A view from inside the Philly Naked Bike Ride
There’s a guy on a cell phone at the corner of 11th and South. He’s wearing a turquoise Polo short and lightly-colored khakis. The way he speaks into his phone, it’s like he’s reporting on the end of the world to a friend on a distant planet, recording his final moments in such a way, we’ll all remember who he was and where he was when he saw it.
“It’s absolutely unbelievable,” he screams. His right hand waves in jovial circles in such a way, you just know the guy on the line can feel them. He continues, noting, “I’ve never seen anything like it,” before I glide out of earshot from his conversation. But I turn my head and notice he’s not slowing down.
I never find out who this guy is, but his reaction is one of many pointed in the direction of this weekend’s Philadelphia Naked Bike Ride, a self-explanatory 10-mile event meant to promote bicycling (amongst other things) in what’s considered a particularly lewd manner if it happened, say, everyday. That said, the ride went on without incident on Sunday. It was fun as hell, and this is my report from inside the crowd. The photos here were taken by J.R. Blackwell.
Participants gathered at the lot next door to Penn Treaty Park in Fishtown. By the time I got there—around 3pm—about 60 percent of the estimated thousands of people were bare, save some body paint and glitter.
As is often the case during events like this one, the bike ride is about various causes. According to the ride’s official website, it’s meant to “promote fuel conscious consumption, positive body image, and cycling advocacy”—though riders are encouraged to bring their own message, too.
And there were several individual messages. Amongst those I saw whilst still wearing a shirt: “Ban fracking,” “Respect women,” “One less car,” “End solitary confinement.” After standing around for a half-hour or so on the body paint line, I realized I didn’t really have a cause, so I opted to have one of the volunteers in the body paint tent to write “USA!” on my chest in blue. He put a few lines up and down my stomach for good measure, too.
Originally supposed to set off at 4pm, an organizer painted in all red walked through the crowd around that time to note we’d likely be heading off closer to 4:30pm. Silently observing the crowd, a young woman and her friends brought me into their group to talk. At this point I was down to just my boxer briefs and sneakers. I felt a little out of place amongst all the nakedness.
After noting it was my first time on the ride, I heard a man’s voice: “First time? Me too!” We introduced ourselves as a few other people moved into the small circle to have small, polite conversations, mostly about where we were and what we were doing. But we also talked about tattoos and the potential for the Wynn casino coming into the empty lot along the Delaware River, just a few blocks away.
The aforementioned man, he had driven up on Saturday—all the way from Raleigh, North Carolina! “I just heard this was a cool event,” he told me.
Opting to go full-on nude, he was staying at the Apple Hostel in Old City and noted he’d gotten in a lot of good biking earlier in the afternoon. He was heading back Monday.
By 4:15, and we’re still waiting, though most people didn’t know why. Every few minutes or so, the crowd would begin screaming and chanting. We’d swollen to several-thousand at this point—estimated by most people to be about five.
A little after 4:30, there was the sound of a police cruiser’s siren and everyone screamed in anticipation. Philly’s Finest would be leading much of the way around the city—which would hit Fishtown, Northern Liberties, Old City, Center City and South Street.
Which brought up one important question no one seemed ready to answer: Is this legal? According to the ride’s website, “Well, we can only speak from experience. In 2009, 2010 and 2011 no legal incidents were reported at PNBR.” And there were none reported yesterday.
According to Pennsylvania code, a person commits indecent exposure “if that person exposes his or her genitals in any public place or in any place where there are present other persons under circumstances in which he or she knows or should know that this conduct is likely to offend, affront or alarm.” It also notes that if people under 16 years old are present (and the exposer is aware of them), that’s a misdemeanor.
But as the race got started and people came out to watch, you’ve got to imagine the families bringing their kids outside to give us five fives, well, any complaint of exposure is on them. Like Manayunk during the Philly bike race, some unorganized protests around the city, and the 2008 Phillies World Series celebration, this was a Monitor and Look The Other Way Event.
Once it began, the ride itself was pretty uneventful, after you got over the nakedness. I had a ton of conversations, met some cool people and did my best to take the situation in.
For lots of spectators, that initial shock was never fully comprehended and around most corners people would have their phones on video record, and stand in silence filming the whole thing. The idea of having that on film, in your own privacy, seemed a bit odd to me. A photograph is one thing. It’s something to show off to your friends from out of town (“Hey, look at the Naked Bike Ride! It’s real!”), but a 10-minute video? What are you going to do with that? And why?
General reactions were as such: Hilarity; bemusement; Bro with camera (“hot chicks, slow down please!”); creepy (silent with camera, including one dude with his head and 1990s-style video recorder out his apartment window on South Street); young progressive parent with child; amazement (aforementioned guy in Polo), shock-then-ignore (many people dining al fresco); and pure, unadulterated hatred.
One man walking down Walnut Street wearing sunglasses stared at the ground and shook his head as we went by, taking up at least four blocks at this point.
When a bicyclist told him to join in, he yelled something incomprehensible in the direction of the crowd. “C’mon, man!” another cyclist encouraged.
“You’re not a real citizen!” the man said back. He stared back at the ground and continued walking east.
The race ended in the lot next to the Piazza in Northern Liberties where some were told PYT was going to give out free drinks to riders.
“Are they really going to pour 6,000 drinks right now?” I heard someone ask his friend.
Many put their clothes back on and headed into the Piazza for the after-party.
Follow Randy on Twitter: @RandyLoBasso