emerald-green like deep water, it wouldn’t have looked good. I suspect that the other residents had something to do with the police turning up as we were leaving.
“Chase” might be a generous word for the ensuing tour of Notting Hill backstreets; no way could so many people on bikes escape a police car, not by outrunning it nor by outmanoeuvring it. Each time flashing blue lights appeared over the heads of those in front everyone would swoop, barend-to-barend, into another street. It only seemed to postpone the eventual arrest of whoever got separated. Yet after a quarter of an hour they gave up, so those at the back reported. I like to think that they were baffled, that what we’d just participated in was so outside the realm of usual city existence that even the police didn’t know how to manage or contain it.
The jam ended back where it had started, Meanwhile II skatepark, under the A40 flyover. Prizes were handed and tossed out, the reminiscing about the day’s events began. What rough plan there was hadn’t come to fruition, but it didn’t matter. Madness flourished between the cracks in the order of things and in each other—and in each other we found validation. It’s OK to be crazy if you’re not the only one.
Part of the article 2010 Dub × Carhartt street jam report