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Participants In Philly's Naked Bike Ride Will Have To Cover Up ... Their Faces

On Sunday, Sept. 4, 2011 Cheryl Rehmann has a message painted on her back by Matthew Wellstein before the start of the annual Naked Bike Ride in Philadelphia.
Joseph Kaczmarek
On Sunday, Sept. 4, 2011 Cheryl Rehmann has a message painted on her back by Matthew Wellstein before the start of the annual Naked Bike Ride in Philadelphia.

You won't need a shirt, pants, or even underwear, but for this year's annual Naked Bike Ride in Philadelphia, participants are being asked to cover only one thing: the bottom half of their face.

The organizers of Philly Naked Bike Ride had to cancel last year's annual nude ride due to COVID-19 concerns, but that isn't the case this year. Participants will gather on Aug. 28 for a nearly 10-mile leisurely ride around the city, a two-to-three-hour endeavor that, often times, sees them cycling past such iconic landmarks as the Liberty Bell and City Hall, all while in the buff.

Organizers hope to continue the tradition of encouraging riders of all skill levels to bare it all in support of cycling advocacy, reduced fuel use, and body positivity, but they're asking that riders wear a mask this year.

"Say yes to masks, no to bras," reads one recent post on the group's Instagram page. "Free the titty, protect the city."

Historically, the group has always encouraged participants to be "as bare as you dare." That means full nudity is welcome but not required; likewise, on-site body painting is also an option, and the group stays together for the entire ride, making it easier and safer to navigate the roads. It's not just bikes, either; organizers welcome riders to join them for the nude trek on any "human-powered transportation" of their choice, including skateboards and rollerblades, according to their website.

Masks certainly won't be new territory for the PNBR, either. In previous years, it was common for around a third of participants to wear some type of face covering to obscure their identity, organizers say.

You really CAN ride a bike naked in Philadelphia

If you're wondering how it's legal for thousands of people to bike through a big city, as naked as the day they were born, you probably aren't the only one. Still, contrary to what you might suspect, public nudity isn't automatically illegal; the state's indecent exposure laws are open to interpretation, and potential offenses typically involve some sort of sexual gratification during the act. As organizers of the PNBR will tell you, there's nothing sexual about it (in fact, it's expressly forbidden in their code of conduct).

"I've heard commentary from people that haven't done the ride that they perceive it to be a very sexualized event, and people who have actually done the ride know that it's quite the opposite," organizer Maria Serrahima tells NPR. At the starting point of the race, "people have time to mingle, make new friends, admire each other's creativity and body paint or whatever costumes they showed up in. And as the anxiety washes away from disrobing and seeing other people and just [getting to be] yourself, it's actually very de-sexualized."

"It's just, 'We're all humans, we're here, we're riding bikes together,'" she adds. "It's a day to ... be positive and not worry about whatever other people might think. [It's about] accepting each other and having fun ... while advocating for everything the ride stands for."

The ride, born of the World Naked Bike Ride movement, gets much of its support from CycleScenePHL and the Philly Bike Party, two of the city's biking groups that keep the city's love of cycling alive through events like monthly bike rides. Their members typically make up the core of volunteers helping the PNBR go off without a hitch every year. They're leaders who are dedicated to the cause, and who often are tasked with testing out the route before the big day, blocking off the streets before the riders get there, and riding at the front or back of the pack, keeping the entire group together as they traverse the city.

It's a bonding experience, one that organizers hope leave participants feeling good — even if they're exhausted by the end.

"I hope people feel like they're a part of something larger, that they're a part of a larger community," Wesley Noonan-Sessa, lead facilitator for the ride, tells NPR. "And that [the ride] demonstrates just how many people are out on the streets riding bikes."

The ride must go on

The August event will be the group's 12th ride since their debut in 2009. For that first outing, they expected maybe hundreds of attendees; instead, around 2,000 people came, ready to strip down and put foot to pedal.

The event is free to participate in but there's no required registration, making it hard to gauge just how many people will show up on the day of. The most recent ride, held in August 2019, saw some 1,000 riders make their way through the streets of Philly, WHYY reports — undoubtedly, to the shock and awe of many an unsuspecting driver who probably didn't expect to see so many bare butts during their drive to the Italian Market.

But bare butts on a bike seat just may be the secret to unlocking a new level of comfort with your body.

"I think it helped me feel more comfortable in my skin in general," Janice Nieves, a member of the PNBR's street team, tells NPR. "Every year, I go into it feeling some level of nervousness or a little self-conscious, but when I get to the starting point and everyone's getting really excited about the ride, it's usually a really positive vibe."

"When I roll up [to the starting line], all that anxiety kind of goes away," she continues. "It's really nice to be somewhere where it's like, 'You know what? However I am, this is cool.'"

While they may have had to take a year off, the group is hoping for another good turnout this year. Organizers implemented the mask rule to be in accordance with the city's then-policy, but the city has since lifted its outdoor and indoor mask mandates.

It's no secret that COVID-19 brought about the closure of countless restaurants and small businesses, and community organizations have likely also felt the hit as they struggle to remain in the public's memory without a physical presence. But, as is human nature, the Philly Naked Bike Ride is forging ahead. Come hell, high water, or a pandemic, organizers hope thousands of cyclists will descend on the city on Aug. 28 in all their nude, body-painted glory — masks and all.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sharon Pruitt-Young