"If you do it wrong, you might die," says Kristin Munro. "So you have to trust yourself."
Munro has just disembarked from her Harley-Davidson XL Sportster 1200 Roadster: Outside, more motorcycles rev their engines in the hot field fringed with lush grass, poppies, and wild lupins. The sound echoes all the way down the country highway, signalling the arrival of the The Backroad Ball, Eastern Canada's first all-women motorcycle festival. Munro and fellow rider Heather D'Entremont organized the event.
"I always thought motorcycles were cool," says Munro, 26. Her long, dirty-blonde hair skims a patch on her jacket reading "Piston Kristin." This weekend, around 100 women have gathered for the inaugural festival in Penobsquis, New Brunswick: two days of group rides, music, tattoos, beer, and bonfires at a privately-owned farm along the old Route 114. The women rolling in for the weekend range from punk tattooed twenty-somethings with band shirts and acid-green hair, to grey-haired grannies. T-shirts and patches display allegiance to all-women biker clubs like Merla's Coven and The Diamond Devilz.
Women-only motorcycle events are turning into a major thing in North America: events like Babes Ride Out and The Dream Roll see attendance in the thousands. But the the Backroad Ball is the first event of its kind in Eastern Canada, where female forays into traditionally uber-masculine activities tend to be slower to catch on, and still viewed as mildly transgressive. "New Brunswick is such a blue-collar place," artist and museum programmer Christiana Myers, 26, who drives a Suzuki Boulevard 650, tells VICE. "A lot of men and boys grow up with mechanics stuff ingrained into their being. But even though I was interested in that stuff at an early age, no one explained it to me. I think it's important to show other women that they can do it."
Munro, like a lot of other women I talked to this weekend, first got into bikes via a relationship. "I was on the backseat forever, mostly with ex-boyfriends that drove too fast on street bikes," she says, adding that hurtling down the highway with nothing between you and the asphalt but a pair of chaps is "so much worse when it's not you in the driver's seat." Quickly tiring of riding two-up (aka "riding bitch," as some call riding in the backseat), she took a motorcycle course and bought her first bike, a 980 Honda CM400T, last year. She soon upgraded to a Harley.
Other women (and men too, obviously) get into motorcycles after something shitty happens in their life: a divorce, a death, a brush with their own mortality. "Sometimes it takes a hard experience to make women get into bikes," says Munro, emphasizing again the importance of not getting cocky. "You have direct control over whether you live or die: If I'm hungover, or I just feel off, or I don't know if it's going to go well, I don't go."
"When you're steering, you feel like you're in charge of your own life," she says.
"Some of the women I've met like to say, 'never ride bitch.' 'Cause who wants to be someone's bitch?"
At a women-only biker fest, tropes of traditional, boy's-club biker culture get gleefully reversed. The handful of dudes working the event are mainly boyfriends: a cardinal rule of their attendance is that they wear women's clothing at all times. Sean Doucet and Josh Brooks have taken this instruction seriously, running around all weekend, mixing drinks, making fires, and giving the occasional jump-start in flowing wigs, skirts, and lipstick.
Once the beers start flowing late Friday night, there's some interesting internalized patriarchal behaviour on display. As Brooks throws a few logs on a gigantic bonfire, his purple wig glinting in the firelight, some of the older ladies holler "Show us yer nipples!"
Slightly stunned, he turns around and flashes the ladies, who roar appreciatively. They accost him: everybody laughs. Some are busting out dance moves to classic rock piped over the PA; others chant "Carla! Carla!" as their buddy chugs a beer. A few practise wobbly harmonica skills picked up at a workshop earlier in the evening. Chrome fenders and handlebars sparkle orange in the firelight.
"Co-ed [motorcycle] events are actually basically a boy's club," says Dana Feingold, a French grad student in Environmental Policy who made the two-day journey from Quebec with her friend Catherine David. "There were some women but, when I'd go [to regular motorcycle festivals], I felt like a girlfriend and not like a person. But when I saw all these other women, then I thought, I can do this."
In addition to letting women be themselves—whatever that means—riding together, they say, removes some of the weird competition over dudes, careers, and parenting in which women are often socialized to engage. "We don't even really know one another," laughs David: she describes meeting Feingold at Babes Ride Out, then unceremoniously deciding to hit the road ensemble. "Now, we got to know each other and sleep in the same tent. I love riding. She loves riding. So I say let's just do that."
"I find it's like a meditation," says D'Entremont. "When you're on a bike, you can't text, you can't fiddle with the music. There's nothing you can do except ride and you need every single limb to do it." In addition to this party, she and Munro also started New Brunswick's branch of The Litas, an all-women motorcycle organization with chapters from Buenos Aires to Bossier City, Louisiana. The group's mission is simple: encouraging women to ride together.
On Saturday morning, in one of many moments that depart from a typical biker fest, riders assemble for a yoga session and berry smoothies. Riders have their choice of a 196-kilometer loop past the famed tidal rock formations at Hopewell Cape, or a shorter route to the sea caves of St Martin's.
The June sun beats down on a hundred helmets and leather jackets. A hundred women are lined up on their bikes and ready to hit the road. Munro raises her arm to signal the start of a "minute of thunder": every biker revs their engines simultaneously to honor Erin Robertson, a local motorcyclist who died in a crash last month. Tina Siddall, who's been teaching motorcycle courses for over 20 years and riding for over forty, gives a safety briefing.
"You've gotta have good gear," says Siddall. "The gear is all we have. When I was a teenager, I was going through a covered bridge and ran into the back of the car. My legs stuck to the muffler: I have a scar from here," she says, gesturing from her upper calf down to her ankle, "to here. That taught me why not to wear shorts on a bike. It's dangerous: you should have respect for it. You don't want to get caught riding over your head."
Many bikers have given their rides names: Myrtle. Betty White. Big Bertha. Giving the bike a personality makes the idea of it turning on you seem less likely.
After the thunder of engines dies down, the hundred motorcycles roll out: cars passing on the old highway honk their horns, and some slow down to rubberneck. The women cheer and raise their fists in the air as they speed off. It's very Thelma and Louise, only on two wheels instead of a '66 Thunderbird. An all-female film crew from Saint John hops in the back of a truck and rides ahead of the group, filming a teaser for a short doc about the event.
As Munro puts it, "You try not to think about how dangerous it is, but it's there. People that are driving around you can take your life. It's scary, but it's worth it.
"It's like a lot of things in life: if it doesn't fucking scare you, it doesn't matter."
Later that evening, the bikes are filtering back into camp. Jill Wong, whose asymmetrically cropped hair and boots give her serious Tank Girl vibes, is waiting to get tattooed in the mobile studio the girls from Oceans of Ink have set up in an RV. Getting a bike was a "someday dream" of Wong's for years: she finally got her license last month, and bought a teal 1989 Yamaha Virago, which she says "reminds me of a mermaid." For her, riding was a way to address her worrying, overly cautious tendencies. "I'd see pictures of girls on bikes and be like, 'it's so badass, they don't give a shit about anything.'"
Not everyone loved the idea. "People tell you such horror stories. They don't tell you the good things. They tell you, 'I knew this guy that got killed on a bike.' My mom was terrified when I got it. If I were a guy, she might not've been so worried."
For a minute on the road today, her mom could've been proven right: the bike she was riding blew out a tire on the highway. "All of a sudden, the back end of my bike started fishtailing all over the place. It was a little scary but I didn't panic or slam the brakes or anything. You can't try and steer out of it, you just counter-lean and pull off the throttle, and that's what I did. I remembered my training."
"I was like 'shit, if she dumps it, I'm going to drive over her,'" says D'Entremont. But Wong was "a champ: she counterbalanced to compensate for the fishtailing, and she just started riding. Watching her handle that and safely get it to the side of the road blew my mind." Together, they called for backup and worked together to get the bike off the road into the back of the truck.
The flat tire was a ten-minute blip in an otherwise killer road trip—far from turning into a disaster, it cemented Wong's love of riding solo.
"I was, like, shaking," she says, "but it's good to know that if something happens I'm not just going to panic. It seems intimidating at first: there's so much to learn and, you feel like you might not be able to do it. But as you're on two wheels, you all have something in common. In my life, I tend to lack a female community, but there are so many different types of ladies here, people that look like hardcore bikers, noobs like me. When you all love motorcycles, it brings you together."
In small, more conservative places like the Maritimes, that common ground feels all the cooler for its relative rarity. As Munro puts it, "even though the biker culture is smaller and most people don't think of us at all, women here deserve the same camaraderie men have. When there are guys around, women feel less free to be themselves. The lack of testosterone is a good thing. It needs to be ours. We don't have enough of those things."
A perfect illustration of all this comes when 15 biker babes roll into Fundy National Park: impossible to miss, with neon scarves, lace-up leather vests and fringed jackets flying in the wind, they stop and remove glitter helmets and shake down their braids and ponytails. All the tourist families at the observation deck stop to gawk. They're taking up a lot of space in the parking area: a few older folks peer over disapprovingly from their minivan. A couple takes pictures. The only other motorcyclist in sight is a bearded dude on a huge, red Harley. He reverses to drive slowly past the group, craning his neck.
They're flushed-faced, exclaiming all at once "that was fucking awesome!" and comparing notes on the ride, laughing over how crazy the hills were, revelling in having mastered the first half of the journey. He revs his engine a bit, seemingly waiting for the women to look over. Nope.
When he finally cruises away, unacknowledged, most of the girls are too busy high-fiving one another to notice.
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