CAMBRIDGE - When the SubversiveChoppers Urban League [Editorial Correction: Legion] descends on Central Square at 1:30 on a Sunday morning,the sight is otherworldly enough to elicit high-fives from pedestrians, cause drunks to back away in fear, and inspire a homeless man to hand over a bag of peanut butter cookies in homage.
Twenty people with nicknames like Spatula,Grandpa, Diva, and Vomit have cruised and wobbled and skidded onto Massachusetts Avenue on their choppers - radically modified bicycles with extended forks, raised handlebars, mismatched wheels, or seats towering 5½ feet in the air.
What Skunk calls "chopper groove" - with James Brown's "The Payback" followed by Dee Lite's"Groove is in the Heart"- pumps away on the car radio attached to his 100-pound chopper, the USB Catastrophe.
Think of Skunk, SCUL's 31-year-old founder and leader, as a punk, de-motorized version of Peter Fonda in "Easy Rider," hunkered down on Catastrophe, with its long fork, low, medium, and high beams, and truck horn. Someone rolls down the passenger window of his SUV and shouts, "Who are you? What's your Web page?"
The group goes on such a ride, or "mission," every Saturday night from April to Halloween. The members christen each new "ship" with Schlitz beer, and then steer the motley fleet around the streets of Cambridge, Somerville, and sometimes Boston, into "constellations" like Central or Harvard or Davis. They also earn military rank through their feats of glory; the harder a chopper is to ride, the more points it's worth.
But SCUL is more than a freak subculture. Among the 70 members are teachers and engineers, photographers, and bicycle welders who see SCUL as a fun and non confrontational way to voice a political message.
Taking aims at "America's love for the automobile," the group's mission statement, printed in a tiny field manual handed out to recruits, says, "SCUL wants people to ride bicycles."
"SCUL shows the world how much fun you can have on bikes," it continues. "We are not at war with car drivers. We endeavor to show (not tell) people in love with their cars that bike love is a deeper, more beautiful love."
With such a mission in mind, the key becomes amusing and even shocking bystanders. SCUL has a healthy share of inside jokes and lingo, but the group keeps its eye on a wider influence. To keep the focus on benevolent encounters with strangers, SCUL gives out extra points for every high-five a rider manages to score from the seat of a chopper. They brag about the times they've high-fived a cop, a priest, even a blind person.
"I think we make a lot of people happy," said Skunk, who earned bis nickname from "skunking" in trash for old bicycle parts. (Most SCUL members would not give their real names, saying it would ruin the chopper gang's alternate reality feel.) , "At this point," he had said earlier in the night, after a stop for ice cream at Herrell's in Harvard Square, "we've already affected at least 100 people who will go home and say, 'Guess what I just saw?' ",
And quite a sight it is: Bicycles with one normal-size wheel and one kid's Huffy wheel. Bicycles with ridiculously high handlebars. One recent Saturday night, the biggest attraction for the crowds was LoJack, a young man with a shock of bleached hair, pedaling away on USB Skylab, with his eye level about 13 feet in the air.
SCUL, however, is not the circus. It's true that Skunk, who builds custom bicycles at Seven Cycles in Watertown, sports a SCUL tattoo (a skull with wings) on his left forearm and blames his obsession with choppers for ruining his marriage. But many of the rank-and-file seem like unlikely candidates for a bicycle gang.
Such is the case with Dominick McIntosh, 23, of Newport, R.I., whose SCUL name is Gossimar. McIntosh had not used a bicycle since childhood, but decided to try SCUL one Saturday night when a friend invited him along. McIntosh, a Raytheon engineer who graduated from Boston University, was hooked. "Bikes never really appealed to me until I saw these goofy ones," be said.
He enjoyed the public spectacle and the idea of building "Frankenstein bikes." And he enjoyed the point made to drivers.
"I really like that there are 30 of us and that we rule the street," McIntosh said "Sometimes a car just has to wait for 30 seconds for. us. That's my vision of the future"
Mclntosh admits that he needs his 1995 Toyota Camry to get around, especially living in Newport. But now he owns two bicycles. One is the chopper he built himself, Dead Baron, a reverse tricycle with two wheels in front and one in back. He's also tinkering with a beach cruiser at home these days.
Most of SCUL's active members are in their 20s, although a couple are in their late 30s. While a few come from out of state, plenty live in and around Somerville, home to Fort Berkeley. The fort, in Skunk's basement, is a crowded workshop that serves as SCUL headquarters. The group also has a mix of those who own cars and those who always use bicycles.
All had to know someone in SCUL to be admitted, then sign papers promising that neither they, nor their heirs, would sue Skunk in case of an accident. Once, in a stunt, Skunk suffered a bro~en nose, chipped tooth, mild concussion, and sprained ankle.
But that was an exception. In truth, SCUL is fairly tame, even though extending the fork of a bicycle is technically illegal. It could earn the rider a $10 fine, but no one from SCUL has ever been cited. ''They're harmless-looking people," said Somerville patrolman Carlos Melo.
Most of the riders wear bicycle helmets. Skunk urges everyone to slow down when they play their weekly game of "Dogfight Derby", in which players circle around a parking lot and try to eliminate competitors by pulling a piece of plastic tape off their necks, or knocking them off their bicycles.
There are other special events, like the annual SCULimpics, a day of competition, and the 100-mile ride, which is called a century in bicycling lingo. But most of the time, SCUL is just out for a leisurely 15 or 20-mile jaunt. The launch like clockwork, at 10:30 p.m. every Saturday.
SCUL started six years ago, when Skunk - already a fan of bike building - heard of a Portland, Oregon chopper gang, and became enchanted with the idea. At first, though, "It was like pulling teeth to get anyone to come along", he said.
Skunk eventually converted some skeptics, and the group has been growing steadily in the last few years' . Skunk still builds many of the choppers and teaches other-members how to do it during weekly chopper-building hours.
As for the political aspect of SCUL, several members said the gang's low-key approach appeals to them, in contrast to more in-your-face anticar groups. Yet even a zealot might have a hard time giving up Saturday nights just to make a point. Most of all, members of SCUL celebrate the joy of a zany ride.
"I feel like I was 10 again," said Grendel, a 26-year-old freelance photographer, of his first SCUL ride last year. "You forget what biking was really when you first started, before it was about a destination. It's 2 a.m. and you're spinning in circles like an idiot. It's a ton of fun."