Bike raves: BC's phenomenal dance parties that take place on neon-lit wheels

They’re happening as far as Melbourne and Auckland, but Vancouver is the rumoured birthplace

They’re happening as far as Melbourne and Auckland, but Vancouver is the rumoured birthplace

(Flickr, Chris Bruntlett)

It's late at night in a sleepy Vancouver neighbourhood when, in the distance, I see neon lights rolling toward me.

"Bike rave!" someone shouts out as he cycles past, music blaring from a boombox hitched to his bike, followed by some 40 cyclists decked out in neon clothes, bright lights twisting around their bike frames.  

While still a relatively underground phenomenon, Vancouver bike raves have been rising in popularity over the past decade. The events are typically free, come-one-come-all street parties, where participants dress up in costume, decorate bikes with neon lights and tote around sound systems to play music. Ravers gather at a set point at a set time, usually dusk, and head off along a pre-planned route, pausing at pit stops for high-energy dance parties. It's a party on wheels that lasts a few hours and sometimes involves drinking and drug use, according to past attendees. They're happening in cities around the world, including Melbourne and Auckland, but Vancouver is the rumoured birthplace of the bike rave.

"It's one of those things that just doubled in size every year through word of mouth and social media," said Chris Bruntlett, co-founder of Modacity, a creative agency promoting cycling, who attends Vancouver bike raves. "The spirit and the vibe and the positivity just brought us back year after year."

(Flickr, Chris Bruntlett)
(Flickr, Chris Bruntlett)

But as participant numbers reach into the thousands, Vancouver authorities, residents and organizers are grappling with how to approach unsanctioned events that sometimes draw complaints about noise, garbage and damaged property.

The annual summer bike rave started back around 2008, when a local electronic musician and a cycling enthusiast would gather together a handful of friends for a music-filled evening ride around Vancouver's seawall, said Willis Lombard, a Vancouver event organizer who participated in the early rides and organized the 2014 rave.

Lombard said even with numbers doubling or tripling each year, reaching 7,000 in 2014, the event remained a well-behaved affair. Organizers encouraged participants to drink discreetly, not litter and stay safe. There were a few minor incidents, including people crashing into each other, cyclists trampling gardens and riders leaving trash behind – cleaned up by organizers and volunteers the following day – but no major problems or injuries, he said.

The Vancouver Police Department were even supportive of event, with officers riding alongside ravers in 2014, said Lombard.

But with thousands of participants and no city approval, the VDP reached out to Lombard in 2015 to tell him the event was too big to continue without proper permits or payment for policing, which could be around $5,000, he said.

VPD spokesperson Const. Jason Doucette said in an email to CBC Life he was unable to respond to specific questions about bike raves, but said: "Public safety remains the VPD's number one priority."

The annual rave came to a halt.

"The official bike rave has grown to a size that can no longer simply exist under the radar as it has been," Lombard wrote on the Cranked Cycling Facebook group in July 2015.  "I wish that citizens assuming their own responsibility and risk, and simply not needing police was an option, but at 7,000 people last year, it's not."

Lombard didn't want to charge participants for an event he calls one of the rare free things to do in Vancouver, and he didn't want to detach from the rave's organic roots by bringing in corporate sponsors.

In September 2016, HUB Cycling stepped in. The non-profit cycling advocacy group created Bike the Night, Vancouver's first city-sanctioned, family-friendly night ride, in response to a growing demand for themed night rides, said Laura Jane, HUB's director of corporate engagement and events.

Even the city is on board now. In April, council approved $250,000 in spending to cover costs such as traffic, route planning and policing for HUB's Bike the Night ride, as well as a daytime ride called Our City Ride. Councillors said they hope to combat Vancouver's "no fun" reputation with the rides.

Still, bike raves are quietly taking place across the city.

Students at the University of British Columbia organize them, as does Party4Health, a group that promotes healthy, substance-free partying. Organizers say they're conscious of minimizing trash and keeping noise to a minimum, partying away from residential areas, but problems still arise. An unsanctioned event in April 2016 drew a crowd of thousands and resulted in complaints that a cyclist hit a parked car and that participated littered.

Attendees aren't deterred. The draw of raves is the whimsy, they say, with participants donning onesie animal costumes and sporting neon body paint, toting around sound systems in custom built carts and decorating their bikes with countless glow sticks.

Bruntlett of Modacity once saw a cyclist making margaritas with a blender attached to their bike.  

"People put a lot of time and effort in," he said, recalling the high-energy vibe that lasted late into the night at the events he attended. "You can tell they spent the whole year dreaming something up and building something to show it off."

Katrina Clarke is a Vancouver- and Toronto-based journalist who writes about relationships, health, technology and social trends. You can find her on Twitter at @KatrinaAClarke.