For the past 15 years, Portlanders have donned glow stick headbands, David Bowie wigs, Hawaii shirts, tweed vests, or absolutely nothing at all to participate in the hundreds of themed bicycle rides that make up June's month-long Pedalpalooza festival.
The volunteer-led festival celebrates bikes and community by bringing together large groups of people and pedaling in a pack, sharing beers and high-fiving along the way. The idea of this kind of event existing in a post-coronavirus world, where standing four feet away from another person wearing a mask is considered risky, seems implausible.
And yet, COVID-19 hasn't cancelled Pedalpalooza's 16th year. Instead, the anti-social pandemic has inspired the festival's organizers to get creative.
"As this crisis went from weeks to months, it became more apparent that the socially responsible thing to do was to make a clear statement to the bike community that we’re not making space for socially irresponsible events," said Meghan Sinnott, Pedalpalooza's lead organizer. "We can’t make space for people to gather. But we also can't postpone joy or avoid embracing uncertainties. It's an opportunity to reimagine our systems."
Instead of inviting Portlanders to lead their own uniquely themed bike rides during the month of June, Pedalpalooza is collecting ideas for different themes for every day of the month. Rather than promoting mass bike rides at scheduled times, organizers want to see bicyclists embracing the theme on solo rides throughout the day.
As of now, the calendar includes an "Under the Sea" day, when bicyclists are encouraged to "Make that helmet into a jellyfish or a pufferfish. Make your bike look like a fish. Dress up like a shark." There's a superhero day calling for capes and masks, a rainbow day (dress like your favorite color), and a history day with a scavenger hunt.
Click here for the Mercury's Pedalpalooza 2020 calendar!
"It's really up to the rider... the more absurd the interpretation the better," says Sinnott. "For example, for the bike picnic day, are you going to dress up like a hot dog and pedal around, or grill by bike?"
Sinnott says that once June rolls around, "I’m going to have to trust that if someone's doing something weird on their bike, it's part of Pedalpalooza, and I'll ring my bell and wave."
Sinnott sees the unexpected restructuring as an opportunity to "breathe fresh air" into the festival by improving Pedalpalooza's social media presence and making interpretive bike routes accessible on Google maps.
"We needed to reinvent some things," said Sinnott. "It was time to ask, 'How can we not do the same old shit every year?'"
She also hopes the event will give currently housebound Portlanders simmering in COVID-19 uncertainty something fun to look forward to.
The new format features some of Pedalpalooza's staples: The classic "Loud N Lit" ride has been given its own day, as has Portland's edition of the World Naked Bike Ride. Instead of asking thousands of naked (and semi-naked) people to pedal in a mass group with a fixed start time, this year's annual protest against oil dependency has been converted into "Ride Naked" day. Bicyclists are encouraged to pedal around town naked at all times, anywhere. Just not in groups.
"This is the best thing that could happen to the world naked bike ride," says Sinnott, who also helps organize the annual nude ride. "If anything, our reach will be farther and more diverse if everyone just pedals off from their homes naked at varying times. Chances are going to be high that you'll see someone biking around naked on June 27."
Pedalpalooza is nothing, however, without its volunteers. Last year's 312 rides—drawing out 20,000 participants—were led by around 75 people. While many longtime volunteers are on board with the 2020 model, Sinnott is looking for more volunteers to pitch theme days, come up with self-guided tours, put up posters, or help spread the word over social media.
"It's always been an open-source community-led festival," she said. "It'll only be as successful as we are."