On a recent Friday evening, a carnival on wheels took to the streets of Baltimore. Women decked out in chandelier earrings juggled floor-length or knee-high dresses on bicycles. Men wearing bow ties and blazers peddled mountain bikes, while one young man sported a powder-blue tuxedo and loose blond hair on his BMX.
Spend just a few minutes watching this crowd move through an intersection or up a street and it's no wonder most residents and motorists had a look of wonder or surprise on their faces. If there was any doubt about what this was, it didn't last.
"Bike Party!" howled a cyclist somewhere in the mass.
The Baltimore Bike Party — part costume party, urban exploration, family outing, dance rave and roving singles scene — is a group ride through Baltimore that will have you feeling like Mister Rogers, Lance Armstrong and Lady Gaga all in the space of 2 1/2 hours.
"It's my favorite day of the month," said Brittany Shannahan.
Standing next to her 12-speed vintage BCAmerica bike, the 28-year-old Hampden resident was wearing a sparkly blue dress and tiara. Shannahan was the leader of the 11 mile ride through neighborhoods like Reservoir Hill and Charles Village, and had been to most of the rides since they started.
Bike Party's magic came about through a transformation. About a year ago, a handful of cyclists decided to make some changes to a regular group bike ride they were involved with. Organizer Tim Barnett said people were associating the monthly Critical Mass Baltimore cycling event with more political rides elsewhere in which some cyclists aggressively ignored traffic laws.
"We knew there were tons of riders in Baltimore," recalled Barnett. "There was just no unified cohesion of all the elements in the community."
They changed the name and added a few other aspects to the event: a formal website with a list of ride rules and a route, as well as a party at the end. That April, about 70 riders showed up for the first ever Baltimore Bike Party.
Attendance had dramatically increased by this April's ride. Organizers said about 950 cyclists amassed under the Washington Monument to start the ride.
"It's kind of its own animal at this point," said organizer Marc Hartley.
The rides happen on the last Friday evening of the month, and each one has a theme and designated route. This one was prom night, and the route would take riders through Druid Hill and Clifton Park in celebration of Baltimore Green Week.
"Bikes give you natural endorphins when you ride them so you're with a bunch of really, really happy people from riding all those bikes," said Shannahan.
Like Shannahan, many of the riders were in their 20s and 30s. But there were also kids cracking wheelies on BMXs, and a cigar-chomping man with a grey beard on a bike so tall that he towered over the other riders.
"We've had riders from ages 6 to 80," said Hartley. "It's a fairly slow pace. We're not barreling down hills super fast. There's so many people it can only go so fast."
That's an understatement. When the peloton finally launched, it took about five minutes for the entire group to clear an intersection. That's when 'corking' comes in handy — riders at the start of the pack will stop in front of cars so that every cyclist can clear the intersection.
"Our policy for traffic signals is, if it's a red light, we wait," said Barnett. "If it's green, we keep going, and if the light turns red as we're moving through, cyclists cork to allow us to continue as one mass quickly and efficiently."
During the April ride, many of the drivers caught up in the Bike Party mass spent their time watching the parade of bikes and costumes go by. At least one driver — a woman in a white crossover sport utility vehicle — blew her top and started shouting.
"We always have one person on every ride who gets extremely irate," said Barnett. "But to have one person out of thousands of drivers over the course of a two hour ride, it really isn't too bad. If you put the positivity out, you get it back."
That disgruntled driver was overshadowed by the rock star reception Bike Party received when traveling through residential neighborhoods. Dance music thumped out of a set of speakers Barnett had on a trailer hitched to his bike as he rode by boarded up homes and the old American Brewery building in East Baltimore. Residents poked their heads out of windows to watch, while people on the sidewalk fist-pumped and gave cyclists high-fives.
"It kind of exposes people to different cultures, different things, different neighborhoods," said 33-year-old Keon Hayes. "How often do you get to ride with 700 people? I'm down for a party."
Hayes was on his second Bike Party ride. Most work days he uses his Mongoose Deception to ride about 10 miles to his job as a mortician. He's been riding in the city for more than five years and said bicycling in Baltimore has changed.
"It's getting better," said the Ashburton resident. "There are bike lanes now, and when I started, they didn't have them."
Ask any of the participants about bicycling in Baltimore and their answers were similar: Things have improved, but the city needs more than 50 miles of bike lanes and drivers need to respect the three-foot gap they're supposed to maintain with bicycles on the road.
"If everyone who had a car rode a bike for one day — one day — then they'd realize how vulnerable you are on a bicycle," said Michael Bowman, a 31-year-old information technologist for the Salvation Army who was dressed in a full tuxedo with sparkly fuchsia sneakers.
Surveys conducted by the Department of Transportation have found commuting by bicycle has increased 50 percent over the past four years. Still, only about 0.7 percent of the population makes the daily work trip on a bike. Bike Party's organizers are hoping to change that by getting more people interested in biking.
Even though the pace was leisurely, there was still a break halfway through the ride at the Clifton Park amphitheater. By now it was dark, and hundreds of cyclists slowed along Saint Lo Drive. The riders pulled their bikes onto the grass and walked down toward the amphitheater, transforming into a dark moving mass of blinking red, blue and white bike lights. Waiting to resume the ride was Shannahan.
"Leading can be a little bit stressful at times because you have to keep reminding people to stay behind you or they're going to get lost," said Shannahan. "You're at the front, so you don't see the huge mass of bike riders. But when we stopped here, it's really amazing. We got to see everybody come through."
After about 20 minutes of dancing and more chants of "Bike Party!" the group headed back out. Final destination: the Pratt Street Ale House by Camden Yards, where riders rehydrated and posed for prom photos snapped by after-party organizer Anastasia Tantaros (check them out on Baltimore Bike Party's Facebook page).
The success of the Bike Party hasn't surprised the organizers. But the speed of that success has. They're still mulling over what to do in the future in terms of evolving the event.
"That is a good question," said Tantaros. "I ask Tim that a lot: Where is this going? I'm not sure. I'm just taking this each month at a time."