Out by the Barbican Gate, I had made one of my rare kowtows in the direction of the Highway Code by pulling up at the traffic lights. An older guy pulled up beside me, and I subjected him to the quick sidelong glance that assesses the cost of the bike, the fitness of the rider, and the chance of beating him in a straight sprint.
He was dragging a trailer, so I was about to write him off when the contents of it made me do a double take.
‘York has a naked bike ride? I asked, gesturing to the pile of leaflets.
‘We’re in our third year.’ he replied. We started talking about it, which was so interesting that I forsook my sprint when the lights went green and kept him company down the road. He convinced me. Next Friday, on midsummer’s eve, I turned up at the starting point by the Millenium Bridge – still, at this point, fully clothed.
I turned up for a number of reasons. I’d worked as a bicycle courier for Sustrans Cardiff the previous year. The work had been great – flexible, charitable, outdoors – but I’d seen friends of mine lose blood, teeth and skin to careless driving, and I’d had a few close shaves myself. Once I was turning right, after having made hand-signals for ages, but a lorry decided to overtake me anyway. I bounced off the side of the cab. If I’d turned a few seconds earlier, I’d have been under it.
So I agreed with their stated goal of raising awareness of cycle safety, and I loved their other manifesto point – that anyone, regardless of age or shape or level of fitness, should be unafraid either to ride a bicycle or to show off their bodies.
The crowd on the grass was a friendly one – all ages, all shapes and sizes, 80% male but with enough women around to make me feel comfortable. Some had gone to a lot more effort than I had – the leader of the ride was painted all over like a woodland spirit, and I struck up a conversation with two girls who were also in all-over body paint – a yellow and green wash, ornamented with handprints, swirls and flowers. They offered to share their body paints, and soon my torso too was covered in lines and swirls. The sun was out, the conditions were gorgeous, and when the word came to strip off, I did so with a will.
And then I suddenly became shy. It wasn’t so much the other bicyclists, though some had body modifications I wouldn’t personally countenance, and others had chosen to protest against the over-use of oil by, well, overusing oil. It was the ring of Asian students who had surrounded us, snapping away with their cameras and giggling occasionally from behind their hands. It wouldn’t have been so bad if they’d come in and engaged with us – we told the few that did that they had to get naked as well if they wanted a photograph, and some took up the offer. Kudos to them. But mostly they stood in a ring around us, keeping their distance. Snap. Snap. Snap. Never had I been so objectified.
I wondered what this would be like if I were as sensitive about every part of my body as I am about my penis. While we had been murmuring sweet nothings a few days ago, my girlfriend had told me she loved every part of my body. I’d said that I’d love to say the same about her, but I knew, being a woman, she wouldn’t believe me. At the time, I’d prided myself on my psychological insight: now it just seemed sad.
The girls pulled their clothes back on it disgust. I stuck it out, and the ring of students continued snapping and sniggering. It was a relief ten minutes later, when we could finally jump on our bikes and get away.
And from that point, I began to enjoy myself. It was like being a kid again, waving to every car that passed, and I loved seeing the reactions of other passersby – the wives who though it was hilarious, while the husbands didn’t know where to look; the mothers who surprised me with their enthusiasm (though I did see one covering her kid’s eyes) and the otherwise perfectly respectable old man in jacket and tie who gave us a round of applause as we went around the roundabout. As for the guy who pointed at me, shouted ‘Small penis!’ and gave me a high five – well, I wasn’t sure how to react to that. Before the first fifteen minutes were over, I was properly, embarrassingly into it – waving, ringing my bell, banging on the side of buses. When we went down our first big hill, I stood up on the pedals, gripped the saddle between my knees, and spread my arms out to either side. I may not be an exhibitionist, but I’m a born show-off.
In the evenings, I’d been reading The Bicycle Book by Bella Bathurst which is fascinating on the subject of the influence of cycling on first wave feminism. Once the groin-straining boneshakers and ludicrous penny-farthings were a thing of the past and bicycles had assumed the stable double diamond frame we know today, women decided that they too wanted to get in on the action. The trouble lay in the hooped skirts and floor-length petticoats that were de rigueur in a society that fetishised the female ankle so powerfully they even covered up the legs of their pianos. Their solution was rational dress, a trouser-skirt combination that, despite its unwieldiness, was a rare attempt to bring some practicality back into women’s fashions.
The reaction of Edwardian society was as predictable as it was stupid. Many fretted over the new-found freedom of movement the bicycle offered women, and this found some bizaare outlets. One critic worried that the sensitive position of the bicycle saddle would lead to an epidemic of inadvertent masturbation – another fretted for the damage it might cause ‘those fragile organs of matrimonial necessity.’ Hearteningly, no-one paid attention, and women continued sailing out of the kitchen and onto the open road. Susan B. Anthony is quoted as saying:
“I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives a woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. The moment she takes her seat she knows she can’t get into harm unless she gets off her bicycle, and away she goes, the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”
As we cycled across Lendal Bridge, I looked back and saw the whole convoy, over a hundred of us, asserting our space among the evening traffic. There were men and women of all colours, sizes and shapes, some completely naked, some topless, some in lingerie or underwear or bodypaint, some masked, some not. It was a brilliantly varied, colourful parade. I thought for a moment on those early cyclists, struggling on unfamiliar machines in garments that would get them laughed and jeered at by every passerby. And I thought that sometimes what seems the silliest thing to do is also the most sensible by far.