Ryan James was working at the Starbucks downtown when he saw his first Freedom Ride.
"Leading up to the event, there was a lot of buzz," he said. "I remember during the morning, we had a line out the door, and then we were completely dead for two hours during the Freedom Ride."
James and his wife moved to Bend two years ago, and he said Freedom Ride was one of the first things they heard about. Stepping outside that July 4, 2014, James remembers seeing a sea of red, white and blue bicyclers flooding the streets.
"It just kept on going. I remember seeing the same people again and again. They were just doing the loop multiple times," he said. "It was such a big thing, so I was bummed I couldn't do it my first year here. It's just one of those Bend things you want to experience at least once."
Freedom, with a dash of traffic
The Freedom Ride is both famous and infamous among Bendites. Every 4th of July since 2001, cyclists have amassed at Pioneer Park for an afternoon ride through downtown that ends in Columbia Park. The ride is notorious for being unofficial; no group organizes or endorses the event, it just happens. Freedom Ride is one of Bend's largest celebrations, drawing locals and out-of-towners of all ages.
Surprisingly, Bend Police Sgt. Dan Ritchie is also a fan of the Freedom Ride, or at least the idea of it.
"One of the best things about this country is the freedoms we have, and the idea of the Freedom Ride is to celebrate those freedoms," he said. "It's really interesting because people dress in creative ways, and it's just neat to see that kind of stuff."
Of course, the Freedom Ride's unofficial status creates problems. The ride is notorious for bringing downtown traffic to a standstill. According to Sgt. Ritchie, a permit would help alleviate that. Police officers would be able to set up roadblocks and routes for both pedestrian and emergency vehicles. But Seth Gehman, a Bendite who has attended every Freedom Ride since 2011, thinks the traffic is part of the event's charm.
"Yeah, it ruins a few motorists' day, but not one of those drivers ever forgets that 4th of July stuck in traffic in downtown Bend surrounded by partying cyclists," he said.
As a trail builder at Mt. Bachelor Bike Park and a bicycle guide for Cog Wild Bike Tours, Gehman loves the Freedom Ride.
"In all the places across the country that I've celebrated the 4th of July, the Freedom Ride is by far my favorite celebration," he said. "The crowds are huge, and I really like that critical mass feel of it."
Reaching critical mass
Unfortunately, it's that critical mass aspect of the Freedom Ride that causes the most problems.
While traffic can be expected from any large event, the Freedom Ride is equivalent to four or five large events. Sgt. Ritchie admitted that the ride only showed up on the police department's radar a few years ago when the attendance grew into the thousands.
"An analogy would be if you had a Volkswagen and you're trying to pull a trailer of elephants; that vehicle's not going to do it," Sgt. Ritchie said. "It really taps at our resources."
In prior years, Bend's Parks and Rec Department has dealt with reservation conflicts and large-scale cleanups from the crowds that occupy the parks during the Freedom Ride.
When James participated in his first Freedom Ride last year, he said the number of people on the road made for "insane, wheel-to-wheel" biking.
"The entire street is just absolutely littered with bikers," he said. "You're not going most of the time, you're just waiting for an opening."
And among these thousands of riders, according to Sgt. Ritchie, are sub-groups that break away from the main group and do the most harm.
"There are people who participate in that event for the full-intended purpose, and then there are people who take advantage of that event," he said. "Some people think that 'freedom' means lawlessness, and that's the group that we deal with."
Sgt. Ritchie said the most common complaints include open alcohol and drug consumption, public intoxication, and people jumping off the bridge in Columbia Park. Even pro-Freedom Riders admit to seeing inappropriate behavior: Gehman said he has witnessed sexual harassment, and James was surprised to see "a lot of teenagers drinking and smoking" at the event.
In past years, events like The Anti-Freedom Ride Freedom Ride and the Independence Ride have offered down-sized options for those overwhelmed by the Freedom Ride's attendance, but Sgt. Ritchie thinks the event's size will always be an issue.
"My thing is if someone did step up and (organize) the event, what would deter people from saying, 'Well, we're not going to be part of that,'" he said.
And James thinks maintaining the ride's unofficial status is important.
"If someone organized it, that would mean selling tickets, and there's no way anyone would buy tickets to it," he said. "The cool thing about it is the whole unorganized, unsanctioned element. It makes it different from every other event in Bend. It's intense, but it's tradition."
It's unlikely the Freedom Ride will become official or dwindle anytime soon, so Sgt. Ritchie said the most important thing people can do is be mindful and respectful.
"I think if everybody went into it with the attitude to respect each other and have a great time, that this would be a great event," he said. "Enjoy yourself and have a good time, but (do) simple things: don't block the roads, keep the right-of-ways open, no alcohol, no marijuana consumption in public. Think about others and be respectful."
Gehman echoed those sentiments, adding the importance of the ride's core purpose.
"If you participate as a group of friends and stay together, I think it's a fun, safe celebration of freedom in a country that seems to be taking our freedoms away as fast as they can," he said. "I say let the public play and have their day."
The Freedom Ride will start some time in the afternoon on Monday, July 4.