Building community through bicycling

A cyclist yells the rally cry from within a colorful peloton of bikes. Other riders cheer on and ring their bicycle bells as pedestrians move closer to the street to see what all the commotion is about. A few cyclists tow small trailers with custom-made sound systems, turning the ride into a rolling street party. The mood is happy and energetic; cyclists pedal at a casual pace, perfect for striking up a conversation with other cyclists.

For those unfamiliar with the sights and sounds of San Jose Bike Party, it’s an eye-catching parade of bikes and riders of all shapes and sizes. But for the riders taking part in the organized chaos, it’s a way to connect with other folks from all over the Bay Area who share a passion for bike riding.

What started as a small bike ride with less than a hundred riders has evolved into a monthly San Jose institution, attracting up to 4,000 people. Their mission statement is simple, yet meaningful: “Building community through bicycling.” For almost five years now, they’ve managed to do just that.

“Everyone [at Bike Party] comes from different backgrounds,” says Gilda Messmer, a cyclist who has been attending Bike Party for four years. “You’ve got professionals; you’ve got kids with no jobs. There might even be homeless people riding at Bike Party. But the one thing we have in common is that we like to ride.”

Bike Party takes place every third Friday of the month. The location is announced approximately 24 hours before the ride on their website. Every ride has a theme, and the routes take riders through a different neighborhood each time. Riders congregate up to an hour before the 8pm start time to meet up with old friends and make new ones. “It’s a unique experience,” says Katie Heaney, a Bike Party volunteer. “Kind of like a rock concert. There’s definitely a celebratory aspect.”

Heaney started off as just another cyclist about four years ago, introduced to Bike Party through a friend. She has since become a Bike Party volunteer, or BIRD (Bicycle Information Resource Director). BIRDs meet regularly to plan routes, go on test rides, keep the website up to date, and decide on upcoming ride themes. “Bike Party has never had one person in charge,” says Heaney. “All these tasks are shared [by BIRDs] each month.” Riders who attend Bike Party and enjoy it are encouraged to give back to the community by volunteering.

At Bike Party rides, BIRDS help cyclists stay on route and to the right side of the street. A smaller group of BIRDS, called RAVENS, collect trash left behind by cyclists along the route. “I’m always amazed at how good things bring on more good things,” says BIRD Carlos Babcock. Babcock is also a member of the Caltrain Bike Advisory Committee and San Jose Bike and Pedestrian Advisory Committee. “We’ve left parking lots cleaner than when we got to them.”

Because Bike Party rides start at night, riders are safer in large groups and are more visible to drivers. “An indication that your streets are safe is that high school girls are out on downtown streets at night,” says Babcock.

Riders are encouraged to abide by the “How We Ride” rules posted on the Bike Party website. These include stopping at stoplights, staying in the right lane or bike lane, and using lights. Riding while intoxicated is not condoned by Bike Party or its volunteers. Bike Party doesn’t ask the San Jose Police Department to come help conduct traffic at busy intersections or give tickets for infractions, but they sometimes show up at rides. According to Heaney, the presence of SJPD does help deter reckless behavior. Bike Party does not need a permit to organize as cyclists are allowed to ride in the right lane.

Despite all the efforts of BIRDS to keep riders in line, they can’t control everyone. “We attract everybody,” says Heaney. “Most come out to have a good time, but sometimes we get a few bad apples that give a bad impression.” These riders are generally the exception to the rule. The party-like atmosphere and sense of community keep riders coming back for more. “I hate missing it,” says Messmer.

As more and more people take to the streets on bikes, San Jose Bike Party attendance continues to steadily increase. “I see people in other communities organizing their own bike parties, which has already been happening over the past year,” says Heaney. Some cyclists branch off to form smaller rides because the party-like crowds of Bike Party are getting too large or too slow.

“Other groups are grasping our momentum, but they’re not affiliated with us,” says Babcock. Bike Party often promotes these other rides because it is an opportunity to support and encourage the cycling community. But no matter how many other rides take place, one thing is for sure: every third Friday of the month, the rally cries and bike bells of San Jose Bike Party will continue to ride on.

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Article originally appeared in Issue 4.4 Education (Print SOLD OUT)