I have been exposed to Pittsburgh in a whole new way. Literally more than metaphorically. My wife and I participated in one of the many bike events that have been going on in the city over the last few weeks. The Undie Bike Ride.
Riding my bicycle in my underwear was never really on my bucket list. When I saw it listed on the BikeFest calendar I laughed and flagged it on my calendar. I thought it would be an interesting event to witness as I drank cold beer from one of the many establishments in Lawrenceville. Maybe I’d even write about it. I mentioned it to the wife and she agreed it could be fun to check out. Somewhere between those thoughts and Thursday night at about 8:00 PM our intent morphed from witnessing to possibly participating, and at the very least wearing presentable undies. Just in case.
At about 8:15 PM we landed at the New Amsterdam bar on Butler St. about a block from the ride’s origination point. Down the road, a solitary gent wearing boxer shorts sat on the curb in what was left of the twilight. We ordered a drink and figured that was the end of it. The ride was supposed to start around 8:30 PM and we didn’t feel motivated or confident enough to be part of such a small cycling armada. Fifteen minutes later and one New Holland Rye IPA on tap, I glanced down street and was surprised to see a collection of 15-20 blinking bicycle lights. I looked at the wife. What the hell we thought. We’re here. Lets check it out.
We had some preconceived notions on what an undie ride would consist of. Mostly dudes, probably some creepers and mostly attention seekers. We agreed on our short traverse down the street that we wouldn’t participate if that seemed to be the case, but as we approached we were surprised to see quite a few women and mostly people who looked like us… except in their underwear.
Most were in various states of undress. Boxer’s and t-shirts, or jockey’s and tall socks. Most of the ladies were wearing full coverage panties and bikini tops or bras though a few snazzed it up with some lingerie. Almost everyone had a helmet. We finally committed to just going for it. At least for a few blocks, but probably not the whole thing. I took a deep breath and dropped my shorts.
Oh shit. This just got real. In retrospect I regretted spending the last hour eating stir-fry and drinking beer instead of doing push-ups and deep knee bends. Thankfully it was getting darker by the moment. Though my bright red boxer briefs with the El Toro on the front seemed to stay in a constant state of illumination.
I started wandering around talking to people. The group was getting larger and larger. I had a chance to talk with Virginia Mcgrath, herself a transplant from Milwaukee, the events organizer. She said that she started the rides (I would find out that this was just one of the undie rides organized throughout the year) for a few reasons. To promote positive self image, get people on their bikes and to meet people.
Finally, with a whoop the entire contingent of bikers left the small park where we were congregated at the corner of 46th and Butler and moved out into the street. It was a wave of underwear clad men and women pumping their legs and cheering for no other reason than to just celebrate the beginning of something.
I was prepared for catcalls, whistles and jeers as our group of differently sized and shaped bikers rolled down the street. What I wasn’t prepared for was the good natured support and cheering encouragement from people on the sidewalks, drivers in the road and more than few fellow riders we enveloped in our mass of people. Certainly more than a few people wanted to know what the hell we were doing and why. A few yinzers in cut off Steeler’s tees hooted and hollered but the majority of it seemed good natured. At one point some screamed out, “Look, Hipsters!” which didn’t make much sense to me, and another just frantically pointed us out to people inside the restaurant he was standing in front of. One cowardly man sat in his SUV next to us at a stoplight, and when it turned green shouted “Put some clothes on!” as he pulled away. I just assumed he was talking directly to me and laughed.
The pace of the ride was leisurely and relaxed. Slow enough to meet people and have a conversation if you wanted. There were enough riders that we often took up an entire lane for which I felt terribly guilty but none of the drivers that passed us by or sat behind us for a block or two seemed to mind. When bicycle lanes were available our bunch would stretch thin in a long line of single file riders. After the third or fourth block we gave up on the idea of dropping out somewhere along the line. About halfway through we kind of forgot we were in our underwear, and were just on a bike ride in Pittsburgh enjoying the cool summer night air. And even our fears of getting left behind as newbies on the ride were placated by the gentlemen riders who would race up ahead to make sure the intersections were clear and then drop all the way back to make sure no one was left behind.
The ride left Lawrenceville, passed through the Strip District, and crossed over the Roberto Clemente Bridge. We rode past PNC Park and stopped for a group photo in front of Heinz Field giving me my first up close views of Pittsburgh’s Mecca. Back over a bridge into downtown and finally over the Smithfield Bridge and all the way along East Carson St to the final destination at Over The Bar Bicycle Cafe. By this point we were some of the last riders due to some chain malfunctions but it didn’t seem to matter much. OTB was swarming with happy, endorphin filled bikers ordering craft beer, laughing and telling stories about what happened in their portion of the pack.
As we sat at the bar refueling on fries and beverages I realized that the only way home I knew of on my bicycle was through Panther Hollow which was likely to be closed. And from our time in New York going through the park at night seemed like a bad, bad idea. I asked some fellow undie clad friends for advice on how to get home. It no longer seemed odd to walk up to a complete stranger in my underwear and have a normal conversation. No worries they said they were headed in the same direction and offered to escort us. We would go as a group through the park and they’d get us to at least a point we knew where to get home from.
This kind of generosity and kindness was unexpected but greatly appreciated. For every person I meet in Pittsburgh who seems hostile to outsiders, I meet people like Joe, Jen, and the recent Duquesne MBA graduate (whose name was lost in the wind) who go out of their way to help. They’ve made these first few weeks of exploring the ‘Burgh much more enjoyable than I anticipated when we first packed up the truck and headed West.
As a whole, the Undie Ride was a fun, casual and freeing experience. And if you ever have the urge to drop your trousers on the street with a bunch of strangers I strongly recommend you join us on the next one.
When is the next Pittsburgh Underwear Ride?
September 27, 2012 at 8:30pm. Meet on the corner of Butler and 46th (Lawrenceville).
What are the rules?
1. You should probably wear underwear.. only underwear.
2. Helmets and lights are encouraged
3. Be safe and have fun
4. Obey traffic laws