Night Riders

Bike Night Reno is a biker gang; no, not that kind.

If the annual Hot August Nights car show were a formal ball—a sprawling, organized, and well-funded affair—then weekly Bike Night Reno is more akin to a basement rave.

The Wednesday-night community bike ride is deferential to (if not enthused by) law enforcement, informal in its membership, highly mobile by nature, and a hell of a good, foot-powered time. The one night I spent with the Bike Night crew in early April included technicolor strobe lights, booze, the smell of weed, an impromptu jousting tournament, illegal fireworks, and a run-in with the Reno Police Department in a public park. 

Two Reno Police Department officers arrive in response to a noise complaint about the night’s festivities. (Photo courtesy of Matt Bieker.)

I had heard about the event on Instagram, where a regular post on the @BikeNightReno page alerts its nearly 1,200 followers to the route participants will take if they choose to join that week. The page description reads, in part: “Meet at the BELIEVE sign EVERY Wednesday 7:45 pm we ride out 8:15ish[;] Bring good vibes & your bike.” I rounded up both of those things, and I caught up with Jon. He joined the crew two years ago when it was a monthly event called, confusingly, Reno Bike Night.

The Bike Night crew arrives at Yori Park. (Photo courtesy of Matt Bieker.)

 “I was walking my dog, and I lived down on Plumas [street], and I was just walking around,” Jon said. “I’m like, ‘Whoa, what is this? There’s, like, tall bikes, people with lights—it just seemed like the whole crowd was a good vibe.”

An avid cyclist himself, Jon was attracted to the community and social aspect of the rides but soon took on the role of an informal organizer as the number of attendees grew. He and other long-time riders recognized the need for experienced cyclists to teach safe riding habits and corral stragglers. Over time, the monthly event grew too unwieldy, and the weekly ride took its place. With the sheer number of riders who assembled that night, at least three or four dozen, I could see why some organization might be in everyone’s interest. 

It might look like chaos, but the organizers of Bike Night Reno specifically choose routes that avoid the busiest roads and intersections. (Photo courtesy of Matt Bieker.)

“This is kind of like a mental health thing,” Jon said. “Like I’m doing this to clear my head and meet these people that I only get to see once a week. And, as you can see, everybody’s all fist-bumping and homies.”

Illuminated by the Space Whale and BELIEVE art installations in the Reno City Plaza was an even mix of hardcore cyclists in custom gear, casual bikers with distinctly more DIY setups, one or two electric vehicles, and even a unicyclist who had shockingly little trouble keeping up with his two-wheeled compatriots. 

Decorations and lights adorned many rigs, and I spied a few unopened containers strapped to water bottle holsters and cargo holds. The distinct smell of cannabis permeated the air. It felt like a house party on wheels. 

Many riders put their own personal touches to their vehicles on Bike Night – image: Matt Bieker

At 8:15-ish on the dot, Jon gave a kind of signal that I didn’t catch, but the mass of cyclists all began circling the large plaza in unison—like a school of fish caught in a vortex—before they all mounted the sidewalk near the river and spilled out onto Sierra Street. The plan, I was told, was to ride for almost 8 miles total before stopping in Yori Park in east Reno, where there were “festivities” planned. 

The site of almost 50 cyclists, covered in lights, playing music, and whooping and hollering in unison as they mobbed the narrow streets of downtown initially felt a little unsafe. But Jon had told me he chose the weekly routes to purposefully avoid most major thoroughfares, streetlights, or left turns which could invite a collision. Soon we turned off into residential areas, and the more experienced cyclists stuck closely to the front, middle, and back of the pack, calling out directions and shepherding the herd as best they could. 

Our evening start time meant we saw few drivers on the road anyway. I was surprised to find the motorists we came across were supportive, even enthralled by our presence. Many honked their horns cheerily and called encouragement through open windows, while still—understandably—giving us a wide berth. I considered it my journalistic duty to observe from the back of the pack to take in the whole spectacle. Also, I am not a strong rider. 

Riders Sam and Andrew have been attending Bike Night for the past year – image: Matt Bieker

Halfway through, we stopped at a 7/11 on Mount Rose Street, partly to “stock up” for the night’s festivities I was told, and partly, I guess, because it’s simply a tradition. In the parking lot, I struck up a conversation with two other riders, Andrew and Sam, about their experiences with Bike Night Reno. Both said they had been regular riders for the past year.

It’s important to stay hydrated while riding – image: Matt Bieker

“I live along one of the routes,” said Sam. “And I just saw a crowd of like, 200 bikes. I just figured I’d join, and then I started coming after that.”

“I moved here from Florida, and we didn’t have any big group rides like this,” Andrew said. “So the first thing I looked for was a group of people to ride with. This is what I found.”

Both Sam and Andrew recounted rides that amassed hundreds of people, or ones where the final destination came with an awe-inspiring view. Occasionally, though, the most memorable nights were consequences of something going wrong, like an unfortunate crash or a visit from the cops.

Soon the conversation turned to the general state of Reno’s roads when it comes to riding a bike. 

“It’s a lot of fun because there’s so many people,” Andrew said.”Because we’re such a pack, there’s safety in numbers, and that’s really empowering. Riding on your own in Reno, you can do it, but I definitely wish there [were] more bike lanes, more infrastructure. I’m willing to take the risk to ride on my own, but I know a lot of people aren’t.”

An unidentified rider holds a PVC jousting lance. He did not partake in the event as his electric vehicle would have provided an unfair advantage – image: Matt Bieker

Soon we were back on our bikes and here, I confess, is where I split from the rest of the pack. I was obviously outclassed when it came to riding, and normally I’d be happy to bring up the rear, but I wanted to make it to Yori Park in time to see these festivities I’d been told about—apparently, there were going to be “games” for the first time ever. So, I hightailed it back to my car and cheated the last couple of miles to catch the Bike Night crew as they arrived at their destination.

Even with my car, though, I was too slow to see the initial setup. When I arrived at the park somewhere around 9:00 p.m., everyone had formed groups around the few tables and chairs, or around their own stationary bikes. Some had drinks in their hands and I smelled more weed; the Bluetooth speaker someone had brought was cranked as high as it would go. 

Potential misdemeanors aside, the crew seemed more energized by their ride than anything they might be imbibing. The house party-like atmosphere was in full effect when they started to set up the games for the night:

Participants prepare for the jousting portion of the night’s events – image: Matt Bieker

In the first, participants on their bikes rode in a circle, which was surrounded by bystanders who regularly took a small step forward—shrinking the circumference. If a rider put their foot down to steady their bike, they were out and had to join us on the outskirts. It became increasingly difficult for the cyclists to maintain momentum, and eventually, the circle shrank to a mere 10 feet across—with the unicyclist balanced, unmoving, in the middle. 

The unicyclist, whose name I learned was Austin, won the first event handedly in one of the greatest examples of turning a handicap into a strength I’d ever witnessed.

“This is called a Foot-Down contest,” he said. “The last one to put their foot on the ground loses, and I had an advantage because I could just stay in one spot and not move, so.”

Austin the unicyclist was uniquely prepared to win the Foot Down competition that night, but admits he is some disadvantaged when it comes to downhill portions of the rides – image: Matt Bieker

Austin told me he’d ridden unicycles, including his “mountain unicycle,” for the past 12 years, but he’ll switch to two wheels if the occasion calls for it. 

“I’ll do this one on, like, the shorter rides or the slower kind of fun ones,” he said. “For going longer distances or up, like, big hills or anything, I’ve got a fixed gear track bike that I’ll bring.”

The next event was a slow race, in which the participants had to cross the finish line of an increasingly narrowing course. After six heats a winner was crowned before they moved on to the joust. With PVC pipes covered in pool noodles and tipped with old sneakers, riders did exactly what you’d expect: rode right at each other attempting to dismount the other. It was never clear if a real winner came from this event, but I did witness some pretty great wipeouts before the PVC “lances” gave out under the strain. 

Participants prepare for the jousting portion of the night’s events – image: Matt Bieker

At this point in the night, however, things started to get rowdy. More than once someone lit off actual fireworks—not roman candles or spacklers—that exploded a mere 30 feet off the ground, showering the park and adjoining residences in sparks. As the music blared, it seemed too good to last—and it was. 

A little after 10 p.m., the unmistakable flashing blue lights of two Reno Police Department cruisers pulled up on the curb outside of the park, and it was time to ride once again. The Bike Night crew quickly and efficiently disposed of any illicit beverages, gathered their belongings, and jumped on their bikes, many cheerily wishing the two officers a good night as they sped off into the dark. 

One or two of the organizers hung back to speak to the police. The conversations seemed cordial and soon the organizers were gone, too, leaving myself and the officers alone as they quickly glanced in the trash cans presumably looking for signs of contraband. I identified myself as a reporter, and while neither of the officers would speak on record, they candidly told me that they were there for a noise complaint—presumably due to the fireworks. 

I asked if the RPD often had to respond to the Bike Night crew, or if they were otherwise deemed a nuisance or risk factor to the community. The taller of the two officers told me that they knew of the rides in the past and generally had no issues with them; the riders obeyed most traffic laws, and with the exception of tonight’s party in a heavily residential area, weren’t causing any disruption to the town at large. 

Riders participate in the final heat of the Slow Race – image: Matt Bieker

Later, I made a formal request for comment from the RPD, and spoke with Lieutenant Michael Browett about the police department’s attitude towards large, informal bike rides: 

“Anytime a group of 75 people or more plan an event, it’s subject to the city’s special event permitting process, which is codified in the Reno municipal code,” Browett said. “So I don’t know how many numbers we’re talking about, but outside of special events permitting process, I mean, if a group of people decide to go on a bike ride, they’re subject to all the same laws and rules that, you know, a singular bicyclist would be subjected to.”

Browett said that the police were primarily concerned with how bikers interacted with traffic for the safety of everyone on the road, and that he hadn’t personally had to respond to any calls about large, illicit bike gatherings. 

“If it is occurring, it’s obviously occurring relatively well,” Browett said. “But then the main thing, you know, is obviously you are subject to that [municipal code]. There’s nothing that would prevent an officer if they saw a group [breaking the law], from stopping them and issuing citations.”

Legally, as long as the number of attendees didn’t surpass the magic number of 75, no such crew would need to be officially sanctioned. My ride with the Reno Bike Night crew seemed perfectly legal based on the number of attendees, at least. However, I’d heard that past gatherings had drawn numbers in the hundreds, although I couldn’t verify any formal headcounts. With the exception of perhaps not riding in a single file—another statute Browett had mentioned—and the night’s festivities, Bike Night Reno ostensibly remained in the good graces of the authorities.

With the bikers disbanded and the park quiet, the cops left and so did I. Walking alone out of the dark park, I was happy to have my car to return to, but I smiled at the memory of what I’d just witnessed. Reno has long struggled to safely accommodate alternate modes of transportation, and anyone riding a bike can feel like they’re at the mercy of the pitted and rocky streets; the faster, sometimes hostile drivers; or the general public attitude that cyclists are the cause of their own misfortune when it happens.

Riding with Bike Night Reno, however, it really did feel like we owned the roads, even for a night. 

Matt Bieker is an award-winning photojournalist and native of Reno. He received his degree in Journalism from the University of Nevada Reno in 2014, and is currently writing for the Sierra Nevada Ally, Double Scoop, Reno News & Review, and other publications.  Support Matt’s work for the Sierra Nevada Ally here.

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