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opinion | jennifer graham

The naked appeal of bikes

The Minuteman Bikeway offers 11 miles of paved path from Bedford to Cambridge.

Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff/File 2008

The Minuteman Bikeway offers 11 miles of paved path from Bedford to Cambridge.

THE WORLDWIDE Naked Bike Ride will soon be upon us, proving once again that there’s no cause so noble that extremists can’t muck it up, recklessly tarnishing the cause they wish to promote.

The event, which began nine years ago in Spain and has spread around the world, is a roguish shadow of the Critical Mass group bike rides. It’s supposed to draw attention to the positives of bicycling while protesting the negatives, such as “indecent exposure to carbon emissions.” But with it rides a troubling peloton of questions.

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For instance, is there any sport less conducive to nudity? Will our dependence on foreign oil really be lessened by a raucous horde of body-painted cyclists pedaling through Boston, ironically complaining about their vulnerability on city streets? How will such an event entice normal people — and yes, let’s define “normal” as people who do not roam Newbury Street naked — to abandon their cars for bikes?

The answer to the latter, of course: It won’t.

Boston’s naked ride will be on June 29, beginning at the bandstand on the Common — though, blessedly, not until 10 p.m. Previous events here have drawn riders numbering in the dozens, unlike the thousands expected this Saturday in Portland, Ore., at what’s usually the nation’s biggest event. “I love riding my bike naked,” says a past participant in a documentary on that event — unwittingly revealing that it’s less earnest activism than a hedonistic good time.

In an attempt to add culture to the night’s proceedings, the Portland Art Museum has scheduled an exhibit on bicycles to coincide with Saturday’s ride. To see “Cyclepedia,” visitors will pay $1 per item of clothing they’re wearing. If you’re wearing nothing, you get in free. Museum officials “get it,” ride organizer Meghan Sinnott said to The Oregonian, as a museum spokeswoman gushed about the human body as art.

Let’s hope the Boston Museum of Fine Arts doesn’t get it. Isabella Stewart Gardner, please nurture your inner prude.

If you want to promote cycling, both as a sport and as a lifestyle, put on some clothes — even Lycra ones, if you insist — and take a trip to the Minuteman Bikeway. Ten miles of bliss meander from Bedford to Cambridge, and cyclists, skaters, runners, and walkers share the oft-crowded path with no hint of road rage.

Cycling here is not a political statement, but an escape from the need for making one. (Although, if they must, liberals can wave gaily at creeping SUVs as they ride over the Mass. Pike, and conservatives can chortle as they cruise past the empty electric-car chargers adjacent to the bikeway in Lexington.) In the breezy calm of the Minuteman Bikeway, cars seem a rude, noisy relic of the past — like Paul Revere’s horse, necessary but a long time ago. The level asphalt makes for an effortless ride, even if you’re out of shape. Sure, Massachusetts is covered with snow for a third of the year, but for that, we now have “fat bikes,” bicycles with oversized tires that defy winter. And with fat bikes comes a far more interesting and family-friendly event, the Tour de Fat.

The Tour de Fat is sponsored by a beer company, and so it, too, entices the frat-party crowd with “beer, bikes, and bemusement.” But at least they’re wearing clothes, and they have a police escort and a parade “in celebration of the bike.” Plus, one person in each city is chosen to be a bike ambassador of sorts, and gets a free bike in exchange for living car-free for a year. Regrettably, Boston is not yet part of the tour. Maybe we should be, since we actually get measurable snow here, unlike Atlanta and San Diego.

Then again, all we really need to do to promote bicycling is to get people on bikes and give them safe and lovely places in which to ride them. The bicycle itself — with its exhilarating pairing of speed and wind, and the faint whiff of youth that surrounds it — is the lure, and no tawdry gimmicks are needed. This is the genius of Boston’s bike-share program, and New York’s, too, once the bureaucratic chains are untangled. There’s a naked appeal in cycling that transcends the dismaying antics of zealots. Even when encumbered by clothes.

Jennifer Graham writes regularly for the Globe. Her website is www.jennifergraham.com.

For the record: An earlier version of this piece misstated the length of the Minuteman Bikeway and may have given readers the incorrect impression that the trail is not plowed in the winter.

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