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Portland’s invisible machine: Behind the scenes at the World Naked Bike Ride

Buffered Bike Lane with a bike symbol and arrow pointing forward

Who’s asking? A traffic cone at 52nd and Woodstock gives a subtle tip of the show to come.
(Photos: M.Andersen/BikePortland)

Some of the images in this post are not safe for work. Obviously.

There it stood in the middle of SE Woodstock Boulevard, a 42-inch-tall orange breadcrumb surrounded by a bustling commercial district.

The Beaverton 17-year-old who’d leapt out the rolling door of a blue minivan to drop it confidently into place in front of the east curb of a traffic median didn’t tell anyone what he was doing or why. No one asked. Maybe no one even looked twice as he hopped back in the minivan to ride to the next stop, well out of eyeshot.

Seven hours earlier, the boy in question — his first name is Evan — wouldn’t have looked twice at something like that, either. That was before he found out that he was about to receive what was, just for that day, maybe the most closely guarded secret in Portland, Oregon: the route of that evening’s World Naked Bike Ride.

Kevin R., Leslie Cormier, Marie Conkel and others prepare signs to sell WNBR swag Saturday.

The approximately 168 volunteers who made the most famous recreational bike ride in the United States happen last night have learned a lot of things from their predecessors, who learned a lot of things from theirs. One of the first things the WNBR team learned after the ride’s official founding in 2004 was that if you want several thousand naked people of every age and shape to have a fun, safe ride that ends at a fun, safe destination, you can’t tell anyone where that destination is.

Even to the people on the ride, the location of the finish line needs to be a secret.

Even to the people on the ride, the location of the finish line needs to be a secret until the moment the first few of them cross it.

But because this is the WNBR, a ride that exists in the glare of the media and survives by the grace of the Portland Police Bureau, there are a few tasks that need to be done beforehand.

That was how Evan and his sister Marie wound up cruising down Woodstock late Saturday afternoon in a borrowed van, retracing the secret route backwards from its even more secret destination. As they drove, they followed a detailed sheet of instructions to drop a dozen cones at seemingly random intersections around southeast Portland — cones that would in a few hours be perfectly understood for the hazard warnings they were when a sea of scantily clad smiling people parted smoothly to either side of them.

Luna, the 2016 WNBR volunteer coordinator.

Evan and Marie had been drafted into service Saturday by their mother. It was retaliation, in a way, for the way they’d drafted her into being involved with the ride in the first place.

Their mother Luna, a 50-year-old real estate worker who lives in Beaverton, hadn’t known about any naked bike rides four years ago when she and her two sons moved to the metro area where her daughter had already attended college. But the 2012 ride, which happened to be the last one that drew fewer than 8,000 participants, had made it into her youngest son Evan’s media orbit.

“I grew up in the country, so my skills dealing with anybody were — none,” Evan recalled Saturday. “Growing up I was always bullied, I was always outcast. And it was all about my appearance. I’ve always been a pretty slim kid.”

Luna asked her daughter if she knew anything about the naked bike ride. “She said, ‘Oh god, yes.'”

When the then-14-year-old heard that every June in his new city, thousands of people met for a sunset bicycle ride to take off most or all of their clothes and celebrate the diversity of their bodies, he wanted in. So he asked his mom.

Luna, who said she can no longer bike herself due to a hip condition, passed the question to her daughter Marie, then in her 20s.

“I asked her if she knew about the bike ride,” Luna recalled. “She said, ‘Oh god, yes.'”

Luna said Evan could attend (wearing his purple Speedo) if Marie would help escort him. A close friend of Evan’s joined, too, and so did his older brother. And, starting in 2014, Luna began volunteering for the ride that her children were enjoying so much.

“It was more crowded than I expected it to be, and more artistic,” Luna recalled Saturday of her first visit to the gathering point. “After I volunteered the first year, I said ‘That was too much fun.'”

Luna said that because Evan’s friend was out of town on military duty and couldn’t get leave, her son had initially planned to skip Saturday’s ride for the first time since moving to Beaverton.

“But then he was like, ‘It’s my thing. I’ve just got to do it. It’s my family thing.'”

During a rare break in Luna’s action Saturday, her daughter stopped her to offer a muffin from a nearby bakery. “I’m trying to feed her,” Marie explained.

It was 5 p.m., four hours before start time, and Luna was wondering (wishfully, it would soon turn out) whether her first year of service as the World Naked Bike Ride’s volunteer coordinator might be more or less done.

“I’m hoping it’s on autopilot,” she said, standing in front of the volunteer tent at Mount Scott Park, the gathering point for the 2016 ride.

Six weeks earlier, Luna had seen a Facebook post from the WNBR team, asking if anyone would like to serve as a volunteer coordinator. Luna, who specializes in planning and organizing home showings in her day job, said she could do it. Meghan Sinnott, the veteran WNBR organizer who runs the ride’s social media operation, emailed her almost immediately to see if she could attend the meeting coming up in a few days.

“They all knew each other already,” Luna said. But she got along perfectly. “It was immediate. It just clicked, and you fit right in with everybody. It’s awesome. They’re very organized. I like ’em like that.”

About once a day for the next month, Luna said, someone would type their information into WNBR’s volunteering page, and an automated email would pop into Luna’s inbox. She corresponded with each and built a massive spreadsheet to track them all, sorting them into categories by skill and interest: merchandise sellers, donation collectors, body painters, ride marshals, mechanics, medics.

Four days before the ride, Luna’s daughter Marie was coming home from a year teaching in Qingdao, China. Luna recruited her to a top-secret job: van driver.

“We communicate well,” Marie said of her mother Saturday as she headed to a cone location. “I understand her when she’s vague.”

Evan Ross, left, with Sgt. Bret Barnum, special events coordinator for the Portland Police Bureau’s traffic division and a longtime friend to WNBR.

On Saturday afternoon Marie and Evan met up with Evan Ross, the tall, angular bike-tour entrepreneur in his first year as WNBR’s route manager and Portland Police Bureau liaison.

Ross was inheriting that role from Carl Larson, who has served as the main planner of WNBR routes for years. This is Larson’s last Pedalpalooza as a Portlander; he’s moving to upstate New York later this year. (Another veteran WNBR organizer, Halley Weaver, moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, on Friday.)

On Thursday night, Ross had gone out for one final test ride along the secret 5.7-mile route he and Larson had chosen from Mount Scott Park west on Woodstock, past Reed College and across the new Sellwood Bridge to Willamette Park. But when he got almost to the end of the meticulously planned route that he’d tested a month before, Ross saw two surprises: first, an unfinished joint on the Sellwood Bridge that was the perfect size to catch bike tires; and second, several thick steel plates in the park (which has been closed for months during bridge construction) that ran across the entire width of the path.

On Thursday and Friday, Ross and the WNBR team tensely discussed whether to make the ride’s first-ever last-minute route change.

“The original timeline from the county was that the route was supposed to be finished,” Ross said. But it wasn’t. On Thursday and Friday, Ross and the core WNBR team tensely discussed whether to make the ride’s first-ever last-minute route change.

“We were looking at building a plywood ramp,” Ross said. On Friday night with 24 hours to spare, Ross finally decided to scrap that plan and change the route to end at Sellwood Park instead, a shorter trip but a safer one and one that would let people finishing the ride drift naturally up the Springwater Corridor toward the inevitable string of riverside afterparties.

“I had to make a call,” Ross said.

Tom Tyler and Kathy Buss at the volunteer coordination table.

Back at Mount Scott Park, it was three hours to start time and nobody knew any of those details. Tom Tyler, a Portlander of several years who has never joined the ride himself but volunteered for the first time this year, was distributing red cloth shoulder sashes labeled “WNBR” to people who had been assigned merchandise sales or donation solicitation.

“If Luna says we have a sash person, I’m rustling in your sash stash,” he told Eric Almeida, the second-year volunteer manning the table with him.

Collecting the sash was Tom Hardy, who said he’d seen a naked bike ride in Portland for the first time in 1962, gathering in Coe Circle at NE 39th Avenue and Glisan, when he was 17.

“It was never organized per se, but everybody knew about it,” he said. “I would go over to a friend of mine’s place. We had just graduated from Benson. … We got an eyeful.”

Hardy smiled.

He said he’d heard about the newly aboveboard WNBR in 2008 and ridden it every year since.

“I just think it’s fun that those barriers that kept us from organizing transparently have fallen away. Some of them, but not all of them.”
— Kathy Buss

Another man approached the table to ask which direction the ride was heading.

“I don’t know,” Tyler said.

Kathy Buss, another volunteer coordinator sitting with Tyler and Almeida, chimed in to support Hardy’s extended history of pre-WNBR naked bike rides in Portland.

“It would just seem like it was a random summer night and you would just see people riding past,” she said, her cane briefly slipping off her lap as she gestured excitedly. “Like, ‘What the hell?’ … I just think it’s fun that those barriers that kept us from organizing transparently have fallen away. Some of them, but not all of them.”

A soft-spoken gray-haired woman, already naked, approached the table with a question. She had a disability, she explained, and was worried about being able to make it back to Mount Scott Park if the ride was very long. Where is the destination, she wondered?

“I don’t know,” Buss said.

Ken Marshall at work.

Around the park, the energy was picking up. Ken Marshall, who described himself as the 2015 California state mountain-bike racing champion, applied body paint in exchange for donations to support the ride. He said he’d driven 14 hours from Pasadena with a friend to make this year’s WNBR. He also explained that they’d constructed lampshades to wear during the ride.

“It’s like being a kid again,” said Marshall, adding that he was 71 years old. “No inhibitions. Everybody’s happy and it’s just, like, fun.”

Nearby, two young men who said they couldn’t give their names decorated each other with matching face paint. One said they’d driven from Boise to join the ride for the third year in a row after checking the ride out on a whim in 2014.

“We expected to enjoy, but nothing like this,” he said.

I asked if there was anything like this in Idaho.

“Nudity is illegal in Boise in any form,” he answered, seeming maybe less sad than frustrated.

As the start time got closer, more and more people were applying body paint.

Some onlookers seemed more confused than others.

Across the park, a naked couple (one painted almost entirely in gold) enjoyed jumping through cascades of bubbles that a man was blowing.

Bill Chin, an IT project manager in his day job and a man who very likely holds the world record for most Pedalpalooza rides in a single year, was in his first year as overall project manager for this year’s WNBR. With his daughter hovering nearby and waiting for his boyfriend to arrive, Chin stood for a mostly naked media interview with David Ashton of East Portland News. Elsewhere, a documentary team visiting from abroad worked the crowd.

Bill Chin and David Ashton.

Russ, a gray-moustached security guard working WNBR for the first time, arrived early to his evening gig carrying a styrofoam box of General Tso’s chicken that he said was left over from dinner at his favorite Chinese restaurant in Troutdale.

“I did Ben Harper last night at Edgewood,” he said. “I had another gig this morning — I did the gun show down at the Expo Center. Then I went to my mom’s and took a nap.”

On Sunday, Russ said, he’ll be working a drag show at Washington Park.

“It’s my favorite part of the job, because I’m always doing something different,” he said.

Evan Ross briefs the mobile volunteers just before WNBR rolls out.

At 8:30, just as a van rolled up blasting music, Ross gathered WNBR’s mobile volunteers — medics, mechanics and ride marshals — in the park’s empty tennis court. Solemnly, he passed around a stack of maps of the still-secret destination, Sellwood Park.

“You look so dour!” one woman said.

“Wooo!” Ross replied obediently, raising his arms. Then he was back to business.

“When we get to the park and we see people starting to slow down, your biggest goal is to say ‘Keep going, keep going,'” Ross explained. “Use exaggerated arm motions.”

When the briefing was over, Ross headed to his own bike.

“I’m basically concentrating on getting painted and taking my clothes off,” he told another organizer.


Finally it was almost time to roll. Precisely at 8:45, the row of police motorcycles lined up neatly in the southwest corner of Mount Scott Park became a row of police officers, then peeled out of formation and headed west on Woodstock.

Immediately south of the park, another officer backed his car into the middle of an intersection and began directing westbound cars to turn south on 73rd. The night’s automotive detours had begun.

One mile west, at 52nd and Woodstock, the orange cone Evan had set in the middle of the road a few hours before was still sitting there unsuspiciously. But the jig was up. When police motorcycles arrived at each intersection along Woodstock, residents started to poke their heads out of doors. One couple, riding their own scooter up from the South Waterfront in search of the fun, spotted the police, deduced the route and staked out the parking lot at 7-Eleven.

A few minutes after 9 p.m., people on bikes were still converging on the park. Most were still clothed, but — to the delight of two young children from a quartet of families who had set up along Woodstock as soon as they saw the police arrive — one man was headed there already naked.

“We’re going to see naked people!” one child squealed.

“We got one!” one of the men shouted.

Across the street, a man tried to convince his tiny, yapping dog to sit as the woman he was with looked eastward, waiting.

“The anticipation is palpable,” the woman, Krista Bruun, said in a stage whisper.

Then, led by a flashing squad car, they were there.

Thousands of them were there.

Some were on skateboards or longboards. Some were jogging. A few were on rollerblades. A few were in wheelchairs.

They hollered. They jingled. They jiggled.

More than anything else, they smiled.

Then they came to Evan’s orange cone, marking the spot where the center curb began. And then, effortlessly, they parted.

— Michael Andersen, (503) 333-7824 –

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The World Naked Bike Ride costs $5,000 to $7,000 per year, is funded entirely by donations, and is staffed entirely by volunteers. If you’d like, you can donate here or buy swag here to make next year’s ride happen. You can also help out by volunteering for next year’s ride here.