Riders hit the streets, some of them naked

Posted: September 07, 2009

A cloudy sky couldn't keep the moon - er, make that moons - from shining last night, as hundreds of carefree cyclists traversed Center City for the Philadelphia Naked Bike Ride.

The biggest surprise? Very few people were naked, at least when they left the gathering point near 25th and Locust Streets. Some said they might dare to go bare as the ride progressed.

Many people wore swimsuits. Or underwear - by rough count, gentlemen really do prefer Hanes. Many women went topless, while others covered themselves with short strips of masking tape or carefully applied swaths of body paint.

What was the purpose, the goal, of sending several hundred riders past some of Philadelphia's most august institutions, wearing little besides helmets?

The usual: Save the whales, no nukes, peace and love, higher mountains, deeper rivers, and a better way of life.

Just kidding.

Actually, sponsors said last week, they planned to use nudity to spotlight the vulnerability of cyclists, to make drivers aware of the need to share the road. Other goals were to promote a means of transportation that does not require fossil fuel and to make people feel better about their bodies, whatever their shape or size.

Last night, group leaders said they were too busy organizing the public-awareness event to address the public through the assembled news media.

No matter. The riders themselves were more than willing to talk, even if they weren't quite sure of the event's purpose.

"Bike awareness?" asked Kerry Mann, a little confused. "It could be about that, too."

But mainly, he said, "I'm in it for the thrill. It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing."

Naked bike rides have proliferated around the world in the past few years, riders pedaling through 87 cities in the Americas, Europe, and Australia. Yesterday's ride was the first in Philadelphia.

Coolish weather and a steady breeze could have kept riders away. But people weren't fazed. More than double the hoped-for 200 turned out to bike the four-mile course.

One guy wore a hockey mask, another a birthday-party hat. It seemed like everybody had a tattoo or a piercing.

As hundreds of cyclists gathered along the Schuylkill, the excitement built, people yelling impromptu cheers or ringing their bicycle bells. But as time dragged on, with people waiting for the scheduled 6:30 p.m. start, the energy seemed to sag. A booming cheer went up when the riders at the front of the queue began moving forward, onto a route that would take them around Rittenhouse Square and past the Art Museum.

Only cyclists who signed up online at phillynakedbikeride.org were told the location of the gathering point, and the route was kept secret until shortly before departure. City police said that as long as the riders remained orderly and stayed together, they would be permitted to go ahead.

"You get really odd looks," said Daniel Villarreal, who previously took part in a naked ride in Chicago. "But usually people are really supportive."

Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2415 or jgammage@phillynews.com.

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