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Godiva’s Only a Chocolate: Skeptical reflections on Chicago’s Naked Bike Ride

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The map from chicagonakedride.org

Common Sense for Chicago 2010

By Hugh Iglarsh

It was late and I was tired and cranky, as I rather reluctantly drove a stranded friend to her downtown hostel when my desire was for home and bed. I had just attended the opening of the Green Party’s new Chicago headquarters in Logan Square, and had been exhilarated by the energy and sense of community flowing in the humble storefront on Fullerton. But I had used up my finite supply of sociability, and looked forward to a quick trip to the Loop and then blessed rest.

It’s in your weak moments when the city turns against you. I and my even more exhausted passenger found ourselves in a hopeless gridlock at North and Damen; making a U-turn, I tried Division Street going east, but the results were no better. Ashland south—sadly the same. Grand Avenue east—finally, despair and surrender to fate. I had become an involuntary participant in the World Naked Bike Ride-Chicago. Motto: As Bare As You Dare. Once-familiar streets had turned into postmodern cattle crossings, blocked by a monster herd of flesh-baring cyclists, mainly but not exclusively of Gen X vintage. Most wore a little something—thongs, cardboard beer cases, body paint—but a significant minority were as naked as the gnats they resembled to my fatigue-heavy eyes, as they flashed en masse through the traffic lights. And as though possessed of some diabolical collective psychic ability, the snaking line of riders seemed to intuit my path and destination, foiling my every attempt to outflank it.

So I had plenty of time to ponder my first experience of this annual ritual, begun here in 2005. As its title suggests, the Ride is part of a worldwide “movement,” launched in Spain in 2001   and dedicated—according to the Chicago Ride’s website—to “the dual purpose of bringing attention to people-powered transport and promoting positive body image.” According to organizers, the 2008 event had set the record with approximately 1,700 cyclists. I wasn’t counting, but after my hour-plus drive from Bucktown to Wabash and Congress, with my idling 1994 Oldsmobile belching out greenhouse gases, the depth of my impatience suggested an even larger attendance.

Even at the moment, I wondered whether my sharp and growing annoyance was a depressing sign of advancing fuddie-duddiedom. But I had felt no such symptoms during the Green housewarming. I now suspect it was my sense that I had been cast as the hapless straight man in the script—a gas-guzzling, BP-apologizing square opposed to pedal-powered transport and afflicted with negative body image and God knows what hang-ups besides. And a mere hour earlier at the Green event, I had been counted among the virtuous. A hard fall, and a rapid one.

What in the name of Lady Godiva was going on here? Is the Ride protest, performance art or frat-house prank? If the participants really are “celebrating freedom from oil, and the beauty of people,” why did the mood seem to me less celebratory than passive-aggressive? If it is a teaching moment, why were no leaflets passed out or posters displayed to the trapped and baffled motorists? And if it is basically late-spring hormonal hijinks, as the event’s gestalt suggested, why the political freight? The bare-bodied procession seemed cloaked in mixed messages and legal camouflage. As a Ride Rule notes, “For First Amendment protection, maintain the message: ‘less gas more ass,’ ‘burns fat not oil,’ ‘nude not crude,’ ‘no concealed weapons,’ ‘naked is how vulnerable I am sharing roads with cars.’”

While the Naked Ride bills itself as a clothing-optional early June version of the regular Critical Mass event, which deliberately clogs city streets to raise consciousness about bikers’ rights, it lacks some of Critical Mass’ authority-defying edginess. The Ride’s Web site expresses its “boundless sincere gratitude” to Mayor Daley and to the Chicago Police, “for their tolerance and tacit facilitation of this ride happening safely.” It is a semi-official event, a socially sanctioned venting of energies and impulses that might otherwise take less manageable form. Perhaps the mayor hopes it will evolve into a tourist event—a small-scale Mardi Gras in his bread-and-circuses regime. Corporate sponsorships may not be far off, with big opportunities for purveyors of baby powder and other anti-chafing products.

Obviously I cannot speak for the individual riders, all of whom have their own motivation for participation. But what seemed missing to me from the event as a whole were the elements of inclusiveness, awareness and commitment—the qualities that distinguish a political gesture from an aesthetic one. Lady Godiva’s risqué ride is remembered a thousand years later because of the intimacy of the sacrifice, and the way the villagers transformed her private shame into communal dignity by averting their eyes. But in a popular culture defined by exhibitionist celebrities and a Peeping Tom media, the very concepts of shame and dignity have nearly evaporated, and nothing is at stake. There are simply the hip and the lame, and from the outside, the Ride appeared very much about underscoring that divide.

Biking through city streets wearing only body paint does indeed require a certain attitude, especially on the part of older and less prepossessing riders. But on this mass scale, the action becomes an anonymous, risk-free and highly administered form of anarchy. Participants are bound by six pages of rules, tips and FAQs—including such ambiguous guidelines as, “ABSOLUTELY DO NOT visibly use alcohol.” One wonders who these tightly grouped, visibly well-behaved subversives could offend, as they wend their way through Chicago’s cooler neighborhoods. I sensed a wish to provoke—but also to have that provocation cheered and approved of.

The Web site notes that “this is a non-sexual event protesting both oil dependency and repression of the natural human form.” Beyond the obvious question of how these two points mesh, there is also the issue of what sort of society the organizers see around them. Is it one of corseted Victorians tragically unaware of the body’s subtle splendor, or of ad-saturated, gym-going wannabe hunks and hotties? It is not old-fashioned inhibition that drives this era of the spectacle—it is the culture of narcissism, which turns the world into a stage for the performance of the attention-craving self.

Yes, biking is good, the body is wonderful and BP is evil incorporated. It takes a kind of genius to transform these messages into something a bit snarky and self-righteous and unsettling. Chanted by the demographically well-sifted, dare-to-be-bare riders, they sounded to me like hipster shibboleths rather than unifying themes. There is a difference between activism and acting out, which cannot be concealed even by the most punful slogans or best-designed websites.

Naked bikers describe the event, according to the website, “as a transcendent group experience, personally transforming, and beyond superlative.” But when they come down to earth, they will notice that nothing around them has changed, and no real community has formed. Maybe that’s what I was picking up at the various blocked intersections—that I was unwilling witness of a ride to nowhere.

9 Responses to “Godiva’s Only a Chocolate: Skeptical reflections on Chicago’s Naked Bike Ride”

  1. Dan Korn Says:

    It’s a shame that there are no public transportation options between Logan Square/Bucktown and the Loop, forcing you to drive your gas-guzzler to a Green Party event. Drive on, brave environmental warrior.

  2. bikepimp Says:

    Looks Hugh Iglarsh is a cager driving to nowhere. As always in a hurry to make it to the red light. Jealous that other “green” people are really trying to do something much more tangible in bringing attention to our ecological predicament. Sitting there in traffic all smug unaware that driving promotes drilling for oil and that the people who participated really have formed a growing lasting community of people dedicated to bring a message out year after year. Someone in this community told me it is not even worth the time to make a comment, but I feel its worthy, having read the article from the viewpoint of a dashboard dummy. I, an unwilling participant in the daily grinds of sharing the road with cagers.

  3. willow606xx Says:

    Activism in and of itself is a narcissistic act. It’s one person or a group of people saying, “this is the right thing to do follow my/our example on to how to live.” This is the first year I’ve done this particular ride and yes, it’s a spectacle. Yes, it is meant to grab people’s attention. People have many, many reasons why they ride; some are there to protest and others because they like to be naked, but at least we’re doing something. To state that there is no sense of community makes you sound more guilty than anything. You knew what you were doing was wrong and you had that fully thrown in your face and reacted with bile by blaming us.
    The fact of the matter is, seeing us did make you think more about the fact that you were driving home from a Green Party meeting. You were driving in a city with a pretty decent public transportation system and on a night that was really comfy to just ride your bike. Don’t blame us for your bad habits, we just pointed them out.

    Oh, and next time you’re “stuck” in your car, do us all a favor and turn the engine off.

  4. Bedno Says:

    This piece is littered with gross inaccuracies and faulty assumptions, bizarre perceptions and conclusions, fluffed with cherry picked web quotes, pretentious and simply bitter.
    Even the fundamental perspective is comically flawed, that the writer was delayed while driving his gas guzzler back from a Green party meeting.
    I’m told he interviewed a participant who said Gandhi would be proud, and was given ride coordinator contact info but never bothered.
    You’ve covered something wonderfully successful with many thousands participating world-wide, with hack reporting and a regressive angle.
    Frankly, that it appeared in print reflects poorly on NewCity’s standards.

  5. markweinberg Says:

    OMG! So many feel more PURE than Hugh Iglarsh, my friend the author, who merely suggested that using nudity to promote people-powered transport might be a little, well, cheeky. As a “progressive” I ask what’s next. Porn for Peace? You could sign me up but I don’t have a positive body image. Also, did you know that germophobes are now afraid to buy used bicycles in Chicago?

  6. mtbanjo Says:

    mr iglarsh has clearly offended many many green minded, bike riding, handle bar eating (avoid the cager salad, its toxic, but try the bike chain burger, superb and garnished with offal) birkenstock wearing, progressive thinking, forward looking and completely neutered enthusiasts. the fact that these rather sad examples of offended slacker is what passes for current “progressive” will tell you where the county now rests, squarely in the hands of tattoo’d, stapled, and nowhere. lets ride!!!!

  7. rsf232 Says:

    To those of you offended by Hush Iglarsh’s musings on the difference between symbolism and activism: I whole-heartedly applaud your efforts to promote biking. Publicizing true alternatives is terrific — not so, hostile comments here that display an entrenched sense that you are Right. Is “cager” a better epithet than “tree hugger?” Effective, behavior-changing action is the goal, not polarizing expressions of self-righteousness.

    I’m also less impressed by the “any publicity is good publicity” mindset than by more effective efforts that demonstrate how greener choices can be made. Research supports this. (See “National Wildlife,” 5-14-10, “Which psychological hurdles are standing in the way of improved energy efficiency in this country?”) Don’t *just* “send a message”– set a precedent.

    By all means, oppose oil dependence — but perhaps in a way that doesn’t cause a traffic jam? How many of you drove to the event, then unloaded your bikes for the ride? Yes, show your celebration of “freedom from oil, and the beauty of people” –but how about in your home neighborhoods? That’s where community is. Public demonstrations have their place, but trading that large crowd anonymity for a connection with people you know and live with might be an even more courageous choice.

    As for public transportation — rather than promoting a *better* commuter culture, let’s go after the beast itself: live where you work; work where you live. Insist on it, and reduce the need for energy-wasting, life-consuming commuter culture altogether.

    –Robin Finesmith

  8. drlisabarr Says:

    Dear New City:
    I know you don’t pay Hugh Iglarsh to write for you, but I DO hope that the McCarthyistic attack by the organizers of the event to which he gave relatively mild critiquing has not harmed your ardor for his witty words. I was the passenger Hugh had rescued. I was injured. Hugh knew I wanted to cover the Green Party event but would be unable to do so unless his much maligned older car spirited me to where I was staying.
    As we were stuck in traffic (and yes, we did turn off the engine–others did not–which seems to show that the event organizers perhaps are causing more pollution than they are stopping)–I wondered aloud why the organizers did not have a crew of people to, with smiling faces, pass out fliers with statistics about carbon release and idling cars.
    When I read the first attack on Hugh–I went to the facebook page and wondered how ‘tight’ these folks are with Chicago’s ridiculous mayor:
    “…Boundless sincere gratitude goes to mayor Richard M Daley and to the Chicago Police for their tolerance and facilitation of the World Naked Bike Ride in Chicago. …”
    Today, however, I discover something even WORSE:
    A MCCARTHYISTIC PUSCH AGAINST A WRITER.
    Below–if you care to read it–you can see that ALL FOUR criticisms of Iglarsh were manufactured by–tsk tsk–the ORGANIZERS.
    Developing a thicker skin to criticism will only HELP your cause.
    Embracing more ethical behavior will only help your karma.
    ANATOMY OF A SMEAR JOB BELOW VIA FACEBOOK:
    Jerry Boyle It *is* a protest. We don’t set out to make people
    happy, and we succeeded with this writer. We should pat
    ourselves on the back for a great article. He’s more naked than
    us. :-) july 7 11:58 a.m.
    – – – – –
    Steven Lane I believe the writer was driving an Oldsmobile, how
    ironic. He “reluctantly” drove a “really tired” friend to a hostel
    downtown, which was only a few minute walk from the blue line
    subway. The blue line makes a perfect “direct as the crow flies”
    path from the “Green” Party event in Logan Square to the hostel
    downtown. I love the line, “And a mere hour earlier at the Green
    event, I had been counted among the virtuous. A hard fall, and a
    rapid one.”
    Yes, Hugh Iglarsh, the second you used a private automobile to
    replace a cheap, convenient, and sustainable ride on public
    transportation, you took a very rapid fall from grace, and all the
    grad school rhetoric and reflections will not green wash away the
    fact you’re just another Ugly American. july 7 12:27 p.m.
    – – – –
    Andrew Bedno Good stuff. Yes, I wrote the wrong car name.
    Consider posting in in NewCity’s comments area.
    http://newcity.com/2010/06
    /30/godiva%E2%80%99s-onlya-
    chocolate-skeptical-refl
    ections-on-chicago%E2%80%9
    9s-naked-bike-ride/ july 7 2:58 p.m.
    – – – –
    Dan Korn I posted a comment this morning; it’s still awaiting
    moderation.july 7 9:14 p.m.
    – – – – – –
    Dan Korn I wrote: “It’s a shame that there are no public
    transportation options between Logan Square/Bucktown and the
    Loop, forcing you to drive your gas-guzzler to a Green Party
    event. Drive on, brave environmental warrior.” dan korn 9:15 p.m.
    – – – –
    Andrew Bedno I posted as well, awaiting moderation:
    This piece is littered with gross inaccuracies and faulty
    assumptions, bizarre perceptions and conclusions, fluffed with
    cherry picked web quotes, pretentious and simply bitter.
    Even the fundamental perspective is comically flawed, that the
    writer was delayed while driving his gas guzzler back from a
    Green party meeting.
    I’m told he interviewed a participant who said Gandhi would be
    proud, and was given ride coordinator contact info but never
    bothered.
    You’ve covered something wonderfully successful with many
    thousands participating world-wide, with hack reporting and a
    regressive angle.
    Frankly, that it appeared in print reflects poorly on NewCity’s
    standards. July 7 11:29 p.m.
    – – – –
    Andrew Bedno BEAUTIFUL! Four replies have been approved and
    appear on the article, all critical of the writer. THANX ALL! July 10
    5:06 p.m.
    http://newcity.com/2010/06
    /30/godiva%E2%80%99s-onlya-
    chocolate-skeptical-refl
    ections-on-chicago%E2%80%9
    9s-naked-bike-ride/

  9. Jerry Says:

    Mass bicycle rides inevitably inconvenience motorists. Typically, the response of the riders to complaints about gridlock is: “We are NOT blocking traffic! We ARE traffic!” But this was an unusual article, so my friends should be forgiven for responding somewhat unusually.

    You’ll have to admit, I think, that it is unusual, to say the least, for a self-professed Green to vent Road Rage at a Green protest.

    Mr. Iglarsh is far more naked than the naked riders.

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