Move over, Hells Angels, biking ain’t what it used to be. Professional, fashion-conscious and headstrong, female motorcycle enthusiasts have emerged as a force to be reckoned with. Women’s clubs are sprouting exponentially with memberships mostly comprised of career women who refuse to take a back seat.
According to the Motorcycle Industry Council, one in twelve U.S. motorcycle owners are women. Harley-Davidson reports that in 1985, 600 Harley’s were sold to women; last year that figure escalated to 30,000. Nearly 40 percent of the 45,000 students that have attended Riders Edge, Harley-Davidson’s new riders program, are women. The Milwaukee motorcycle builder even has a section on its website devoted to, yes, women.
Bobby Poneleit has witnessed the transition at his family-owned Hap’s Cycle Sales, the oldest motorcycle shop in Sarasota, Florida. “Women have become a huge part of our business,” he says. “They have their own businesses, their own money and their own lives. They are actually more of an organized force than most of the male groups because they know where they’re going and they know what they’re doing. There’s always a goal, whether it’s (to ride) for the cancer center or to go the botanical gardens to see what orchids are in bloom.”
Bobby not only sells and services bikes — BMWs, Triumphs and American Honda’s — and is active in Hap’s Gulf Coast Riders Motorcycle Club, a Sarasota-based group that benefits the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation, but also provides motorcycle instruction as a value-added service to his customers.
”I would rather teach a 50-year-old woman that’s never ridden, than a 50-year-old man,” he says. “Not because they are female but because she’ll listen to what I have to tell her, has a fear factor and follows direction very quickly. She’ll be riding the motorcycle while the guy is still trying to muscle the thing. You know us guys, we know it all. I can tell you this, if we ever have a woman running for president, I’m going to vote for her.” Needless to say, Bobby is very supportive of female motorcyclists, including his wife Valerie. She owns her own hair salon in one of Sarasota’s high rent-districts, helps out with Hap’s Gulf Coast Riders, and is also a member of Motor Maids, the oldest motorcycle organization for women in North America.
Dot Robinson, the club’s late co-founder is a role model for Valerie. “Dot Robinson rode a pink Harley until she was 86 years old,” she explains. “And she was a lady, after she rode, could be 200 to 300 miles, she would shower and put on a cocktail dress and a little pillbox hat.” Fashion is part of the new regime, but not at the expense of safety. “We dress fashionably, but safety is always the priority – you can dress for fashion and still ride safe,” Valerie says. Yet for her, safe riding does not preclude aggressive driving. “You have to ride aggressively in order to stay ahead of traffic; riding with traffic leaves you vulnerable.” On a motorcycle tour through Tuscany, Italy, she inadvertently ended up leading the second half of a group of 30 riders because of her bold driving style. “The roads in Europe are narrow and very motorcycle friendly. When a big bus comes along, it pulls over to let you pass. The other riders were afraid to do that, and I wasn’t, so I ended up leading them.”
Though Valerie enjoys riding with her husband and with the co-ed Hap’s Gulf Coast Riders, belonging to Motor Maids brings an added dimension to the motorcycle experience. “We ride on our own and we are individuals, and our bikes are as individual as we are,” she says. “We don’t even customize our cars like we do our motorcycles. Everyone has her own seat, suspension and braking system — I prefer ABS — and I want my handle bars a certain way. Right down to the gearshift, it’s our bike and it’s important. The fact we go off on our own gives us a feeling of empowerment. We feel the passion; support each other. If you do something stupid (in front of men) you don’t feel support, but we all laugh about it. Guys roll their eyes. It’s a different comfort level.” Valerie says Motor Maids members include a Sarasota city police officer – “the first woman motorcycle cop in Sarasota,” a political candidate and an insurance adjuster. “It’s a diverse group of personalities and professions,” she explains. But not all members are currently employed; some are retired, like local legend Janet Granger.
Bobby describes Janet as a woman who “puts hundreds of thousands of miles on her bike and she rides alone. She’ll plan a trip and just take off. The rest of us are still trying to figure out how to do it and she’s already done it.” Janet’s soft-spoken tone and gentle demeanor belie her fierce independence and adventuresome life. The 64-year-young motorcyclist began riding in 1975 “to find an identity besides being somebody’s wife or mother.” Born and raised in Wisconsin, she could only ride about three months a year because of the inclement weather. She retired from her career as a psychiatric registered nurse in 1997 and moved to Florida, where she found instant friends and total support within the motorcycle community.
Not that she requires external affirmation. The perky, petite blonde gives new meaning to the term “blonde bombshell,” as she’s easily mastered over the years everything from a Honda 200, which she highly recommends for women new to the sport, to the large and powerful VTX 1300, and has traveled the world from a three-year stint with the Peace Corps in Antigua, to a motorcycle tour of Australia, doing the periphery of Melbourne on a Harley-Davidson. There, she says, “I rented the man with the bike because they ride on the opposite side of the road.” She’s also traveled to New Zealand and Costa Rica, and is planning a trip to South America. After Janet’s divorce and before her move to Florida, her three kids pleaded with her to find a younger man, one who could keep up with her. Her current boyfriend is eleven years her junior.
Interestingly, the largest group of new bikers, she says, is 50-year-old women. When she asked a fellow Motor Maid why she took up biking at 50, her friend’s response was quick and deliberate. “Well, it was either take up biking or take on a lover, and I thought biking would be more exciting.” Janet traveled from Florida to California and back, alone, to attend an annual Motor Maid convention. Motor Maids are required to ride to events, wherever in the country they are held, versus trailering their bikes to them. Traveling great distances alone might seem daunting to some, and for Janet, maintaining a healthy respect for danger is essential. She only rides during daylight hours and chooses main highways versus lightly traveled roads. “One of the things that people have said to me is, ‘Aren’t you afraid out there?’ I very candidly say ‘yes I am and sometimes I’m petrified.’ And if I ever lose that fear and become cocky, I’ve got to get off a bike.”
Janet stresses the importance of being aware of your surroundings and remaining as low-key as possible. No wonder she’s safely logged so many solo miles. “She doesn’t know this, but Janet inspired me to ride,” says Mary Marion, co-owner of King’s Row Barbers in Sarasota. “She’s a small woman like myself and she rides a bike way bigger than I could handle. I started going to club meetings with my husband and I saw all these women who were riding bikes and I thought, why can’t I do that?” Besides, Mary says, “I wanted to do something with my husband.” Mary took the course, started with a little ’86 Rebel, and within a month, upgraded to her purple Shadow Spirit.
In addition to owning and running the business with her husband, Denis, Mary tap dances at Sarasota’s Players Performing Arts School, cares for her mother and rides whenever she can. Denis is Vice President of Hap’s Gulf Coast Riders and has been riding for 40 years. “I see a lot of good (female) riders,” he says. “And they really get decked out, especially at big rallies. They are very fashionably dressed; their motorcycles are too. They customize them, make them pink and put little feminine things on them,” he laughs.
“Just five years ago if you saw a woman on a bike, she was a ‘dike on a trike.’ But today, they look like women; they look damned good. Wives and girlfriends ride now and you see a lot of couples. As a result, there are motorcycle clubs for women starting to pop up. A change has happened in the biker world … it’s much more social, and that’s because of the women. They’ve also improved the image of the biker and our fund-raising capabilities by introducing new ideas. Motorcycle manufacturers are now recognizing this aspect of the sport and they are creating a lot of bikes lower to the ground. Women used to have to have bikes customized, but now bikes are being created specifically for them.”
Generally speaking, Denis says, changes have taken place in the motorcycling demographic as well as the image. “People used to be afraid of bikers, in part because of Hollywood. They were portrayed as Hell’s Angels, outlaws and terrorists. That did exist, but it was just a small portion. Today, we’re professionals, our families have grown and many are picking up where they left off in the 70’s. We’re baby boomers with money, many are buying motorcycles and reliving their youth.” In the past, bikers were feared, but today, Denis says, “Cities love us … come have a rally, stay at our hotels, eat at our restaurants.” Bikers, or rather, motorcycle enthusiasts, are good for the economy.
Norman Smith couldn’t agree more. That is, about bikers versus motorcyclists. “There’s a big difference between them and us,” he says. “Bikers still exist, but there are a whole lot of us. Norman teaches the Motorcycle Safety Foundation Rider course at Manatee Community College in Bradenton, Florida. The course is part of the Florida Rider Training Program, a division of the State’s Department of Motor Vehicles. An instructor for about nine years, Norman has seen a tremendous increase in the number of professional women motorcyclists, especially in the last four or five years. At least 30 to 40 percent of his students are women: doctors, lawyers, helicopter pilots, schoolteachers, school principals, office professionals … the student body, he says covers the entire spectrum of the professional world.
“One observation I’ve had, speaking in general terms,” he says, “is that women are more likely to take instruction and apply it than men are. They are willing to ask questions, and, if you have something to tell them to improve their skills, they are more likely to apply it.” Norman’s students, male and female, range in age, on average, from 18 to 70, though he had one 86 year-old male student and has taught quite a few women in their 60s. “It seems there are a higher percentage of women who want to do this for themselves rather than ride on the back; to experience the joy of motorcycling for themselves.” Norman happens to own 16 vintage motorcycles, and one of the toughest decisions he has to make every day is which one to ride. He rides a motorcycle to work 95 days out of a hundred. Which one will it be today, “Old Blue,” silver or red?
Seems like Norman is in touch with his feminine side, a good place to be in these times that are, obviously, a-changing.
For more information about Motor Maids visit www.motormaids.org. To learn about Hap’s Cycle Sales or Hap’s Gulf Coast Riders Motorcycle Club, visit www.hapscycle.com or call 941-365-3443. Female Harley-Davidson enthusiasts should visit www.harley-davidson.com; click on “Experience,” then “Women & Motorcycles.” Reprinted from Iron Horse Magazine