Rolling Exposure: Portland’s Naked Bike Ride

Screenshot 2014-06-12 13.16.48In a reoccurring dream, I’m riding my bicycle naked through a crowded city. Cars honk, their occupants yelling through open windows. Strangers line the sidewalks by the thousands, pointing, jeering and cheering in my direction. Tonight I’m having the same dream, only this time I’m not alone. I’m riding alongside several thousand other naked dreamers, and we are all wide awake.

Welcome to Portland World Naked Bike Ride – easily the most unique annual events in a town where weird is the norm.

The ride’s 10pm starting point – the Portland Art Museum (holding a clothing-optional bicycle themed exhibit, admission $1 per item of clothing worn) is known. The exact route, however, is kept secret until the last minute to minimize gawkers. At 9:55pm my partner Stephanie and I are still a mile away, racing through the city’s posh Northwestern district, stripping item by item at stoplights.

We needn’t rush. The several-thousand riders slated to take part in this year’s ride makes starting time a broad concept.

We never make it to the museum. Many blocks away and still wearing pants we spot the rolling river of naked humanity up ahead. Seeming endless they flow by: Zoftig Soccer moms on high end racers and bearded hipsters on fixed gear messenger jobs, Gen Y dudes on fat knobby mountain bikes and beautiful tattooed women riding retro cruisers with baskets and tassels. Here and there are oddities: An old man with a flowing beard riding a welded Frankenstein “tall bike”; a clean shaven kid (who I think once served me a hemp milk latte) on a unicycles. We even spot a pedicab with it’s hired driver taking two fares, perhaps tourists from out of town, all three in the buff.

Shedding the last items of clothing, we join the procession to the cacophony of handlebar mounted boom-boxes and speakers blaring music, disco and dub-step, Mozart and metal. The ride slows as it turns the corner, the intersection bottlenecked by pedestrians leaping from curbs to high-five any rider daring to stick out a palm. Bearing cameras, smart phones and recording devices of all sorts, some seem well-meaning, and others are slightly creepy. A few flash their own soft bits in solidarity.

Stephanie and I are on a beautiful and giddy high as we ride east past Powell’s bookstore, which has for the night relinquished the Area’s Top Attraction title. The weather is perfect; 68 degrees and not a cloud in sight. The breeze on body parts unaccustomed to breezes is invigorating, to say the least.

It’s a strange thing to be naked in public, but just a few minutes into the ride all awkwardness is gone completely, drowned in the realization that we are surrounded on all sides by a sea of similarly unclad riders.

Not all riders are nude. Bare as you dare is the rule, and riders wearing briefs, bikinis, bras and g-strings roll by regularly. The majority wear little more than shoes, the occasional helmet (after all, safety first) and strategically placed body paint. There are scattered exceptions, a few never-nudes. As we cross the river, a fully clothed rider hurries past the procession at full speed.

“He must be heading home from work,” Stephanie says. I see his messenger bag and assume he’s just late with a rush job.

At this point the reader may have a few obvious questions, which in the interest of brevity and a swift return to narrative I’ll answer here:

* The event is legal by virtue of being a “well-established Portland tradition” – At least according to the judge who threw out all charges stemming from last year’s ride.

* Riders seem evenly split between the sexes, as does the high-fiving crowds lined up along the sidewalk.

and lastly,

* The Taint is especially vulnerable to chafing.

Heading north, the procession passes an industrial bakery whose night shift workers pause to enjoy the spectacle. There are fewer screaming spectators east of the river, allowing us to bask in the solidarity of our comrades. Urban cycling is a vulnerable act in any circumstance, as is being naked in public. If there is a point to the the Naked Bike Ride (outside of keeping Portland Weird) it may lie in the seeming contradiction of overcoming these vulnerabilities by doubling down. Riding as a group with naked strangers creates a tremendous bond, a feeling of shared vulnerability that, paradoxically, creates a sense of total security.

The ride is not without mishaps, as any mass gathering of slow moving riders is bound to be, especially when alcohol and marijuana (ubiquitous in Oregon and literally legal just across the border in Washington) are involved. Somewhere past the bakery we hear a cry of “dick down! dick down!” The procession parts around a fallen unicyclist who seems to have scraped his tender bits against the pavement. Looping South by Southwest through Portland’s hip Hollywood district, a young lady rides next to us singing fell off my bike / scraped my boob / but I’m all right. A trickle of blood runs from the side of her right breast, and when she passes we see the words Hi Mom! painted on her back.

It’s close to midnight as we reach the ride’s terminus, an industrial area by the Hawthorne Bridge. A massive party is already in progress and the parade’s end is nowhere in sight. Temperatures have dropped, and once our legs stop moving the most tangible reality of outdoor nudity sinks in: Challenging and invigorating, it’s also cold. Glad to have brought clothes, Stephanie and I get dressed. Fully clothed, the sense of solidarity with our fellow riders feels slightly diminished. For the first time all night I feel self conscious.

Breaking off from the main group, we head back with one of the many smaller semi-clothed packs heading back across the river feeling good yet – strangely – more vulnerable. Good and weird alike, all things must end.

IMG_8977Reprinted Courtesy of Bicycle Times

Joshua Samuel Brown, June 11, 2013

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