Timothy Barnett mounts one of the benches near the Washington Monument in Mount Vernon with a megaphone, standing before flocks of eager spectators. He wears light-wash denim cutoffs with a pink-and-white striped button-down shirt with Wayfarers clipped to the pocket. He shifts a little, and a star tattoo made of bicycle chains reveals itself on his right calf as he begins to shout out "the three R's" of the Baltimore Bike Party: "Ride, Respect, Revelry."
Barnett, 31, is surrounded by a mass of neon-spandex-wearers astride road bikes, side-ponytailers on penny-farthings, sweatband-jockeys on BMX bikes. They're all here-including Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who dons neon 1980s spandex-because of Barnett's vision.
And the crowds are growing each month. Over 1,700 showed up in June for the 1980s-themed ride, and hundreds more are expected this month.
One might expect a loud, flashy, muscle-bound dude to be behind this epic fitness parade, but Barnett is none of those things. He's humble when he talks about his creation, but the undertones of his grand plans sneak into his speech: Tim Barnett wants to unite Baltimore and he doesn't care how he does it. "It just happens that bikes are the vessel we do it on," he says.
For Barnett, it really isn't about the bike. He doesn't have fond childhood stories about the beginning of his love affair with cycling or a favorite lime-green Roadmaster to revere like a latter-day Pee-Wee Hermann. A bike was the cheap, efficient alternative when he crashed his car and couldn't afford a new one. "And then it just kind of snowballed from there," he says.
Sure, he rides his bike for transportation and exercise. "To me, the idea of driving to a gym to work out is silly," he says. But he's not a huge political bike advocate or anti-car. In fact, he works for Zipcar in Mount Vernon, a company that rents cars from the street by the hour. He bikes out to fix cars that are broken, "car triage" as he calls it. "The thing is, we have to move past people thinking of themselves as 'cyclists,'" he says. "It's kind of silly, people who drive don't consider themselves 'drivers.'"
But since bikes happen to be the way Burnett hopes to bring together the city, he also works with the nonprofit Velocipede Bike Project on West Lanvale Street, where people can volunteer their time and use a shared workspace to fix up and repair bikes themselves for free. He doesn't want there to be anything standing between Baltimoreans and the Bike Party. He says "if you have a bike, there's no excuse not to come to Bike Party."
Barnett intially got involved with mass bike rides through the national group Critical Mass, a political movement out to make a statement by disrupting the ordinary flow of automotive life. For Barnett, Critical Mass "is by definition a protest and anarchistic. And the goal is to clog things up." When Barnett and a buddy first started organizing Critical Mass rides in Baltimore, they didn't get anywhere near the turnout they expected. And that wasn't OK with Barnett. He wanted more.
He had cycled in several parts of the country, but in places like Austin or Portland, "everyone's doing cool stuff," he says, so doing cool stuff doesn't really set you apart. But Barnett saw Baltimore as "a city of infinite potential energy" where "anybody who wants to can have a positive, noticeable, lasting effect on their city." So he traded the aggressive protests of Critical Mass for the costume-party parade of Bike Party.
Like the environmental and health benefits, the party atmosphere is only the means to an end: Barnett is interested in bringing all-and he means all-the people of Baltimore together.
"We want people to know that everybody can come out," he says. "The goal is to share that joy. We're not here to say, 'Hey, everybody should ride a bike.' We're here to say, 'Hey, these people here on bikes are having a blast, and you're welcome to come along.'" Or, he adds, "we'll basically come to you."
A big part of the Bike Party is getting people outside the areas they think of as "safe." Barnett calls the stretch from Hampden down to the Inner Harbor and out to Canton the "white L" that a lot of people are afraid to leave.
Baltimore Bike Party intentionally takes people out of this "L" in hopes they will come to share Barnett's appreciation of the beauty of the rest of the city. Barnett wants people to know just how beautiful the rest of Baltimore is.
"There's a lot of gorgeous places in Baltimore that people don't know are there because they're scared to go into these neighborhoods," he says. "There's parks, there's monuments, there's scenic views. I want people to be able to have an avenue to at least bike by them. I really want to unify Baltimore. I want to break down barriers."
Barnett's vision of bringing Baltimore together seems to be working. People all over the city come out of the their homes to holler "Bike Party!" at the top of their lungs as the wheeled legions roll past. For Barnett, this exchange of joy is the payoff for a lot of hard work.
When asked how he was going to decorate his bike for this week's Moonlight Madness ride, Barnett kind of shrugs, admitting that he doesn't have all that much time to even think of a costume for himself. He didn't expect Bike Party to get this big this fast, and he feels like he's still playing catch-up. He already dedicates 80 to 100 hours a month just to make sure it happens and expects a lot more administrative work to deal with permitting and licensing issues as the event continues to grow.
But that's what it takes to change a city.