Roaring past New Orleans’s aboveground cemeteries and homes still dilapidated from Hurricane Katrina, past new housing projects and around the city’s infamous potholes, the women receive a rowdy, happy welcome.
“Yasss, queen!” a young woman shouts out of her car window as she nods with a big smile. “All right now!” an older woman calls out from across the street while waving. A tourist grabs his friend by the shirt and points, stunned, watching the women go by.
This is the response you get when you’re riding with the Caramel Curves, New Orleans’s all-female motorcycle club.
The group is made up of 13 women brought together by their passion for motorcycles and their desire to bike with other women like themselves. On what are known as second-line Sundays (named for the city’s brass-band-led parades in the spring), the Caramel Curves can be spotted cruising around town. The ladies wear helmets ridged with fluorescent pink mohawks and matching vests bedazzled in blingy patches and sequins. Finishing the look are Barbie-pink stilettos. Their bikes are big Suzuki Hayabusas (that they call “busas”) and Gixxers, and Can-Am Spyders, airbrushed in shades of pink, with brightly colored rims to match. And when they stunt, with curving burnouts or wheelies, their tires send off plumes of magenta-hued smoke.
The women go by “bike names” — Nakosha Smith is Coco, Shanika Beatty is Tru — and they have developed relationships that blur the line between friendships and partners in a political movement. Their day jobs vary wildly: Ms. Smith runs a nail salon; Dezel Bell, known as First Lady Foxy, works in a funeral home; Rochelle Francis, known as Pretty Rocky, is an armored truck driver; and Andrea Shepherd, known as Hoodpriss, is a former prison nurse. It’s the bikes that bind.
The Caramel Curves’ look conveys their playful interpretation of femininity, but the world of biking they have stepped into is usually associated with male figures.The violence of the Hells Angels depicted by Hunter S. Thompson, or the news-making brawls of the Bandidos or the Cossacks have defined what Americans think about bike gangs. Motorcycle gangs are sometimes synonymous with outlaw culture.
There are exceptions, of course, of all-male motorcycle gangs who don’t participate in criminal behavior. Some clubs even encourage women to learn to ride, and others have a policy of promoting female ridership. But those public impressions of a kind of pulsing, sexist masculinity on the brink of losing control at any moment are not always incorrect. For example, women who associate with motorcycle gangs are sometimes called “property” — the implied possession of the male riders who brought them into the groups, according to the documentary on biker gangs called “Outcast Forever.” Female riders in coed clubs say that they face an uphill battle against prejudice, and that male bikers sometimes look down on the groups.
In July 2005,a month before their city was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, Ms. Smith and Ms. Beatty, along with a few other women, started riding together and named themselves the Caramel Curves. (The other women who started the group departed for various reasons.)“We called ourselves “caramel” because of the color of our skin, and “curves” because we’re curvy women, and we take curves on the bikes,” Ms. Smith said. Their start was quickly stalled when the members of the group — like so many residents here — were forced to move to other cities in the wake of the storm. As the city rebuilt, so did the group, and in 2006, Ms. Smith started calling women to ride together again as a way to heal. Even more women make up their social club — a support group that helps with their events. And around the world, they’ve captured a lot of other people’s interest: The Curves’ Instagram account now counts more than 14,000 followers.
Ms. Smith started riding at 18 when she sneaked out on her boyfriend’s bike. She describes herself using a motorcycle term as “the stunna of the group, because I’m always burning rubber, popping wheelies, doing tricks,” a claim backed up by the other members. She tags her social media posts with #burnoutqueen and #highheelsand2wheels. As for the group’s look, Ms. Smith puts it this way: “I’m always riding in cute clothes. And you wouldn’t want to be with someone looking fly and you looking regular, you know?”
Ms. Francis lives in Baton Rouge, an hour and a half west of New Orleans. She started riding years ago, on the back of a friend’s bike, but that wasn’t enough. “I was like, ‘No, I don’t want to ride on the back, I want to ride it.’” She bought herself a bike, joined a club and sported a pink mohawk helmet, but she soon found herself wishing she had women to ride around with. “I got tired of riding with the boys,” she said, adding that even though she was in coed groups, there were never any women.
Then one day, on a Baton Rouge street, she spotted another woman on a motorcycle and waved for her to pull over. The rider was about to join the Caramel Curves. “I was enthused to see another girl riding a bike,” she said. A year later, Ms. Francis was a bona fide member. Today, she and Ms. Bell have plans to start a chapter of the group in Baton Rouge and are trying to pull together enough women through word of mouth in the city.
"Riding with women is just different,” she said. “A lot of guys are cocky and think that women want them because they ride bikes. When women ride together, we can talk about women problems — fashionwise, hairwise, just life-wise. And I’m just one of those women that’s like, ‘Anything a man can do, a woman can do better.’”
So what does it take to become a member of the Caramel Curves? “Being a Caramel Curve is about being a woman and loving to ride a motorcycle,” Ms. Beatty said. “Even if you just had a thought that you may want to do it, come on, girl, you can do that.” (She would welcome women of any skin tone into the group, she said, because it would make the Curves “a truly diverse group.”) But that’s not all. Several women “prospect” — try out — for anywhere from 90 days to a year with the group. During that time, they must commit to several community service events, like fund-raisers to buy bicycles for young girls. They must prove their riding skills to the rest of the group over months of ride-alongs, both around town and out of state, to Florida or Texas, or to one of the most popular bike gatherings in the South: Black Bike Week at Myrtle Beach, S.C. They also have to complete an “obstacle ride,” which in New Orleans means a trip to a second-line parade, completing maneuvers like jumping sidewalks when the roads are blocked and dodging broken glass and rowdy crowds. Even if the prospects pass those tests, they’ve still got to have their own bike; the Curves’ bikes range from $6,000 to $22,000.
Then there’s the question of safety. Ms. Beatty points out that a lot of women never get started riding because they are afraid of getting hurt.“People do fear for your safety,” Ms. Smith said with a laugh. “They always say, ‘Be careful, honey!’” Even once you’re a veteran rider, that risk remains, especially when you’re pulling stunts like the women of the Curves.Nellie Brooks, known as Quiet Storm, admits she rides a Can-Am Spyder — a three-wheel bike that looks like a Power Wheels dream for adults — because the design diminishes the chance of tipping over. (Asked why she’s called Quiet Storm, she responded: “Because I’m quiet,” and then said nothing else.)
And with biking, there’s always the possibility of showwomanship trumping safety. Ms. Bell was riding one day when a male biker shouted out to her, “I bet you can’t do any tricks!” She popped a perfect wheelie to prove him wrong. Filled with chutzpah, she pressed her luck and decided to pop another one. She recalled the story with a wry smile, revealing gold teeth. “I ended up hitting the gas just a little too hard, and I flipped backward.” She broke four ribs and dislocated a shoulder.The Curves have also been criticized for wearing heels — people say it’s dangerous to ride a bike in stilettos. But Ms. Smith reasons,“Think about how many men fall, and they don’t have heels.”
The group’s swagger, though, hasn’t been met by delighted waves from everyone. A little over a year ago, a conflict arose over the fact that the Curves’ vests were emblazoned with “Caramel Curves MC.” Historically, “MC” referred to “Men’s Club” — a signal of the all-male origins of bike gangs. Over time, the initials came to be interpreted as “Motorcycle Club,” which is why the Curves decided to put it on their vests. Ms. Bell, who at 50 is the oldest member of the Curves, recounted what happened next: “I was at a club and a male rider came up and told me I needed to take off my vest, because I was a woman, so I couldn’t have MC on my vest.” She refused to remove the clothing, which bikers call “colors,” and a fight almost broke out. “My colors, I cherish them,” she said. “They’re a part of me.”
That don’t-mess-with-me attitude has protected the women. But some men who make up the bike community here say they respect the group for their riding skills. Michael Strong, known as 9 Millimeter, is one of the founding members of the Saints and Sinners, one of the oldest motorcycle clubs in New Orleans. He acknowledges that not all male bikers have welcomed the Curves to the scene. “They got a whole lot of men intimidated by them, because when they show up, they show out,” he said, referring to the women’s riding skills. “When they came along, they changed the game,” he said. “You had the hottest females riding the baddest bikes and doing the biggest stunts.”
Ms. Beatty readily admits, “Everyone loves a woman on a bike.” She got started biking when she took her dad’s bike out for a spin one day. Instead of getting in trouble, he told her he was proud of her. She was hooked by the feeling riding gave her. “When I ride, I actually feel free,” she said.
It’s that freedom the Caramel Curves are pursuing together. “I think in the motorcycle world, we’re still stuck in the ’50s,” she said. “And I think we’re breaking down barriers here within our own motorcycle community. We’re creating a legacy.”
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