Burning Man Put Hundreds of Free Bikes on the Playa: You Won’t Believe What Happened Next!

Ballyhoo Betty at the bike shop on the Burning Man Work Ranch
Ballyhoo Betty at the bike shop on the Burning Man Work Ranch

People basically stole them.

Last year the Yellow Bikes Crew left close to 700 nicely maintained, perfectly working bicycles for Burners to use as they made their way around the playa. This is no corporately sponsored rideshare program, and there are only three rules: Don’t steal or redecorate the bikes; after you finish riding them, leave them for someone else to use; and wear pants when riding them.

Simple, yes?

Well, things didn’t work out that way.

This week at the Burning Man Work Ranch, about 12 miles past the event site, an eight-person crew is working to get the bikes working again and restore them to their original, plain green, condition. You see, people grab those bikes and start customizing them and putting locks on them to make them their own.

So don’t do that, ok? Thanks.

While we’re haranguing you about bad bike behavior, here’s a pro tip: Don’t leave your bike behind when you leave Burning Man.

“People think that if they leave their bikes it’s like donating them,” Andrei said out at the ranch. “But it’s not. They’re just making work for us.”

Andrei scraping off the remnants of decorations put on a Yellow Bike
Andrei scraping off the remnants of decorations put on a Yellow Bike

Last year, the bike crews picked up about 2,000 bikes that the “leave no trace” crowd left behind. Again, there may have been good intentions involved: “This bike will find a great new home with someone who really needs it!”

But it really means that the bike crews have to deal with all those abandoned bikes. But there IS a way to get your bike to a new home in a helpful way: Drop them at the Reno Bike Project on your way home. That group is set up to get the bikes into the hands of people who want and need them.

There’s another way you can help, too!

If you want a playa bike and you don’t want the hassle of taking it home or to Reno, buy a 26-inch Huffy Cranbrook Cruiser. They’re available just about everywhere for about $100. They have a single speed, no cables or derailleurs, and they’re perfect for getting around in the dust. And the bike crew is getting the word out that this is the preferred generic playa bike, one that they can easily recondition after the event, and that they can save time and money by standardizing all the parts.

There are signs that the bike campaign is working, too. Of the 2,000 bikes left behind last year, about 250 were Cranbrooks.

The bike shop
Putting things all back together at the bike shop

“Our community really responded,” Ballyhoo Betty said. “And it’s an easy way to be involved” with communal efforts at Burning Man, she said.

So get a Cranbrook, or if you use the Yellow Bikes, remember that they are community property: they are not your blank canvas for radical self-expression.

“People do weird stuff to their bikes,” Betty said, but she and her crew have made the best of that bad situation. They repurpose all the janky arty stuff into conceptual art centerpieces for the tables at the Last Supper, the last meal that the crews eat on the playa during cleanup. “It’s fun to make weird art,” Betty said.

So, to review: Don’t steal the Yellow Bikes. Don’t leave your bikes behind. (But you can drop off the Cranbrooks at the bike camp at 5:30 and A.) And don’t be that guy or girl with the bad bike behavior.

Some more bike shop pics:

Morning Notes: Today was the first DPW morning meeting held at the Depot. “It’s good to be back on the playa,” Logan said, “and I mean that very sincerely. Welcome home.” … There was all sorts of information shared, but at the top of the list was concern about Whooping Cough. There’s an epidemic underway in California, and the medical staff wanted to know if you have been suffering from a persistent cough. Scary business, obviously, because five confirmed cases would shut down the event. … Booya and Squirelly thanked their tireless road crew, which pounded 1,200 stakes in the ground over the past four days as they built Gate Road and formed the intersections of the city. … The Shade team has also hit the playa running; they’ve got 11 shade structures up already, including the fancy new rig at the Depot. … The Power team reported their progress, as well, with a warning: “The power lines are real, folks,” Witch Doctor said. “What happens if you pound a stake into a power line?” Coyote asked. “You die,” was the answer. … Overhead quote of the day: “Three-legged dogs make me want to try harder.”

Cobra Commander addresses the troops for the first time on the playa in 2014
Cobra Commander addresses the troops for the first time on the playa in 2014

We report with great regret that last night was the last night that the Black Rock Saloon would be open for the preseason. The “private gathering place” for the work crews in Gerlach becomes irrelevant once everyone has moved out onto the playa, and because pretty much everyone is out there now, things are shutting down in town. “We wanted to make something nice this year,” Miss Roach said with just the slightest hint of melancholy in her voice. Even though virtually every milestone is solemnized with ceremony out here, there was no special acknowledgment that this was the last night for the bar. Of course, that’s partly because the work crews will come back here after the event, but that’s a long time from now. “We did pretty well,” Miss Roach said. “We’ve got just enough left – mixers, fresh fruit, and tonight we can just burn it all to the ground.” Miss Roach and her crew have some cleanup to do before the troops return. A new ping-pong table was set up in back, and it got pretty heavy use. “It smells like boy in here,” she said.

Attendance was pretty good
Attendance was pretty good at the morning meeting


Slim always seems to strike a dashing pose
The fuel crew made it easy to remember when they would be open
The fuel crew made it easy to remember when they would be open



About the author: John Curley

John Curley (that's me) has been Burning since the relatively late date of 2004, and in 2008 I spent the better part of a month on the playa, documenting the building and burning of Black Rock City in words and pictures. I loved it, and I've been doing it ever since. I was a newspaper person in a previous life, and I spent many years at the San Francisco Chronicle. At the time I left, in 2007, I was the deputy managing editor in charge of Page One and the news sections of the paper. Since then, I've turned a passion for photography into a second career. I shoot for editorial, commercial and private clients. I've also taught a little bit, including two years at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and a year at San Francisco State University. I live on the San Mateo coast, just south of San Francisco in California.

17 Comments on “Burning Man Put Hundreds of Free Bikes on the Playa: You Won’t Believe What Happened Next!

  • Trilo says:

    Great info, thanks! I’ll add a link to Reno Bike Project – http://www.renobikeproject.com

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  • I had my bike stolen. Found it a few days later at center camp. Re-decorated and modified.

    I suspect many bikes left have been left by the person that stole it for use and then abandoned it at the end.

    Not sure how to stop this. Just remember to lock your bike! A thief will probably not give a shit no matter what we ask them not to do.

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  • Cap'n Bunk says:

    In 2013, we had a rowdy and fun group of british guys camp behind us, but every night, they would come home with a new set of bikes. Every night. I don’t think they even brought any bikes with them, just stole whatever they could find that wasn’t locked up every time they wanted to go from place to place. Lock your bikes, people. The British are coming!

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  • Ryan says:

    This year my girlfriend is starting the Black Rock City Bicycle Liberation Front.

    It works like this: if you lock a yellow bike to something, she’ll come and unlock it for you with a big fuzzy bolt cutters, free of charge.

    Bonus! If you lock a yellow bike TOGETHER with your own bike, she’ll come and free the yellow bike, but lock your bike together with a new, FREE log chain!


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  • Tommy betts says:

    Bikes are Beautiful! Thiefs are not!

    Last year was my first burn and I loved raging the playa on my bmx, heres my notes.

    I hope everynody reads the bike JRS especially the LIGHT YOUR BIKE OR DIE, add this…OR KILL SOMEONE. I had a Very well lit bike with headlights to see out in front at night and I like to go fast so I was. Then, BOOM a stranded probably “stolen/lost/misplaced” NON-LIT bike was lying dead in the open playa (I was going from 930&E to about 230&E). Luckily I am extensively trained in eating shit at high speed on a bmx bicycle. As I yelled obscenities and assessed the damage to my fragile human body I immediately was overcome with a deep hatred for the manner and manners that led to that fing non-lit bike in the middle of nowhere. Two friendlies ran up and explained that was the nastiest bike wreck they ever saw in real life, HAHA sweet check out my sections in LIQUOR bikes videos! I was lucky not to be taken out for the remainder of the burn considering how people do get very injured in less active ways. LIGTH YOUR BIKE LIGHT YOUR BIKE LIGHT YOUR FRIENDS SHITY NON-LIT BIKE!!!

    I loved BRC so much that I stayed to help tear the city down. After the event I realized how many bikes were just left littered all over the playa in every direction. Thank you because I put one in my small packed up scionxb and brought it home to austin to my now fiance who will cruise the cruiser next to me this year, Yaay! Fuck you for littering and making the AMAZING people who already work their ass off for you pick up 2000+ bikes thats fucked.

    I will be offering a HOW TO RIDE A BIKE workshop starting somewhere on E at sometime, ill try and figure that out…

    Tips: I covered my bike in glowinthedark tape, its quality and not cheap but charges all day and if it fades u can charge it up with your headlamp or laser pointer, it also is unique and easier to find your bike on the rack at night at large parties.
    If your group is not locked at the hip you will want your bikes at different times, I always make a bike pile/puzzle to start out with and if someone needs to roll off they can take theirs and pile the others. No drunk ass is going to mess with a pile of metal to get a free ride. do it a few times or have your crew watch you do it and you will all see how there are cool ways to link up in a pile! ;)

    See yall in like 14 days !

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  • Tyronus says:

    Such a bummer. Who does this?! Too many of us, apparently. For the public bikes, how about we try it for just another year or two? If no changes in behavior , end the program. Devote those resources to another part of the city.

    As for the excess bikes at the end of the event….. How about a registration for every bike. It would suck in many ways but would def increase accountability. Maybe add a bike register to the ticketing process. I realize this is far from perfect .

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  • mare says:

    A idea to cut down on bike theft. Everyone who brings a bike, gifts it to the playa, so if u cruise around and park your bike anyone can come up and take it to use. And when your ready to go, u can hop on any bike around and cruise on down the road. If u use a bike and didnt bring one, u probably should work on radical self reliance, but proportianally the amount of bikes available at any one location vs the amount of bikes riding are about equal from observation. The thief is no longer a thief, and the person who got robbed is no longer out a bike for the rest of the week. At the end of the week, you will leave no trace and donate, or bring as many bikes as u brought with u off playa with u.

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  • dirt wheel says:

    In 05 I ran into about four bikes and crashed felt like a dam helicopter accident – my knees clacked together like a pair of castanets and it instantly made me feel like I was 91 years old – new playa name became ‘choppy steps’ The bikes were middle playa in a neatly scattered pile just a little ways from where the group of owners were standing. They themselves we’re badly lit, but possibly felt close enough to their bikes to be considered ‘watching them’ – I saw them, not the bikes. Lite the bike! Trip the nite!

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  • Ruby says:

    I had a couple incidents last year of bikers appearing to play chicken with me. Riding fast straight toward me then swerving at the last moment..I had had a recently healed hip surgery .. I’m healthy and was good to go..but this scared me and seemed to be funny to the other bikers, there were several of them together..it saddens me anywhere in our world to witness meanness or ignorant humor at the safety and expense of others..

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  • Iouda (yoda) says:

    The YBLC (yellow bike liberation coalition) will be on playa this year patrolling the city reclaiming “hoarded” bikes from camps and cutting locks off apparent yellow bikes and bringing them back to the stream for all you peeps to continue enjoying, any surrounding participants will be issued a “citation” requesting attendance to playa re-education where yours truely will be reaffirming the 10 principles at our base camp “camp hotel rug” come on out and get deputized and help save some burners physical upheaval from having to walk all the way home after they got lost out at trash fence or so your sparkle ponys dont vomit glitter because they missed bassnectar at center camp!!! 8:15 and Cinnamon!!

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  • Iouda (yoda) says:

    ^^^^^ ryan lets meet together and create a giant liberation front i have uniforms!!!

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  • Chromatest says:

    I’m sure it’s too late for this year, but how about WELDING the words Yellow Bike into the top tube? That way when some jerk steals and paints one, we still know it’s a Yellow Bike, and not just the same type that they brought from home.

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  • WeldingMomma says:

    My last visit to BM was 2011 and I had the privledge of working on a featured Art Project so, I needed to stay an extra couple days after the event ended. I was thrilled that so many bikes were left to choose from that I could take home. There were some expensive bikes too! I took home 4 bikes that year on the roof of my RV. Two were mountain bikes, one beautiful fixed speed bike and, a fat-tire heavy cruiser. I fixed whatever was broken on them, used them around the city and now 3 of those bikes are returning to the playa this year. The Cruiser I’ll be using to pull my daughter in a highly visible kid trailer and, the mountain bikes I’ve decorated and rented out to carpool passengers! So, the money I charged them will cover my ticket! Yeaayy!
    I plan to take home some more this year to give to the poor neighborhood kids.

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  • zak peters says:

    After reading about the amount of wasteful bikes on the playa really made me sad.
    I know theres small business owners in SF (and possibly Reno) who try and recycle bikes for the purpose of riding around black rock city

    One quote from a CL bike seller

    “I do offer convenience of getting several bikes in one place that are 100% post-consumer, recycled. Not Major Mart carbon intensive, built by indentured wage slaves.”

    I was jst a bit curious about one comment in the post,

    buy a 26-inch Huffy Cranbrook Cruiser. They’re available just about everywhere for about $100

    When you google the words
    26-inch Huffy Cranbrook Cruiser
    The only thing that comes up for $100 on the internet is Major Mart

    Which will not only send 1000s of customers to buy from these major corporations. But also might deter them from buying other camping equipment etc from local business in Reno and S.F.

    Couldn’t the statement be “Try and get a great used beach cruiser online or from a local business!”
    “don’t buy a rusted old mountain bike and leave it behind”

    I know burning man have a lot to deal with when it comes to leave no trace on the bicycle issue, but there must be a better solution than people going to the mart for their bicycles.


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  • The Wanderer says:

    As much as I love to work on bicycles, I would love to volunteer to do exactly that next year. Where would I find details on becoming a bike volunteer?

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  • King O'Peeps says:

    Would some please help me out with contacting them i have a few questions to ask them or please have them contact me ASAP at truesocal619@gmail.com thank you very much and have a wonderful LIFE

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