WNBR 2015 - John C. Kirk
Nov. 29th, 2015
06:48 pm - WNBR 2015
I've been involved with the World Naked Bike Ride since 2009. This year, I took part in three rides: London, Brighton, and Bristol. I also did a few interviews to help publicise the ride and explain what we're trying to achieve.
Content warning: as you might expect, this post contains photos with nudity, so view it at your own discretion.
I wrote a WNBR FAQ in 2013 which covers the most common questions I get, e.g. "Is it legal?" and "Doesn't it hurt?" Just to restate our goals, we are:
- Protesting against car culture and oil dependency
- Promoting cycling as an alternative to driving
- Drawing attention to the vulnerability of cyclists
- Celebrating body freedom
This year was the 12th London ride, and it still continues to be relevant. For instance, here's an article from the Evening Standard: 'Oxford Street pollution levels breached EU annual limit just four days into 2015'. More recently, Volkswagen have been in trouble for faking the results of emissions tests on their diesel cars (as reported by the BBC, among others). I think it's fair to say that none of this air pollution is coming from bicycles!
I did two interviews for BBC radio; they're no longer available on iPlayer, so I've extracted the relevant section of each broadcast. (I hope that falls under the category of "fair use".) If you want to listen to them, it's probably best if you right-click and save them to your PC first, rather than trying to play them directly through your browser.
- Fri 2015-06-12: Drivetime with Eddie Nestor, BBC Radio London. (Drivetime.aac, 4 MB.)
- Sat 2015-06-13: Weekend, BBC World Service. (Weekend.aac, 6 MB.)
I wasn't sure whether I'd be the best person for this job, since I've often been told that I speak too quickly for people to understand. However, the requests came in at fairly short notice, so there weren't any other suitable candidates available. I think it worked out ok, partly because I was pausing after each question to work out the best answer in my head before I spoke.
On Friday evening, I did the Drivetime interview over the phone. I did my best to give straight answers to his questions, but that didn't necessarily mean accepting his premise. For instance, he asked me about imposing penalties on drivers, but I prefer to focus on the carrot rather than the stick, i.e. I'd like to see better infrastructure for cycling so that drivers have an incentive to switch. This is similar to my views on being vegetarian; going back to 2007 (Dining with vegetarians), a couple of people mentioned that they appreciated my non-militant approach. As I said in the interview, I think there are situations when it makes sense to drive rather than cycling: I just want people to consider the alternatives, so that we can reduce the number of car journeys rather than eliminating them altogether. The interviewer asked why we can't just wear bright colours if we want to be noticed; I said that I've been in a few collisions when I was wearing high-vis, but never when I've been naked. So, although that's just anecdotal evidence, I think it helps to justify our use of nudity on the ride as well as demonstrating that a high-vis tabard isn't equivalent to a bulletproof vest. There's no legal requirement to wear high-vis clothing, and it has to be each driver's responsibility to watch where they're going.
On Saturday morning, I went to new Broadcasting House in central London so that I could do the interview in person. The BBC offered to book a taxi for me, but I declined because I could just cycle from Victoria station instead. Despite the warnings from my inner Ackbar ("It's a trap!"), I don't think they were actually trying to stitch me up. However, it would be a legitimate question if they asked why I'd chosen to come by car rather than bike. As it was, they mentioned that I'd cycled in (wearing clothes!) at the start of the segment.
I've been to that building before, to be part of the studio audience for a few Radio 4 recordings (e.g. The Now Show). However, it was a slightly different process for this (e.g. it was going out live), and the logistics were interesting. Someone met me at the front desk and took me upstairs, then I sat down in their office area until they were ready for me. When I went into the recording studio, there were already three people in there (the host and two guests), along with at least one producer in an adjacent room. If you've ever watched Frasier, it was quite similar to that arrangement, whereas the previous recordings were more like a theatre with several rows of seats and a stage at the front.
Unlike the recordings I've seen before, each person was wearing a pair of headphones, so I followed their example; we also each had a microphone on the desk in front of us. I sat down a couple of minutes before my bit started, so I could just watch what everyone else did for the end of the previous segment. In particular, some stuff came through the microphones which wasn't actually broadcast, e.g. when the jingle was playing the producer said "Back to you in 3... 2... 1..." and then the host took over to say "You're listening to BBC World Service." Similarly, there were various hand gestures going on which the audience at home wouldn't see. Related to that, I had to remind myself that the audience wouldn't see any of my non-verbal communication. For instance, if the host asked me a question and I nodded, that wouldn't be particularly helpful. He could see me, since we were all sitting around the same table, but the audience couldn't. The Drivetime interview was different, because the host couldn't see me either, so it was similar to any other phone conversation and I've had plenty of past experience with that.
The broadcast went out at 7am, so this was quite an early start for me. However, I think the adrenaline rush from my fear of saying something stupid was enough to overcome the lack of sleep. Related to that, I think the others could tell that I was a bit nervous, and they made an effort to make me feel comfortable; the host explicitly said at one point that nobody in that room had any moral objection to the WNBR. So, this wasn't like Jerry Springer where they bring people in to shout at each other. Since this was the world service, they were keen to stress the global aspect rather than issues which were specific to London. That was a bit tricky for me, since I haven't been involved with any rides outside England. However, I thought it was a nice touch to mention Scotland as a country with more restrictive laws, rather than the more obvious examples (e.g. Saudi Arabia). I stumbled over my final point a bit (when I mentioned the Free the Nipple campaign), but overall I think it went well.
When they moved onto the next segment, I put my headphones back on the desk and quietly slipped out of the room, then a member of staff escorted me back downstairs. It didn't really make sense to hang around in central London, since we weren't due to assemble for the ride until 14:00, so I went back home again in between. That did mean that I made two round trips in the same day, but it was worth it.
This is the third year that I've led a group from Clapham Junction. Originally, everyone started and finished at Hyde Park/Wellington Arch, but we have the same problem every year: there are big crowds of spectators who block the road, so it takes a long time to get everyone through. (Think about the crowds of paparazzi who surround celebrities and you'll get the idea.) In some cases, we've been reduced to cycling in single file. So, we set up multiple start points which would merge together along the route, a bit like streams coming together to form a river. This also makes sense for people who live in different areas: if you've got to get your bike across London anyway, why not start the ride a bit closer to home?
I think it's been a success, and the numbers have grown a bit each year:
- In 2013, we had 67 people when we left, 75 by the time we reached Battersea Park, and 90 at Vauxhall Bridge before we merged with the West Norwood group.
- In 2014, we had 100 people.
- In 2015, 100 people signed up to the Facebook event within 24 hours of me creating it, and that went up to over 300 by the actual date of the ride. As it turned out, only 104 people actually turned up; I think the weather put a lot of people off, since it was a bit dingy. However, that's still an increase from the previous year.
When I went to Southampton in previous years, we also had about 100 people there. So, this one start point is equivalent to a whole ride in some other cities, and some are even smaller than that (particularly when they're starting out). I was also quite pleased that when the first 10 people had arrived, we actually had an even gender split. (Admittedly, I didn't ask anyone for their preferred pronouns, so this is something of a qualitative analysis.) We ended up with a male majority, but it's better than some other rides I've heard about.
While everyone was assembling, I gave an interview to South West Londoner (a local paper).
I also wandered round to talk to a few people, and I stressed the same thing that I mentioned in my general briefing later. "Although this is called the World Naked Bike Ride, you don't actually have to be naked. So, you can wear as much or as little as you feel comfortable with. Also, you don't have to decide right away. We'll be making a couple of stops along the way, so you can strip off more layers if you feel comfortable. Or, if you start riding and think 'Aargh, this was a horrible mistake', you can just pull over to the side of the road and put some clothes back on."
This fits in with what I said about numbers, as well as what I've mentioned about the Nine Worlds convention in previous posts. Basically, I'm trying to make this start point a friendly place to be, where nobody is going to get unwelcome attention because of the way they're dressed. I think it's working, if people choose to come back in subsequent years and also spread the message to their friends that this is a better option than Hyde Park. Hopefully that trend will continue next year.
Here's a couple of photos of us setting off:
(Copyright John Kelly.)
As the second picture shows, there were several people watching and taking photos. However, as the first picture shows, they didn't get in our way so we had plenty of space to roll our bikes off the paved area onto the road. This is the ideal situation: we want people to see us (otherwise it wouldn't be a very effective protest), as long as they don't actually obstruct us.
After we set off, we paused a couple of times to regroup (so that we would travel as a group rather than being too spread out). Later, we met up with the groups from other start points, and that's when everything slowed down. It's a trade-off, really: it makes an impact to have 1000 people all riding together, but it's also more of a challenge to travel at a speed where everyone can stay together. When I went to the LCC Big Ride a few years ago (before the London Mayoral elections), it was an even bigger group and everyone just went at walking pace.
The merged ride paused at Lincoln's Inn Field to regroup, but unfortunately there was a bit of confusion about who was at the front and we left in two separate groups. So, I wound up loitering near Covent Garden on my own in order to point the stragglers in the right direction. A bit later, I saw a woman who was cycling on her own after she'd lost sight of her boyfriend; she's not used to London cycling, so I escorted her to the end point. As we went through Admiralty Arch (just off Trafalgar Square), I felt someone slap my arse; I turned around, and saw a fully clothed guy cycle away grinning. That's not appropriate behaviour, but at least it happened to me rather than the person I was with.
After the main ride finished, there were a couple of return rides going back to their respective start points (West Norwood and Tower Hill). I was going to join in with one of them, but then I saw someone else who'd got dressed and needed to get to Waterloo on her own. Since that's on my way home, I decided to guide her.
I did an informal survey on the Clapham Junction Facebook event later on, asking for any opinions on the ride and whether people would like a return ride. The general impression was that the first section was best (before everyone merged together) and that it would be nice to have some kind of gathering afterwards, rather than the abrupt ending of "That's it, the ride's over, get dressed and go home." The tricky bit is finding a suitable location, but I'll keep it in mind.
In contrast to London, this is my "off duty" ride, where I have no responsibilities to anyone else and so I can just enjoy the day. I did this ride in 2010-2013, then I missed it in 2014 because it clashed with a LARP event, so I was glad to get back there for it this year. Also, I've been going down to Brighton for various swims over the past year (e.g. at the full moon), so this time around I knew a couple more people who were taking part in the ride.
Here are some photos:
(Copyright Funk Dooby.)
The first picture shows us leaving at the start. It was a bit "stop-start" due to the number of people involved, but the spectators stood back far enough to give us a nice wide path. I think it's also good to look at the reactions we get: none of those people are objecting to what we're doing. The first time I did a London ride (in 2009), we had a police escort, but we've had to fend for ourselves since then. By contrast, the police escort the Brighton ride every year. That made things easier, because they acted as a rolling roadblock and we could ignore any red traffic lights that we encountered in order to keep the ride together.
As usual, the ride was split into three sections, with two rest breaks in between. I volunteered to count everyone as we left the second stop, using a stroke counter. (The clicky thing that golfers use to count their strokes.) However, it was tricky to get an accurate figure because people were passing me faster than I could click (with multiple riders side by side), so I basically just had to keep pressing the button as quickly as possible until the crowd of cyclists thinned out a bit, then I joined the ride at the back. A few other people also took counts at other points on the ride, then we compared notes. As the wiki says: "Approximately 700-800 people took part (counts varied from 560 to 830)."
The ride ended on Black Rock naturist beach, so I took the opportunity to go for a swim. This is the key advantage that Brighton has over London: people can stay there for as long as they like, then gradually get dressed and/or leave whenever they feel like it.
I've done the London and Brighton rides in previous years, along with Southampton, but I hadn't been any further afield. Leaving aside any issues of environmental impact, it's a question of timing. For instance, it took me about 7 hours to get from Croydon to Bristol and back (via bike/train); if the actual ride only lasts an hour, that doesn't really justify the trip. However, some of my LARP friends live in Bristol, so I was able to turn this into a weekend away: after the ride, we all met at the pub, then I stayed overnight and we went off to the local park on Sunday for some weapons practice before I came home.
As with my interviews, I want people to know what the ride is about. When I did the London and Brighton rides, I hung a sign below my saddle, but that's not visible in the photos above. When I've used my Brompton (folding bike) in previous years, I had one sign below the saddle and another one on my handlebars at the front of the bike; see my blog post from 2014 for a few pictures of that. However, that's not really practical on the touring bike, because I have a bar bag attached to my handlebars and if I put a sign between the bag and the front wheel then it would be hard to see. It belatedly occurred to me that I could attach signs to my front pannier racks (giving me three in total), so that's what I did in Bristol:
I volunteered to act as a first aider on the ride, so I wore an armband to identify me and I hung a PMR radio around my neck. Comms are an ongoing challenge in the London ride, so I was interested to see how other people handle it. We've tried a conference call via mobile phones, but because each phone is always transmitting that means that there's constant background noise from everyone involved, so I found that it was pretty much impossible to hear anything. In theory, radios are a better option because you have a PTT (Press To Talk) button. However, there are only a few unlicensed frequencies (which are freely available for anyone to use) so you tend to get interference from anyone else nearby who's using the same frequency, e.g. a minicab firm. Also, I found in London that all the tall buildings blocked the signal, so the effective range was about 100m. At that point, you're within shouting distance anyway! Bristol had about 400 people: that's bigger than my Clapham Junction group, but smaller than the merged London ride (so we were all a bit closer together), and I still couldn't hear anything coherent over the radio during the ride. Thinking about the police escort in Brighton, I assume that they use radios to communicate between the front/back of the ride, but they have better equipment and their own reserved frequency, so they won't encounter the same problems that we did. I believe that it's possible to hire that type of radio for a day, but I don't know how much it costs; that's something to investigate for next year's ride(s).
As it turned out, the Bristol ride lasted longer than I expected. The original blurb said that it would be a 5 mile (8 km) route, so I thought that it would take an hour at most. On the day, it turned out to be 11.5 km and lasted for 1h45m. This included a couple of brief stops (similar to the Brighton ride). I started out near the back of the ride, and a few of us got separated from the main group; that was a bit hairy for a few minutes, when we had to dodge traffic to catch up with them. However, once we caught up, the marshals did a really good job of keeping everyone together for the rest of the ride.
We started and finished at the aptly named Full Moon pub, and they were happy for everyone to strip off in the courtyard outside as long as we got dressed before we actually went inside. As we approached the end, I noticed that we kept taking detours: we went past the pub on the opposite side of the road, then up the hill and round some back streets before we came back down the hill to actually turn into the courtyard. I'm not sure how much of that was planned in advance, and how much of it was just spontaneous because nobody wanted the ride to end. It was a sunny day, so that was great weather for the ride (as long as you used suncream!). So, this was a middle ground between London and Brighton, with a relaxed ending to the ride. Since it was such a warm day, I wasn't in any hurry to get dressed, but eventually I had to so that I could meet my friends in a different pub.
As you can see in the photo above, aside from the cyclists there was also someone on a longboard. (There's a similar photo as #16 of 17 Best Bits From Bristol's Naked Bike Ride.) This has been a slightly controversial point: do skaters belong in the World Naked Bike Ride? Some people say no, e.g. Canterbury. However, I think it's best to look at the aims of the ride and see whether they apply to other people as well. In this example, skating is a legitimate form of transport which is an alternative to making car journeys, the skate/longboard is a human-powered vehicle (not directly dependent on oil), and skaters are just as vulnerable as cyclists in the event of a collision so motor vehicles need to give them sufficient space. I'd say that fits in with all the goals that the WNBR is trying to promote. So, I support the slogan above ("Me too!") and I personally wouldn't take part in any ride which banned skaters.
As for the name, it's a bit of a misnomer already. For instance, as I mentioned earlier, the ride is "clothing optional" rather than "clothing forbidden". Also, there are some people who ride tricycles (e.g. recumbents and cycle rickshaws), so we shouldn't insist on two wheels; at the same time, we wouldn't want motorbikes turning up! Electric bikes are fine if they meet the EAPC definition; that way, they're still bicycles rather than mopeds. I know a couple of people who couldn't ride a normal bike (e.g. after knee replacement surgery) so I think that an electric bike is a great alternative. However, Segways and "hoverboards" are a no-go; that's not a WNBR issue, it's just that they're illegal on both the road and pavement in the UK. There may be an argument for renaming (rebranding) the ride: there is precedent for that, e.g. when Freecycle became Freegle in the UK. However, for the time being I'd just say that it's best not to take the name too literally.
Anyway, all in all I think this was a successful year for the WNBR. All of the UK rides have now finished, but keep an eye on our website if you want to find a ride near you in 2016.