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