THE MIDNIGHT Garden Ride, a nighttime bicycling event that attracts hundreds of people—many in elaborate costumes—for a ride through Savannah's historic districts has become something of a local tradition, but that doesn't mean the annual event has become staid.
Now in its sixth year, it has continually evolved. The route has changed, the number of participants has grown, and the location of the post-ride Good and Evil Party has moved several times, but the core appeal of the event has endured.
“I had always loved the mysterious feeling of Savannah’s streets at night by bike, so we hatched the idea of sharing that experience,” says Savannah Bicycle Campaign board member Drew Wade, explaining the genesis of the event.
“Adding music and costumes to a parade of bicycles with blinking lights completed the festival atmosphere, yet that original essence has remained.”
Previously held on Labor Day Weekend, this year’s event is scheduled for Oct. 11. Moving the date later in the year is an experiment that should yield some key benefits, according to event chair David Acuff.
“First off, it will definitely be cooler,” he says. “A hint of autumn in the air makes for excellent bicycling weather. And because it’s closer to Halloween, we think that will inject a little extra excitement into the annual costume contest, which is already competitive. It’s a friendly competition, but it is a competition.”
Not only do contestants develop elaborate costumes, many also decorate their bikes to support their costume themes.
The costumed humans and bicycles enliven the ride and the Good and Evil Party, which has grown to include concerts by artists including Ben Sollee and the A.J. Ghent Band. This year the party will be held in Ellis Square.
“We outgrew the parking lot and a small sound system from the first couple years, into full concert productions with a live band in Ellis Square this year. It’s really exciting to see,” says Wade.
SBC chair William McIntosh agrees, and says he is looking forward to holding the event in one of Savannah’s favorite public spaces.
“We were in Telfair Square for the last two years and had very successful events there,” he says. “Moving to Ellis Square, however, gives us more room and will allow more people to enjoy the music and festivities.”
Charlotte’s Ancient Cities is performing at this year’s Good and Evil Party. The group was formed by Stephen Warwick, who gained notoriety in 2010 with his solo album “Talking Machine.”
Songs from that release can be heard in the movie Wicked Blood, starring Abigail Breslin of Little Miss Sunshine fame. He formed Ancient Cities with Justin Fedor of The New Familiars, Jonathan Erickson of the now defunct band The Noises 10, and keyboardist Matt Braniff.
UK-based music magazine Inforty described the band as, “the gap between indie-rock and classic rock with swift, fuzzy guitars, excited drumming and dreamy atmospheres.”
Registration, available online at midnightgardenride.com, is required to participate in the ride, but the Good and Evil Party is open to the public.
The route winds south from the National Landmark Historic district, through the Victorian District, Ardsley Park and Parkside neighborhoods to Daffin Park, before returning to Ellis Square.
“This year we’ve slightly modified the route to make it even more enjoyable, both for people who have ridden with us before and for new riders,” McIntosh says.
He emphasizes the Midnight Garden Ride is a casual, social ride, not a race. A police escort closes streets as the ride rolls along and volunteer marshals pedal among participants to keep the ride safe and fun. The total distance of the ride is approximately 10 miles.
“Riding through Savannah at night, surrounded by people who are excited to ride and happy to help each other out just adds to the beauty,” says Maggie Kantor, volunteer coordinator for the event. “My favorite part of the ride is going through Daffin Park because you can see bike lights like fireflies stretching for miles around you.”
Proceeds from registrations benefit the Savannah Bicycle Campaign, a nonprofit organization that is working to make Savannah safer, friendlier and more convenient for people who ride bikes. It offers bicycle education programs for children and adults, and will soon launch a program that reconditions donated bicycles and provides them to people who need safe, dependable and affordable transportation.
“I’ve seen bicycling rates increase substantially since I have been here,” says Caila Brown, who came to Savannah in 2007 to attend SCAD. Brown now serves as vice chair of the Savannah Bicycle Campaign board.
“I believe we have had a significant role in this trend through our work with the city government to develop new infrastructure, and our efforts to encourage residents and visitors to ride bikes,” she says.
Savannah’s emergence as a bicycle tourism destination is evident from the national bicycle tour companies that now regularly operate in Savannah, the popularity of Chatham Area Transit’s CAT Bike bicycle sharing program and travel writers exploring bicycling angles in their stories on Savannah.
Last month Visit Savannah launched a webpage designed to help tourists make bicycling a part of their experience in Savannah.
Locals’ love for bicycling is also growing. The League of American Bicyclists released a study last week that analyzed census data on commuting habits and found that Savannah is No. 4 in the South for bicycle commuting modeshare.
And the actual ranking could be much higher, as the census data under counts the legions of SCAD students who use their bicycles for daily transportation.
Kantor said the diversity and passion of Savannah’s bicycling community are represented by the volunteers, who are essential to the success of the event. Along with SBC members, volunteers from the Coastal Bicycle Touring Club, the Southeast Georgia Chapter of the Southern Off-road Bicycling Association, the Savannah Wheelmen and the Metropolitan Savannah Rotary Club cooperate to produce the event.
“I love seeing the community come together to make it happen,” she says. “It’s a wonderful event, not only because of the fun ride and concert, but because it gives you the chance to hang out with awesome people.”