“It’s like the biggest circus parade ever,” Debby Siegel says. “Literally from the start to the finish, every single inch of that path is covered with people standing outside with their camera phones.”
All those people wait by the side of the road, phones in hand, to catch a glimpse of St. Louis’ edition of the World Naked Bike Ride, which rolls through town Saturday. The 10-mile ride begins in the Grove neighborhood before traveling through downtown and back to the Grove again.
The only rule is to ride “as bare as you dare.” That means there’s everything from full nudity to body paint and costumes to more conservative bike shorts and jerseys. Riders are free to pick whichever they feel the most comfortable in and saddle up.
This is not your run-of-the-mill, spontaneous semi-nude bike ride, however. In 2015, about 3,000 riders participated. This year’s ride, the ninth, is organized by Tatyana Telnikova, the owner of HandleBar; Matt Hartman, owner of Spoked Bikes & Stuff; and Matt Green, the administrator of the Grove’s Community Improvement District.
The ride, aside from being a semi-nude adventure, also addresses major social issues. In fact, it’s precisely because the ride is officially a protest that nudity is legal. The World Naked Bike Ride, which takes place in at least 70 cities in 20 different countries, is put on to protest oil dependency, promote positive body image and to recognize the safety issues of everyday cyclists on the road.
The last of those is perhaps the most apparent. Every day, cyclists face roads with few or no bike lanes and some not-so-friendly cars. Slender bikes can make cyclists hard to see, too.
However, the Naked Bike Ride combats that lack of visibility quite readily.
“When (cyclists are) naked, you just can’t miss them!” Telnikova jokes.
The rest of the causes certainly aren’t by accident either. Siegel, who has been riding in the event since 2012, says that both oil dependency and positive body image hold equal weight in her heart.
“I feel like I’m borrowing this planet from my kids, I’m not inheriting it,” she says of her commitment to environmental responsibility.
Her history with cycling closely circles the issue of body positivity, too.
Siegel began riding seriously at the age of 40 after signing up for a triathlon as part of her bucket list. That decision broke a long gap in her cycling life.
“I had not ridden a bike since middle school because I was in middle school and riding this Walmart or Kmart bike that was way too small for me, and I had really long limbs and people used to make fun of me and say I look like Olive Oyl,” Siegel remembers. One day she rode past an office building window and recognized the Popeye comic book character.
“I completely looked like Olive Oyl, and so I was like, ‘I am never riding a bike again,’ and I put it in the garage and never rode a bike again until that triathlon.”
Now, she is a frequent cyclist, as well as a rock climber, and co-founder of the yoga and fitness site YoGoGirls.com. She says cycling has led to her owning more bikes than she’d like to admit.
Telnikova and Hartman have no shortage of love for the sport, either. It’s what keeps them involved, despite being busy small business owners.
Telnikova, whose establishment HandleBar takes its name from cycles, not mustaches, helps organize both the ride and the Manchester Bike Bash, a party before, during and after the Naked Bike Ride.
Hartman, on the other hand, handles logistics for the ride, which usually lasts 1½ to two hours. He says it’s not always easy going, despite how much fun the ride may look:
“It’s always a huge challenge to get everybody to stay together because there’s so many varying levels, which is kind of the beauty of it. ... Some people might ride every day and some people might ride once or twice a year,” Hartman says.
“So it’s awesome that everybody feels welcome, and they’re not intimidated that they can do it. But at the same time, trying to get all those people to stay together when you’re going through the city is tricky.”
Safety is a top priority. Each year, riders are accompanied by three off-duty police officers. This year, there may be a fourth. While the ride doesn’t completely shut down streets along their route, the officers do temporarily stop traffic at intersections.
There will also be a support truck following riders in case of flat tires or broken parts. It’s also helpful for less experienced riders.
“Sometimes people who don’t ride often, they’ll get really tired in the middle of the ride, and they don’t want to keep going, they can just catch a little ride in the truck,” Telnikova says.
As for festivities, the organizers promise plenty of fun both before and after the ride. While the ride doesn’t start until 7 p.m., the street party, which takes place on Manchester Avenue from Kentucky Avenue to Sarah Street, starts at 5 p.m.
There will be a band (playing in their underwear, of course), food trucks and a costume contest. The contest includes four categories: Most colorful, best couple, most creative and most hairy.
Many riders dress up for the ride and the contest, including Siegel, who won one of the categories her first year.
“I was an angel, and my friend went as a devil, and we went together as a conscience,” Siegel says.
After the event, riders tend to hang out at the Grove’s bars and restaurants. Still, Hartman says, they’ve had no problems with harassment due to alcohol or nudity (often cyclists cover up some after the ride).
“I think when you strip away the clothes, everyone is kind of on the same level,” he says. “After everybody’s had a beer and kind of lightened up, then, you know, it kind of really brings everybody down to the same level of humanity.”
It’s that kind of creativity, passion and inclusiveness that Telnikova says makes the Naked Bike Ride special.
“You can never do something like this on any other day of the year, except for this one day.”
What World Naked Bike Ride in St. Louis When 7 p.m. Saturday • Where Near 4100 block Manchester Avenue • How much Free • More info wnbrstl.org