The all-female motorbike collective reinventing the family day out by taking their kids to the dirt tracks
By Alex King
Photography by Claudia Agati
Gale force winds batter Margate Beach on the Kentish coast in southern England. The tempestuous sea is like staring into the face of a sandblaster, as the high winds smash salt and sand into any exposed skin. The only thing heard over the wind ripping is the roar of motorbikes, as competitors make their way from the pits on the promenade down onto the sand to assemble behind the starting grid.
This is by no means your regular family day out – but then Gemma Harrison and Steph Bolam are no ordinary mums. They are in Margate to sprint dash across the sand on their motorbikes to the Malle Mile Beach Race. And they’re doing it all together with their children in tow: Stan, 2 and Lola, 8. “I won’t lie, everything becomes three times harder when you’re a parent,” Gemma explains. “You can’t just go out and ride whenever you feel like. But motorbikes are such a big part of who me and my husband Howard are, we want it to be an integral part of Stan’s life too. It’s a huge amount of effort but we realised early on that the payoff is more than worth it – being around all this gives us so much.”
Welcome to VC London: an all-female motorbike collective. The co-founder, Gemma, and fellow member Steph have been pushing to create space in the male-dominated world of motorbiking for women who want to ride, build bikes and explore the world on two wheels together. To date, through events and workshops, VC has taught hundreds of women to ride and created a fun, supportive and inclusive community that now stretches across the globe.
This year, with the support of British motorcycle manufacturer, Herald, the VC X HERALD Beginners’ Moto School was introduced. Led by a female team of licensed trainers, Gemma explains, “Often when someone wants to try out riding a motorcycle, they have to rely on knowing somebody who has a bike and is willing to let them have a go. We wanted to provide proper tuition in a safe environment where women can give riding geared motorcycles a try before taking the dive.” Herald supply the ultimate beginners’ bike, the 125cc Herald Classic, whilst Bell Helmets supply protective headgear for each three-hour session.
Alongside like-minded crews in other countries, VC has helped to shatter the traditional image of a motorbiker as a bearded man with a leather jacket who stinks of engine oil, so that a new generation of women can see themselves being part of the contemporary motorbiking scene. Now, Gemma and Steph want to increase the visibility of mothers who ride motorbikes to show other women that having children doesn’t have to mean giving up your passion.
“Some people would think it’s crazy, but motorbiking is actually an amazing world to bring a child into,” Gemma explains. “There’s never going to be a perfect time to have a child for someone who rides motorbikes for a living,” says Gemma, who had Stan aged 33. “But I have an amazing support system around me thanks to VC. Stan has got hundreds of ‘aunties’ who all do something incredible.” For Gemma, there was never any question that her son would grow up surrounded by motorbikes. After she founded VC London with her friends Namin Cho and Mai Storni in January 2015, Gemma’s professional and social life has increasingly revolved around motorbikes. What started out as “three friends hanging out, messing around with bikes and hoping to meet other women who ride,” as she puts it, has become a movement and helped make riding motorbikes mainstream for young women today.
A tongue-in-cheek Instagram account has grown into a women’s motorcycle clothing brand. There’s now Camp VC: an annual festival featuring an all-women weekend of motorbikes, climbing, yoga and skateboarding in the Brecon Beacons, South Wales. In partnership with Bell Helmets, aspiring female artists are commissioned to design exclusive helmets, which are raffled off at Camp VC to help raise funds to support VC’s riding school. And throughout the year, women can come along and give different motorsport disciplines a try at VC’s regular Dirt events.
Generally, Gemma competes on her custom 1966 Triumph chopper, while Steph has a much more appropriate two-stroke Beta Xtrainer 300 enduro bike. She makes racing look easy, like she’s been riding a dirt bike all her life. Her introduction to motorbikes came in 2015. She grew up sailing and mountaineering with her family, which she credits for the go-getting attitude she’s known for today. After the birth of Lola, Steph carried on with all her outdoor pursuits – even a 100 mile ultra marathon across a frozen lake in outer Mongolia at minus 20 degrees Celsius. But as Lola was approaching four, Steph began to look for activities she could share with her daughter.
“My parents gave me such a solid grounding in life, a connection with the earth and appreciation of the instinctive, primal fun you get from being outdoors,” Steph explains. “I wanted to share that adventurous lifestyle with my daughter too. Lola loved anything with two wheels so I started to think about riding motorbikes together. I tried dirt biking for the first time in the Welsh hills and it was just never-ending fun: exploring the countryside and getting dirty, in good or bad weather.” Since she started biking aged five, Lola rides most weekends and has progressed from a baby PW50 machine to a bigger zebra-print KTM 50cc two-stroke that she rips on today. “It’s so much more exciting to be riding with Lola,” Steph says. “When she’s riding hard and giving it her best, I know how that feels: Go baby go!”
Toddler Stan, Gemma’s son, is still too young to ride himself but there are early signs that he’ll be joining the fun as soon as he gets the chance – he loves wearing his big moto helmet and watching the others rip it on the track. “When I was pregnant, everyone was convinced I would be having a girl because I run VC,” Gemma says. “But raising a little boy with all these amazing female role models in his life is just as exciting as raising a badass little girl. It’s important for him to see both me and Howard being brave and riding motorbikes.”
“I hate social media and only showing the glossy parts of your life – it’s intimidating to other women,” Gemma says, laughing as she wipes Stan’s eyes after a tearful moment. “No one sees the screams and the tantrums but that’s all part of it. There’s just no authentic representation of mums who do all of this stuff, unless they’re pro athletes and even then it’s often a bit contrived.” This group of women want to overturn the myth that you have to choose between motorbikes – or any other passion – and kids. Doing it all together as a family can be one of the most inspiring and life-affirming ways to be a mum.
GO BABY GO
“People underestimate how hard it is to involve your children in something physical or dangerous,” Steph says. “You have a huge responsibility to keep your child alive! So, you do what you can to manage the environment, so they are as protected and well-instructed as possible and have the strength to get up when they fall down. Cleaning up riding gear covered in mud and engine oil is a small price to pay for such incredible experiences together as an extended family unit. Both Gemma and Steph have consciously chosen to raise their children around motorbikes and the sport’s tight-knit community of passionate petrolheads because they believe it is the best way to instil in their children the values they hold dear. Namely: a love of adventure and the outdoors; finding an interest to dedicate yourself to; and developing the bravery and confidence to take on all the challenges that life throws at you.
“The one thing I would like Lola to learn from all of this is to live with freedom,” Steph says. “I want her to be excited by life and to try it all, to feel strong and to feel capable to do things that are challenging and physically demanding. To know you can fall off, hurt yourself and get back on again gives you such a huge sense of strength and resilience. That sense of freedom is transferable to every area of your life.”