Filming the flesh-pedallers

A documentarian turns his sights on the World Naked Bike Ride, which returns on June 18.

A documentarian turns his sights on the World Naked Bike Ride, which returns on June 18.

Photo by Larry Iles.


Photo by Larry Iles.

This Saturday will mark the seventh running (rolling?) of the World Naked Bike Ride through the streets of Madison. The event has been growing in popularity over time, and last year organizers reported the largest number of riders yet, topping out at about 130 flesh-flashing pedal-pushers. This year the numbers may exceed that in part thanks to Nicholas R. Wootton’s short film Real…Live… which documented the ride last year and screened in this past April’s Wisconsin Film Festival. The short doesn’t just focus on the bodies of the riders, but makes a point of capturing crowd reactions as well.

“I like to think because of the film, and the publicity it’s received, that there will be an increased interest and increased ridership but we never have any way of knowing,” Wootton tells me over coffees at Cafe Zoma on the East Side. “There’s a Yahoo group, and we can get a rough sense of what’s going on there, but no one really has to officially sign in or officially sign anything to be part of the ride.”

The logistics of the event are kept secret out of necessity for the comfort of the riders more than any expected intimidation by the police. In fact, with the exception of the first year, the police involvement with the ride has been more or less negligible. There’s a wonderful video out there from the first ride that actually captures a Madison police officer addressing a few dozen buck-naked riders that you have to see to believe.

“Anytime the ride is new in a city the police don’t know how to respond and they’re on edge so they kept a very close eye on us,” Wootton says. “There were some legal citations issued that year and a few the next year. When the courts determined that this was protected speech and that we were not violating any laws by being in the ride the police just said OK we’re just gonna keep an arm’s length from it.”

The reasons the ride has put down roots in Madison and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon can be directly tied to Madison’s love of cycling culture, coupled with our history of protest. It might seem like just some hippy-dippy sun-worshipping fun but, at its core, the World Naked Bike Ride is absolutely a legitimate form of protest. Riders have said over the years that they do it to protest dependency on fossil fuels, promote positive body image standards, and increase awareness of cyclists. No telling if there will be any anti-Trump sentiments painted on those passing posteriors, but I wouldn’t rule that out at all.

While the ride is a somewhat aggressive reclamation of the public space, jamming up the Farmer’s Market and State Street when it passes through, Wootton impressed upon me the flip side of the experience. “For an individual to get on their bicycle, which is already a vulnerable state on the city streets with cars going by, and get completely naked, the result is additionally vulnerable,” he says.

There are some interesting contrasts between the relatively small ride here in Madison and the considerably larger rides in cities like Portland which draws thousands of riders and is the largest ride in the America. “It’s different in a place like Portland, where there’s really close coordination with the police,” Wootton says. “They really help with security for the ride. I’ve done the Portland ride and it was amazing to see how the police were blocking traffic and and assuring the riders safe passage. My sense is that they don’t really like the ride but they have to live with it so they go along with it and make sure that no one’s injured or anything like that.”

Another real difference between Madison and Portland’s ride is the general openness the latter city has for that kind of non-sexual nudity: The Portland meeting point happened to be across the street from an art museum that was presenting an exhibit on the history of bicycle design, so they had a special where admission cost one dollar for every article of clothing you were wearing. I can’t imagine that sort of thing ever flying at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, but you never know!

With the success of the short film, Wootton’s next project, Why We Ride Naked, is much larger in scope and will follow six Madisonians though the experience of going on the ride. He’s also looking to start a dialogue with people opposed to the ride, the sorts of people who file complaints with the police and say that riders should arrested and put on lists of sex offenders. If you have any interest in commenting in the negative or positive, get in contact through the production company’s website.

The exact route is secret until the day of the ride, but I can guarantee that the best place to view it all will be the top of State Street, if only to see how the group navigates the construction.

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