Freedom From Pants: Patriotic nudity at its best

Freedom From Pants: Patriotic nudity at its best
Photo by Patrick Stephenson

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On July 4, 2012, several hundred half- to three-quarters-naked cyclists excitedly pedaled away from the Soap Factory in northeast Minneapolis.

They headed downtown across the Stone Arch Bridge, up Nicollet Mall, toward the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, onward to the beach at Lake Calhoun, and finally to the valley of Powderhorn Park. Some were in bikinis. Others were in briefs, boxers, or less often with a red, white, and blue color scheme. They consumed the streets of Minneapolis, pedaling while chanting "USA! USA!" and "NO MORE PANTS!"

It was the sixth annual Freedom From Pants Ride, a happening that began with fewer than 10 people, and has expanded in less than a decade into an event that draws hundreds in a makeshift roving parade of cyclist nudity.

This year's event was a celebration of our American bodies -- beautifully flabby and highly toned alike -- on the anniversary of our American Independence.

What's it like to ride in a crowd of 300 (or 400, who kept count?) people with only your underwear on? You do feel freer and lighter when unburdened by jeans, T-shirts, and jackets. But body-wise, it didn't feel all that different from a normal ride. However, the wind makes more contact with your skin and you do feel lighter -- like you can ride faster more easily.

There is, of course, a lot more visual stimuli to distract you, as you're surrounded by fit people in very little clothing. It's important to remind yourself not to perv too heavily; that would not be kosher. Perv in a subtle way. There's an atmosphere of pure joy and acceptance. You feel safe in the crowd, so safe that changing from your boxer briefs (pink, flesh-toned) into bright women's underwear that doesn't entirely hide your orange-pubed nethers is normal and encouraged.

One of your friends wears only pasties on her boobs, and she wants to hug you. Another one of your friends takes off his underwear entirely, his Italian nudity hidden by the bodies around him and the dark as the day turns into evening. As Freedom From Pants descends into Powderhorn and a mess of fireworks go off, one must wonder: "Are we the first generation to do something like this? Did handlebar-mustachioed cyclists do this 100 years ago?"

Freedom From Pants is different from the controversial Critical Mass ride in that onlookers respond to it with positivity. Drivers whose path to the fireworks have been blocked by the en masse nudity honk happily at you. They stick their hands out their car windows and encourage people to high-five them as they pass. Sidewalk passersby gawk and go slack-jawed. They says things like, "Why didn't you tell me this was happening? I would've joined you!" and "You guys are crazy!" Some onlookers even disrobe, responding to the crowd's chant of "Join us! Join us! Take off your pants!" They're cheered on as they tear their pants off and throw them onto the sidewalk.

Let's not go too deep with this, but American culture at large -- its fashion magazines, its films, and TV shows -- teaches us to hate our bodies. An event like Freedom From Pants encourages us to love our bodies and celebrate them. It says, "Show that three-quarters-naked bod off and ride your bike at the same time because we love the bicycle, too."

This was my second Freedom From Pants Ride, and after a long stint in pink boxer briefs, I truly did change into women's underwear that didn't quite contain me. I also had my hair sprayed white with spray paint, and soaked with PBR and water from a water gun. The best part of the ride for me was running into Lake Calhoun among the scantily clad crowd. "I love acting like I'm 12 again," I heard someone exclaim.

The ride felt very much like a celebration of the United States and American freedom, two concepts and constructs that -- when used as a pretense for war -- have alienated many of us in the past decade. Riding in the Freedom From Pants Ride reminds us what FREEDOM, as an all-caps concept, is all about. Celebrate yourself, celebrate your friends. Get naked. And ride your bike.

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