Quick! What does a cyclist look like? If you live in Seattle, you’re probably picturing spandex-clad road warriors clipping in for the daily commute, or planning entire summers around high-profile, long-haul rides. But the region’s cycling community is much more than getting through Cascade Bicycle Club’s annual 206-mile Seattle-to-Portland (STP) bike ride in one day.
Seattle consistently makes it into the top tier of Bicycling magazine’s list of the Best Bike Cities in America, and took first place in the 2018 rankings. Though our city’s bike infrastructure is far from perfect, it’s robust, with innovations like buffered bike lanes, bicycle-specific traffic signals (a huge help for getting across Westlake during rush hour), and a commitment to the Vision Zero safety initiative, which aims to reduce pedestrian and cyclist deaths through practical improvements like speed-limit reductions and planned expansions to the city’s network of neighborhood greenways.
In the Northwest, biking is so common it’s almost mundane, like taking out your compost pail or fishing out your Orca card before getting on the bus. I know because I’ve lived it — I was raised on bike trips from Ballard’s Missing Link to the smooth expanse of the Burke-Gilman Trail through Fremont and the University District. As a teen, I drove to the UW to pick up my cranky and exhausted parents when they got off the bus back from the STP finish line in Portland. As a temporary Oregonian, I soaked up the magic of themed bike rides, riding from the office to karaoke with my co-workers like the “Stranger Things” kids, and the chilled-out pleasure of a good neighborhood greenway on a sunny morning. Sure, there’s a racing culture in the Northwest, too. But bikes aren’t about a one-time event, and especially in Seattle — and especially in the summer — we ride for all kinds of reasons.
From proudly chaotic anarchist gatherings to programs making cycling more inclusive, here are some of them.
Biking as community-building
Around 8:30 on a Saturday morning at the White Center Bicycle Playground, I wheeled around fellow cyclists, some in requisite spandex, some with unicorn horns on their helmets, and at least one father-son duo in matching riding suits, reconciling their pacing differences with Bluetooth headsets.
We were gearing up for the Ride for Major Taylor, a benefit for Cascade Bicycle Club’s Major Taylor Project, a youth cycling program aimed at addressing inequities within the cycling community. The 63-mile journey begins and ends in White Center, looping through Burien, Des Moines, Vashon Island, Normandy Park, Tacoma and Federal Way. (I only rode the first 20 miles — I’m no slouch, but my commuter bike isn’t exactly fleet on steep grades, and the route has many.)
Along the way, a ride leader warned me of big hills to come, and fellow cyclists asked if I was OK when I briefly pulled over after a reflector fell off my bike. “Luckily that one’s not required in Washington,” quipped one. Another, also not exactly delighting in the hills, cheered me on as we made our poky way to the rest stop at mile 20.
While Cascade Bicycle Club is arguably the area’s most visible cycling organization, it’s known more for its association with challenging bike rides than for programs that bring new riders into the fold. But the Major Taylor Project is one of these. Now in its 12th year, the program teaches riding skills and bike maintenance to youth in 17 public schools in south Seattle and Pierce County. The program focuses on schools with free and reduced lunch rates of over 50%.
The name is a reference to Marshall “Major” Taylor, who in 1899 became the first African American world champion in cycling. Rich Brown, the program’s project manager, describes Taylor as “one of the better sportsmen of his time,” and someone who “was always practicing healthy living and all of these great values even though he was in a very tumultuous environment and he wasn’t very welcome.” He accomplished a lot, says Brown, but “had to go through a lot to do it” and without anyone blazing the trail for him, “was like his own pioneer.”
Blazing a trail is a key part of the Major Taylor Project’s mission. The program’s founder, Ed Ewing, “saw that there was a lack of diversity in cycling in Seattle and just in general,” says Brown. The project emerged after Ewing was approached by Cascade Bicycle Club about starting an initiative to diversify the cycling community with the goal of changing “what people think a cyclist should look like.”
The Major Taylor Project came out of those conversations. It’s now a year-round program that offers weekly group rides and skill training in the fall and spring, and a Build a Bike program in winter — with the weather keeping kids inside, it’s perfect timing for training in bike maintenance. Students learn the ins and outs of bike mechanics on donated bikes they later have the option of keeping.
Throughout the summer, the program stays active, with regular meetings and rides, and in July, students have the opportunity to participate in Cascade Bicycle Club’s Seattle-to-Portland bike ride. In past years, interested students have been offered a training regimen to prepare them to complete the ride in a single day. “We offer [STP] to all of our students to join us on that journey,” says Brown. Of the approximately 500 students served by the Major Taylor Project each year, Brown estimates that “about 50 to 70″ will go on STP.
The idea behind it all is to help students develop sustained interest in cycling, says Brown, noting that program participants have gone on to work for the Major Taylor Project, in some cases becoming ride leaders at their schools. “It’s been a way that the students understand that there is opportunity for them in this bike riding community and so we encourage that,” says Brown. “We promote that. We hope for that.”
The Major Taylor Project also accommodates a diversity of abilities through an adaptive cycling program in Tacoma. With adaptive bicycles and the aid of a physical therapist, students who otherwise wouldn’t be included have been able to join Major Taylor rides.
Throughout our conversation, Brown mentions donated bicycles, comped admission to cyclo-cross events for program participants, and engagement from folks across different cycling disciplines. “The Major Taylor Project in general has this a very strong sense of support from the community,” says Brown.
This is something I thought about at the Ride for Major Taylor, too. Sixty-three miles is a long way to go, and at over $100 to register, it doesn’t come cheap. It’s hard to imagine committing to that ride — with all its plodding uphills and perilous curves — without caring at least a little about the cause behind it.
It’s a mission that, for Brown, is ongoing. There’s work to be done beyond one program — the cycling community at large needs to become more inclusive. The Major Taylor Program, says Brown, “has brought diversity to the club, but not to the degree that I am happy with.”
Biking as revelry
When it comes to themed bike rides, Seattle may never be as spirited as Portland, home of the World Naked Bike Ride. But we still have plenty to choose from when it comes to niche summertime rides where the goal isn’t mileage or speed but revelry — or, in the case of Georgetown’s Dead Baby Downhill, balls-to-the-wall hijinks.
If the aggressive orderliness of traditional organized rides like STP and RSVP isn’t your thing, the Dead Baby Downhill might be more your speed, with its signature mix of boozy revelry, bike jousting (what it sounds like) and live music. Georgetown’s long-running free-for-all bike race and party starts out from White Center’s Drunky Two Shoes BBQ and is the punk-adjacent bike-messenger answer to more mainstream rides.
The event has become so notorious it’s earned a storyline on “Grey’s Anatomy” (mildly fictionalized in Shondaland as the “Dead Baby Bike Race”), and become something of a summer tradition, albeit one not to mention casually to your grandma (unless your grandma is a rebel with a tall bike, in which case, congratulations).
Based on longevity (and infamy) alone, it would be challenging to come up with a themed ride that looms quite as large in Seattle as the cavalry of naked, body-painted cyclists that have accompanied the Fremont Solstice Parade since 1992, long before the official launch of Portland’s World Naked Bike Ride in 2004.
The ride of the Solstice Cyclists, as they call themselves, may seem deeply chaotic — in some ways it is, and proudly so — but it’s also carefully coordinated. It’s no small task shepherding hundreds of naked, body-painted people on bikes through Fremont — 725 in 2018, according to an estimate from the ride’s volunteer organizers.
Ethan Bradford is one of them. The “closest thing to leadership the mass of cyclists have,” the group maintains the Solstice Cyclists’ website and mailing list, and coordinates the start of the ride with the Fremont Arts Council, the entity behind the Solstice Parade. Bradford and his cohort also patrol the parade route from front to back, “form a back wall” to keep cyclists from running into the parade, and keep cyclists to the right to maintain space for looping back.
Though Bradford calls the ride a “free, anarchistic artistic exercise,” he emphasizes moments of order along the way, starting with the ride’s precursor: a gathering where participants can put on body paint before hitting the road. “At the paint party, we’re not anarchistic,” he says. “We are careful not to ruin our invite to CSR Marine (our host for the last several years), and to protect the privacy (as much as we can) of those who might be sensitive while being painted up.”
He’s not kidding. The Solstice Cyclists’ website features a detailed list of rules for the paint party, from practical suggestions for limiting glitter and paint messes to strict consent requirements for taking photos. One rule is simply “Don’t be a creep. (If you have to ask, you may be at risk.)”
Each year, says Bradford, the organizers pick a paint theme for the ride’s guides so that they can be easily located. “Our least successful ‘uniform’ was tigers … there were too many random tigers,” he says.
He’s seen all manner of painted-on costumes. “One year there was a wonderful Wizard of Oz quartet, with such a variety of paint textures (tin, straw, clothes, fur) all excellently done,” he says. “When I first saw them I was disappointed that they compromised on an actual dress for Dorothy until I looked closer and saw that that was also painted on!”
Though he’s now volunteered with Solstice Cyclists for years, Bradford recalls being somewhat apprehensive about taking part as a cyclist his first year; he found that he was comfortable once he was among fellow riders.
But he does have one piece of advice for those hoping to join the painted fray: Know where your clothes are. “I will say that my first year I hadn’t made an arrangement for my clothes, which were left back at the paint party, and it was challenging to me to return alone and nude,” he says. “So the big tip is make sure you have clothes at the far end!”
Biking as everyday necessity
When I think about cycling in Seattle, I think about SDOT’s 12 bike counters. Located throughout the city, they keep a steady daily tally of cyclists who’ve ridden past. The count for the Fremont Bridge the day of my most recent bike commute was 5,469.
They have a civic purpose beyond dispensing warm fuzzies, but the numbers on the bike counters can be a reassuring reminder that when you take up two wheels (especially if it’s your first time), you’re not doing it alone. You’re joining a community, merging onto a superhighway packed with fellow cyclists, in one of the best cities for us.
I think about that community whenever I pass the bike counter on my ride into work (my commuter bike is perfect for the short trip on Seattle’s mean streets). I think about it when I join the regulars headed home on the Westlake Cycle Track. Passing the bright shape of Lake Union, the houseboats under the Aurora Bridge, we are a swath of urban humanity, some of us toe-clipped and clad in Day-Glo gear, others in sneakers and street clothes, some going at top speed, others taking a more leisurely approach.
Themed rides can be a novel pleasure, and biking can be an excellent way to explore the city on a lazy sunny weekend, whether you’re hopping the Interurban to Shoreline or cruising to a Lake Washington beach off the Burke-Gilman Trail. But for many Seattleites, cycling is just a way to get around. And the best time to take a bike over a car wherever you need to go is in the sweet spot between the arrival of summer and the smoky days we’re increasingly acclimated to in the Northwest.
For those of us without the time to train for a ride like STP, the perfect summer cycling adventure may just be the ride home from work on one of those perfect Seattle summer days, when the thought of winter feels impossible, and even though we’ve just left the office, we still have hours left of daylight.