Get To Know The Fierce Women Dominating The Motorcycle Scene

Photo by Beth Garrabrant

In South Dakota’s Buffalo Chip campground, women take the lead

The following feature appears in the October 2017 issue of NYLON.

Between a chorus of exhaust pipes and the faint hum of a drone overhead, it can be hard to know exactly what’s unfolding down at the Buffalo Chip. A single file of personalized motorcycles begins to make its way past hazy pink banners and glorified micro-cabins. Nearby spectators stand in awe—not at the stream of souped-up bikes, but at their drivers. 

Helming these rides is a stylish stampede of women, donning everything from aviators and charcoal-toned Daisy Dukes to patched leather vests, bandannas, and a gallery of tattoos. “A lot of guys tell me, ‘We knew this was gonna happen one day,’” says Kelly Yazdi, a 26-year-old motorcyclist from Los Angeles, while straddling the seat of an RSD Dyna Ripper. 

Yazdi is referring to her brainchild, The Wild Gypsy Tour, which just kicked off as the first-ever all-women’s motorcycle festival at Buffalo Chip Campground, a mammoth 600-acre tract of land near the Black Hills of South Dakota. This places the “Gypsies” at the epicenter of the 77th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, the world’s largest event of its kind. Or, as Yazdi puts it, “You know how in Peter Pan there’s a Mermaids’ Lagoon? That’s us.” 

It’s been said that women are the fastest-growing demographic in the motorcycling industry today. Not only is female ownership at an all-time high, according to 2016 data from the Motorcycle Industry Council, but some experts estimate that women now represent almost a quarter of all riders. And nationwide, while women’s biker groups continue to increase in chapters, all-female overnight campouts like California’s “Babes Ride Out” reign supreme. 

So to say that this is a pivotal time for women in motorcycling is rather an understatement. Just this June, Jessi Combs, also known as the “Fastest Woman on Four Wheels,” was selected to be the first-ever female grand marshal of the Sturgis Mayor’s Ride. The Wild Gypsy Tour continues in this vein, working to carve out a communal space for women within a male-dominated scene. 

Photo by Beth Garrabrant

The Buffalo Roam

Before there was The Wild Gypsy Tour, or even real talk of “women in motorcycling,” there was the founding of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. The year was 1938, and its setting along the western edges of South Dakota made the Black Hills Motor Classic—as it was originally dubbed—a prime locale for two-wheeling stunts and Ford Model T races. (Think an old-timey The Fast & the Furious, and swap out Vin Diesel for a guy named J.C. “Pappy” Hoel.) 

It took decades for the rally to become synonymous with the bonfires, beer, and nude dalliances of the ’70s, and a few more years for local Sturgis residents to propose abolishing the event altogether. Legend has it that the city’s mayor sought to get the “riffraff out of town” in 1981, thereby preventing bikers from having a place to camp during the rally. 

That’s when a man named Rod “Woody” Woodruff intervened, offering up his privately owned land to bikers from all over the nation. “The Legendary Buffalo Chip”—more commonly exalted as “Buffalo Chip,” or simply, “The Chip”—was born. It would be years before Woodstock, Bonnaroo, or any other tent-city capital would spring up, making the site a true prototype of the campground-vendor-concert combo. 

“We all heard of this place—this mecca,” says Cris Sommer-Simmons, 60, recounting her first trip to the Sturgis Rally over three decades ago. “I can still remember when I heard my first Harley. I ran out of the house and said, ‘What’s that sound?’ I never heard anything so beautiful in my life.” 

Photo by Beth Garrabrant

Today, Sommer-Simmons—one of the nation’s pioneering female motorcyclists—holds the distinction of being the only woman to finish three “Cannonballs,” a cross-country vintage motorcycle endurance race, and to get inducted into three motorcycle halls of fame. In 1985 she co-founded the publication Harley Women, and since then has seen the Buffalo Chip gradually host a wider range of female business owners, builders, and bikers.

“Now, every pack of bikes you see go by, there’s maybe one or two women. It didn’t used to be [like] that,” she says, her cascading mane of honey-blonde hair wisping against her vintage Harley-Davidson jacket. “You find your tribe within your tribe.” 

Spreading out over the Buffalo Chip, endless rows of RVs form tentacles around the campground’s more notable attractions, like the half-mile track, which curves its way through the amphitheater, or the seven-story zip-line tower, which sends campgoers flying above motocross races. Most of the crowd is armed with pulled-pork sandwiches and domestic beer, and is wearing some version of leather chaps. And there are other fixtures, like free pancake breakfasts, midget bowling (not very PC), and the Miss Buffalo Chip Pageant. 

Photo by Beth Garrabrant

Walk past the wooden bowling stalls and the occasional go-go dancing paratrooper, and you’ll come to a crossroads. On your left is Bikini Beach, a swimming hole and performance stage, home to whipped cream Twister and Slip ‘N Slide relays. Curve further down the bend and arrowed signs lead to self-service laundry and a steakhouse. But the loudest sign is a rectangular pink poster which points riders in the direction of The Wild Gypsy Tour. “Everyone is so curious,” says Yazdi, when we meet up at Gypsy HQ. “We’ve had women be like, ‘Hey, can we relocate our camp to come hang out with you?’ But for guys, it’s almost like a filtration system.”

To stay “women-oriented and focused,” Yazdi explains the importance of knowing every man that enters their “safe space.” As a structure, the camp is fenced o from other parts of Buffalo Chip. In the center of the grounds, there’s a bar surrounded by a ring of glamping tents. Further back, there’s a wooden barn composed of hay-bale pillow pallets and dream catchers, adding a Coachella aesthetic markedly different than the campsites next door. 

And that’s partly the point. At its conception, The Wild Gypsy Tour was slated to be a trailblazing effort, a partnership with the Buffalo Chip to support women in the industry. Yazdi, who works as a project manager, was given free rein to craft the tour, and with that mission came accoutrements like sponsorships, hammocks, and karaoke. By the barn, there’s even a bike wash, where men lather and detail the Gypsies’ motorcycles after a long ride. 

Indeed, the Gypsy camp is the most explicit symbol of a changing tide, one that can be felt rising throughout the grounds, where female bikers are now finding themselves front and center and realizing the power their very presence holds. Nearby, for instance, motorcycle builder J Shia is posted up at a 7,000-square-foot exhibition hall where her work is on display as part of a “Motorcycles as Art” exhibit. “It’s a 1971 BSA A65,” she says, before switching to layman’s terms. “We named the bike, ‘The Manipulated,’ because we manipulated the machine to function with very unconventional things, like antique tools, chainsaw oilers, and a Boston sewer drain.” 

The 27-year-old Boston native gazes over her recent creation, which looks like it sprang from the mind of Mad Max. In reality, Shia is a single mother with an eight-year-old boy, and the proud owner of Madhouse Motors, a full-time service and repair shop. “I wake up every day, get in my tow truck, and drive to my shop. I work around guys and girls, and I don’t factor in anyone’s gender,” she explains. “But here, women come up to me and say, ‘Wow. You’re really setting the path for builders,’ and it’s so flattering, but I feel a little jaded because where I’m at, I don’t have to think about it every day.” 

Photo by Beth Garrabrant

How The West Was Won

Enmeshed within South Dakota’s history are Wild West tales of defiance, freedom, and the pursuit of something more. After gold was discovered in the Black Hills in 1874, hordes of visitors sought a piece of the hidden riches, most often in the mining town of Deadwood. (If you’re familiar with the HBO series by the same name, you’ve got the right place in mind: a Western photograph come to life, complete with pistol-packed saloons and gambling dens, where folk hero “Wild Bill” Hickok met his demise during a poker game.)

So it’s fitting that when many bikers come to experience Sturgis in all of its mythic glory, Deadwood is another popular place for them to take up residence. And maybe it’s all the more perfect that the historic district was once the haunt of Martha Jane Canary, better known as “Calamity Jane,” a sharpshooter skilled in the art of “unladylike” pursuits. 

Outside of a wood-paneled motel in Deadwood, a group of modern-day Calamity Janes linger. They’re dressed in spotless fringe and distressed jeans, often adjusting motorcycle suspensions to t their long journeys ahead. On this Sunday morning, Val LeGentil, 55, has her sights set on Devils Tower, across the border in Wyoming, though she recently made a 2,200-mile trek to Sturgis from her home in British Columbia, Canada. “I prefer to ride my own bike. Then I have my destiny in my own hands,” she says, climbing atop her newly purchased freewheeler. “Nobody else is going to be driving me into a ditch.” 

Photo by Beth Garrabrant

Take one stroll along Main Street in Sturgis and you’ll likely hear engines rumbling with the same desire. Lines of motorcycles cruise past old-school saloons, ammo shops, and scantily clad vendors. Veteran bikers get their boots shined, beers in hand, and suddenly the anything-goes festival feels tamer than years before.

After all, this is the place that once staged a bon re of foreign bikes in defense of American-made Harley-Davidsons. The same place where, in 2009, members of the Hells Angels and Iron Pigs motorcycle gangs brawled inside of the iconic Loud American Roadhouse, a night that ended in gunfire. Recent articles have posed the question of whether, after 77 years, the world’s biggest motorcycle rally has lost its edge. But those declarations fail to perceive the undercurrent of female power players, many of whom are steadily redefining, and breathing new life into, decades-old boys’ clubs. 

These are women like Jeanine, a scene-stealing motorcyclist from Tulsa, Oklahoma, who strides around in a sea of baby blue fringe. Or Barbie and Patti, a duo of bike-wielding sisters who recently surfaced in Sturgis, donning cutoff shirts emblazoned with the phrase SHHH..NOBODY CARES. Or Arlene Henry, a retired elementary school teacher, who has been cruising the country alongside her husband, Vern, since 1968. “I think men get lost in themselves from the day they’re born,” says Henry. “I think women belong up front, and men need to sit in the back.” 

Photo by Beth Garrabrant

Not everyone is on board with this idea. While at Sturgis, I meet a former Marine who doesn’t believe women should have their own bikes, and other riders who are indifferent. Back at the Buffalo Chip, Marjorie Kleiman, 64, opens up about the mansplaining that so often accompanies her passion. “Try going into a motorcycle shop with a guy. I’ll go with my boyfriend—who doesn’t ride—and they’ll only talk to him,” says Kleiman, who was recently named editor-in-chief of Thunder Press, a monthly magazine devoted to American motorcycle lifestyle and culture. “I can have an amazing conversation with a guy, talking about all of the mods on my bike, and at the end of it, he’ll say, ‘So, do you ride?’”

At present, Kleiman owns four Harleys: a Sportster (“Ruby”), an FXD (“Elvira the Black Beauty”), a vintage 1982 FXRS Shovelhead (“Foxy Lady”), and a 2017 Road King (“Badlands Betty”). She only began riding in her forties, but she’s more than made up for the delay. 

“I didn’t do it to prove anything, but it is a lot more work to get people to realize who I am, and to look past the gender,” Kleiman says. “I hope that [one day] people don’t talk about women in motorcycling anymore. It shouldn’t be a thing. We’re all motorcyclists. We’re all people.” 

Photo by Beth Garrabrant

Gypsy Rising

If a revolution is indeed underway, it’s best to keep an eye on one obvious unifier: social media. That’s how Mel Putland, a 30-year-old singer from Australia, found herself at Sturgis in the Wild Gypsy camp. “I’m blown away by the kind of hospitality Americans have for riding,” she says, adding that her Harley-Davidson stayed home in Melbourne. “They’re not scared of me dropping their bike or anything. They’re like, ‘Just take it!’ I’m genuinely shocked.”

Like many Gypsies, Putland connected with the tour on Instagram; she was a fellow rider with a “dark pop” music air, and the ability to perform live (which she did the night before we speak). Though it’s difficult to discern how many converts have come to experience the Buffalo Chip for the first time, it’s not hard to know who intends to return. “I can’t wait to see what this evolves into,” says 29-year-old Ashley Teriaca, who joined the tour with three friends from Milwaukee. 

Suggestions for next year’s tour include things like hookah lounges, adding more Wi-Fi, and paintball races. That the Gypsies intend to push the limits of Buffalo Chip tradition is obvious, but Yazdi hopes such change will be what preserves The Wild Gypsy Tour, and cements a larger cultural shift worldwide. Like the elder bikers and industry pioneers who came before them, these riders are paving a new kind of road for themselves. “When you get women involved, more men get involved. It spreads like this beautiful ripple effect. Then you’re supporting families. You’re supporting mothers, daughters, and sisters,” Yazdi says. “Women are the secret sauce to life—to everything.” 

Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

"In my head I thought, This is how it ends"

Kit Harington almost lost a lot more than the Iron Throne while filming the final season of Game of Thrones. According to an interview with NowThis News, the actor almost lost one of his balls while riding a mechanical dragon.

Harington revealed that the incident took place when he was filming the scene where his character, Jon Snow, takes a ride on Rhaegal for the first time in the Season 8 premiere. Since dragons aren't real (sorry), Harington was filming the scene, where Jon almost falls off the dragon and then swings around to pick himself back up, on a mechanical contraption.

"My right ball got trapped, and I didn't have time to say, 'Stop,'" Harington said in an interview. "And I was being swung around. In my head I thought, This is how it ends. On this buck, swinging me around by my testicles, literally." We see shots of the fake dragon he's riding in front of a green screen, and it does look pretty terrifying.

Luckily, his testicles remained intact through the near-disastrous event, and he's survived with quite the story to tell to unsuspecting journalists.

Photo by Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for goop

"I had to create a harder shell about being a woman"

In a panel discussion during Gwyneth Paltrow's In Goop Health summit, actress Jessica Alba revealed that she "stopped eating" to avoid unwanted attention from men when she was first starting her career in Hollywood.

According to People, Alba said that she "had a curvy figure as a young girl" and, as such, was made to feel as though her body was the reason that men may be inappropriate toward her. "I was meant to feel ashamed if I tempted men," Alba said during the panel discussion. "Then I stopped eating a lot when I became an actress. I made myself look more like a boy so I wouldn't get as much attention. I went through a big tomboy phase."

She continued, "In Hollywood, you're really preyed upon. They see a young girl, and they just want to touch you inappropriately or talk to you inappropriately or think that they're allowed to be aggressive with you in a way."

Alba also noted that she was raised in a conservative household. "My mom would say, 'You have a body, and it's very womanly, and people don't understand that you're 12,'" she said. "I wasn't allowed to have my nalgas out, which is butt cheeks [in Spanish], but I was born with a giant booty, and they come out of everything. So, I didn't get to wear normal things that all my friends wore."

She said that these reactions to her body really affected her attitude. "I created this pretty insane 'don't fuck with me' [attitude]," she said. "I had to create a harder shell about being a woman."

According to her, her relationship to her body only changed when her first child, Honor, was born in 2008. "[After she was born,] I was like, Oh this is what these boobies are meant to do! Feed a kid!" she said. "And that was the dopest shit I'd ever done. So, I came into my body as a woman finally and I stopped being ashamed of myself."

Photo courtesy of Teva

Because of course

Teva, the most obvious lesbian footwear brand since Birkenstock, really knows its customer base. In time for Pride, the brand has teamed up with Tegan and Sara for a gay shoe to end all gay shoes. In other words, your Pride footwear is on lock.

The shoe isn't just your average Teva sandal. Tegan and Sara's design, the Teva Flatform Universal Pride sandal, is a 2.5-inch platform shoe with a rainbow sole. Tegan and Sara noted in a press release that they have been Teva wearers for pretty much their whole lives. "We got our first pair of Teva sandals when we were 16," they said. "This rainbow Flatform collab is like full circle LGBTQ+ Pride validation."

What's better, with each sandal sale, Teva will donate $15 to the Tegan and Sara Foundation, up to $30,000. The funds donated will go toward scholarships which will give young members of the LGBTQ+ community the chance to go to summer camps which will "help develop self-confidence and leadership abilities in a safe and nurturing environment." Tegan and Sara added, "Teva's generous support for our foundation will allow us to help even more LGBTQ+ youth."

Available today at Teva's and Nordstrom's websites, the sandal retails for $80.

Photo courtesy of Teva

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Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images

"Focusing on innovative materials will allow the company to explore new boundaries of creative design"

Prada Group has announced that Prada, as well as all of its brands, will now be fur-free. According to a press release from the Humane Society, Prada, Miu Miu, Church's, and Car Shoe will ban the use of fur beginning with the Spring/Summer 2020 collection (aka the Fashion Week coming up next). The list of fashion designers banning fur only continues to grow, with 3.1 Phillip Lim, Coach, Armani, Versace, Gucci, and more having stopped using the material in seasons past.

"The Prada Group is committed to innovation and social responsibility, and our fur-free policy—reached following a positive dialogue with the Fur Free Alliance, in particular with LAV and the Humane Society of the United States—is an extension of that engagement," Miuccia Prada told the Human Society. "Focusing on innovative materials will allow the company to explore new boundaries of creative design while meeting the demand for ethical products."

Following London Fashion Week designers forgoing the use of fur in September and the first-ever Vegan Fashion Week taking place in February, it's easy to imagine an entirely fur-free fashion future. It's especially easy, I presume, for the brands to consider a fur-free future, given that entire cities and states are taking a stance. New York is following in the footsteps of Los Angeles banning fur, with a bill proposed this March that would ban sales across New York State.

Photo by Johnny Dufort

"Club leisure" is the new athleisure

Alexander Wang is recognizing clubbing as the workout that it truly is with his latest Adidas collaboration. In this fifth installment, he "changes gears," per a press release from the brand, taking the iconic sports brand to the dance floor.

For the new campaign, the collection comes to life in iconic choreographer Tanisha Scott's dance studio and stars dancers Noemi Janumala, Dakota Moore, Avi McClish, and Olivia Burgess. The dancers show just how far these clothes can go when you want to bust a move or stretch, but TBH, I'll leave these poses to the pros and just use my clothes for flexing on the 'gram.

The collection—which features six apparel items, three shoes, and six accessories—features, per a press release, "Wang's knack for pre-styling." Standouts from the mostly black-and-white items include a silver sneaker that was *made* for moonwalking, an airy windbreaker that has just the right dash of bright blue with the scattered Adidas trefoil design, and a towel hoodie that you won't feel bad sweating in.

Ahead of the May 25 collection drop online and in stores, peep the gorgeous campaign images below.

Photo by Johnny Dufort

Adidas Originals by AW, Sweatshirt in Black, $250, available starting May 25 at Adidas; Adidas Originals by AW, Towel, $80, available starting May 25 at Adidas; Adidas Originals by AW, Joggers, $250, available starting May 25 at Adidas; Adidas Originals by AW, Turnout BBall Shoes, $250, available starting May 25 at Adidas.

Photo by Johnny Dufort

Adidas Originals by AW, Towel Hoodie, $350, available starting May 25 at Adidas; Adidas Originals by AW, Sock Leggings, $60, available starting May 25 at Adidas; Adidas Originals by AW, Adilette Slides, $90, available starting May 25 at Adidas.

Photo by Johnny Dufort

Adidas Originals by AW, Futureshell Shoes in Platinum Metallic, $250, available starting May 25 at Adidas.

Photo by Johnny Dufort

Adidas Originals by AW, Sweatshirt in Core White, $280, available starting May 25 at Adidas; Adidas Originals by AW, Shorts in Core White, $120, available starting May 25 at Adidas.

Photo by Johnny Dufort

Adidas Originals by AW, Sweatshirt in Black, $250, available starting May 25 at Adidas; Adidas Originals by AW, Bum Bag, $50, available staring May 25 at Adidas; Adidas Originals by AW, Towel, $80, available starting May 25 at Adidas; Adidas Originals by AW, Turnout BBall Shoes, $250, available starting May 25 at Adidas; Adidas Originals by AW, Duffle Bag, $70, available starting May 25 at Adidas.

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