"We're trying to level the playing field"
It’s early spring in the East End of London. Gemma Harrison kicks the starter on her Triumph custom. At her side Namin Cho and Mai Storni, who give their own engines a chest rattling roar before tearing off towards Limehouse tunnel. As they cut through the Docklands – an industrial wasteland of concrete, metal and glass – any nearby vehicles instinctively keep their distance.
This is the core of VC London: an all-female bike crew redefining what it means to ride for a new generation.
Every week, VC opens up their workshop to give women a free lesson in the art of mechanics, as well as a place to fix their bikes or just have some fun.
“Biking is obviously a male-dominated world and we’re trying to level the playing field,” says Gemma, back at the Cable Street clubhouse.
“Motorbikes have taken over our lives in such a positive way that we want to share that excitement for adventure with other girls, so they can fall in love with it like we did. It’s about giving women a space to try something that maybe they couldn’t consider doing before.”
Back in June 2014, this was just an empty corner of a Victorian warehouse complex – an isolated spot where local kids used to start fires.
But after convincing the landlord to let them do something useful with it, VC London turned it into an oil-stained temple to polished chrome, souped-up engines and customised bikes. Everywhere you look, there’s a patch, print or some other bit of motorcycle memorabilia.
Womenswear designer Gemma was the first of the VC crew to start riding bikes. Her husband raced cars, but when they moved to London from Leeds in 2010, he switched to motorbikes and bought a vintage Triumph after passing his test.
When Gemma inherited his crappy 125cc machine, she took it to a motorbike show and felt terrified of getting left alone in the pits.
“So I followed him and his big fancy Triumph into the show area,” she says. “Me and my little bike got laughed at. I was like, ‘Fuck you, I’ll be back.’”
Gemma had the last laugh. She rebuilt the bike from the ground up, stripping the original stock to the frame before installing new bars and a headlight, a custom tank from a ’70s Honda dirtbike, a new racing battery and wheels. By the time it had been re-wired and spray painted with a powder coat, the motorbike had morphed into a bratty beast.
Now that Gemma has moved onto bigger machines, that 125cc has become the official VC training bike, giving hundreds of women their first taste of riding.
Above the VC workshop is a studio and fitting room for VCC – Gemma and Namin’s fashion range – where photographer Olivia Bohac is sliding into some motorbike leathers.
Olivia connected with VC through her all-female skate crew, Nefarious, and today she’s here for her first bike lesson.
It’s something I’ve always thought looked like fun,” says Olivia. “But bikes are expensive and it’s hard to find anyone who has one to let you have a go, so I just thought it was something I’d never get into.”
We cruise around the corner to the car park of a small industrial estate, which VC use to show newbies the basics. Olivia puts on her helmet, climbs onto the bike and listens attentively as Gemma runs her through the clutch, brake, gears and kill switch.
“You won’t need that,” Gemma adds reassuringly. Olivia hits the ignition, opens the throttle and, taking in some final pointers from Gemma, accelerates gingerly across the tarmac.
Graphic designer Mai grew up in Venezuela with a father who raced motorbikes. He would put her on the back of his Harley to explore the mountains around Caracas and beyond.
But despite having been around bikes for as long as she can remember, Mai never thought she’d be able to ride one herself.
“For me, it was mission impossible,” she says. “Boyfriends tried and failed to explain it in a way I could understand, but Gemma was the only one who made me realise I could do it.”
Originally from Seoul, South Korea, but raised in New Zealand and now a London-based menswear designer, Namin had ridden on the back of boyfriends’ bikes for years without finding the courage to take the throttle herself.
“I met Gemma and thought, ‘If she can do it, I can do it,’” Namin says.
Stoked on riding together, the trio created the VC London Instagram profile in January 2015 as a drunken joke. Then they watched it blow up on social media, prompting them to harness it as a way of inducting others.
“We don’t ask for anything in return,” says Gemma. “Building up this community is the most important aspect of what we do because we’ve found it transcends age and gender, which is something the wider world needs a lot more of right now.”
VC’s ambitions extend far beyond a patch of East London. After throwing up their colours on Instagram, they’ve ridden with, as well as hosted, female bikers across Europe and the US, where the subculture is much more developed.
Babes Ride Out launched in 2013 as an overnight motorcycle ride and camp-out at Joshua Tree National Park in California, having also started with a makeshift flyer on Instagram.
It now pulls crowds of over a thousand riders every year. In 2016, VC hosted the first international edition, Babes Ride Out UK, at a picturesque 16th century farm in the Brecon Beacons, South Wales, with 200 women riding from London, Bristol and further afield.
The event is now running under their own banner, as Camp VC, expanding the ride-out to include off-road lessons, talks from leading women in adventure sports and even a skate ramp.
Just as VC were inspired to start their own community after not seeing themselves reflected in the biking scene, VCC is about creating fashion pieces that don’t force riders to choose between style and safety.
“All the women’s motorbike gear we could find was pink, ill-fitting or had giant flowers on it,” Namin explains. “There was nothing we could wear in the city that gave us the safety we needed so, as designers, it’s great to create something that didn’t exist before.”
“We live in a society where you have to label every single thing you do,” adds Mai. “So the idea is to have a community where none of that matters. You can just be yourself here. Girls are still expected to look pretty and not get their hands dirty… But I can ride, wear boys’ clothes and be a model at the same time.”
The more Olivia gets to grips with the bike, the faster she rips around each circuit of the car park, before cheekily slamming on the brakes right at Gemma’s feet.
“Sorry, this is too much fun!” she says, beaming behind her helmet. “I got a bit excited!”
After a few more tips from Gemma on cornering and gear changes, Olivia is ready to drop the clutch for her final run.
In no time, she’s bumped up to third gear – rocketing across the car park, bearing down on an incoming van – and her induction into the sisterhood feels complete.
“Motorcycles are a ‘fuck you’,” Gemma says proudly. “I’m riding a bike and I am who I am. Nobody should have to fit into other people’s ideas about what they should be.
“That’s why we’re not discriminative of anyone who wants to ride with us.”
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