I am wearing a cherry red tutu, held up by suspenders, and it barely covers my tiny boxers — the smallest pair I could find at Target on short notice. With each step I can feel the suspender straps sliding across the bare skin of my back. It is July 15, and I am overdressed for St. Louis' tenth annual World Naked Bike Ride.
I'm standing outside HandleBar, the bicycle-themed bar in the heart of the Grove. Its owner, Tatyana Telnikova, is wearing a two-piece bathing suit and covered neck to thighs with glitter. She, too, is overdressed, at least compared to the parade of painted nipples and sparsely obscured genitals passing behind us.
To my left is Matt Hartman, the tattooed and mustachioed owner of the Spoked Bikes & Stuff shop. He faces Matt Green, the administrator of the Grove's Community Improvement District. Telnikova has a very practical nickname for the two — "the Matts." Since 2014, Telnikova and the Matts have made St. Louis' naked bike ride among the largest in the United States, exceeded only by Chicago and Portland.
See RFT's NSFW Slideshow: World Naked Bike Ride Brings the Fun to St. Louis in Its 10th Year
The Matts' hands are at their waistbands, like gunfighters. Green, already shirtless, steps out of his denim shorts to reveal a tiny pair of striped blue briefs. He hooks a walkie talkie to the elastic waistband. But Hartman hesitates.
"Matt! Come on, man," cheers Green.
Telnikova follows. "Do it, Matt! You gotta do it!"
Hartman laughs and strips, revealing the exact same pair of striped blue briefs. "Matching Matts!" cries Telnikova, doubled over in laughter.
For Telnikova and the Matts, this year's ride is special for multiple reasons. Attendance is expected to shatter 2016's record-high of 2,000 riders. And the importance of marking the tenth anniversary since St. Louis' first World Naked Bike Ride isn't lost on them, either.
In the past decade, the ride has become one of the city's strangest and most delightful traditions, a massive group biking event that is many things at once: a cyclist's dream, a flamboyant parade, a street festival and a nudist gathering. Crucially, it's also a political protest — an act of free expression protected under the First Amendment. The protest/bike ride has the blessing of city officials and attracts thousands of spectators along the route. The ride isn't some perverse secret or mass act of civil disobedience. It's a public celebration. And it shows no sign of slowing down.
That the three principal organizers of a naked bike ride are themselves not naked is one of the quirks of the event. Nudity is not required. The ride is billed under the slogan, "Bare As You Dare."
As the Matts check out their identical looks, Telnikova is mulling her own options. "I don't think I can do this without a bra," she notes. "Because my nipples might pop out."
"That's cool, though," Green says in an attempt at reassurance. "It's the naked bike ride."
"Yeah," Telnikova says, "but I don't like when they pop out unintended!"
It's a quarter past five, and already the closed-off stretch of Manchester is filling with bodies in every imaginable state of undress — and also many unimaginable ones. Some are more unimaginable than others.
A red, white and blue feather boa is affixed around Kurt Pfao's junk by a length of Velcro strap. Tanned and solidly built, with an immaculate salt-and-pepper goatee, Pfao says he's lived as an avowed nudist for years. He started attending the World Naked Bike Ride in 2013.
"It definitely seems like it got bigger," observes Pfao. "The first year I did it, they were still on the other side of the Tower Grove Park, and I was like, 'Holy crap, there's not enough room.' The crowd was spilling out everywhere. The following year they brought it here, and I see why. There's just too many people."
In the middle of the interview, a middle-aged woman wearing large sunglasses — though fully clothed — approaches us. She wants to take our picture. "I think you look fantastic," she says. I take her lack of specificity as a compliment, though I suspect she's mostly talking to Pfao.
That's the thing about the naked bike ride's emergent set of social mores; along with participants and random bystanders, a separate crowd of amateur and professional photographers wanders around snapping shots of the outfits and un-outfits. Naked bike rides are pageview gold for area publications; even the Post-Dispatch, St. Louis' determinedly mainstream paper of record, isn't above getting in on the action.
While a few revelers cover their faces with masks, for the most part, the naked and semi-naked throngs don't seem to mind being captured by photographers. (And the cameras will be out in even greater force during the actual bike ride, when many semi-nude riders choose to finally drop the "semi" and let it all hang out.)
These photographers generally seem to follow the suggestion posted on vendors' booths, which recommend obtaining consent before snapping pics. A few photographers on the fringes, however, noticeably shirk these recommendations.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I should note that after four years at an alt-weekly, cultivating sources (and friends) that might shock my conservative high school classmates, I'm not entirely new to the world of casual nudity. I once reported on a clothing-optional bowling party, and I've attended a handful of privately hosted "clothing optional" parties in the past.
Still, nothing has been close to a public gathering of this magnitude. I wasn't expecting random people to take photos of me with my arm flung around the copper-toned shoulders of a nudist with a feather plume fixed to his dick — but here I am, at the center of an insistently weird and increasingly popular event whose existence seems to defy conventional wisdom at every turn. Apparently, I've just got to roll with it.
Even in late afternoon, the heat is still creeping in the upper 80s, and I make my way toward a stage set up at Kentucky Avenue. I spot Sex Positive St. Louis organizer David Wraith, naked but for a beige thong, cooling off in the shade of nearby trees.
I first met Wraith three years ago at his organization's naked bowling party, and I'm in the middle of explaining to him that I haven't even touched a bike in more than four years when we're interrupted by woman carrying a clipboard.
"Excuse me," she says. She's talking to me. "Are you interested in being part of a costume contest?"
I immediately say yes, managing, somehow, to skip over the part where I ask a skeptical question about what kind of costume contest she's running at a gathering of naked and mostly-naked people.
"We need people for the 'Most Hairy' contest," she says, answering the question for me. She glances at my torso. I've got a bramble of hair that began growing at age thirteen. It has since spread across my belly, gathering in what I've always considered a reasonably dense, nest-like tuft at my breastbone. I find myself filling with pride — only to be stopped almost immediately.
"You're not that hairy," the woman tells me. "But we're having a hard time finding people to be part of the contest. So..." she pauses expectantly. "Is that alright? You'll be at the stage at 5:30?"
I suppress a sigh. I've just got to roll with it. Sure, I'll be there at 5:30 to balance the contest roster against more hirsute nominees.
As the organizer leaves, Wraith fixes me with a serious look.
"I'm supposed to be judging that contest," he deadpans. "I will show you no special treatment." I tell him that I expect nothing less.
One day earlier, on Friday, I meet Telnikova and the Matts for the first time in a sunlit conference room in the offices of Park Central Development, which serves as the community development corporation for the Grove and other neighborhoods in the 17th Ward.
The World Naked Bike Ride was born in 2004 as an anti-war demonstration, with events in Spain and then Vancouver, but quickly came to encompass a host of causes. The event, taken up by existing nude-cycling groups, spread across the U.K. and the U.S.
Inspired by the stateside ride in Chicago, St. Louis' version of the World Naked Bike Ride was founded in 2008 by Stephanie Co and Mariah Pittman. An MBA and entrepreneur (she also owns Propaganda and previously owned Art Bar), Telnikova was brought on in 2011, taking over the duties of assembling the ride's after-party. By 2013, however, Pittman had left the region and Co was ready to hand off the event. She approached Telnikova about taking over completely.
"And then I pulled the Matts into it," Telnikova tells me.
The group first set their sights on changing the ride's linear route — which had previously started in a parking lot on South Grand and ended on a side street off Manchester Avenue — and turned it into a wide circuit cutting through downtown and both starting and ending in the Grove.
That year, Green and Telnikova worked doggedly to legitimize the ride, which would mean shutting down a two-block stretch of Manchester and hiring a police escort to clear traffic on the route. It made sense, the new organizers reasoned. Turning a naked bike ride into a protected street party would give riders a convenient place to revel after all their physical exertion — and cycling behind a police escort is certainly safer than hundreds of risqué bikers navigating regular city traffic at night.
But in 2014, the ride's first year under Telnikova and the Matts, the group ran up against what seemed to be an unbendable wall of city bureaucracy. Two weeks before the ride, the group still lacked the permits to shut down city streets, and without that space, the vendors would have nowhere to set up booths. The stage and sound gear might as well stay in their crates too.
In desperation, Telnikova called up Richard Callow, a fellow cyclist and advisor to then-St. Louis mayor Francis Slay. Telnikova and Callow pedaled to City Hall the very next day, and Callow marched her into the mayor's office, helmet in hand.
"I walked out later and I'm like, 'I don't know what just happened there, but I think it was good.'" she recalls. The meeting with Slay's advisors and city officials begat a flurry of others, and ultimately the city, MoDOT and other regional agencies approved the ride's permit requests.
That said: The city will only go so far to condone nudity. On paper, there is no World Naked Bike Ride in St. Louis. Ostensibly, the ride operates as an independent event — a protest, remember. Everything else, including the after-party, is issued permits under the name "Manchester Bike Bash."
"The city knows that it's going to happen anyway," comments Hartman. It's true. Permits or no, you apparently can't stop people from exercising their right to bike naked through the streets, whatever the reason may be.
All three organizers say they're stunned by how big the ride has grown. "I remember two years ago," recalls Hartman, "being on the stage looking out right before the ride. I remember just starting to cry, seeing this sea of people and realizing that we'd pulled it off."
Indeed, in their fourth year at the helm, the organizers report that attendance has jumped with every passing summer. Sponsors have taken notice, and this year's list of partners includes 4 Hands Brewery, Major Brands and a host of local businesses. It's almost enough to make you forget, just for a second, that this is the same event in which a middle-aged naked man can walk around with the words "LEGALIZE IT" stenciled just above his groin, below which he's painted a marijuana leaf with a green stem that droops to a thoroughly painted... yeah.
Passing through the crowd on Saturday, I note political messages as plentiful and varied as the bodies they're written on. Painted on one women's rear: "Less Gas, More Ass." Someone's back admonishes, "Consent is Sexy Mandatory." There are slogans urging general resistance, although interestingly, no one seems willing to carry Trump's actual name on their body. Other messages advocate cyclists' rights and oppose fossil fuels. More than a few say something about weed.
I have about ten minutes before my date with the costume contest, and I wander away from the stage and back toward HandleBar. I wind up running into Charlie Wolters, a guy who's not a regular nudist and has no political ax to grind.
"To me, it's not a protest against petroleum and automobiles," says Wolters, who has customized his own bike to look like, of all things, a classic 1950s muscle car, complete with a grill, rear fins and a license plate that reads "PDL PWR."
Wolters is on his ninth year participating in the naked bike ride. It's not protest that brings him here, he says, but sheer human spectacle. "It's just a euphoric sensation to be able to do this. To me, it's a beach party. The streets of St. Louis are our ocean, and our bicycles are our surfboards."
I hear Telnikova begin announcing the costume contest over the sound system, and I say goodbye to Wolters, leaving him to a group of circling photographers. The crowd is surging with body paint and people lugging bicycles, and after some cautious navigation around many, many bare butts, I join the line of contestants by the stage.
Among the contestants are three buck-naked women in minimal body paint, another all-female group dressed as Game of Thrones characters — including one Khal Drogo with a full beard — and also an older man dressed as Santa, if Santa wore only a hat.
To my immediate right in the line is a tall, barrel-chested man. He is a Golden Bear. His beard is flecked with a constellation of glitter, and his nipples shine metallic with twin gold covers. Black tassels dangle across an unmitigated forest of chest hair.
A stagehand waves me over. The "Most Hairy" portion of the contest is starting next, he says. And I'm up first.
My time on stage is brief, and my sunglasses thankfully obscure the stage-fright-inducing vision of thousands of people arrayed along the street in front of me. It feels like I've walked into a bizarre version of the classic public-speaking nightmare — only this time, of course, there's no need to imagine the audience in their underwear.
I strut a few steps onto the stage and bust out my best impersonation of a fiercely hairy model. It takes about four seconds for me to completely run out of dance moves.
The judges flip through their score cards. I know what's coming.
From David Wraith, a three out of five.
John Oberkramer, owner of the gay nightclub Just John, gives me a two. I get the same score from Gelinda Connell, who works alongside Matt Green as a project manager at Park Central.
Oberkramer takes the mic. "You're super hot," he says, letting me down easy. "But not hairy, not that hairy."
As the crowd whoops and laughs, Connell offers some advice. "Come back in ten years," she says. "I'm pretty sure you'll be more hairy then."
Whether I'm hairy enough is a question that will be left for another costume contest or a licensed therapist. The competition wraps up — ending with the Golden Bear deservedly earning all fives and the title of Most Hairy. Finally, I'm ready to pedal thirteen miles in a tutu.
See RFT's NSFW Slideshow: World Naked Bike Ride Brings the Fun to St. Louis in Its 10th Year
A quick word about my bike: I wasn't lying to David Wraith. I really haven't ridden in years. The bicycle belongs to my editor's husband, a generous man who lent me the rattling brown Electra with full knowledge that I would be sweating into the seat with abandon. (Thanks again, John. And I'm sorry.)
I straddle the bike and perform an awkward duck-walk through the crush of riders waiting for the signal to start. Whatever that signal is, I never hear it. As if by telepathy, the riders in front of me begin to crawl forward, and I push off on my left pedal and glide into the summer air.
Photographers and gawkers pack the streets at the beginning of the route, returning high-fives and shouting compliments. "Nice tutu!" someone says as I ride past. (It is a nice tutu, long enough to cover my essentials but still short enough to not drag into the spokes.)
I follow the main pack onto Chouteau Avenue, and I'm greeted with a sprawling sea of butts. The butts pedal across all four lanes of the normally busy bridge. The sun has dipped to the horizon, the light casting long, anatomically shaped shadows on the roadway.
A number of cars are pulled over on the long stretch of Chouteau, and I'm not sure if these are motorists who missed the street signage or if they've waited out here for the spectacle. I shoot by a family with small children waving and cheering. In the driver's seat of one of the pulled-over cars, a man on a phone is staring at us and convulsing with laughter.
Clearly, some spectators came prepared. In just the first few miles, I see watch parties arranged on lawn chairs, coolers and cameras at the ready. Couples on park benches raise glasses of wine as we pass. Bar patios have become stadium bleachers filled with revelers shouting encouragement.
After about 30 minutes of biking, I identify Kurt Pfao up ahead. He's even more naked than when I last saw him. His feather boa, now attached to his cowboy hat, whips behind him like a cape.
Shortly before turning onto Compton, I witness a woman standing behind a young boy who is obviously her son. She's clasped her hands over both his eyes.
The riders arrive at the first planned stop outside the Union Station Hotel. Birds circle above the pointed roof of the clock tower as hundreds of cyclists come to a halt behind us. Unused to the rigors of bike-riding, my lower butt cheeks have started to raise the alarm about all this pedaling business. I drink some water, hike up my tutu and re-clamp a suspender strap. Once the next street is cleared of traffic, the riders pour into downtown.
On Washington Avenue, the parade atmosphere is almost overwhelming. Hundreds of people line the sidewalks, whooping and hollering as the riders pedal by in waves. A little boy on his father's shoulders waves at me. At 13th Street, the crowds outside Rosalita's and Blondie's overflow almost into the street.
A few blocks later, as the pace slows to a near crawl, a woman wearing a convention badge catches my eye and manages to ask, exasperated and laughing, "What is this?"
I shout back over my shoulder as I pedal, "It's the World Naked Bike Ride!"
About five miles later, with more than half of the route completed, my calves are burning something fierce. My butt bruises have bruises. Even the gentlest uphill slopes leave my lungs heaving.
The ride slows once again while cyclists maneuver past Cherokee Street's trendy bars and venues, and I catch sight of a group of people who appear to be huddled behind a collapsed picnic tent on the sidewalk.
It seems that a church group has chosen the wrong day for their bake sale, and the tent is serving as an emergency barrier between the pious and the profane. I count about a dozen backs turned toward us.
"It's natural!" someone shouts at them. The church members don't budge.
Night falls on the World Naked Bike Ride, and the route's last few miles take us through Tower Grove Park on the way back to the Grove. At some point we pass a bar whose cover band is playing Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth," and the words rattle around my head to the pace of my tired legs.
There's something happening here/What it is ain't exactly clear.
What is St. Louis' World Naked Bike Ride? That's a question up for interpretation. Whether the purpose is protest, the exultant feeling of night air on your skin or just the pleasure of observing sidewalk-bound pedestrians laugh with open-mouthed wonderment — it all somehow works. And sometimes, when the wind brushes through your totally sufficient amount of chest hair, it can even feel like magic.
It's 9 p.m. when I make the final turn of the route, a right onto Manchester. I can hear the thrumming of a marching band's bass drums coming from Telnikova's after-party, which is already in full-swing. I overhear two male bikers talking to each other somewhere close behind me.
"We're doing this next year," the first says, sounding remarkably unwinded.
"Yeah," says the second guy. "But next year we're riding naked."
See RFT's NSFW Slideshow: World Naked Bike Ride Brings the Fun to St. Louis in Its 10th Year
Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at [email protected]