It's 11 p.m. when the intersection at Fifth and University avenues is overtaken. One of the Santas is first. There are at least six of them, each with the requisite floppy red hat, but otherwise different characteristics: Some are drunk and some aren't. Some have more interesting bikes than others. One Santa is riding a Christmas-light-covered tandem with a belligerent elf on the back.
Within minutes, all the Santas have arrived-along with more than 100 other dressed-up, bike-riding hooligans, who ride in a circle around the intersection with shouts of rebellious glee and total disregard for changing lights or the needs of bewildered motorists. A few minutes later, someone yells "Ride on!" and the pack clears out, turning right down University with whoops and cheers. One intersection conquered, many more to go.
About an hour ago, as bundled-up bikers started congregating around the Balboa Park fountain for the start of tonight's Electric Warriors ride, there was very little indication that the diverse smattering of individuals, from teenage punks to 40-ish hippie types, would transform so harmoniously into a throng almost 150 strong-let alone ride 12 miles from Hillcrest to Kensington and back, sing Christmas carols en masse and drink in a 7-Eleven parking lot, making friends and/or enemies with San Diego police officers along the way.
But Electric Warriors creator Eric LaRose says there's nothing entirely new about it. The group has strong roots in a 10-year-old San Diego bike gang called the Kutters and is working in conjunction with a more recently formed, younger offshoot called the Cretins.
LaRose had taken part in Critical Mass, the huge, activist, bicycle-awareness rides held in cities across the country, before meeting up with the Kutters. "I had a ton of fun with them, because they would do team rides, like, dressed up as superheroes," LaRose says of his early involvement in the San Diego biking scene. "But it was pretty inconsistent, and you had to know someone to know someone to know when the ride was. It was never really organized or advertised."
Then LaRose heard about a group called the Midnight Ridazz, who regularly organize a huge turnout of bikers-500 to 1,000 people-to take over the streets of L.A. "I wanted to go up and ride with them, but, logistically, it was impossible to get up there on a Friday, ride, turn around and come back to San Diego," he explains. "So then I was kind of, like, well-shit-I should just try to do it myself, down here."
After printing fliers, making patches and networking with the biking community he already knew from the Kutters and the Cretins, LaRose and the Electric Warriors made their debut on a zombie-themed ride last October-and dressed-up, fun-seeking bike enthusiasts have been taking to the streets once a month ever since. December's theme was "Fuck Christmas!" and included a costume contest in which a young woman dressed as a rabbi, complete with a beard, won first place over an elf and a pair of presents. Prizes ranged from a tall can of Miller High Life to eggnog with rum.
Those who need to see a manifesto before joining up should visit the Warriors' MySpace site-the group's major networking tool-which describes the Electric Warriors' rides as "a night to escape the confines of cars, to behold our city, to savor the air in our face, to feel the ground beneath our wheels, to know that there is something more to San Diego than tourist attractions and over priced condos."
In December, at least 120 people answered that call, and, judging from how the turnout has grown from each ride to the next, the numbers will keep swelling. LaRose scoffs at concerns about the group losing its punk-rock, underground status as it grows. He wants the Warriors, like the Midnight Ridazz, to be "huge."
One issue that may need to be hammered out as the gang expands is its relationship with the police: More bikers means blocking more traffic and taking over more intersections for longer amounts of time. On the December ride, the Warriors tested three different officers on law-enforcement response to 100-plus Christmas-sweater-sporting adults on bikes.
The first policeman, in a car on Fifth Avenue in front of the Brass Rail, gives a friendly go-ahead. "Just be safe, guys," he says through a loudspeaker. "Have a good night."
The not-so-encouraging officers appear in University Heights, in front of the Parkhouse Eatery, and block off the narrow street.
"Just stay in the bike lane," says one over a bull horn, in a tone that suggests even he knows the futility of this order. Bikers stop in the street, whining and yelling. A few minutes later, there's a revised offer: "Just stay on the right side of the street." Still no movement.
It is only when a few pedestrians who have stopped to watch the ruckus start to chant "Let them go!" that things get tense. "Stay to the side or everybody will be pulled over, cited and arrested!" yells one cop from his car. Surveying the crowd of more or less peaceable, orderly citizens, one can almost imagine the officers' thought processes: How do you get a group of more than 100 people on bicycles to do anything? The same goes for frustrated motorists: They can honk-but then what?
That dawning realization that you're invincible-as long as you stay together-is part of the giddy sense of empowerment that bikers feel on Electric Warriors rides, and something that distinguishes them from the less-cohesive Critical Mass trips.
"I don't dislike Critical Mass in any way," LaRose stresses. "I think it's incredible what they're doing. But the very nature of it, by definition, lacks any sort of prior planning and leadership." After a Critical Mass ride where bikers smashed car windows and LaRose had to give a statement to police, he stopped going for six months-it just wasn't for him.
"I actually know a lot of people who come to Electric Warriors rides but refuse to go to Critical Mass for those reasons, so I kind of just wanted to create something that people weren't intimidated to go to," LaRose explains. "Where the main purpose was just strictly fun-just get on a bike, ride and have fun. If we have to block traffic while we're at it, that happens."
And it does happen-although the prior planning and organization pay off in terms of making even the most inexperienced bikers feel safe. As the group approaches intersections where the light might change before the entire pack makes it through, spotters stop on each side of the street to make sure cars can't proceed until each biker has passed.
But while most honks directed at the group are for encouragement, there are motorists who express their displeasure. Approaching the Adams Street bridge, a young woman in a silver Kia tailgates the pack, palm jammed to the horn. The front of her car taps a biker's wheel-not hard, but he falls. Bikers near him stop and surround the car. A few people jump off their bikes to explain to her, loudly, exactly why hers was a poor choice. Everyone else keeps going.
The focus is always on moving-no one is looking to start trouble, and most of it can be avoided by riding on. The communal spirit of the group is clear, though, in riders' eagerness to defend and protect one another, whether they know each other or not: If you're on a bike, you're a friend.
In Kensington, everyone decides it's time to stop for sustenance, so the group pulls into a 7-Eleven and takes turns going in for energy drinks or malt liquor, and downs them in the parking lot. The ride has gone for about an hour and a half; this is the first organized stop.
The break provides another chance to look at the individuals comprising the group. Singular faces and bicycles come into focus again. The guy with tattoos on his face. The guy wearing a bike lock around his neck. The costume-contest winner, sweating beneath her beard. The bike that stands eight feet off the ground. The bike with the frame made entirely from a broom.
The Kutters/Cretins stick out a little, with their patches and battle cries (Q: "How do we ride?" A: "Balls deep!") but there's little physical separation-and no animosity-between guys like them and the loud, giggly blonde girls on beach cruisers.
Turning off Adams and into a darker residential neighborhood, the flicker of bike lights and reflectors shows the way for the pack. It's just past midnight when the guy with the stereo attached to his seat plays the Nutcracker Suite. At a cul-de-sac, in front of a house decked out in white Christmas lights, one of the Cretins runs up to ring the doorbell, then leads the pack in a tone-deaf version of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"-even though no one has answered the door.
Looking around at the group as they sing, from the teenage boy wearing a studded collar and eyeliner to the middle-aged guy with a fleece vest and serious helmet, it's hard not to grin like an idiot. It's also clear that an apolitical, dress-up, nighttime bike ride can bridge some gaps: A wide range of people have an unfulfilled need for organized silliness.
"I just want to stress that Electric Warriors is really for everyone," says its founder. "And the purpose is literally just to get everyone in San Diego on a bike, riding at night, so that people can see what it looks like when 500 bikers roll by down the street. And then, hopefully, go, "Oh my God, what is that? I want to do that!'"
Meet up with the Electric Warriors at 10 p.m. Friday, Jan. 12, at the fountain in Balboa Park. www.electric warriors.com or www.myspace.com/ sandiego electricwarriors.