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Bike Parties: Biking for the Fun People!
June 13, 2015

Bike Party -- a new way to make friends and explore a city

by Jeff Potter (photo by R. Frith)

More people are biking nowadays, and they're having more fun at it. Lansing is joining in.

The focus point for the most bike fun in our city these days is the Lansing Bike Party (LBP), a loose-knit group that meets Fridays then heads out to explore for a couple hours, stopping for snacks and TGIF beverages along the way.

They enjoy bringing the extra business to bistros and shops all across town. It's a casual scene, often tying in with other events happening around town. They ride about 10-15 miles in an evening.

"I wish I'd learned about it sooner. It's a lifesaver. It gives me hope for our town," said Martha Bishop, an area artist.

Those who try it realize that a bike lets you ride across town a few times in just a short while. A couple hours spent on a bike riding around town then to a pub then to a music fest or art opening, for example, all by way of neighborhoods, keeps you in touch with each place as you roll along. You're like an ambassador from your previous stop as you roll up to a new one. In a car you're separated. Isolated. Alienated. ...It's bad.

"Why do I do it?" asked Augusta Rose, a host of several rides that were held in conjunction with the Lansing Art Works Co-Op. "One word: community. No, make that two: socializing. It's just a great way to connect with Lansing."

The LBP ride often stops by historic sites and sometimes a picnic is in store.

It's not only more fun with a group, it's safer. They often include night riding in their activities, which goes great, every time, with a group.

Riders report that car drivers consistently notice and respect their group. Actually, we have mutual fun with car drivers throughout the ride. We chat with them. They give us cheery honks and waves. It's not just about the bike. We're enjoying the streets and neighborhoods in an orderly way and we include drivers in on it. Also folks on porches and other pedestrians. We ring a lot of bells.

The group is just trying to spread the word about how much fun people, cities, and bikes can be.

The LBP has been around for a few years and has hosted over a hundred rides. It's organized mostly via Facebook, which also acts as a meeting-site for other urban rides and events. They now have almost 1000 members, though about 50 show up for their main Friday rides. They host rides on other days of the week as well.

One ride hosted by Rose and LAW in conjunction with the LBP was the "Food and Farms Ride." Bikers visited eight urban farms and gardens in the floodplain neighborhoods near Kalamazoo and Clippert Streets.

LBP rides are great "eyes and ears": we explore places being developed or notice places at risk. We're usually among the first to check out new pathways and bike lanes. And we can quickly tell if the planning works as intended. We give feedback if changes seem needed.

Rides usually have unofficial guides and helpers, including myself. Personally, my thrill comes from the diverse connections we make: new and old friends, young and old folks, big roads, tiny trails, neighborhoods, waving at people, visiting shops, grabbing a bite to eat, fast pace, slow pace, sightseeing houses, cool vehicles, historic features, music, different kinds of bikes, riding from day to evening then turning on lights and riding through the night air -- all in a few hours!

These rides bond together the parts of our city like nothing else. It's not about bikes -- it's about reclaiming and creating fun in our city -- for free -- with just a little planning ahead, or none at all.

LBP rolls from about Easter to near Thanksgiving, with some enjoying the weather year-round just by wearing whatever the weather calls for. It's easy! Even rain, in warm weather, is nice. It's amazingly refreshing: try it and see! (Citybikes often have fenders: a great idea to help with fun in the rain.)

The rides come in a variety of flavors. Costume and dress-up rides are well-received, especially for vintage attire -- a Tweed Ride in the autumn and a Gatsby Ride featuring seersucker in the spring. (Such rides draw hundreds in other cities.) Usually a few bikers are hauling boomboxes, so there are several kinds of "clubs" on each ride. Sometimes rides attend live music at a festival or house-party. There's the occasional full moon ride. Quick'n'easy overnight nearby camping rides are enjoyed by a few: throw a sleeping bag into a basket or pack and away we go -- back by morning. Family-oriented rides are set up on another Facebook group, where folks with kids, many in trailers, meet up for a ride that might end at a playground or an ice-cream shop.

We also do parades! Bikes love a parade. And vice versa. But bikes haven't been featured in many parades until bike parties came along!

One trick that's used for bigger group rides is called "corking." It's likely a debatable practice but give it a try and see if it helps in your area. It was developed by Critical Mass riders to help get a group through a traffic signal in one mass. Basically, it treats the group like it was a big buss: the front part gets through the light on a green but it might change to red before everyone is through. So you need riders on either side to stop in the intersection and wave at the car drivers who are waiting to let them know that it'll just be a few more seconds before they can go. These riders need to be diplomats and should wear bright safety-type apparel. Drivers are then thanked and the ride rolls on. Of course, if a light is going to turn as a group approaches, the group stops. And keep your group tight so nobody has to wait for more than 30 seconds, say.

If a group gets to be too big for a city then parade rules might come into effect. That can happen maybe between 50 and 100 riders. It all depends. To stay casual, you might want to avoid that. If your ride is getting too big for that, then break it into multiple groups.

Then there's liability. Again, it all depends. Maybe stay a non-group. Keep it unofficial. I've looked into legal precedent and "common adventurer" as well as "primary risk assumption" are both protective of those who have fun together doing things with helpers where someone could get hurt -- thank goodness. Google 'em.

A lot of bikers ride for fitness. The LBP is different. Sure, there's fitness, but it's more of a way to unwind from a busy week and socialize in the fresh air. Serious bikes and high-tech Lycra stretch clothing aren't needed at all. The breeze from riding keeps you from getting sweaty in regular clothes. And even if you do, who cares. Come as you are and ride any bike: it's all good.

The huge benefit of bike parties is the normalizing of the bike. Bikers wearing normal clothes, riding affordable bikes, interacting with people like they're all together in this thing called life. This makes biking into something normal for drivers and peds to see. It makes it more likely they'll start biking and that they'll treat other bikers like people.

Bike parties usually treat helmets as encouraged but don't have strict rules on anything but safe riding. We find that more than half of our riders wear helmets. Some say that helmets are part of what makes biking appear to be both unsafe and abnormal: runners don't wear them, car drivers don't either. And sometimes a fedora just seems like a good idea. ...And a skirt can be as fun to bike in as black stretchy shorts.

Big organized clubs, rides and events usually attract high performance bikes and riders. The LBP exists for everyone else, for bringing people together, and for exploring the heart of the city. Actually, many LBP riders also do "serious" rides other days. And "hardcore" riders are welcome -- it's a chance for them to do a different kind of ride, to kick back and relax. And, ya know, racers are supposed to have an easy day each week. Ya gotta go slow to go fast.

Urban biking, and bike fun, is known as an important part of city recovery nationwide. There's a documentary called "Aftermass" about Portland, Oregon's bike scene. It includes quotes from politicians who give the most credit to their city-center revival to the local bike party!

Other Michigan cities are also reveling in social biking. Detroit is finding that bikes are a great uplift for urban culture. Their Monday night Slow Roll attracts THOUSANDS of fun-oriented riders has cheery relations with residents, car-drivers and police. After each ride they pack restaurants for blocks on an otherwise slow night. Bike fun is an important part of a comeback for a city that was resisting so many other attempts at repair.

You might find your party getting treated like a kind of political party. Indeed, I say "Vote Bike Party!" You might find officials and media wanting your input on things. That's not bad. Do with it as you like. We've found ourselves being the subject of big art exhibits, the media likes to cover us, we just showed up at an event and got VIP tickets, some of us got discovered a park in trouble and are now up to our necks in politics trying to save it. Who knows where it will end up.

Jason Hall of the Detroit Slow Roll just became the figurehead for the first nonstop flight between London and Detroit. He and Sir Richard Branson, of Virgin Air, have been biking around their respective cities giving high-fives this weekend.

Our local bike party is unofficial, free, and voluntary. It's not a beginner class. Participants are assumed to be fit, safe urban bikers, on bikes in good shape, that fit them, with their own repair-kit. The pace is about 12mph -- not fast, not lollygagging. On heavier citybikes it takes some effort, but for most it's smile-inducing the whole time. It's casual but requires skill: really, as much skill as driving a car. We hope to offer instructional rides.

So if you'd like to see a new side of your city and its people, try a bike party!

How to get started? Cover your bases. Start some word-of-mouth. Use the full range of social media. Make a fun poster and tape it up all over town -- bike shops, sure, but also pubs, cafes, art places, bookstores. What you want are fun people! Who cares about bikes. The bikes will follow. Make stickers and spokecards and paste 'em and stick 'em in spokes. Next: pick a fun, visible place to start your ride -- visible for peds, drivers and other bikers. Maybe find a few places on different sides of town that you'll swing around to and announce all of them. Pick up riders as you go. Call around to the various bike shops and cool hang-outs, bistros and pubs -- places with patio seating, maybe -- and see what they think of the idea. One or a few might bite hard. They might want you to start in their parking lot or end up at their patio.

Then ride. Ride regularly. Ride all over the place. Invite other riders you see to join in. Maybe get some regular routes but then also throw in some variety. Brainstorm some cool destinations. Get one day predictable and solid. But also try different days of the week, maybe for different flavors of riding. Go longer, faster on a weekend. Restaurants are hurtin' early in the week -- maybe one would be eager to give your group a half-off offer then to get you to stop by. Tie it all together under one name.

Find a few folks who are gung-ho about making it work and pow-wow with them. Find some more who'll help out here'n'there. As you grow you'll build up around your cheeriest regulars. Ask for help. It's like any group: ask for feedback and encourage initiative. Keep a low barrier to entry. When someone has advice or a ride or route idea, ask them to show you what they mean, to lead the way, then the regulars can help them and they'll learn how it goes.

Bike parties can easily include people who are presently underserved by the rest of the bike world: families, women, youth, twenty-somethings, minorities, LGBT. Fun is the name of the game. "Seriousness" -- dullness, expense -- has limited the appeal of cycling in many of its other aspects.

Parties include bikes that aren't seen on other group rides: ratbikes, cruisers, citybikes, tallbikes, folders -- everything mixed together! Racebikes are likely the least suitable, but they can get along, too.

Finally, once your ride is big, step up to T-SHIRTS! You know you've made it when you have a shirt. Ha!

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