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All Grown Up, San Jose Bike Party Celebrates Six Years of Free Rides

In Culture
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When Carlos Babcock organized the first San Jose Bike Party rides from downtown Campbell, it was a paltry crew of cycling enthusiasts looking for something to do and somewhere to go. Six years later, the group has become a South Bay institution, a third-Friday-of-the-month event that often draws more than 5,000 riders and, in symbiotic conjunction, a handful of food trucks.

The sheer size of it means Babcock et al have to think about the logistics more than they initially anticipated. Clean up is an inherent part of the mix now, given that a parade of thousands of food truck-dining cyclists leaves behind a fair bit of trash. To keep up, Babcock invested $36,000 in eight trash-can-toting bikes, paid for by some generous local cyclists. A few of those trash bikes will debut at the Dia de los Muertos-sixth anniversary bike party ride this Friday, Oct. 18 (location is announced 24 hours in advance via Twitter or Facebook).

“Bike party’s grown up now,” says Babcock, an ex-commercial banker who gave up corporate life around the same time he forswore all but public or pedal-powered transportation and founded the local bike party. “We need to take on more responsibility to reflect that.”

With elected leaders and even the Mayor of Dublin, Ireland, a fan of the South Bay’s monthly bike ride, organizers feel compelled to make a point of giving back to the community that helped it grow into the largest bike party in the nation.

“The goal is to make the ride a zero-waste ride and take the proceeds from recyclables and donate them to charity,” Babcock says. “You know, to take the edge off of those folks who think we’re just a bunch of crazy consumptive idiots.”

The new cargo bikes carry full-sized trash and recycling bins—the kind used for residential curbside pick-up—and first aid kits. Some are painted teal and black in homage to the Sharks. The bikes—pedaled by a crew the bike party calls “ravens”—will follow other cyclists to make sure the procession is a leave-no-trace affair.

In addition to the monthly events–each of which features a theme, from the pants-off ride to the mustache and jungle rides—core members of the bike party get together for neighborhood blight clean-ups.

“We’ve made a pretty big impact on parts of Willow Glen,” says Babcock. “Picking up trash, consumables and just fixing blight where we see it.”

Maybe the focus on cleanliness will inspire bike parties in other cities to follow suit, Babcock says. Or just prove to the cities he rides through that the cyclists here are a productive, respectful part of the community.

Babcock credits the bike party with really establishing South Bay’s bike culture, turning a little club into a political force to be reckoned with. In the past year, he’s seen city leaders step up to make parts of town, downtown especially, more bike friendly.

“We plan to get more involved in politics in the future,” he says. “That’s sort of the next step for us.”

It’s a next step he’ll take with a bike party offshoot: the United Bicyclists of San Jose.

“We plan to become a lot more visible in the future,” he says. “But we’re already a big part of city life here. When I got here several years ago, there was nothing like this. It was one of the few major cities I’d seen without a street culture … you didn’t really see cyclists, skateboarders, food carts or anything.”

San Jose, he says, gets a little distracted trying to pass itself off as the heart of Silicon Valley, even though most of the top tech giants reside in surrounding cities, when it should invest more in the assets it already has, like the organically grown cycle culture that’s become a fixture at races, fundraisers, music and art events and other community happenings.

“San Jose wants to be a Palo Alto or a Mountain View, but it should really cherish what it has and what it’s got now is this huge group of cyclists that love riding all over this city,” says Babcock. “It’s just amazing the diversity of cyclists we see. We get every type of person imaginable, more so than any other bike program I’ve seen. We want to make the city proud of have some bicyclists, so we’re going to take a bigger leadership role in promoting that.”

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