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The Bike Culture of Burning Man: Wild Art on 2+ Wheels

July 29, 2013

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When I first went to Burning Man, it’d been fifteen years since I’d been on a bike. I didn’t want to bring one at all. How big could the playa really be? (Seven square miles, as I later found out.) Secretly, I was a little nervous I wouldn’t remember what the hell to do with a bike. Fortunately, my friends convinced me I had to bring one, and they arranged for me to borrow a beat-up set of wheels. 

Thank God they forced my hand. Without a bike, there’s so much I would’ve missed out on. Burning Man’s all about movement. People are constantly hopping from one party, workshop or art piece to the next. Had I been on foot, I probably would’ve been a pain in the ass to my fast-moving friends. Plus, when a dust storm’s approaching, it’s best to be able to take shelter as fast you can!  

In the end, I had a blast on my bike. I wobbled a bit and fell a time or two, but that didn’t matter. I re-kindled a love for the freedom I feel every time I speed through wind, whether it’s on a boat, motorcycle, parachute or bike. When I got home, I invested in a bike and started leaving my car at home as often as possible. In effect, Burning Man’s bike culture changed my daily life. Since I had no clue how to choose a Burning Man bike before I went, I thought I’d share these tips from burningman.com.

How To Choose A Playa Bike

1. It should be something you can get dirty. Or lost. Or totally trashed. I highly recommend a used, junky mountain bike. You can find ‘em at thrift stores, pawn shops and bike kitchens, and they should cost well under $50.

If you need to rent a bike, you can reserve a bike from the Reno Kiwanis or from Black Rock Bicycles. (Author’s note: Playa Bike Repair is another great rental option. They transport the bike to the playa for you, plus all proceeds help fund their camp, where they fix bikes for free. Last year, they repaired a whopping 2000 bikes!) These bikes are playa-ready and totally affordable. Renting a bike is particularly helpful if you’re flying in to Burning Man.

2. Single speed is best. The sprockets, derailleurs & chain are liable to get all mucked up with the first wind.

3. Off-road tires. Get yourself some off-road tires, as wide as possible, to float you through any dunes.

4. Get a comfortable seat. Your tush demands a comfy seat! If your bike doesn’t have one, install one or wrap the whole thing in squishy foam. Your ischium will thank you after just one day of riding over bumpy roads. 5. Light thyself. You’ll figure that out the first time you try to cross Esplanade at night, or you can just be proactive and light your bike before you go out. Just please-please-please-please no glow sticks OK? There are so many other options.  

Bike Maintenance and Repairs

1. Before the event, check your bike. Make sure the tires are full and don’t leak, the bike fits you properly and is comfortable, the brakes work, etc. 2. DO NOT, however, grease up your chain with WD-40. Your bike will be non-functional within minutes of hitting the playa. 3. Bring at least two extra tubes with you, and a repair kit, and a bike pump. If you’re going to deep playa, pack your bike kit along. 4. Your “friendly” bike repair technicians at the Center Camp bike shop tend to become a little less friendly as the week wears on. If you need a repair, try first to take care of it yourself. If you can’t fix the problem, be prepared to ask nicely and make the bike crew feel special. They will appreciate it. 

Bike Art Besides the aesthetic value of decorating your bike, there’s also a practical aspect. There are nearly 60,000 bikes on the playa. Once you lock it up and leave it, how are you ever going to spot your bike again? Some people go to great lengths to modify their bikes. The innovation and creativity involved in the design and construction of some of these beasts blows me away.  

Pimp Your Bike on the Playa A couple of years ago, I discovered an amazing theme camp called Bioluminati. In 2005, they started their “Pimp Your Bike” project. They bring all kinds of decorations and lighting to the playa and invite participants to transform plain bikes into works of art.

Impact of Burning Man’s Bike Culture To me, the best thing about Burning Man’s bike culture is it ignites the desire to ride bicycles at home. Biking is a fun, healthy, cheap way to travel, and it makes virtually no impact on the environment compared to cars and public transportation. If burners who weren’t bikers before attending the event (like me) bring a passion for bike culture back to voting booths, maybe biking within cities will become a more practical option. Places like Portland and Austin are already working to make biking a safer, more realistic option for commuters. As we move into the future, how amazing will it be if Burning Man can indirectly influence urban planning? If we can get more bikes on the streets in our home towns, we’ll have a healthier population and planet. I believe we can do it.

What do you think? Can Burning Man’s bike culture make an impact on city design?