Freedom, friendship, and fun: Women are finding sisterhood on two wheels at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

With event series like Ride Wild and Biker Belles, the South Dakota rally is appealing to a new generation of riders

Women lined up for mini bike races. | Photo: Nathalie Kossek / Ride Wild

The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is everything you’d expect of one of the world’s largest biker events: It’s packed with leather-clad, bearded men on giant Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Classic rock blasts out of loudspeakers in all directions, and American flags drape everything from clothing to vehicles.

Riding into town as a first-time attendee, I’m surprised at how familiar it all feels—from the bald eagle tattooed across the bicep of the rider next to me to the sequined vest worn by his passenger, a woman my mother’s age. In front of me, a lady is riding a big, orange bagger with a personalized license plate that reads “AWSUM.” On the back of her shirt, barely visible behind her braided, blond hair, I can make out the words “My other ride has balls.” 

The rally may have started as a big boy’s club, but today, more women than ever are carving out a place for themselves among the Sturgis attendees.

A vehicle for change

Now in its 79th year, the rally brings roughly half a million people annually to the town of Sturgis, South Dakota (population 6,900), over the course of 10 days in August. As I’m riding down Main Street—lined with countless rows of motorcycles and completely closed off to cars—I’m having a hard time picturing the town without all the biker stuff. Even the bars are motorcycle-themed, with names like the Iron Horse or the Knuckle Saloon. 

A group of women in front of Buffalo Chip's main stage
A group of women in front of Buffalo Chip’s main stage. | Photo: Nathalie Kossek / Ride Wild

“The rest of the year, there are a lot of empty parking lots,” says Nyla Griffith, who handles media and public relations for Sturgis Buffalo Chip, a 680-acre campground just outside of town that functions as the rally’s main event venue.

Founded by Rod Woodruff in 1981, Buffalo Chip now has 28 full-time, year-round employees, despite hosting no other events than the motorcycle rally. It’s also a family business: Rod’s son, daughter, and wife are all intimately involved in the operation. The rally has been held at the Chip for the past 38 years—ever since the City of Sturgis got tired of hosting the rowdy bikers and held a vote to kick them out.  

“Back then, the majority of the women were coming with a male partner. You know, they were riding on the back of a bike, in a sidecar, or tagging along,” says Toni Woodruff, Rod’s daughter and the program manager for Biker Belles, a women-centric event that takes place during the rally. “Over the course of the last few decades, of course, we’ve seen that transition of women coming in and riding their own two wheels.”

Biker Belles participants 2019
Biker Belles participants. | Photo courtesy of Biker Belles

Biker Belles started 11 years ago as a way to celebrate women riders and give back to the community. “It was really to give women a home, a place in Sturgis to come together and mentor and empower each other,” Woodruff says. She adds that for a lot of women who attend Sturgis, motorcycling has been a vehicle for change in their lives. 

Today, women are the fastest growing demographic in the motorcycle industry. They make up 19 percent of motorcycle owners in the U.S., a number that keeps growing, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council

Woodruff has seen this shift in demographics first-hand. Biker Belles has grown steadily since its inception, but this year’s event brought a new insight: “I realized, wow, we’re going to need a bigger building,” she says. “We started out with just a handful of people in a tent, it was really old school. And now we’ve grown to over 150 participants.” 

A Biker Belles panel discussion featuring Jessi Combs and Cris Sommer Simmons.
A Biker Belles panel discussion featuring Jessi Combs and Cris Sommer Simmons. | Photo: Genevieve Davis / Ride Wild

While it’s primarily targeted at women, Biker Belles is open to anyone who wants to attend. The one-day event starts with a morning ride through South Dakota’s Black Hills. Then there’s a catered lunch and a panel discussion featuring leading women in the industry. A regular Biker Belles participant and one of this year’s panelists was Jessi Combs, a legendary racer and fabricator known as the “fastest woman on four wheels.” Combs tragically passed away just a few weeks after the rally while attempting to break her own land speed record. 

Buffalo Chip honored Combs in a statement published on its website shortly after her death, writing: “Though news of Jessi’s passing has taken many of us off course today, she wouldn’t want us to stay in the pits. She’d want us to go live our lives just like she did—chasing our dreams.”

Building sisterhood

After spending a few days at Sturgis, I’ve settled into a sort of routine. In the morning, I grab breakfast at one of the food trucks at Buffalo Chip before heading out on my borrowed Indian Scout motorcycle to explore the surrounding areas. South Dakota is beautiful and the weather in early August is perfect. I ride through the Black Hills, visit Mount Rushmore, and take a 100-mile detour to Badlands National Park. In the evening, I return to Buffalo Chip for dinner, drinks, and to watch some live music. 

One evening, while Snoop Dogg is rattling off hits on the main stage, I run into a group of women who are dancing in an open area in front of the stage. All in their late 20s and early 30s, they seem to be having more fun than anyone else around. I’m introduced to Kelly Yazdi, a woman I previously only knew by name but who immediately feels like someone I’ve known forever. Yazdi has an infectious smile and an unwaveringly upbeat attitude. She also runs the Wild Gypsy Tour (which has since rebranded as Ride Wild), a glamping experience that takes place at Buffalo Chip during the rally. 

Unlike the coed Biker Belles event, WGT is only open to women. Yazdi calls it a safe haven. “Coming to Sturgis is intimidating,” she says. “You’ve got 79 years of history and all sorts of buffoonery and stories.”

Yazdi helped found WGT in 2017. The camp is located within Buffalo Chip, but it has its own distinct vibe, one that stands in stark contrast to the rest of the rally. While much of the main festival leans into a specific brand of American patriotism—red, white, and blue is the dominating color scheme—the WGT camp serves up unicorns, rainbows, and glamping tents decorated with textiles and dream catchers. Still, attendees are encouraged to take part in everything the rally has to offer.

“We have our own music classes, group rides, we have our own entertainment and activities, just like you would at any typical festival,” Yazdi says about WGT. “And then we also partner with the Chip. So not only do we have our thing, but we go and participate in all these other activities. So you have that private experience, but you also get the best party anywhere. You can kind of tailor it to what you want.”

According to Yazdi, there isn’t a specific type of woman who attends WGT—ages of past attendees have ranged from 21 to 67, and all women are welcome. “We’ve had women on sport bikes, cruisers, dual sports, vintage bikes,” she says. “I think it calls to women who are more independent, but also people who are courageous in the sense that they’re going to go their own path.”

Living your best life

In one of her last Instagram posts before her fatal crash, Combs wrote: “It may seem a little crazy to walk directly into the line of fire … those who are willing, are those who achieve great things. People say I’m crazy. I say thank you.”

This sentiment of fearlessness and adventure is echoed over and over again during my time at Sturgis, especially by the women of WGT. Many attendees ride their motorcycles thousands of miles to get to South Dakota, and they keep returning year after year. 

“You meet women from all over the world that want to come together, ride motorcycles, and just have a lot of fun,” Yazdi says.

Women from all walks of life attend WGT.
Women from all walks of life attend WGT. | Photo: Genevieve Davis / WGT
WGT allows women to carve out a place for themselves at Sturgis
WGT allows women to carve out a place for themselves at Sturgis. | Photo: Genevieve Davis / WGT

A few people I speak with at the event jokingly refer to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally as a big costume party. A woman wearing nothing but a thong and body paint admits that the rally is the one time of the year she gets to let loose. Back home, she’s an emergency room nurse. 

In other words, Sturgis is a place to be your authentic self, if only for 10 days per year. Yazdi sums it up when talking about her reasons for starting WGT: “I’ve always been someone who’s, like, ‘Find what you love and go after it with tenacity as if your life depended on it.’ I’m all about people living their best lives.”

If you go

The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally takes place in South Dakota in August each year. Ride Wild also hosts other events throughout the year; see the website for more information.