Bicycles become dazzling vehicles of transformation in the Venice Electric Light Parade

By Martin L. Jacobs

Venice Electric Light Parade founder Marcus Gladney gets ready to roll
Photo by Damon Young

There is an emotional quality to light. Birthday candles, fireworks, neon signs — all inspire vivid memories and emotions. To Marcus Gladney, the primary instigator of Venice Electric Light Parade (VELP), light is fun. “It makes people smile.”

VELP’s unwritten charter is simple: Ride the night on dazzling illuminated bicycles; shooting stars of a terrestrial kind. There is no membership or application process. If you show up, you ride.

Every Sunday at sundown, regulars and newbies coalesce just off the Venice Boardwalk at Windward Plaza, where Sebastian, the resident lighting guru, attaches strips of LEDs to bikes and provides tech support for riders. As launch time approaches, Marcus dons his trademark psychedelic sombrero, mounts his cruiser, and leads the illuminati on a trip through Santa Monica, Venice and Marina del Rey.

“Most nights we ride from the boardwalk up the bike path to the Santa Monica Pier, then turn around and come south, cutting east on Rose,” Marcus explains. “Then we turn down Third. We always ride by skid row there on Third. The people there maybe don’t have a lot to smile about, and I think they enjoy the show. It makes us feel good, too.”

From Third Avenue the herd joggles down to Abbot Kinney Boulevard, then cruises south through the canal streets toward Marina del Rey. They usually wind up at the end of Washington Boulevard for a visit to the Hinano Café.

When I point out that that seems like a lot of work for a beer, Marcus just chuckles: “It’s the journey,” he replies.

Avid cyclist Mike Krieger has done 83 VELP rides. He joined up shortly after the group formed about two years ago.

“At first it felt a little silly,” he says. “It was just a small group. I had one string of lights on my bike. Marcus changed all that. He has one of those personalities that attracts followers.”

And follow they did. Some Sundays as many as 100 riders participate, creating a kind of flashmob lightshow on wheels.

“I enjoy watching the people watching us. Sometimes they dance or clap, and there are lots of smiles,” says Krieger, now the semi-official road captain. He tries to keep the group together and safe, gives directions, and rounds up strays, like some kind of velocipedal ranch hand.

Krieger recounts how one night the ride came upon a police cruiser in Santa Monica that suddenly lit up its lights. He thought they were in trouble; “then the cops whipped out their phones and starting snapping pictures.”

 

The VELP rides are a spectacular light show, but music also plays a part. Behind his lead beach cruiser, Marcus tows a portable sound system that thumps out a carefully selected playlist. Imagine a bicycle version of “The Ride of the Valkyries” sequence in “Apocalypse Now,” but with a better cardio workout.

“The hardest thing for me is the soundtrack,” he says. “I get a lot of requests.”

VELP is entirely wallet-funded. No corporations involved or needed. They don’t charge fees or make money. The only discernible commercial link might be the Linus bicycles they give away periodically (the company is based on Abbot Kinney). Marcus has been thinking about selling T-shirts to help with expenses, and that’s about as far as the financial plan goes. The enterprise is fed from Marcus’ day job, running his own business preparing Westside properties for rent.

I joined the ride one Sunday and it did not disappoint. Although my worn cruiser’s singular blinking red taillight didn’t contribute much to the esprit de corps, I still felt the magic of it. Onlookers stopped and cheered, and the phone cams were up and flashing away everywhere we passed; something like being a Kardashian for the evening.

There is also an undeniable feeling of power in the group that isn’t just electrical. Participating makes one remember the true spirit of Venice: Creative self-expression. Non-fiscally motivated joy. Unmitigated fun with friends and strangers alike. And there is a tinge of anarchy in the endeavor; the mass of bicycles swarming through intersections well past the green lights’ change to red, yet dazzling the motor traffic so completely that they hardly seem to acknowledge the imposition.

Above: The Venice Electric Light Parade heads up the Venice Beach bike path toward Santa Monica Pier
Below: LEDs in motion make for long-exposure photo magic

There’s the ride, and there’s the bond the experience builds between the riders, a hugely diverse set of Angelenos.

“We got everything from Lamborghini owners to the homeless,” says Emi Salisbury, one of the original riders, who now drives in from Arcadia every Sunday to ride.

And therein lies the beauty of it; just a melting pot of people out on bikes having fun. No walls needed. If such a simple solution could only be applied to the vexing human conflicts of our time.

Well, some think it can.

Krieger explains that one of the VELP regulars is John Jones, who runs the Eastside Riders, a Compton bike club that uses the building, modification and riding of bicycles as a kind of social therapy for city kids who might otherwise find themselves pulled toward crime.

There is something magical and amazing in that idea; bikes not just as a form of transportation, but of transformation.

 

Find the Venice Electric Light Parade online at facebook.com/VeniceElectric-LightParade.

 

Martin L. Jacobs is a writer of fiction and nonfiction living in Venice. He can be reached at martin@scriturra.com.

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