How We Roll

Women motorcyclists rock it on their own bikes—and on their own terms

Landscape architect and Ducati rider Sara Hedstrom is indulging a stranger, trying to articulate some possible differences between male and female motorcyclists. Hedstrom began riding in 2002. On exactly what, she cannot recall.

"Oh what was it?" she asks herself.

Okay. There's one difference. The typical dude would have the VIN memorized. Turns out it was a Suzuki Bandit 600. "It had an in-line four engine, and it was probably a bit big for a beginner," says Hedstrom. "But it was actually a perfect beginner bike, because it was so forgiving on the clutch. When I moved here in 2003, I bought a Ducati Monster 750, which is a V-twin; much different bike. I never could have ridden that as a beginner bike."

More and more women are riding these days, and that doesn't mean hopping on back. They own motorcycles for their own good reasons. Some women ride in order to spend time with favorite men, and others buy their own bikes to get away from certain types of men and certain misperceptions about women and motorcycles. Hedstrom learned to ride in Boston, and says that the riding here was one of the factors in her relocating. As cycling here gains popularity among the fairer sex, the mindsets of men, women, and the marketplace are adapting.

"I guess I've got about 200,000 miles under my belt—or under my seat," says Jeanie Hilten. "Since 1981, I've been riding. My first motorcycle trip was in 1982. I rode a 1967 /2 BMW 2,000 miles."

Hilten lives and works near Townsend. She says that she and her husband each own "about five bikes," and that whichever bike they happen to be on at the moment is the favorite. Hilten unequivocally encourages women to learn to ride.

"A big thing is to have a good riding buddy," says Hilten. "It can be a woman, a man, anyone who is maybe more experienced than you to start with, but who will help you along and encourage you. Someone who can keep you paying attention to staying as safe as possible. It's a risky thing to do. You have to have a little bit of a sense of adventure. I think that a lot of women who enjoy the sport are outdoorsy folks to start with. So they can tolerate some heat and cold and a little bit of rugged conditions. But I think a big part of it is to have someone who will help you along and encourage you. That's the way it was for me anyway, with my husband Richard."

Supportive companionship appears to be a common denominator among women who are enjoying motorcycling. UT Researcher Kim Davis is partner in crime with Handlebars' own Fred Sahms.

"I've always enjoyed old cars and motorcycles," says Davis, "even though my parents were totally not gearheads at all. Then when I met Fred, he actually taught me to work on cars and motorcycles. I gained a little more appreciation for them as I learned to take them apart and put them back together.

"I was a passenger for three rides, back in 1987. Fred bought this 650cc Triumph. It would have carried us both fine. But Fred didn't like the way it felt to have me on the back. It was okay to ride on the back, but it wasn't really my thing."

Like Hedstrom, Davis now rides her own Ducati, a 1993 750 SS. And thanks to Fred's penchant for wrenching and large circle of riding friends, she's been able to ride just about every kind of bike there is.

Call it feminism or evolution or whatever you want, but motorcycles are just part of the larger trend in which women now decline to accept the world as men have designed it. Instead of saying a motorcycle is too tall for them to ride comfortably, a woman will change the seat or have the bike lowered. Similarly, those women who wish to ride and don't have the built-in support from family that Davis and Hilten had early on have taken it upon themselves to locate and cultivate support.

"I've been riding for about 10 years," says Vicky Cromwell of Louisville. "I bought a 1974 Sportster and learned to ride that. I don't know if you've ridden one of those, but the clutch is on the right and the brake is on the left, which is the opposite of what most people are used to. Then I got my 2003 Super Glide and had to learn all over again."

Last year Cromwell and friends posted an ad on craigslist for female motorcyclists seeking female companions. That ad netted 10 responses, and a core group of four now-close friends. In January, the group established a more prominent web presence by building a page on meetup.com.

"Once we stopped getting new responses on craigslist," says Cromwell, "I told Rose [Fournier] that if she planned the rides I'd create a website on meetup. The other three of us are directionally challenged.

"The group is for friendship, for meeting new people. Men have a different riding style. We're more laid back. We stop to pee. Men just want to see how fast they can go."

Making broad generalizations in print is just this side of hanging a KICK ME sign on your back. But if you're reading this you can probably see Cromwell's point. Everybody likes to ride with people they have something in common with. And gender is a starting point. There are apparently lots of strings attached to calling yourself a motorcycle club, so Cromwell and her fellow riders insist that they've started a strictly social riding group. Its ad-hoc name for the time being is "The Lady Bikers." And since launching the webpage in January, the group now has almost 70 members.

"We want women to know that they don't have to ride alone," says Cromwell. "We're just a relaxed group of gals. We're not a club; there are no dues and you can look at the website and choose which rides you want to do."

Once the group began growing and having non-riding meetings to determine its course, it was decided that the best use of their collective time—and the website—was to share useful information.

"Last year we rode to Ozone Falls," says Cromwell. "There's just a tiny little place to park, and we all pulled in there nose first. Well, after we saw the falls we realized we were all headed downhill but had nowhere to turn around. So we took turns; each of us would steer our own bikes while the others pushed. We realized that we could also use the website and the group as a way to educate. The first educational item we posted was about how to park your bike on an incline."

Jill Jansing, who owns Alcoa Good Times with her husband, Charlie, began riding again last year and like many of The Lady Bikers, found the group by googling. Once she became involved, she made her own expertise and the store part of the group's resources.

"If they're going to wear their big girl panties and ride a motorcycle," says Jansing, "they need to know their stuff."

She used to the store's stock to demonstrate the difference between the $50 helmets and the $500 helmets; the scooters and the cruisers; the cheap tires and the triple-compound racing tires, so that these women who might have mastered the Dragon would not be at the mercy of some parts-counter thug when the time came.

"It's a very eclectic group," says Jansing. " The group does not belong to the store. It's purely a social group and not a motorcycle club. A motorcycle club has officers and requirements. We're all about promoting safe riding and low to no commitments. We have people in the group who don't even have a bike yet, they're just so pumped."

The Lady Bikers also lead mixed-group rides, on which the ladies are welcome to bring dates, and any other men are welcome. Those rides have proven popular with men who are new to motorcycling.

Without a doubt, the greatest disincentive to riding a motorcycle for most people is the risk of crashing. Almost everyone knows someone who died on a motorcycle. Less sensational, of course, is the fact that almost everyone also knows someone who crashed and did not die.

"There is such a sense of freedom," says Claudia Linse, describing the day when she was 20 years old and took off on her brand new 100cc Honda Enduro. "There is nothing I've ever done that comes close. I had never ridden a motorcycle and had it delivered to my house. I wrecked at mile 13, at an intersection. But I was fine. Nothing could deter me. I loved it. Everybody should try it at least once."

Now, after a break of some 30 years, Claudia is back in the saddle. She owns a 1960 model Harley Servicar (a low-geared three-wheeler designed for meter maids and delivery boys) and a 1987 250cc Honda Rebel.

"My only advice is to start out small," says Linse to those considering a bike. "Start out with something that you're completely comfortable with. I have friends who have gone out and bought brand new Harleys. It's just too much motorcycle to start out with. I've got this little 250 that I'm getting back in the saddle with. I'm not scared of it. It's the right height for me. I think that's the big thing when you first start getting out there."

Tina Rosling is an ER nurse practitioner. She has treated many motorcycle accident victims, and she has been one herself. And she still rides.

"I was 45 when I learned," says Rosling. "But you've got to keep in mind that I've always been really athletic. I've always been a bicyclist. I've done a lot of arduous bike rides and also mountain climbing. I've always challenged myself physically."

Rosling says the greatest challenge for her, initially, was trusting her tires on turns; having the faith in the machine that allows for deep leaning instead of trying to steer with the handlebars.

"That wasn't anything that came naturally," she says. "That sort of took me a while to understand. I didn't really get that until after the accident. I didn't feel comfortable leaning because I was afraid the tires would slip out from under me.

"I survived and I was really lucky. I had good karma on my side or something. I got over-confident. I told myself I would downshift to second on every curve and I didn't do that. I very clearly remember going a little too fast for my abilities at the time, and then I started heading for the guardrail."

Rosling sprained her ankle and broke a bone in her hand on that North Carolina road. She acknowledges that she was supremely fortunate; while sliding under her bike she never entered the path of oncoming traffic. But she still rides.

"Life is full of risks," she says. "You can't keep yourself isolated because you think you're going to die on something that's fun. I think that part of my self protection is that I am female; that I am wiser and older. Most of the really bad accidents that I've seen were young kids going 90 miles an hour. They're males. They have something that I don't have. I would never want to go 90 miles an hour."

We'd be remiss if we didn't invite input from our own women's riding advocate and columnist, Carol Watkins. In closing, her thoughts on the subject: "Women get tired of being told verbally, emotionally, subconsciously, and even unconsciously that they can't do something because they're too weak, they're needed elsewhere, they have other responsibilities, they're too ‘precious' to take chances, etc. That's bullshit.

"A motorcycle takes all that anxiety, fear, intimidation, responsibility, and disrespect, and blows it out your past. And it's fun as hell."

To learn more about The Lady Bikers, click to www.meetup.com/the-lady-bikers.