Some of the social happenings in St. Louis can get kind of freaky. The anything-goes ambiance of the Central West End Halloween street party, the anything-is-edible scent in the wind at the Kidney Foundation Chili Cook-Off and the dependable old the-other-team-must-die vibe at Blues games come to mind. Yet it is perhaps another event that can rightfully bear the mantle for hip, daring and even transformative big-crowd functions in the area.
That long night's journey into day would be the Moonlight Ramble. The Ramble begins at the witching hour, gathers a very large group of bicyclists together to travel not in a race but at a leisurely pace, and coaxes the endorphins into the bloodstream. These are just a few of the factors that combine to make the Moonlight Ramble felicitous.
There is something strange and very cool that happens when 12,000 bicyclists take over the city, outnumbering and forcing aside the cars -- it's almost like a glimpse at a post-automobile metropolis at rush hour. In the words of Firstar Moonlight Ramble planning-committee chairman Alan Portman, "You have the opportunity to ride where basically the bicycles rule the street and the cars make way for you."
This year marks the 36th anniversary of the late-night/early-morning 15-to-18-mile bicycle ride through the city sponsored by Hostelling International-American Youth Hostels. HI-AYH, for the unfamiliar, is a splendid group that maintains low-cost hostels for travelers in most of the countries on the globe and offers a range of recreational outings for tourists and natives alike. Impecunious visitors to the area can rent a room at the Webster University dorm used as a summer hostel for something like $15 a night. The Moonlight Ramble is the HI-AYH Gateway Council's biggest fundraiser of the year, by far.
Creative St. Louisan Dick Leary dreamed up the Ramble in the '60s. According to Gateway HI-AYH board member Cindy Brown, Leary, who died in 1995, had an affection for the life of the city at night and used to guide riders to the working St. Louis Post-Dispatch printing presses and other interesting nocturnal sights. He came up with the Moonlight Ramble as an official outlet for his nighttime bent. "The first year he rode by himself," says Portman, "and he vowed to lead the rides for 10 years or until there were 1,000 riders, whichever came first. After about six years we were up over 1,000 riders." And the ride just kept growing.
The throng always includes some interesting twists on the standard, like the one or two couples who've gotten married just before the ride and have dressed the part. Portman recalls one such pair who rode the Ramble on a tandem, the groom in tails and bike shorts with a top hat modified so that his bike helmet fit inside it; the bride in white tights, a veil attached to her helmet and Christmas-tree lights that went down her outfit and along the bike. A woman once wore a flowery dress with sequencing lights that was a showstopper. No one can forget the recumbent bike made from an unrolled tuba that could actually be played as it was ridden.
The Soulard-based Banana Bike Brigade will be present with some of their creations, which envelop bike and rider in an otherworldly fantasy. Some of the magically decorated bicycles in their studio that may wind up on the Ramble include a crawfish, a mirrored disco bike, a dragonfly, a flamingo, a 13-foot hot dog, a mermaid, a biplane, a 24-foot-long dinosaur and a life-sized giraffe (watch those telephone wires!).
"From a bicycle going by you can actually see the neighborhoods, see the houses," says Portman, and this is another of the nifty features of the Ramble. From a passing automobile, you just can't get the flavor of a neighborhood, even one that you thought you knew, the way you can from a bike. And who are the people in your neighborhood? You'll find out, asserts Portman.
"As we go through these various neighborhoods -- and in the past we've gone through Carondelet, St. Louis Hills, Tower Grove, Bevo -- people are sitting on their porches waving," he says. "Now, the Moonlight Ramble used to start at 2 o'clock in the morning, so it would be 4 a.m. when I'm going by these people. There's this family of five sitting on the porch -- Granny's in her rocker waving as people go by."
A few tips for riders: Helmets are required. "When I first started biking in '84," says Brown, "I had a Bell biker helmet. Yeah, you looked like a geek wearing it because nobody wore helmets. Now, pediatricians are really pushing them, and you see the kids wearing the helmets and their parents aren't. We call those 'orphan-makers.'" If you go with a group, wear identical clothing to help you stay together. Wear light clothing. Tape a flashlight with fresh batteries to your handlebars if your bike doesn't have a light. Finally, "your butt is a muscle," cautions Brown. "Practice riding on it before the Ramble."
When you're done, it's 3 a.m. or so and you're all amped up with no place to go, except out for breakfast. "For a long time the volunteer crew would finish cleaning up around 9 o'clock in the morning," says Portman, "and would then go to Uncle Bill's for slingers at sunrise. You'd see people there on their way to church."
Aaaah. Here's to that messed-up but somehow righteous feeling you get when your night is still going and you encounter folks whose day has already begun. It's only natural to feel a little pity for those unfortunate souls who didn't do the Ramble.