The Freedom From Pants riders appeared to me for the first time in 2013, looking like the Minneapolis chapter of the cult of Dionysus. Most of the women wore red, white, and blue bikinis — and in some cases thongs, granny panties, and pasties — and the couple hundred bicyclists lounged about in a park in downtown Minneapolis. Music played, people danced, and bikes were strewn every which way. Legs and thighs were conspicuously on display.
The sight was, to say the least, a shock. I had never seen such displays of public abandonment, especially in Minnesota, where normally you see people’s ankles for just a few months out of the year.
In fact, this swinging group of barely clothed riders were enjoying the Freedom From Pants Ride, which since 2007 has taken place annually on Fourth of July in Minneapolis. Starting from an empty lot in the northeast part of the city, the ride proceeds throughout Minneapolis, always on an unannounced route, stopping at parks and lakes along the way for dancing, socializing, and swimming — which quite often becomes patriotic skinny dipping.
Now I see these liberated riders every year. Once, I was on my bike near Loring Park, when hundreds of near-naked cyclists appeared, hollering as they crossed the street. “Join us!” one young man cried in my direction. I looked down at my sundress and imagined myself stripping it off and joining the circus. Oh how I wished I could be like them! To be free! I watched them parade off into the distance.
Minneapolis isn’t unique in having a pants-free bike ride. San Francisco, New Orleans, Portland, Buffalo, New York, Philadelphia, and St. Louis all host “bare-as-you-dare” rides, though Minneapolis is the only one to my knowledge that holds its event on the Fourth of July. The first Freedom From Pants Ride happened in 2007 and included just a handful of people. Filmmaker Catherine Campion, one of the original organizers, says the ride came out of a discussion on MPLS Bike Love, an online forum.
“It’s an alternative to a lot of family stuff,” Campion says. “After spending all day with our families, it was nice to let off a little steam.”
Every year the event has gotten bigger, drawing several hundred bicyclists in 2015. Rachel Gall, an avid cyclist based in Minneapolis, says her first ride was in 2010; she joined on the principle that “if it scares you, you should do it.” “Most people are going to be worried about themselves, and don’t pay attention to anyone else anyway,” Gall says — meaning you shouldn’t worry that everyone will be staring at your hamstrings.
The most shocking thing about the ride, according to Gall, is not the women but the men. “In our society the female form is used in advertising so much, it’s very normal to see it,” she says. It’s less common to see men wearing next to nothing — just turn on the television or consider all the billboards that feature scantily clad ladies next to fully clothed male counterparts.
The first time Katy Olson did the ride in 2011, there were only about 40 people. Last year, there were over 300.
While most participants stay in their underwear, Olson has witnessed a few men go nude for at least a portion of the rides. “There have been a number of arrests,” she says.
There’s also a sexual component to the ride, one that’s sometimes unwanted, Olson says. Non-riding observers have cat-called Olson on previous rides, and Gall says that she’s seen riders shout “take off your clothes” to passersby.
“There’s definitely a meat market element,” says Olson, who could do without it. Turns out, being “free” doesn’t necessarily mean “free from misogyny.”
On the other hand, Jenny Jenkins says she hasn’t really experienced that sexualized aspect of the ride. Her reluctance at first was mostly due to her own body-image issues. “I heard about it a couple of years before I went, but not being as immersed in the bike scene was probably my reluctance, and not running around in my underwear as a middle-aged person who happens to be vain.”
In 2013, Jenkins says she finally decided to get over whatever misgivings she had about her body. She didn’t know many people, but found the atmosphere upon arrival to be congenial. “Plus seeing all these people that look way weirder … in their underwear as me, who were at least comfortable if not proud — that was a good thing,” Jenkins says. Suddenly, being surrounded by others who had saggy boobs, weird scars, or other imperfections, Jenkins’ embarrassment about her belly and mild scoliosis seemed inconsequential.
Larry Miller, a gay man in his mid-50s, considers himself an “unconventional rider” in the Freedom From Pants Ride. “The first time I went to the ride, I didn’t know anybody,” he says. “Up comes a cross-gender acquaintance of mine and some folks from my gay softball league. We ended up loading a little group within the big group.” Miller says the Freedom From Pants Ride reminds him a bit of early version of the Pride parade. “Pride has gotten quite corporate,” he says.
For people like Miller, Freedom From Pants is, for all its frivolity, an earnest celebration of America. “As long as we are not being destructive, we can express ourselves and be in celebration,” Miller says. “I think that’s part of what America should be about: being able to express yourself and enjoy yourself even if that’s a little crazy.”