Motorbikes, mayhem, and as much empty road as it’s possible to ride: this is CAMP VC, a place where women push boundaries, smash stereotypes, and dance until dawn.
It’s 11am on a Sunday morning in August, and on a sheep farm at the edge of the Brecon Beacons in South Wales hundreds of motorbikes lie scattered and abandoned on the grass. There’s a child’s tiny pink PeeWee; a pearlescent chopper inlaid with a dead scorpion trapped in resin; a Harley-Davidson Sportster with the words ‘Don’t Fuckin’ Die’ emblazoned across its fuel tank. These machines belong to the 400-or-so female motorcyclists who are only now emerging from their tents, blinking in the sunlight, and beginning to make plans for their journey home from Camp VC – some will be riding back across mainland Europe, others heading for the airport to board a plane to the States.
The riders themselves are as eclectic as their bikes, though the look is generally less Hells Angels-style black leathers, more multi-hued and millennial. There are motocross jumpsuits, retro sportswear, mesh jerseys, crop tops, neon hair, dungarees and ’50s headscarves among the plain old T-shirts and jeans. Some of the clichés do apply – many of them sport tattoos, from stick ‘n’ poke styles to swirling dragons. Riders clearly still love ink.
The previous night ended in mayhem. Following sets by two all-female bands, BBC Radio 6 Music DJ Georgie Rogers blasted everything from Whitney Houston to Childish Gambino in a barn that served as a bar, skate park, screening room, video game arcade, exhibition space, clothing store, bingo hall and dance floor over the course of the weekend. Tops were peeled off sweaty bodies, as some of the riders busted out splits while others attempted to crowd surf, and the bleach-haired sisters behind Blondies, an east London dive bar, handed out free cans of beer and cups of rum punch until supplies finally ran out in the early hours.
“You’d kill for the vibe in there,” says Lorna Paterson, a venue planning manager for events including Women of the World and Meltdown, in the queue for Dark Arts coffee the following morning. “The way the girls were dancing was so uninhibited, it was pure joy and excitement.” She credits the all-female environment (which wasn’t completely exclusive – a few guys served refreshments and taught classes) for this atmosphere, pointing out that women could arrive dishevelled from a ride and strip off their bike gear in the courtyard. “Here, they’re free.”
By lunchtime, heads are clearing. New friends are making plans as they sprawl around a makeshift awning and share breakfast. Kirsty Gregory arrived at the site unaccompanied – and with a sense of trepidation – on Friday and took part in a beginners’ motorbike class the next day. “I didn’t know what to expect from the weekend,” she says, shielding her eyes from the sun, “but I thought I could always just go and hide in my tent. The second I pulled into the courtyard, Jane waved at me through the window.”
Jane Parson and Emma Yates are a couple from Derbyshire who seem to have gathered around them every woman who arrived feeling a little lost and apprehensive. Now, their newly formed crew – which includes a lorry driver, dry stone waller, orthopaedic surgeon, boat builder, teacher and more – has its own WhatsApp thread and is talking about meeting up for a ride into the Californian desert.
This kind of camaraderie is exactly what Camp VC – and VC London, the collective behind the event – is all about. Cofounders Gemma Harrison, Namin Cho and Maïte Storni – who now ride enviable customised choppers; Storni’s is the one with the distinctive scorpion inlaid into its tank – were all introduced to bikes by dads and boyfriends, but after crossing paths and starting to ride together they decided they wanted to encourage more girls to do the same.
Harrison became friends with Cho while both were working as fashion designers, and met Storni, a graphic designer, at a motorcycle café, where she offered to teach her how to ride. “I’d never even driven a car or anything,” Storni says. “I was petrified. My dad always rode bikes, but it never crossed his mind to teach his daughter to do it. It seemed like something that was dangerous or not for me.” After she took her CBT – Compulsory Basic Training, the motorbike course that allows you to start riding with learner plates – Storni says, “I was so proud of myself. It gave me a lot of confidence.”
The trio began taking trips together on “geeky little 125s”, decided on a name – Vicious C**ts, a jokey title originally thought up by one of their boyfriends, which stuck – created an Instagram account (@VC_London) so that they could share their experiences, and started putting on free beginners’ classes in a supermarket car park on Saturday afternoons, with no pressure and lots of time to talk about fear and mental blocks. At the time, they had no idea how many women needed the kind of support they were offering.
“We’d get girls saying, ‘I’m too small for a big bike,’” says Harrison, “and we’d send them to Instagram accounts of 5fttall girls on Harley 1200s.” The lessons eventually evolved into proper all-female CBT courses in partnership with a local training school, and sign-ups steadily increased.
I’ve found my place at last. I found myself in the bikes and in the people around the bikes”
There was never any big plan to expand this community into a bike-chick empire, but in 2015 Cho and Harrison travelled to Joshua Tree in California to attend Babes Ride Out, an annual get-together for female riders. The following year, they found themselves helping organise a UK version of the event, and by August 2017 Camp VC was born, with 120 campers travelling to Wales from as far afield as Canada and Australia.
Meanwhile, Harrison had become disillusioned with the fashion industry and decided to take a leap. “All this great stuff was happening with VC, and it was all so organic,” she says. “I went against any [advice] that people gave me, and thought, ‘I’ll see how it goes.’ Every day, I expect it to die off, but it just gains more and more traction.”
Now, the VC collective puts on regular panel discussions featuring boundary-pushing women, hosts monthly meet-ups at The Bike Shed in east London, organises dirt-bike events, and has a workshop in Limehouse – The Shop Customs – as well as running womenswear brand VCC and Camp VC itself, which gets bigger every year.
“We couldn’t have expected or planned it,” Harrison says. The kind of people gravitating to VC include women who are into other extreme sports and creative outlets, “so we started swapping lessons together, and ended up creating this huge network that was free of any type of pretension or judgement. That’s quite rare in today’s world.” This year’s Camp VC has grown to include skateboard lessons, tarot readings, yoga sessions, sign painting, a cinematography workshop, rollerskate ramp demos, as well as the usual group rides and various motorbike lessons.
Tamsin Jones – who owns the farm where Camp VC takes place and holds the record for the highest female ascent up Everest on a motorcycle, among other achievements – runs a class here dedicated to the cross-country discipline of enduro, where advanced riders can take part in trials that involve riding over obstacles. And yesterday, just across the field, 20-year-old Leah Tokelove, the only woman to race in the Pro class of UK Flat Track motorcycling, was teaching beginners the basics of cornering and changing gears.
Lucia Aucott, 29, from Nottingham, was one of Tokelove’s students two years ago, when she signed up for a two-day class, and fell in love with the sport so hard she bought her own bike on eBay that first evening. Now, she’s teaching alongside her former instructor and racing competitively in the intermediate class. “I found my place,” Aucott says. “I found myself in the bikes, and in the people around the bikes.”
It’s this sense of belonging that strikes Jane Parson as she chats with her new friends. She and her partner are veteran motorcyclists – Emma Yates has been riding since she took part in Voluntary Service Overseas in The Gambia back in the ’80s – but the feeling of acceptance that permeates Camp VC still feels new to Parson. “I came out in the early ’80s in a mining village,” she says. “I wish there had been something like Camp VC when I was 20.”
After I had a baby, everyone told me I had to stop riding. They didn’t say that to my husband. That’s why I came”
Acceptance is something the group of women Parson has gathered together have all had to fight for as members of an overwhelmingly male-dominated community. Over the weekend, they’ve been bonding not only by dodging sheep on a group ride, but by sharing their stories of having to endure patronising comments and low expectations.
Seated opposite the couple is Nea Steel, a teacher who has been riding dirt bikes since the age of 11, and who once spent six months mustering cattle on a bike on an Australian cattle station. Steel had a baby last year, which, she says, prompted “everyone to tell me I need to stop riding. No one said that to my husband. That’s why I came here. I thought, ‘There must be other people who have kids and still do things that are perceived as dangerous’”.
Being a mother with an appetite for adventure was one of the topics discussed at a panel talk the previous night. As rows of women sat attentively on hay bales, VC co-founder Gemma Harrison and cold-water surfer Sally McGee talked about the fact that both had recently given birth and returned to their high-octane activities immediately afterwards. McGee would have surfed in the icy waters off Tynemouth on the north-east coast of England all the way through her pregnancy, she said, “but luckily I snapped my arm in half when I was two months pregnant. It made me slow things down.”
Another panellist was two-time Olympic gold medallist Victoria Pendleton, who’s best known for track cycling but started riding a motorbike six months ago. “I was always told I’m too small and too girly,” she said. “I was told, ‘You don’t have the mentality of a champion.’” Over the years, she has learnt how to ignore these voices and be herself. “I’m going to be emotional and vulnerable at times, but I’m still gonna win shit.”
For Yorkshire-born Laura Mills, who’s packing her tent onto her Honda 125cc as Parson and her gang swap stories, the trip to Camp VC was part of a bucket-list dream. The previous year Mills had had appendicitis, but after the operation she’d contacted an E. coli infection – one of the most widely recognised symptoms of which is a feeling that you’re about to die.
“It’s such a weird feeling,” says the 25-year-old. “That’s the point where I started making monthly and yearly goals.” Mills contacted her mother, from whom she’d been estranged for a decade, and not long afterwards she took the CBT, despite, she says, having grown up surrounded by “men telling me I couldn’t do things”.
At 8am on the Friday of Camp VC, Mills passed the final test that granted her a full motorbike licence, allowing her to rip off her L plates and ride on motorways for the first time. From there, she set straight off from south London to Wales. The journey took hours longer than expected, and her camping gear kept slipping off the back and obscuring her brake lights, so she had to stop repeatedly and adjust the load under the blazing sun. But as she reached Wales, roaring around hairpin bends amid mountains and forests, elation overtook fatigue.
Over the weekend, Mills went climbing, did hillside yoga and took a cinematography course that helped nail down her aspirations for the YouTube vlog she runs under the name ‘MotoWaifu’. She also went on a ride with a group of women who were camping next to her, burning down long stretches of road with mountains on either side, not a car in sight. “It’s the first moment in a while that I’ve felt lucky,” Mills says. “Growing up, I always wanted to ride a bike, but I never thought the time would come.”
Riding to Wales for six hours on her own to attend a festival didn’t bother her much, but finding other women to ride with was still a rush. “It felt so good, really empowering and motivational. I find it very hard to meet with girls who ride, but now I know they’re out there. I’ve found them.” Next year, Mills says, she’ll be back, with a bike that’s big enough to bring a friend on the back, too.
That’s all VC’s Gemma Harrison ever wanted: for the ripples of enthusiasm and confidence that started with three friends in London to keep spreading outwards. She wrapped up Saturday night’s panel talk by urging the crowd to keep exploring, and to keep sharing their skills. “There are good people everywhere who are willing to give you a go on their skateboard, their motorbike, and that can change the rest of your life,” she said. “If you don’t have those people in your life, go out and find them. We go faster and further if we do it together.”