The World Naked Bike Ride is returning to Edinburgh this month as a protest against oil dependency and the domination of car culture. The event also aims to highlight cyclists' vulnerability on the road. Since 2004, when the first events were held, the idea has spread and there are rides everywhere from Australia to Venezuela. Depending on the laws of the land in which their ride takes place, participants either cover their modesty with strategically placed decorations, or wear nothing but their birthday suits, a spot of body paint and a smile.
The Edinburgh event has been organised by Critical Mass, a loose collective of like-minded cycling activists who get together for a group bike ride on the last Friday of every month. We spoke to two people who'll be taking part and baring (almost) all in the name of cycling activism.
Pepa Palma, who's 35 years old, is originally from Cordoba in Spain and lives and works in Edinburgh.
Christopher Boyce, who's 34 years old, came to Scotland two years ago. He lives in Edinburgh and is a degrowth activist and researcher working in Stirling.
Have you taken part in the Naked Bike Ride before?
Pepa: No, it's going to be my first naked ride!
Christopher: Yes, my first was last year, which was the first naked ride that had been held in Edinburgh for some time. I'd like to see a ride in Scotland every single year.
So how are you feeling about it?
P: For me being naked is quite a natural thing because, in Spain, there's a different approach to nudity. For instance most people go topless when they're at the beach. But I feel like there's more repression around nudity in this country. Being naked isn't the point of the WNBR. I'm going to be naked because it's a symbol - I feel naked in the traffic, I feel naked in the streets and when I'm on my bike I feel vulnerable. If someone said to me they think that it's obscene to be naked in public, I'd say to them that it's obscene to travel by car every day and it's not sustainable. If we continue this obsession with cars we're going to kill the planet! So what's more important? Killing the planet or me pushing people's boundaries?
Were you nervous last year because it was your first ride?
C: Yes, but not necessarily because of the nudity, more because of the statement we were trying to make. And the fact that we were putting ourselves out there to protest against something that's important, and needs more attention from mainstream society. I remember being in the Meadows looking around at my fellow cyclists thinking, 'who's going to be the first to strip down then?' I couldn't bear the anxiety and so I think I was one of the first ones to just go for it. As soon as I did other people quickly followed suit and it was like, 'yep, let's do this, we're in this together'. It was a really good atmosphere, a superb experience. Everyone joining together in solidarity for the cause, and supporting each other in something that does require a little bit of courage. It was fun though, as I think I knew it would be.
Have you decided whether you're going to use body paint or decorate your bike?
P: I know what I'm going to do, but I'd like to keep it a secret because otherwise it's not going to be a surprise! We'll all be respectful of other people though.
C: I'm going to go minimal, like last year.
Are you worried about the cold?
P: Because I'm from south of Spain it's probably going to be an experience for me! But I'm not worried about the cold. I'll be doing exercise and I'll probably be excited, so that will keep me warm. Fingers crossed it doesn't rain!
Is it just for people on bikes?
P: It's about reclaiming the streets from cars and giving them back to people. So yes, it's mainly for bikes, but everyone's welcome.
C: The idea behind Critical Mass is promoting the use of human-powered machines. So I think the same ethos would go for the WNBR. On a lot of the other Critical Masses you do get people on skates or skateboards. In Edinburgh, because of the cobbles and the hills, it's probably less likely. But anyone's welcome provided they're into the spirit of the event.
What do your friends and family and colleagues think about the WNBR?
C: I've invited them to the event so let's see. I think if my brother were here he'd join me. Maybe my parents would as well. But they're not living close by right now.
What would you say to people who think that this is just a publicity stunt?
P: Obviously being naked is a way grabbing people's attention, 'hey, I'm naked in the traffic!' But for me it's not just about publicity. It's really important to try to spread the message that climate change is a reality, and we need to take action.
Do you think it's an effective way of raising the issues?
C: Yes I do actually. You've called me up, as have a couple of other journalists, and you're going to write something about the event and why we're doing it. This inevitably draws attention to the issues. I wrote a blog post for the WNBR in Edinburgh and just because it's got naked in the title, means it gets lots of hits. And people can and will make unsupportive comments, which makes me think, 'is that a good thing?' But at the end of the day people are engaging with cycling in a way that they wouldn't otherwise without events like WNBR. And whatever the naysayers say I guarantee we'll see a lot of smiles as we pass through Edinburgh.
Do you think that being naked detracts from, or even trivialises, the issues you're campaigning about – oil dependency, access to roads and the dominance of car culture?
P: It's a way of spreading our message even further. We have Critical Mass rides every month, and every month we try to attract more people. But because of the WNBR journalists are calling us. Why now? Why don't they call us every month? Because we're going to be naked!
C: I think there are many ways of achieving the same goal. Cycle activism can be done in many forms. There's a lot of cycle activism in Edinburgh, and Scotland generally; for example Pedal on Parliament is a big annual cycling event, Critical Mass is worldwide global movement that is about asserting ourselves peacefully on the road, Spokes have campaigned consistently for better cycling conditions, The Bike Station empowers people to repair their own bikes and there are so many other ways. I don't think being naked on a bike trivialises cycling, I think it's about making cycling visible and showing that cycling can be, and is, fun to do.
I know that being naked does draw attention to the ride, and I think that's generally a good thing. I'd want to have a conversation with anyone who thinks nakedness trivialises the issues and find out their opinion. I'd also say come on a ride! Life is about having fun and enjoying yourself. Not being stuck in a car, stuck behind another car, tooting at other people and being aggressive. I'd like to see a slower pace of life, a more peaceful and sustainable world, and I think cycling's part of creating that.
World Naked Bike Ride Edinburgh, June 13 at 2pm, Middle Meadow Walk.
See more things to do in Edinburgh from Time Out.