The safe feeling shifted, however, when we finally rolled forward and, at the first bend in the road, entered a gauntlet of clothed onlookers who'd shown up with their iPhones and video cameras to capture the spectacle. The inward press of the gawkers, which prevented me from gaining momentum, snapped my sense of vulnerability back into focus.
Once I'd passed through the bottleneck and could pop up onto my seat and begin pedaling, though, I felt free. The wind raised goose bumps on my skin as I rode past landmarks I see on a weekly basis, albeit clothed -- the iconic sign announcing visiting authors at Powell's City of Books, the Burnside Bridge spanning the Willamette River, the sweet-smelling Franz white bread bakery, The Slammer Tavern on Sandy Boulevard. In multiple parts of town, late-night revelers stepped out of bars to give us high fives and cheer us on. Some took off their own clothing in solidarity (or drunkenness); navigating the route, I had to swerve around multiple pairs of crumpled underwear. We passed a troop of naked cowboys, a group of blue people in short cutoffs inspired by Arrested Development's never-nude Tobias, a rollerblader doing fancy footwork despite the road rash on his left lower cheek and a happy old man with very clear arm signals.
With continuous whooping and banter, the ride felt like a moving celebration of bodies and bicycles and people at their most elemental.
"To whoever it is behind me that just said he wants to pee from his bike, DO IT!" Xochil yelled over her shoulder at one point. "I promise, you will never, ever regret that life decision."
"Bare as You Dare"
One of the lead ride organizers Meghan Sinnott estimates more than 5,000 people participated in the ride this year, though she says a formal count won't be available until July or August, once volunteers count a video recording of the start.
Though more than 70 similar "bare as you dare" rides occurred last weekend throughout the world, in cities including New York, Thessaloniki, Guadalajara and London, Portland's gathering has traditionally been the largest.
Sinnott attributes the high levels of participation in part to Oregon's permissive laws regarding nudity, which basically allow people to be publicly naked unless they're sex offenders, having sex, or trying to arouse someone else. (While Portland city law is stricter, prohibiting any exposure of genitalia in the presence of members of the opposite sex, city police recognize naked pedaling as a "well-established tradition" and a form of "symbolic protest" in Portland, and they go easy on riders who stay on route and behave.)
While the Portland ride originated a decade ago as a renegade group out to highlight the vulnerability of cyclists and protest dependence on fossil fuel, the tenor has changed as the size has grown and mainstream entities like the police department and art museum have come on board. Yes, many riders still bare it all for the original mission (Exhibit A: the guy with the slogan "More nude, less crude [oil]" painted on his back), but others strip down and saddle up to promote positive body image or, as Sinnott put it, have a "yay-yay-naked-naked!" experience.
Sinnott says she'd like to direct the ride back toward its protest roots next year by pushing a central message harder -- and perhaps holding the ride during daylight hours and routing it through neighborhoods that have not seen it before -- but she is pleased with this year's outcome nonetheless.
"If you throw a ride where 5,000 people show up, that's more people than commute per day in Portland," she said. "We're getting people who are buying bikes or borrowing bikes or dusting off bikes and getting out there and thinking, 'This is fun; I can do this.' I want people to know this is a protest, but I am so satisfied personally to know it's getting people out on bikes."
At the end of the ride, before pulling our clothes out of our bags, Xochil and I pulled our bikes to a stop under the Morrison Bridge and looked across Willamette River to the downtown lights beyond.
"How magical to be part of something so ridiculous, and so big," she said.