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London Naked Bike Ride 2021 – Safety first

2 Sep 2021

This was the one for which we yearned. Concerns about rider safety, spectator safety and public perception during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic resulted in all UK World Naked Bike Ride (WNBR) events being cancelled last year. In 2021, however, they were back, with the biggest making its return on 14 August: WNBR London.

World Naked Bike Ride (WNBR)

WNBR is a worldwide campaign that demonstrates the vulnerability of cyclists and protests against car culture. Its linked objectives are to:

  1. protest against the global dependency on oil
  2. curb car culture
  3. obtain real rights for cyclists
  4. demonstrate the vulnerability of cyclists on city streets
  5. celebrate body freedom

The ride had been postponed from its traditional date of the second Saturday in June due to the excruciatingly slow pace of pandemic restriction-easing. When finally it did go ahead, it was to be with more start points than ever. West Norwood was gone, but new starts had been designated for Croydon (south) and Victoria Park (east).

Once again, I would be starting from Trinity Square Gardens near Tower Hill. Once again, Natansky would be the ride leader here, and once again I’d somehow allowed myself to be volunteered as front-riding marshal. I’d fallen out of love with front-riding, to be honest, but full joy was restored when my partner Esther decided to ride too.

Colouring up

Aside from sharing routine guidance on wearing masks (many riders do anyway) and social distancing, two main changes were announced for coronavirus safety: first that riders should arrive no earlier than 15 minutes before the start times, and second that rides from individual starts would not linger at rest points or wait to merge as one.

2:15pm on Trinity Square Gardens: Esther paints while Lucy muses

As a ride marshal I felt justified in arriving a whole hour before our time to assess the situation. I wasn’t alone; Natansky had done likewise, as had other ride regulars. Not long after 2pm, nakedness began. Esther and I waited a while longer, then dived into our body paints: me going all-over copper, with Esther a fluorescent kaleidoscope.

Me –
© Will Le.
Esther –
© Steve Woolhat
Natansky –
© Steve Woolhat

Cameras were soon in abundance. In addition to the usual mix of cheery tourists and creepy voyeurs, we had media photographers, Lucy Muse and Thomas making their annual film, and of course we all took snaps of each other. After about half an hour of merry capers in brilliant sunshine, I led us out to Trinity Square road at 2:30pm.

2:34pm on Trinity Square: Tower Hill starters…

Photography intensified at the front while the rest of the ride assembled behind us. In truth, we were in the mood this year and lapped it up. Soon we had ever more naked people on the pavement alongside us as riders from Deptford unexpectedly rolled up, resplendent with their own body paints and a fantastic sound system in tow.

2:40pm on Trinity Square: …meet Deptford starters

Breakout on Byward

While Esther and I held the line, Natansky endured the altogether more arduous task of rounding up assorted latecomers and late movers so everyone was in place, ready for our 2:45pm start time. As always, she did a magnificent job; we got away bang on the minute amid a cacophony of cheers, whistles and booming bass.

2:47pm on Byward Street: leading us out

First I led us out onto Byward Street, eschewing its off-road two-lane cycleway so we could occupy the main highway instead – after all, this was a protest ride about cycle visibility. As we descended the hill beyond All Hallows by the Tower church, I glanced round to the riders streaming behind. We were many!

2:48pm on Byward Street: Esther in front – © Steve Woolhat

After Byward Street, I tarried a little way along Lower Thames Street to allow enough time for everyone to get through the traffic lights at Trinity Square and come together. Such delays of a minute or two can be frustrating for our more enthusiastic riders but us marshals have a responsibility for the whole. Ergo, I’m afraid it has to be done.

2:49pm on Lower Thames Street: getting us together

Tate Modern trail

But anyway, what does it matter if we stop a few times when each time can be a mini street party? Lower Thames Street led to Upper Thames Street, where we turned left onto Southwark Bridge and tarried again at its southern end. The city was behind us, the Thames beneath us and the sun was (mostly) beaming above us. Why hurry?

2:56pm on Southwark Bridge: happy naked people

From Southwark Bridge our first turn was a right into Sumner Street, which guided us in a left-hanging curve at the rear of Tate Modern to a junction with Southwark Street. This busy right-turn at traffic lights was a natural place to regroup again for a moment or two. Likewise for a fourth time by the lights at the end of Southwark Street.

3:02pm on Sumner Street: a work of art

A reminder of the value of all this regrouping came when I pulled out from Southwark Street onto Blackfriars Street and immediately had to gesture for others to wait as an ambulance with flashing blue lights was racing towards us. If I’d already disappeared out of view and wasn’t pausing routinely, we might have been split-up for miles.

3:03pm on Sumner Street: Tate Modern winks at us

Blackfriars to Embankment

I waited for the ambulance to pass and led us onward across Blackfriars Bridge, then held us briefly by the lights at its northern end. From there, we went left down the slip road onto Victoria Embankment and waited again by the lights at the bottom. As ever, this is a great place to look back – up the slope – and marvel at so many bare bodies.

3:10pm on Blackfriars Bridge: mustering upon our return north

3:13pm on Victoria Embankment: descent to the riverside

While I kept us steady at the front, Natansky was still shuttling back and forth herding the proverbial cats stretched out behind. For our crossing of Victoria Embankment on to the cycleway along the river side, she went ahead and waited for the right moment to block traffic and let us all through. Heroic work, worthy of a wave and a smile. 🙂

3:14pm on Victoria Embankment: “Hello Natansky!…”

3:15pm on Victoria Embankment: “…Hello Steve!”

Rendezvous at Trafalgar Square

We paused midway along Victoria Embankment, again to be sure everyone was with us, and simply to soak up warm rays by the Thames. After passing beneath Waterloo Bridge and Hungerford Bridge, we turned right into Northumberland Avenue. Here an abundance of red buses kept our speed in check.

3:26pm on Northumberland Avenue: up to the square

Why do I keep mentioning our pauses and pace? Because suddenly, here, at the top end of Northumberland Avenue while we waited at traffic lights and Esther danced in sunlight, we beheld the miraculous vision of our fellow riders from Hyde Park hoving into view. It was a perfect convergence.

3:27pm on Northumberland Avenue: dancer!

Unpleasantness at Whitehall

Our two groups became one at Trafalgar Square. As the Hyde Park front-riders – our friends Cy and Pawel – came alongside, I deferred to them the honour of leading our combined ranks. Not only was this fair acknowledgement of the huge contribution Cy in particular makes towards organising the ride, but also I’m happier in the crowd.

3:28pm on Whitehall: Pawel and Esther – © Funk Dooby

Unfortunately no sooner had we entered Whitehall than matters turned unpleasant. A group that was drinking outside The Clarence began hurling vitriolic abuse at us; they even acted physically against some of our riders. Further down Parliament Street, we were similarly abused outside The Red Lion. I had to dodge an object thrown at me.

3:31pm on Whitehall: post-confrontation

I don’t know who these sets of people were or whether they were connected, but they had the same general demeanour as groups of hard right-wingers we’ve encountered before on Whitehall. They fester in their own little bubbles of self-righteous bile, totally oblivious to us being cheered, celebrated and applauded everywhere else we went.

3:37pm on Westminster Bridge Road: city sightseers

I led the main group of riders away from these isolated flashpoints, onto Westminster Bridge Road and across the bridge itself. I’m of the opinion that future rides shouldn’t include Whitehall or Parliament Street at all. Like the buildings of state all around, the two roads now attract too many people with hate-filled ideologies.

3:39pm on Westminster Bridge Road: say ‘no’ to hate

Forum Magnum Square

Back in south London we turned left at York Road and left again into Forum Magnum Square for a short break. Riders from another start point were already there, but they departed soon after we entered. I dismounted and went looking for those who’d been abused on Whitehall. No sign, but I found Natansky and shared what little I knew.

3:48pm on Forum Magnum Square: check-in with Natansky – © Funk Dooby

It was worrying. The euphoria of our magical alignment at Trafalgar Square had been blown away and equilibrium would not be restored until I was sure everyone was OK. That moment would come later. For now, though, most riders were utterly unaware of any dramas and just carried on celebrating body freedom till it was time to move on.

3:59pm on Belvedere Road: the ride resumes

4:00pm on Belvedere Road: still concerned – © Funk Dooby

At 4pm, we exited Forum Magnum Square via Belvedere Road then turned right onto Chicheley Street, following the familiar backsides of old comrades Gil and Chas. This was a departure from previous routes as usually we continue further along Belvedere Road, but it made sense as bottlenecks here can get notoriously congested.

4:00pm on Belvedere Road: all shapes, sizes – © Mara K

4:01pm on Belvedere Road: with Gil and Chas at Chicheley Street

Waterloo to Lincoln’s Inn

A left turn out of Chicheley Street brought us back onto York Road. By now I was well and truly in the pack of riders, and felt much better for it. We continued onto Waterloo Bridge and – after pausing for a photo with the London Eye – carried on to Lancaster Place, followed by the eastbound arc of Strand and Aldwych.

4:03pm on York Road: towards Waterloo

4:10pm on Waterloo Bridge: Eye and I

It’s a phenomenon of each year’s ride that from being a horde in Belvedere Road, we become inexplicably stretched and thinned-out along this section of Strand. Whoever was in front had raced ahead and I saw cut-adrift riders starting to take wrong turns. I called them back and once more became a reluctant shepherd, albeit now by default.

4:16pm on Strand: at the Royal Courts of Justice

Lincoln’s interlude

From Strand and a tiny bit of Fleet Street, we took a left into Chancery Lane, another left into Carey Street, and a right into Searle Street, to be greeted by a river of naked cyclists passing before us at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Again, these were riders from other start points now moving on, but it was confusing: should we stay or should we go?

4:20pm on Searle Street: bemused arrivals

I tried to tell the riders around us that we should take our turn for a stop, but most lost their nerve. A herd instinct kicked-in and they immediately followed onto the departing pack. As for me, I still wanted a break, a banana and a pee (in that order), so I stayed with the plan. Esther and I continued round to the north side and parked by the loos.

4:29pm on Newman’s Row: energy top-up – © Andrew Brandse

We weren’t alone, and whilst we were lacking the glorious spectacle of the entire ride mingling together, there were at least two or three dozen other riders scattered about, enjoying a well-earned rest in the sunshine. Amongst them, we were delighted to find Cy, still a model of composure amid all the craziness.

4:34pm on Lincoln’s Inn Fields: Cy and Esther

In total, we loitered around for about quarter of an hour before setting off again. From Newman’s Row, we once more skirted the south and west side of Lincoln’s Inn Fields before veering off down Remnant Street and pausing by the crossing of Kingsway, all set to complete the last third of our ride.

4:39pm on Remnant Street: preparing to re-emerge

West End weave

We were fewer in number but still a presence, applauded spontaneously and with joy by so many who witnessed our part-protest, part-celebration. As usual we went down Great Queen Street, Long Acre, Bow Street and Wellington Street. We thought better of negotiating Covent Garden’s cafés, however, so instead exited via Exeter Street.

4:40pm on Great Queen Street: passing Grand Connaught Rooms

4:42pm on Bow Street: by the Royal Opera House

4:45pm on Wellington Street: into Exeter Street

A right turn from Exeter Street brought us out onto Strand, opposite The Savoy hotel. I’d expected us to have trouble with traffic here but our progress was unhampered as we continued westwards, passing Charing Cross station and bearing down a second time on Trafalgar Square.

4:47pm on Exeter Street: breakout on Strand

Into the sun

There was no incredible confluence at Trafalgar Square this time; merely our modest menagerie of immodest merrymakers, traversing through tourists and traffic, taking a leisurely looping line ‘twixt lions and lights, as we set our sights on the grand gates of Admiralty Arch. The broad red carpet beyond would lead us to our finish.

4:53pm on Trafalgar Square: towards Admiralty Arch – © Richard

We weren’t quite cycling into the sunset as we went west along The Mall, but with the ride taking place two months later than usual and the sun slightly lower at this time of year, we got that feeling. Even in our reduced circumstances, I still had familiar folk in front of me and behind me. And best of all, Esther by my side.

4:57pm on The Mall: sunglasses required

4:58pm on The Mall: to the palace

Though not encouraged, many riders can’t resist dismounting to pose for photos with Buckingham Palace as backdrop. Esther and I decided to skip the ritual this year and instead continued onto the cycleway up the right-side of Constitution Hill. In no haste, we pedalled wearily towards a side-path at the top; end of the line. It was now 5pm.

4:59pm on Constitution Hill: no need to tarry

5:00pm on Constitution Hill: leaving the road

Done and done

At the far end of Constitution Hill, we walked a hundred metres or so into Green Park and parked our bikes. It was five past five and, after two hours twenty minutes’ naked bike riding, we were done. All that remained was to get dressed, before the inevitable lurking camera-wielding voyeurs could gravitate around us.

5:05pm on Green Park: reunited at our finish

We managed to track down friends we’d met along the way, and I gave my Marshal’s armband back to Natansky. My duties were done for this ride and for future rides too. After four years of volunteering as a marshal I feel it’s time for a handover to the next generation. As for me, I’ll vanish into the crowd, renewing my love of this crazy day.

Our route from Tower Hill to Green Park

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