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.