Bike Party!

San Francisco's newest group ride marks a less confrontational, more booty-shaking phase in the city's bike movement

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Put your hands up San Francisco: SF Bike Partiers get down on a dance break at the Palace of Fine Arts.
PHOTO BY SAM DOSICK

caitlin@sfbg.com, steve@sfbg.com

On Friday night, May 6, hundreds of bikes lean against the massive pillars holding up the Palace of Fine Arts' rotunda, a colorful array of plastic flowers and stereo speakers affixed to their baskets and trailers.

Their riders, flushed with endorphins after a four-mile cruise across town, are ignoring the winds whipping off the bay and dancing their asses off to a pumping sound-system that switches from bubblegum pop to John Lennon's "Imagine" and on to an electronica instrumental as more bikes arrive under the dome and the circle of dancers grows.

As a conga line forms, the dancers intermittently cheer "Bike party!" just as the cyclists have been declaring at the mini-parties held at every red light throughout this and the other monthly San Francisco Bike Party rides that started in January.

It's a celebratory moment for San Francisco bike culture, and a sign that it's branching off into new directions. While the venerable Critical Mass ride — which marks its 20th anniversary next year — seizes space on the roads, ignores red lights, and often sparks confrontations with motorists, Bike Party is a celebration that seeks to share space, avoid conflict, and just have fun.

Bike Party follows a set route on the first Friday night of every month, stopping two to three times along the way for dance parties. The basic idea is that participants should obey most traffic laws, stop at red lights, and try to avoid taking up more than one lane. And while Critical Mass is a local invention that was exported to cities around the world, Bike Party was imported from San Jose, where it started with the efforts of three 20-something roommates.

They were Nick Laskowski, who had helped to organize the by-then defunct San Jose Critical Mass ride; Amber Lamason, another organizer of San Jose social bike rides; and Lauryn McCarthy, an East Coast native new to San Jose who "just wanted to build community and meet people who liked to bike."

In a town hardly known for its great biking environment (despite its relative-to-San-Francisco flatness, bike riding on San Jose's freeway-like thoroughfares "can be really daunting to new riders," as one SJBP organizer put it) the three publicized their new Bike Party on Facebook, and 25 people showed up to the first ride in October 2007.

"We were stoked," McCarthy, who has since moved to San Francisco, recalled during an interview at a cafe on lower Divisadero Street. By June 2008, the monthly ride hit 120 riders, and one day a biker she didn't recognize invited McCarthy to join the ride. "I knew it had arrived."

 

S–M TO ANIMALS

These days, San Jose Bike Parties have monthly costume themes from S–M to animals, and can attract up to 3,500 riders. The events have gotten so large that organizers now wait to publish routes until 24 hours before the ride to cut down the numbers. Other chapters have sprung up (with the organizational help of San Jose core volunteers) in the East Bay and San Francisco.

How to explain Bike Party's instant popularity among Bay Area riders? It might be that its ethos appeals to a different sentiment than Critical Mass. While most Mass riders see that monthly ride as an opportunity to disrupt the automobile status quo, Bike Party is built around sharing the road.

It's been a welcome new addition to the scene for many longtime urban cycling advocates like Justin Fraser, who has long held a Critical Mass pre-party but who switched the event to precede the San Francisco Bike Party after having a great time at the maiden ride in January.

"I've been doing Critical Mass since the late '90s, and I usually go about 10 times over the course of the year, so I'm a regular. What I loved about Critical Mass is it's a great group bike ride." Fraser said.

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