Somewhere in Chicago there’s a personal tiki bar on wheels. I’m not talking about the rental “cycle pubs” popular in cities and hipster burgs. This is a five-top cocktail table under a thatched roof, hitched to a bicycle. It passed me around midnight on the streets of Chicago’s South Loop a few years ago. Everyone at the “bar” took a turn on the bike while the rest of the pack chilled on tall stools, nursing longnecks.
These spectacles are part of the reason I love Chicago’s L.A.T.E. Ride. The 25th annual event starts around midnight on June 30 this year from downtown’s Grant Park, and it’s not restricted to extreme thrill-seekers or serious cyclists. Around 8,000 bike riders of all levels (honestly, all levels – I’m living proof) show up to pedal through the city en masse. Most people come on a regular bike and wear everyday workout clothes, but the freaks and weirdos can’t resist the big audience and the slightly nuts wee-hours concept. Thank goodness. It wouldn’t be any fun without them.
Late-night bike rides haven’t caught on like mud runs, but that’s a good thing. Rather than corporate-branded productions with dates in 45 cities, they’re organized locally and reflect the community. Such rides tend to fall into one of two categories: the nonprofit annual fundraiser on a closed course (meaning police block traffic on most streets along the route), and the unofficial weekly or monthly group ride alongside cars, organized by the area biking community. The first type will carry an entry fee, but there’s more support and festivities, and the route appeals to out-of-towners. The second type will probably be free and might have grown into an established, well-attended ride promising safety in numbers, though the starting point and route might not be as visitor-friendly. Either way, they tend to be well organized, somewhat of a workout but not too much and very safe.
Logistically, out-of-towners only have to worry about getting a bike to a ride that starts around bedtime and finishes around closing time. Most events don’t offer bike rental. You either have to drive to the event with your own bike, fly with one or rent one on your own once you arrive (and most bike rentals are priced for an hour or half-day of sightseeing, not overnight keepage). For the trouble, you get to ride in mild after-dark temperatures, see part of a city from an unusual perspective and do something kind of nutty. Spectators sit in bars and front yards along the route and cheer you on. Riders are hyped up on Red Bull to stay awake and inexplicably wearing Halloween costumes. Plus: free glow-in-the-dark T-shirts!
Here’s where you can saddle up this summer:
London and Paris: The Nightrider isn’t for beginners. The 100-kilometer (62-mile) ride takes six to eight hours to complete, starting at 10:30 p.m. But it’s probably one of the world’s most scenic workouts, passing nearly every major landmark in the city aglow against the starry sky. The Nightrider is organized by a producer of “worldwide charity adventures” called Classic Tours, and participants can raise money to offset some of the entry fee. June 8 for London and Sept. 21 for Paris, £39 and up
Indianapolis: The N.I.T.E. Ride fundraiser for the regional biking association is nearly as established as Chicago’s and covers 20 flat miles through the heart of the city, passing monolithic war memorials bathed in golden light. It attracts about 2,000 people. Before the 11 p.m. start time (early enough for a 1 a.m. finish), you can warm up on the city’s brand-new urban bike path, the Indianapolis Cultural Trail. June 22, $31
Denver: No bike? The Moonlight Classic is the only organized ride where you can rent wheels on site. Around 4,500 riders hit the 10-mile closed course, and unlike other events, they can choose a starting time. Join the Gonzo Wave for the 11:30 p.m. departure and you’ll have some fired-up company (see video). June 27, $40
Chicago: The L.A.T.E. Ride is a 25-mile flat route from downtown’s Grant Park through Chinatown, the Greek neighborhood and northside residential areas. It links to the city’s excellent Lakeshore Trail and runs right along Lake Michigan for 7 miles back to Grant Park. Problem is, that usually happens around 2, 3 or 4 a.m., and everything’s just pitch-black. You can’t even tell you’re near water. Still, this fundraiser for Chicago’s Friends of the Park Foundation draws an insanely large and entertaining crowd. Someone always dresses like the Blues Brothers. June 30, $45
St. Louis: The Moonlight Ramble got an auspicious start 50 years ago, when only one person showed up for the inaugural event in 1964. Now thousands attend and choose from a short closed route of 10.5 miles and a longer one of 18.5 miles. The route changes every year, but the timing coordinated to August’s full moon doesn’t. Everyone is done by 3 a.m. Aug. 17, $25
Los Angeles: In 2004, a group of counter-culture bikers called the Midnight Ridazz stopped partying long enough to put together a late-night ride open to anyone. Then they started hitting the streets the second Friday of every month, joined by about 1,000 others. The organizers have stepped down and the community they created has taken over, announcing loosely coordinated rides on the website. The Ridazz aren’t as menacing as the name suggests. They follow a set of “Rulezz” to keep the rides safe and organized. Ongoing, free
San Jose: The grassroots San Jose Bike Party covers between 15 and 30 miles the third Friday of every month, from around 8 p.m. to midnight. Though the course is not closed and the event doesn’t offer the live music and support vans like larger ones do, it’s still attended by 2,000 to 4,000 people and led by experienced volunteers. Ongoing, free
Paris: Several tour companies offer a nighttime excursion, taking in the big sights. To cruise with a pack of locals instead, rent one of the Velib bikes stationed around the city and join Rando Velo. Just show up at City Hall a little before 10 p.m. any Friday night. The leisurely route goes through the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 11th and 12th arrondissements, ending just after midnight. Ongoing, free