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London Naked Bike Ride 2015 – Feel Good Painted

21 June 2015

The London Naked Bike Ride: it’s a protest against oil dependency; a commentary on the visibility and vulnerability of cyclists; a celebration of body freedom. It’s among the largest of all the World Naked Bike Ride events. I had taken part in 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 – for the twelfth annual ride, in 2015, I needed to get organised.

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I’d decided to buy (rather than hire) a bike, and I wanted to be body painted. Typically, I left myself less than a month to arrange both. The bike was delivered and assembled just in time to make its maiden road-trip at the event itself. I half expected the tyres to go flat, the gears to fail, or the front wheel to fall off… but somehow I got away with it.

In colours

For the body painting I was entrusted to Amanda of Feel Good Painted. Our mutual friend, Natansky – who was organising the Tower Hill start of the ride – brokered the arrangement. We exchanged design ideas and agreed to devote a couple of hours to the painting at Amanda’s house in the morning. I would then head down to Tower Hill and Amanda would go to West Norwood, where more riders awaited decoration.

My body art was to be vivid psychedelia. We began at 9am with a flower of glitter and glue on my chest. Next, with assistance from Amanda’s friend Ann-Marie, I had arcs and swirls and spirals applied simultaneously both to my front and back – upper body, arms and buttocks – plus a matching motif on my forehead. I don’t know where all the time went but somehow two hours turned into three. I was delighted with the results.

When the work was done, I posed for a quick set of photos to record the masterpiece before we went our separate ways. I had a little time in hand before I was due to meet Natansky and others at Tower Hill, whereas Amanda and Ann-Marie raced away with their paints, still hoping to embellish another seventy riders in one hour. Heroic stuff.

View from the Hill

Arriving at Trinity Square Gardens opposite Tower Hill station around 1:30pm, I found Natansky inside the Tower Hill Memorial having the last strokes applied to her own paintwork by body artist, Asha. With them were: ride marshal, Simon; the first of our official photographers, also called Simon; and a handful of other early-arriving riders.

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Natansky gets her finishing touches

Initially I hadn’t recognised Natansky in her large black wig. As we chatted I could see she was shivering with cold – I was grateful to have had my own body painted indoors. The sky was thickly overcast, the breeze was chilly and there had been a fine spitting of rain. It looked set to be less than pleasant conditions, but no-one was backing out.

The formal gathering time was 2:30pm for a 3pm start. Friends and ride veterans, Cy and Chas, joined us, as did Adrian and James. Our second official photographer was Scott: another friend from bygone projects. And it was nice to meet newcomers such as Roberto, the Mexican chap who would be riding in his Zorro mask and cape.

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About to hit the road – © Scott Hortop

At around a quarter to three, Natansky gave the signal for us to undress and move our bikes towards the junction with Byward Street. As the number of naked cyclists grew, so did the crowd with cameras. Respectful photographers are always welcomed, and it seemed there weren’t too many intrusive voyeurs. It was a good atmosphere.

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Riders mustering for the signal to start… including Zorro, top right

Jumping the gun

We continued inching forward in anticipation. It’s odd that the cold we’d felt so keenly while in light clothes was suddenly absent from our minds when we had no clothes at all. We were lining up nicely when things went unexpectedly a bit pear-shaped. Those in front set off too early – no fewer than 8 minutes too early, in fact.

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And we’re off! But too soon!

Natansky was still herding cyclists at the back of the pack when those in front made their move. Oblivious to the mistake, the rest of us simply followed. Halting scores of naked cyclists strung out over hundreds of metres along Lower Thames Street, music blaring, whistles blowing, is not an easy thing to do.

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Emerging from under London Bridge, out on to Upper Thames Street

There weren’t many pedestrians by the roads leading down to the Thames, but those we passed greeted us with looks of astonished glee. Cheers intensified as we pushed further towards the centre of London. People on bridges waved as we streamed below them. Motorists on the opposite side of the road tooted their approval.

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Signalling our arrival at Victoria Embankment

From Upper Thames Street we dashed through Blackfriars Underpass and emerged at the eastern end of Victoria Embankment. It wasn’t until we neared Temple station that Natansky finally passed me in blur of fluorescence and body paint, pedalling frantically to chase down our frontrunners.

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“Cycle lane not in use” – but today that didn’t matter

When she’d caught up, her first job was to slow us down. The significance of starting at exactly 3pm was that it would synchronise us with other rides from Regent’s Park, Hyde Park, King’s Cross, Clapham Junction and West Norwood. Our ride would now have to be punctuated with pauses until we were across Westminster Bridge.

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Playing the waiting game beneath the terrace of Somerset House

Still on Victoria Embankment we went under Waterloo Bridge and passed Cleopatra’s Needle – where last weekend I’d helped at one of Natansky’s photo shoots – before turning onto Northumberland Avenue. We caught our first glimpse of Nelson’s Column looming over the trees as we headed towards Trafalgar Square.

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The Tower Hill riders are first to reach Trafalgar Square

At this point last year we had the joy of seeing riders from other starting points sweep before us as everyone converged according to plan. This year we waited… and waited. The tooting of a few tetchy motorists behind us in Northumberland Avenue showed we weren’t alone in missing the joy.

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The waiting game… time for a selfie

Come together

Onwards we went, turning left into Whitehall, still shepherded by Natansky and Simon wearing their high-vis waistcoats and nothing else – this was unusual crowd-control at the heart of government. Nelson’s Column had been our marker before; now Elizabeth Tower – previously St Stephen’s Tower, but generally ‘Big Ben’ – was our target.

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Naked people riding bikes along Whitehall

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Natansky at Horse Guards Parade

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Passing the Cenotaph – © Massimo Usai

At the end of Whitehall, before entering Parliament Square, we waited again. This time it seemed our numbers might actually have increased. The other rides had reached us at last. I spotted more friends – Camila and Chris – amongst us. We were now all set to push on as a single mass. As if to celebrate with us, the sun broke through.

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Naked bike riders assemble – thumbs up to that

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Seats of democracy – the Houses of Parliament

We turned left into Parliament Square. This has always been a part of the circuit most busy with tourists but this year was insane. As I headed towards Westminster Bridge, Natansky yelled to me: “Tell the crowds to get back!” I’d never seen anything like it.

Hundreds of onlookers had left the pavements and swarmed into the road, creating a narrow funnel for us to pass through. It was like the Tour de France. Yelling made no difference. I decided to keep my bike on a straight course so if they didn’t get out the way they would get hit. Simple. I reckon I got about a dozen.

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Running the gauntlet – © Chrissie Judge

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Familiar folk from last year’s ride, with encroaching photographers

Baring south

Turning off Westminster Bridge Road on to Addington Street, we left the throng behind us. There was to be no lingering in south London as we rolled along the length of York Street and then left on to Waterloo Bridge. If Westminster Bridge is where the tourists gather, Waterloo Bridge is where the wily photographers are to be found.

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On Waterloo Bridge – well, driver, can you?

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My Waterloo crossing – © Canonite Wink

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Off the bridge… – © Scott Hortop

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…on to Lancaster Place – © Scott Hortop

Justice

Back in north London we went from Lancaster Place, across the Strand – always lots of cheering here – and around Aldwych, rejoining the Strand to pass before the Royal Courts of Justice. One of our number separated here to stage a lone demonstration in favour of justice for Stephen Gough, the “Naked Rambler”.

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Before the law – nakedness at the Royal Courts

We took a left into Chancery Lane, another left into Carey Street, and then a right into Serle Street, to emerge at Lincoln’s Inn Fields – our traditional rest area. After three-quarters of a lap we dismounted. This was a chance to escape the saddle and find the friends we’d lost sight of during our journey so far.

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Entering Lincoln’s Inn Fields, the sun took another look at us

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Out of the saddle – © Ðariusz

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Enigmatic red-bob lady – a regular at every ride

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Another location from a Natansky photoshoot earlier this year

West End

The one place I never dreamt we would try to pass through again on a naked bike ride was Covent Garden. After the bottleneck chaos of 2013, it seemed risky to attempt a return. Indeed, apparently we weren’t supposed to go back but somehow we were led there: Remnant Street, Great Queen Street, Long Acre, Bow Street, Russell Street…

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Scene of the 2013 Covent Garden bottleneck – this year all clear

At least this year we got through cleanly, weaving around the crowds and apologising to buskers for hijacking their audience. We were now navigating a few less-celebrated streets of London’s West End, on our way back to Trafalgar Square: Henrietta Street, Bedford Street, Chandos Place, William IV Street…

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Back we go – on Chandos Place

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Aiming at the National Portrait Gallery – on William IV Street

William IV Street ran on to St Martin’s Place, from where we swung left on to Charing Cross Road to go around Trafalgar Square and beneath Admiralty Arch. Together with Westminster, this is one of the most intense parts of the ride. The better thing here is that the roads are clear and wide, allowing us to free-wheel through the cheers.

Majesty

My favourite part of the ride will always be the run along the Mall towards Buckingham Palace. The splendour, the majesty, the pageantry, the wide open road, and our ride’s anarchic frivolity pitched into its heart, all appeal to me hugely. It was a shame that by now I’d become separated from friends. I savoured the moment at a leisurely pace.

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Putting the ‘great’ in Great Britain

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Trooping the colour – © Ian Hollaway

Our last stop should have been the finish line, but it’s impossible to resist jumping off the bike in front of Buckingham Palace for selfie capers. Ride marshals were keen, in no uncertain terms, to get us pedalling again but, hey, I pay my taxes, it’s my palace too. No law was broken in the making of this photo.

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The peasants are revolting

End game

As all ride regulars know, we usually turn up Constitution Hill and finish at Wellington Arch. Not this year, however. To thwart the more notorious voyeur photographers, this year we had a new unannounced finish line. In fact it was so secret that several riders went off to Wellington Arch anyway – some consolation for the voyeurs, perhaps.

The other twist this year was that the finish was not actually the finish. Those who’d set off from West Norwood or Tower Hill would be riding back naked to their starting points. Our return route was to be direct: Birdcage Walk, Great George Street, Spur Road, Bridge Street, left on to Victoria Embankment, then back the way we came.

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Entering Birdcage Walk

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A brief flirtation with marshal status – © Cy Wol

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Lingering on Great George Street

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Under Hungerford Bridge

We’d reached our finish line at ten past five, set off again at half-five, and finally arrived back to Tower Hill at ten past six. We’d been naked on the streets of London for more than three hours. Every year the ride is different, every year brings its own chaos and euphoria, every year we love it. Time for one last photo to celebrate.

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Tower Hill naked bike riders, 2015 – © Natansky

Aftermath

When at last we dressed and wheeled our bikes away, I found that my right foot was in agony from some sort of strain. This was not useful as my day was far from over. I locked my bike outside Fenchurch Street station then caught the tube from Liverpool Street to Piccadilly, heading for the Royal Academy of Arts.

I was to be a volunteer at ‘The Other Garden Party‘, helping to guide people into the Art Macabre life drawing salon. In the Academy’s published dress code, guests were requested: ‘Please come wearing your finest floral dresses or brightly coloured shirts‘. I simply wore no shirt at all – and was thus brighter than most.

Some time after 10:30pm, the pain from my foot had become too much so I began the slow limp home, collecting my bike along the way. Gone one o’clock in the morning, I was indoors, washed, and down on all fours, wearily scrubbing out the shower. Was it really worth such trouble and discomfort? Just try to stop me doing it again next year.

Until next year, let’s continue reliving the 2015 ride through Cy’s 15 minute video:

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2 Comments
  1. Reblogged this on Naturalian's Blog and commented:
    Oh how I would love to do this

  2. Great commentary and photos. I’ve ridden in Toronto’s WNBR a few times but only under 200 participants but lots of crowds.

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