The first time Joe Tate encountered San Jose Bike Party was outside his home in downtown a few years ago. Hearing shouts and music, he stepped out to see a whir of lights and a crush of riders—thousands of them. One was towing a sage-green sofa (the “Happening Couch,” he’d later learn). Others were decked out in costumes, glow sticks and streamers, carrying on conversations over the din.
“Wow, something to do on a Friday,” thought Tate, who’d already picked up biking because it’s easier to get around downtown without having to worry about parking. He joined the next ride, a Mardi Gras theme, on his cargo bike and fell in love with the pandemonium that is San Jose Bike Party. It wasn’t long before he volunteered for “The Hub,” the party’s core organizers who map out routes and drum up ideas for themes (like “That ‘70s Ride,” “Ride of the Gods” or “Robots and Long Socks”). Together, they came up with the idea for “Raven Bikes,” cargo bikes with trash bins to clean up during the event, and teamed up with local food trucks to offer sustenance to cyclists.
But there’s been recent murmurs that Tate’s moving to suck the soul out of Bike Party, to quell the chaos that drew him to the event in the first place.
“He took something organic and vibrant and turned it corporate,” a bike party volunteer told San Jose Inside, declining to share his name because he’s a regular at the event. “That goes against the very spirit of Bike Party.”
Tate did, in fact, register San Jose Bike Party as a corporation this past spring. But he insists his plans are anything but soul-sucking. He and fellow Hub volunteers want to turn the amorphic event into a nonprofit organization—mostly to protect against liability, partly to be able to fundraise. The first step on a journey to 501c3 status is incorporation.
“I understand some people want more of an organic, street-life thing,” says Tate, 52, who works by day as vice president of product management at Qualcomm. “That’s where they are in life. But me, and others, we’re looking at this a little differently. We’ve got to evolve the product. We want more people. We want to start organizing a little bit more.”
The debate has been simmering behind the scenes for about a year. Justin Triano, a former Hub volunteer, has objected Tate’s plan at volunteer meetings. Some folks are put off by the terminology Tate employs: corporation, product. For a group that prides itself on being anti-establishment, anarchistic even, those words seem unsettlingly bureaucratic.
“I’m so surprised to hear somebody incorporated San Jose Bike Party,” says Diane Solomon, founder of History San Jose’s “Silicon Valley Bikes!” project. “Incorporation is about control and structure, but what makes San Jose Bike Party so absolutely wonderful is it’s free and joyous and uncontrolled.”
Perhaps some of the backlash comes from the lack of any formal announcement about the plan, which has been labeled oligarchic.
“As of late, there has been a lot of talk about ‘taking Bike Party to the next level’,” noted bike partier Cain Ramirez. “With the Hub’s recent actions, this ‘next level’ seems to be more reflective of their own interests as opposed to what the greater community is actually calling for.”
Records with the Secretary of State’s office show that Tate filed for incorporation on March 5. No one, at least not in any organized way, told Bike Party cyclists—except for an inner circle of volunteers—that there’s now a legal entity called SJ Bike Party, Inc.
Tate says that secretive action was made because he and SJ Bike Party, Inc.’s board of directors would rather the legal structure take shape in the background. Out of sight, out of mind, Tate figures, creating as little impact on the culture of Bike Party as logistically possible.
“There are some people who are totally offended by thinking of this as a product,” says Tate, an attorney. “But listen, at the end of the day, you are offering a product. By promoting this to people, you’re creating a product. But this isn’t about making money. It’s about protecting us against liability. That makes for a better product.”
Tate has a point. San Jose Inside encountered several volunteers who hesitated to have their names connected to the event out of fear of becoming a target for a lawsuit. Tate says that’s a common worry, one he’s trying to alleviate. What if, he posits, someone posts a route for the few-thousand riders, one of them gets hurt and that injured party finds out which volunteer posted the route. Regardless of the likelihood, that’s a concern several bikers have expressed. Tate got to thinking about it after a bike partier hurt herself en route through Santana Row and sued the shopping center. Her lawyers contacted Tate and other Hub volunteers, which quickened their efforts to get their paperwork in order.
Nonprofits can buy insurance. They’re also protected under the umbrella of the federal Volunteer Protection Act, which can limit or eliminate a volunteer’s risk of tort liability if they’re acting on behalf of the organization. While Tate set up a board of directors consisting of four Hub volunteers (Inventec executive Mark Hirsch is president, but the positions will rotate), he says there’s no plan to give anyone a salary—now or ever.
“This is not about making money,” Tate says. “If anything we’ll keep nothing more than $1,000 in the account, so we’re not a target for lawsuits.”
Seven years have passed without Bike Party becoming anything official except a massive festival on wheels every third Friday of the month. It wasn’t “founded,” as much as set in motion by Nick Laskowski.
Starting sometime around 2004, a small group tried to pull together a regular ride modeled after Critical Mass, the monthly event, which started in San Francisco but went global, in which cyclists take over car-crowded roadways. But that didn’t sit well with the car-centric South Bay. Over the years, large rides would start and peter out. In 2005, Laskowski helped organized a “get out the vote” ride around Halloween. Nothing really took until 2007, when he teamed up with Amber Lamason, having met her on Craigslist by way of a roommate ad in which she delivered a delightful critique of suburbia.
“It was something to the effect of, ‘I’m moving up to San Jose. Is there anybody with a soul up in this dead, suburban wasteland?’” Laskowski recalls. He was into bikes, she was better at organizing. They brought on another friend, Lauryn McCarthy, got a MySpace page, plastered flyers at coffee shops and art shows and managed to lure a few-dozen riders to what’s considered, in retrospect, the first-ever San Jose Bike Party in 2007. They dreamt up crazy themes, started the rides at “party hour” on Friday night, shared routes and told folks to follow along if they pleased.
“As far as a mission, we were clear from the beginning that we wanted to build community through bicycling,” Laskowski says. “That grew into a desire to build a vibrant urban space, to build cultural events, a connecting space. As far as a vision for what we would become, we had only the most tentative forecasts.”
For the 10th ride, 200 people showed up. Laskowski was amped. He stood at the start of the ride and hung on to a streetlight, shouting to them with a megaphone about how amazing it felt to reach the 200 mark after less than a year.
Four years later, thousands gathered. These days, volunteers’ clicker-counters during the Bike Party’s summer rides tally up to 5,000 cyclists. City officials, dignitaries, tech execs, college students, kids and even the Lord Mayor of Dublin have joined the ride. It’s spread from San Jose’s downtown to hundreds of cities around the globe—as far as Seoul, Korea.
“People come here, experience the Bike Party and want to take it home,” says Laskowski, who’s pulled back his involvement to focus on his teaching career. “That’s incredible to think about. It’s the best of San Jose in that it could only come from a place like this. It fits our goofy, suburban, not-quite-city sort of city. It’s flexible, it’s open, creative and it’s fun.”
Laskowski says he’s not opposed to Tate’s plan to tighten up what’s so far operated as a loosely organized phenomenon into a nonprofit—as long as the fundamentals remain.
“Bike party isn’t a structure,” he says. “It isn’t a ‘thing’ you can hold. It’s a vision of what our community can be. There could be hundreds or thousands or millions of ways to make that a reality.”
Correction: Joe Tate is 52 years old, not 53. San Jose Inside regrets the error.