by Amy Hall
A group of naked strangers cycling through a city centre is going to turn heads. Every year across the UK World Naked Bike Ride (WNBR), ‘the world’s biggest naked protest,’ is held to try and get people to notice in the name of oil dependency and pollution, car culture and the vulnerability of cyclists.
The two biggest issues for the naked protesters are our continued dependence on oil dependency and the lack of safe roads and pathways for cyclists, helping us to reduce our dependency on oil. The naked part of the protest symbolises the vulnerability of cyclists as road users.
While the rides themselves are a bold statement, there is debate around whether they are effective in communicating the issues behind them. The organisers of the bike ride say campaigning for better protection of cyclists and promoting cycling itself is the only reason they do it. ‘But bear in mind that those behind it often have their own angle,’ says a spokesperson for the WNBR.
Bigger environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth see the naked protest as something more amusing than effective. ‘I applaud the bare-faced cheek of those taking part in the naked bike ride. Anything that helps raise awareness of pollution and greener modes of transport is a good thing in my book,’ says Andy Atkins, Executive Director of Friends of the Earth (FOE).
Although they are not involved in the event, FOE says anything that raises awareness about the environment and cycling is positive.
‘We have our own cycling challenge, the Big Green Bike Ride, at Friends of the Earth, but we’d always encourage our supporters to get cycling as much as possible, clothed or otherwise!’
Jesse Schust, 40, first took part in the WNBR in 2004, since then he has taken part in 14 rides in London, Brighton, and York. As an experienced activist he was attracted to WNBR as he felt it was harder to ignore than traditional forms of non-violent protest. ‘For the riders and the general public, it’s almost like entering a amusing dream,’ he says. ‘All the while, tourists and shoppers line the route smiling and cheering. You feel more like royalty than a protester.
'It has a serious message delivered with plenty of humour and goodwill. This makes the protest more memorable, and more attractive to media coverage.
'Although almost none of my friends were willing to do the ride initially, many have tried it as the ride became bigger and more popular; it's a fun way to protest.'
A summer protest with a difference
The first coordinated WNBR was in 2004 and this summer rides are set to take place as part of Bike Week 2012 in UK cities including York, London and Manchester, as well as cities around the world. Many participants are seasoned naturists, whereas for some it’s the only time of year they go naked in public. Clothing is optional so while many riders go completely naked, some wear some clothes or cover up with body paint. London has the biggest UK ride and organisers say 1,000 people now take part each year.
Barry Freeman, who has done 20 WNBRs first came to the event as a life long nudist and cyclist and saw his first ride as an opportunity combine both. ‘I fully supported the reasons and purpose behind the ride,’ he says. ‘I had no qualms about riding naked but I have greater admiration for those non-naturists, who we call ‘textiles’, who cared enough about the protest to ride naked too.’
Kelda Remington was a first timer in Cardiff’s 2011 ride and is looking forward to doing it again in 2012. The 22 year old has been involved in environmental and social justice campaigning for a few years, fully clothed, but was attracted to the WNBR as a chance to try something new.
She says she didn’t see any negative reaction to the protest and that was a fresh change. ‘One of the last protests I did was a Topshop UKUncut tax avoidance thing, and there were so many people like ‘what the hell are you doing?’
'I guess a lot of the public wouldn’t necessarily know why we were doing it but it certainly gets people's attention.'
Improving the eco message
Emily James, cyclist and director of environmental activism documentary ‘Just Do It’ says this is what the ride needs to work on. ‘It’s too easy to look at it as a stunt without a deeper political message. What they do well is get attention, but their main struggle is to translate that attention into something more meaningful,’ she says.
British Naturism is the national members organisation that campaigns on behalf of nudists as well as holding social activities across the country. Andrew Welch is their Commercial Manager. ‘If it was called ‘wear a yellow hat bike ride’ it wouldn’t get the attention that it does,’ he explains. ‘We didn’t support it as much as we might have done originally because it was about a political cause using nudity to raise the profile.’
However he says as the years have gone by things have developed with many members of British Naturism joining in. ‘We certainly accept that it gives people an easy opportunity to experience what we call social nudity,’ says Welch.
According to a 2011 British Naturism and Ipsos MORI 6 per cent of people in the UK consider themselves a naturist or a nudist. It is not illegal to be naked in public in the UK but public order laws can be used to get people to cover up and it is illegal to use nudity to harass people or cause them distress.
Many WNBRs have police escorts and a previously agreed route and the organisers say nobody has ever been arrested taking part in Britain. In 2011 Portsmouth held its first WNBR despite a petition against it signed by nearly 1,000 people. Freeman took part in the ride and says that the opposition to the protest strengthened his resolve to support it. ‘I think both the Council and the police in Portsmouth were marvellous and handled the petition and the threats made, by a church, against the riders very well. They upheld our right to peaceful and legitimate protest.’
In 2007 people taking part in the Brighton ride were threatened with arrest before the ride but then Sussex Police changed their mind and the ride continued. ‘Public nudity of this sort is permitted under the Exposure section of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which replaced the outdated ‘indecent exposure’ laws,’ said Nick Sayers, WNBR Brighton & Hove rider and coordinator at the time.
While the two world’s of activism and naturism do not always go hand in hand there seems to be increasing overlap for the people involved. Remington says going on the ride has made her consider engaging in more social nudity outside of political activism.
Welch says there is a link between naturism and environmentalism even though British Naturism does not normally go further than beach cleans and raising money for conservation charities. ‘That basic feeling of walking across the grass in your bare feet and swimming without a costume on and all of that does make you feel connected to nature,’ he says. ‘I wouldn’t say we do anything that is particularity environmentally friendly; we’re not into displays of that but as an innate part of who we are I think you’ll find it does go hand in hadn’t.’
For more information, see The World Naked Bike Ride and Bike Week websites.