What is Bicycle Day? Exploring Albert Hofmann’s legendary ride
This week, millions of people worldwide will be celebrating the biggest day in cannabis culture. But 4/20 isn’t the only counterculture holiday being observed. April 19th is known by many as Bicycle Day—and no, it’s not honoring your two-wheeled cruiser.
For those asking, “Just what is Bicycle Day?” it’s the date chemist Albert Hofmann went for an extra special bike ride. The Swiss scientist is credited with developing lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), and on April 19th, 1943, he ingested some of his creation. He soon found himself on a long, strange trip complete with—you guessed it—a bike ride.
Considered to be the first modern account of LSD consumption, Hofmann’s experience has become something of a psychedelic holiday, with events and celebrations happening all over the world. But in the wake of the commercialization of 4/20, some wonder if Bicycle Day will eventually be co-opted, fearing that the legacy of pioneers like Hofmann may someday be forgotten.
A brief history of LSD
Hofmann first synthesized LSD in 1938 but didn’t discover its psychedelic effects until five years later. LSD, a derivative of compounds the ergot fungus, was initially theorized to have the ability to stimulate the respiratory and circulatory systems.
While working for the Sandoz pharmaceutical company, Hofmann created several variations of lysergic acid. The 25th iteration (aptly called LSD-25) combined lysergic acid combined with diethylamide (found in ammonia) and soon proved to be the most profound.
Despite the compound generating excitement in research animals, lab officials shut down the LSD project, believing the work was going nowhere. However, the results stayed with Hofmann, and five years later, he decided to do some unofficial tests of his own.
The first Bicycle Day
The realization that LSD had psychoactive effects emerged in April 1943. While in the final stages of synthesizing LSD, Hofmann began to feel unusual. He left the lab, finding himself dizzy yet energized. Hofmann later reported seeing an “uninterrupted steam of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors.”
The scientist was determined to find the cause of his experience, surmising he must have absorbed some of the LSD through his skin. A few days later, on April 19th (allegedly at 4:20 p.m.), Hofmann drank a secret vial containing 250 micrograms of the compound.
Forty minutes later, Hofmann began to notice the effects and asked his assistant to accompany him home. The pair rode their bicycles to the scientist’s home, but Hofmann found the journey arduous as his perceptions became increasingly distorted.
Hofmann’s “trip” brought about several emotions: fear, excitement, joy, and playfulness, to name a few. But he soon realized the day’s profound effect on his life and engaged in several more LSD experiments throughout the years.
Legacy and criminalization
By the 1950s, psychiatrists found LSD therapy effective in treating people with alcohol-use disorder and other mental health conditions. Between 1950 and 1965, it is believed 40,000 individuals received LSD therapy for various use cases, including neurosis and schizophrenia.
The United States government even conducted experiments with LSD during this period, seeing it as a potential “truth serum” that could be used as a torture device for use in the Cold War and Vietnam. Despite their best efforts to purge the data from their records, the research was later revealed in the mid-1970s.
In the 1960s, consumption of LSD became more prevalent in the counterculture, and psychedelic research soon found itself the subject of intense scrutiny by the FDA. By 1968, the drug was banned, and in 1970, LSD was classified as a Schedule I substance per the new Controlled Substances Act.
Even with a federal ban, LSD consumption continued. Hofmann’s legacy lived on in the underground, but as time passed and the psychedelic culture became more mainstream, his famed trip became more well-known.
Modern psychonauts claim Bicycle Day as their own
Despite LSD remaining a Schedule I substance and stiff penalties for its manufacture, sale, and possession, Bicycle Day has become increasingly prevalent in the culture. As a result, many psychedelic enthusiasts (sometimes referred to as psychonauts) elect to commemorate their passion on April 19th.
Much like 4/20, those who embrace the day find themselves honoring Hoffman’s legacy in a variety of ways. That may include time spent reflecting solo or with like-minded friends or attending a large-scale celebration. Several Bicycle Day events have emerged (with seemingly more on the calendar every year), consisting of educational talks, concerts, pop-up markets, and reform-minded gatherings.
However, with 4/20 becoming more ubiquitous in mainstream society, many companies use it as a mere marketing tool. Unfortunately, this often means the social justice narrative that, in the past, was an important part of the day’s legacy is left out. The evolution of 4/20 has left some concerned about the future of Bicycle Day and other counter-culture movements.
Madison Margolin, a journalist and author of the forthcoming book Exile and Ecstasy: Growing Up with Ram Dass and Coming of Age in the Jewish Psychedelic Underground, argues that while the social acceptance of cannabis has paved the way for the eroding stigmas around psychedelics, it’s a cautionary tale concerning the true history of celebrations like Bicycle Day.
“Psychedelics are following the path of cannabis for better and for worse,” Margolin said in an interview with GreenState, adding that tales of those who came before must be told.
“I think it’s the job of people who are in the industry to maintain and speak to the values of what Bicycle Day is all about and what it actually means to uphold the psychedelic ethos and apply it in regular life, such that this doesn’t necessarily become a commercialized holiday but stays something of an activist holiday.”
As Bicycle Day continues to be recognized, newcomers to the celebrations should hold space for the legacy of Hofmann and other movement leaders. In a time when psychedelics have become more socially acceptable than ever, it’s easy to lose sight of these compounds’ complicated history. Holidays are meant to honor tradition, and while they can indeed be fun, it’s important not to forget where those traditions came from.