The Curves get revved up

German women grabbing the hyper-masculine image of bikers by the balls: welcome to Berlin’s own all-female motorcycle club. Thomas Wintle infiltrated the increasingly popular gang to find out what keeps their engines running.

Image for The Curves get revved up

Irene Kotnik (left) and Cäthe Pfläging (right) together with the Curves in September 2016. Photo by David Biene

German women grabbing the hyper-masculine image of bikers by the balls: welcome to Berlin’s own all-female motorcycle club. Thomas Wintle infiltrated the increasingly popular gang to find out what keeps their engines running.

It’s a biting February night and half a dozen customised choppers and vintage motorcycles are parked up in front of the soon-to-close Bassy Club on Schönhauser Allee. Despite the fact that it’s mid-winter, several grizzled men are grilling Bratwurst on a portable barbecue outside. Inside, hairy rockers in denim vests and wizened, boiler-suited bikers line the bar. Amid the smoke and testosterone, and in stark contrast to the many shaven-heads who have come out for Bassy’s monthly Motorcycle Pow Wow, six women are gathered in the middle of the room. Most of them are clad in fitted jeans jackets and have long tresses of blonde and hazel hair. They all wear the same insignia splashed across their backs. They are proud, patch-wearing members of the Curves, Berlin’s very own all-female motorcycle club.

As hard rockers Ghostmaker start up their set, sending several of the women pogoing over the dance floor, 45-year-old Cäthe Pfläging emerges from the audience, wearing her trademark Curves gilet and what appears to be a foxtail hanging from her pocket. She introduces Irene Kotnik, an energetic 36-year-old in a wide-rimmed Stetson hat. Regulars at Bassy, the two women founded the Curves in 2014 after bonding over customised bikes at an off-road vintage motocross event. Four years later, some 20 leather-clad, hog-wielding women can claim the honour of wearing Curves patches.

Aged between 20 and 50, they work in medicine, law, media, advertising, insurance or wedding dress design. About half of the women in the group have husbands and children. They’re united only by their love for motorbikes – a rare passion among women, who make up just 13.7 percent of Germany’s motorcycle owners according to the most recent survey (2011). While manufacturers are trying to crack the niche market of female bikers, the overall culture remains a hotbed of testosterone, from the pin-up models sprawled over bikes on thousands of garage walls to the rampant sexism and crime practised by so-called “outlaw” biker gangs like the Hells Angels (women being barred from full membership should be the least of our worries).

“All the guys we know, they don’t say it’s a strictly male thing, but the bottom line is that it is,” says Pfläging. Kotnik says that this was, in part, what brought them together. “I felt a little bit alone by myself, maybe not at eye level with the men. I thought if we joined forces, we’d be stronger.”

Kotnik, a filmmaker and designer, grew up in a small town close to Weimar in East Germany. She got her motorcycle licence while she was living in New York in the late oughts so as to accompany her dad on his dream road trip across the country along the original Route 66. When she returned to Germany she bought her own bike, a vintage 1970s Honda that she named Azumi, after her best friend in NYC.

Pfläging, who runs her own corporate design company, hails from the opposite side of Germany, a small village just outside Cologne. Although the majority of her extended family are bikers, she waited until 1996 to get her licence. “I didn’t tell my parents because I didn’t want to be asked awful questions – just like 90 percent of the girls here.” Pfläging, who has now been riding for over 25 years and has traversed some 200,000km on her bike, points out one of the younger members of the gang. “She did her license without telling her parents, and now they’re coming to town… Mums are often the biggest enemies of our club,” she laughs.

The conversation drifts to the stereotypes that surround bikers. “When we have our races, we don’t have a guy in a short skirt waving a flag. I’d rather not copy and mirror things that were done in the past,” says Kotnik. “The classic rules of motorcycle clubs shouldn’t be present in something that’s so fresh, and young and colourful.” While Pfläging may be the “leader of the pack”, the club doesn’t have an official president. “It’s just 20 girls having a bunch of fun and getting out of the box.”

During biking season, March to November, the club goes out together once a week, usually hunting down curves (hence the name) around Berlin’s lakes. Once a year or so, they go further afield: in 2017, 10 members biked from Nice to Biarritz over the Spanish Pyrenees. The previous year, the girls joined for a stretch of the Wild Ones Tour, an all female road-trip through the Alps organised by four women from Canada and America. Through new contacts and the gang’s social media presence, their network began to blow up. “Everybody is asking for a cut right now,” laughs Pfläging, “but we’re keeping it a bit of a secret. We want to pick the right girls.” They only accept women who have shown their commitment by riding with the club for a whole season, slowly building up a relationship. Despite the number of applicants in 2017, the Curves only admitted eight new members. “We’re looking for good companionship. We’re not into quantity.”

One prospective member is Sabine, a sprightly mother of three in her early forties. “I’ve been into biking since I was 20 and I never got my licence because I was always pregnant. When I turned 40 I said, okay, now is the time to get one. And then I got into the Curves thing.” Might her family get in the way of her future loyalties if she joins? “My husband is into long distance sailing. That’s his thing. And my thing is having two wheels under my ass, listening to music and going wherever I want.”

With that attitude, she’s primed for the gang’s annual all-girl fete, the Petrolettes. The Curves first put on the three-day event in 2016 at the Neuhardenberg airfield, just east of Berlin, with the idea of setting up a festival for female bikers, run by female bikers. The line-up includes a slew of all-women punk and stoner rock bands, electronic DJs, burlesque and fire shows, sprint races, tattoos and tarot readings, and of course, regular ride-outs, where over 100 women on motorcycles simultaneously take to the track. In 2017, around 300 women attended (and a handful of men who fell through the net), comprising three generations of bikers from 15 different countries. “In the first year, we got emails and Facebook messages with guys who were so pissed. It really made them feel bad that we were doing this exclusive women thing.”

The press inevitably lapped up the event. Even the ever-doting Fox News picked up the story, displaying a picture of a half-naked, heavily tattooed woman on a motorbike – actually a visiting tattoo artist from Copenhagen, not one of the bikers. While the women take pride in their aesthetic (“it’s the best excuse to wear leather”), Kotnik is tired of such depictions. “We wear red lipstick, so what? That’s our feminine side. Does it mean we have to be sexualised?”

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The Curves en route through the Spanish Pyrenees in summer 2017. Photo by Cäthe Pfläging

A few days later, Pfläging and five fellow Curves agree to meet at Berlin Motorrad Tage, a 25-year-old motorcycle fair held at Gleisdreieck’s Station Berlin exhibition centre. Among the happy families and innocuous middle-aged race-bike nerds, Berlin’s real biker scene materialises. Members of the city’s rougher motorcycle clubs, the Pythons and the Heavybikers, strut through the stalls dressed in matching heavy black leather, tattooed up to the neck, proudly baring their lurid patches.

The Curves, by daylight, cut a far less menacing tone as they geek out over the vehicles on show. Ellen, an employee at the Federal Printing Office in her early thirties who has violet hair and dozens of ornate rings on her fingers, eyes the Triumph motorcycle stand and hops on to a Bonneville T100 as Pfläging inspects the machine approvingly. A recent addition to the Curves, Catherine, tries out a stylish green Thruxton 1200R, a compact, retro bike from the UK. Sliding on, she makes eyes at Pfläging, giving her a warm look of satisfaction. The boss takes the handlebars next, throwing her hips into the machine with childlike glee and emitting several “vroom vrooms” of her own. She turns with a smile. “If I had this bike, I’d do a lot of work to it.”

Pfläging runs the all-female PonyWrench bike repair workshop, held every so often during winter, where around a dozen women pay between €20 and €30 – with discounts for the Curves – to fix up their bikes in preparation for spring. A true tech-head, Pfläging is currently working with some core Curves members on stripping and customising two bikes: her own retro W650 cruiser, and a standard Z650 donated by Kawasaki Germany as part of a promotional deal they struck with the company. As the gang grows in recognition, they’re not short of interest from major manufactures, with BMW, Nolan Helmets, and Ducati sponsoring the Petrolettes. But despite growing membership and slick social media campaigns, Pfläging hasn’t managed to make much cash through the group. “I work a lot for the Curves, and it was a bit of step back for me money-wise – but a huge step forward emotionally.”

The other women seem to make a split between the gang and their work life, despite constant contact via the Curves Whatsapp group. Most “either have their own company, or creative jobs, or strong roles,” says Doreen, a new member of the club who is in management at an e-commerce start-up. “I don’t want to say ‘natural leaders’, but all the girls that hang out with us – they’re not the quiet, shy type.”

When I tell my friends we’re a women-only biker gang, the first comment I get is that we’re all lesbians. That’s odd, not that I really care.

Does riding a motorcycle bolster that? “When I bought my bike, I bought a huge amount of self-confidence. The first time you enter a café wearing your helmet, you might look like shit but you don’t give a fuck. You just think, ‘Let them think whatever they want, I just came here with a really big engine.’” Still, stereotypes often come up when she talks about her hobby to outsiders. “When I tell my friends we’re a women-only biker gang, the first comment I usually get is that we’re all lesbians. That’s odd, not that I really care.”

So what is the vibe when it’s just women together in the biking community? “You don’t have to pretend,” says Doreen. “I think among men, a lot of women have the attitude ‘I can do as good as him or better’. When it’s only women, you don’t have to lean into the curve as hard – there’s nobody judging you.” She praises the absence of competition that’s so engrained in male biking culture. “I’ve never once felt jealous of a girl going faster than me, or having a nicer bike. I feel like that’s the dynamic. We’re a little bit more easygoing than the guys.”