In the motorcycle community, traveling on the back seat of a bike is affectionately known as “Riding Bitch.” No one has ever accused bikers of being politically correct and there is an undeniable element that is downright misogynistic when it comes to being equal on two wheels. To some, riding bitch means only women should ride on the back of motorcycle. To others it means women should only ride on the back of a motorcycle.
Years ago there was a popular design on the back of biker T-shirts that read, “If you can read this…The bitch fell off.” The following year women riders were seen wearing shirts that read, when viewed from the back, “The Bitch Just Passed You!”
And for more and more women – ridin’ bitch is being met with a finger-wag, head bob and a “bitch, please.”
That’s because, with all apologies to Annie Lennox and Aretha Franklin, the sisters are doing it for themselves when it comes to getting behind the handle bars.
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July is Women’s Motorcycle Month, according to a campaign by the Motorcycle Hall of Fame and Nationwide Insurance, so Weekly Surge decided to take a closer look at one of the fastest growing subcultures in the motorcycle riding demographic: women riders.
The Grand Strand is no stranger to motorcycle riding residents and visitors – hosting three nationally recognized motorcycle rallies each year – and after the 2012 Cruisin’ The Coast Harley-Davidson Spring Rally in May, Phil Schoonover, owner of the Myrtle Beach Harley-Davidson dealership told Weekly Surge: “Women motorcycle operators were more present than ever.” This is a trend that has been growing for years, according to observers. “Although it’s traditionally been a male-dominated past-time, more and more women are taking to the open road on a motorcycle, whether it’s a sport, cruiser or touring bike,” reads an excerpt from Nationwide’s Web site.
Terry Neilon, owner of Beach Customs in Little River agrees, saying, “I have no empirical data but there are certainly more women riders these days. We have quite a few women customers who ride their own bikes. They are interested in the same sort of things men are concerned with regarding upgrading their bikes’ pipes, handlebars, and seats.”
According to the women we talked to for this article, they are also drawn to two wheels and the rumble of twin-Vs for many of the same reasons as the menfolk - specifically freedom and the sense of being in control, which may seem paradoxical forces on the surface, but we’ll dig deeper...
In a 2008 article in Women Rider News, a newsletter specifically created for female riders back in 1999, early indicators of such a trend led Jan Plessner, Kawaski’s Manager of Public Relations, to say, “I am very excited to hear that the number of female motorcycle purchasers has jumped...This definitely reinforces what we are seeing out there. It’s great! For Kawasaki, 16.5 percent of our small and mid-size motorcycle customers are women. I think we are only just starting to tap into the potential women’s market.” That quote came prior to what the Los Angeles Times cited as a three-year slump in overall motorcycle sales during the recent economic recession, but there is no mistaking the fact that women riders are becoming more common. The number of women riding motorcycles increased by 34 percent between 1998 and 2003 and then a whopping 45 percent between 2003 and 2009, when the latest full report was issued by the Motorcycle Industry Council of Irvine, Calif. That clearly puts women at the top of the list as the fastest growing group of new riders. The latest figures indicate as much as 11 percent of all motorcycle riders are women. Beth Hazen, a motorcyclist and agent with the Women’s Motorcycle Month campaign co-sponsor Nationwide Insurance estimates, “There are more than 4.3 million women motorcyclists on the road today…”
Is there similar hard data to support the observations that there seems to be more women motorcycle operators in the Myrtle Beach area?
The South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles could not provide figures for our area specifically, but Beth Parks with the SCDMV’s communications office was able to “determine the number of females with a motorcycle license or endorsement statewide is 19,727 as of June 2, 2012.” Compare the 2012 figures to 2007, when, according to the SCDMV there were 15, 393 motorcycle licenses/endorsements issued to females. ("Endorsements" simply means you have tested and qualified to legally ride a motorcycle in S.C. Instead of giving you a second motorcycle license, the DMV just adds an "M" (for motorcycle) designation or endorsement (their word) on your normal driver’s license to indicate you are licensed to legally operate a motorcycle in addition to driving a car.)
That means there’s close to 20,000 potential female motorcyclists out there in the Palmetto State. Women are still in the minority - there are 192,246 males licensed to ride bikes in S.C. - but it’s a growing minority.
Ahead of the curve
Slightly ahead of the curve, Dawn Grey of Surfside Beach, who took to two wheels in 2002 is a perfect example. “I had never ridden on the back of a motorcycle until Donnie [husband Don “Don Jose” Grey] got his first Harley in 1994. I was 30-years-old. The first time I rode on it I was at the 1994 Myrtle Beach Spring Rally.” The Greys are originally from Maryland. She works as a relocation specialist for Coldwell Banker-Chicora Real Estate, and he is the owner of Grey’s Plumbing. “From that day on, I was hooked.” She recalls, “I was a passenger for years and totally loved it. We went on lots of rides and trips with friends. We hung out with a group of people back then where two of the wives rode their own bikes. Looking back, those two women were my inspiration for feeling confident enough to ride my own.” Grey continued, “In 2001 we watched a Discovery Channel documentary about Harley-Davidson’s new motorcycle -- the V-Rod. I watched that show and told Donnie, if you buy me that motorcycle, I’ll learn to ride.”
The Harley Davidson V-Rod is a radical departure from Harley’s typical cruiser design. Officially designated Harley-Davidson VRSC (V-Twin Racing Street Custom), the bike was introduced in 2001 in a single model called the V-Rod, which was specifically developed by Harley-Davidson to attract fans of the faster, sleeker Japanese and American sport bikes. The V-Rod’s powered by the new “Revolution” engine, developed in cooperation with Porsche. The motors featured for the first time in Harley production history, overhead cams and liquid cooling. The frame and chassis are also visually distinct, setting them apart from other Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Let’s just say it was something completely new and different at the time.
“We went to the Baltimore Bike Show in February, 2002 and Baltimore H-D had a V-Rod on display. I got in line numerous times just to sit on it,” said Grey. “It was love at first sight. The problem was that everyone else in the country was in love, too, because you couldn’t buy one anywhere. Very soon after we left the Baltimore Bike Show, Donnie put his name on the waiting list at Annapolis H-D. I also signed up to take my Motorcycle Safety Training class and was told that the first class with an opening wasn’t until August. I figured that we probably weren’t going to get the bike anytime soon anyway, so August was fine. Donnie got a call at work at the beginning of June from the Annapolis dealership saying that they just received a shipment of six V-Rods and the first six people to get there with the cash would get the bike! He called me and asked me what I wanted to do and I said, ‘Why aren’t you already there?’” She got the new bike but had to wait two months for riding lessons.
“Then Donnie had me practice for about two months in the parking lot of the local church and a school not far away,” she recalls. “I just remember the first time I rode it all by myself on a real road and how wonderful it was. That was 10 years ago and I still ride the same bike. I’ve actually never ridden any other motorcycle and I still feel the same way about my V-Rod as I did that one at the Baltimore Bike Show.” Riding runs in the blood. She is, “…the third of four children, all girls. All of our husbands ride their own bikes and my two older sisters ride their own bikes -- all Harleys. My youngest sister is the only one of us that doesn’t have her own motorcycle, but maybe one day when her kids are older we’ll be able to talk her into it. In the meantime, she is happy to be a passenger on her husband’s bike. I also have a nephew who just got his first Harley, he just turned 23 and it’s really fun to be part of a family that enjoys riding.”
As Grey speaks, there is an obvious excitement she feels while recalling her first riding experiences and that of finding, falling for, and finally getting her first motorcycle. It is the same way guys tell their stories. Well, guys may not be giggle quite as much about it; at least not on the outside.
Weekly Surge interviewed other women riders asking what motivated them to make the move from the back seat to the front, if they still felt feminine when riding, and if they were intimidated when it was time to learn? Most used words such as “freedom” and “having control” when they made the decision to slide up to the front seat including local Sandi Jett who rides a custom 1999 Renegade Trike (three-wheeled cycle) that has a powerful V-8 engine. Jett said, “After riding behind my husband for 10 years I made the big announcement I wanted my own bike.” She said her late husband, who was killed in 2005 by a drunk driver during Bike Week in Daytona Beach, Fla., initially laughed, but once he realized she was serious, he supported her buying her trike that she calls “Beep Beep,” which is adorned with a custom painted Road Runner image across the back. After his death, she moved to Myrtle Beach and she still rides “Beep Beep” on a regular basis.
As far as women riding while maintaining their femininity, Barbara Swisher of Staunton, Va. replied, “Absolutely! I still look and act like a woman, but a woman with a mission. I lead lots of rides and many of our friends share that I can ride as well or better than many of the guys in our area. I led a Ladies of Harley benefit ride with over 200 bikes.” This motorcycle (grand)mama beamed, “I am 54, married to a great man, and have two grown kids…and four grandkids. I have owned four Harleys… my current ride, a 2007 Softail Custom [has] a license plate that reads “Wcked”, as in wicked!”
The majority of women we interviewed learned to ride in their 30s and 40s, but one of them has been riding since she was five-years-old. Stephanie Whitmer of Mechanicsville, Pa. told Weekly Surge her father, “…a flat track racer…in the ‘60s and ‘70s, gave me my first motorcycle ride at the early age of 8 months, much to my mother’s horror. I had my first bike, a little Yamaha 80cc, at the age of 5. Riding on the back of a motorcycle was only an option when riding with my father...or if there was a boy that I didn’t want to scare off. Learning to ride at such a young age certainly helped me…5-year-olds don’t know what fear is.” As for the girly-girl question, she replied, “I am very feminine; sometimes I don’t look it, especially with helmet hair and riding gear. At the end of the day, I am truly a motorcycle enthusiast that just happens to be a woman. I enjoy anything with two wheels, a hearty engine and throaty pipes.”
Don’t we all?
Diversifying customer base
Schoonover should not be surprised, however, to see more women at his Myrtle Beach dealership. Harley-Davidson and other manufacturers have made no secret of the fact they are reaching out to women (and other non-big fat hairy white guy demographics) who want to ride. Harley dealerships across the country, as part of a corporate strategy, sponsor Ladies’ Garage Parties, which the national Web site describes as, “…social events geared towards women hosted by H-D dealerships. They are held after hours and offer hands-on tips and seminars on key areas of motorcycle basics.”
They are providing a safe place for women to come in and learn about motorcycle riding and buying in a female-friendly, girls-only environment without the risk of being scoffed at by men. Harley also has resources just for women including a “We Ride” guide just for women that has information covering everything from learning to ride to finding events and merchandise just for the ladies. Certain models of motorcycles in recent years, including the Harley-Davidson Sportster’s “Low Series” – already long regarded as the brand’s “chick bike” because the Sportster has a smaller frame and engine options than their other models – the Low and Super Low models have been designed with handlebars and foot pegs that are easier to reach by smaller (read female) people, and with lower seat-to-street clearances so those with shorter legs (women again) can ride them more comfortably. Harley also offers what it calls the “Fit Shop” where handlebars, seats, and foot pegs can be retrofitted or replaced on all its models to alter how close a rider sits to the front or back of the bike; or, to the ground; and to add or reduce the distance to the foot pegs and handlebars to accommodate longer or shorter arms and legs. Lowering kits are also available to help ladies and shorter riders get their feet flat on the ground when in the saddle. The local H-D dealership has a Fit Shop, according to Denise Medlin, the dealership’s marketing manager.
According to a CycleTrader.com survey, Harley leads the way in sales to women with 31 percent (with the Sportster being the favorite), followed closely by Honda at 25 percent. Honda’s Shadow and smaller Rebel models are popular Harley-cruiser-look-a-likes that are more affordable and come available in lighter and smaller versions than the actual Harleys. Only 14 percent surveyed rode customs (anything made by the countless available privately manufactured brands), but it is worth noting that there are a few companies out there only making motorcycles for this niche market of women riders, such as ROAR Motorcycles, Inc. and Wicked Women Choppers, which both build motorcycles exclusively for women.
Not to be outdone by the men, women have also formed their own motorcycle riding groups and clubs with their own names, logos, and vests, just like the guys, and makers of riding gear and apparel are also offering wares just for the lady rider.
“Today’s ‘motorcycle women’ continue to break down barriers and stereotypes,” reads another excerpt from Nationwide’s Web site. “In fact, women motorcycle riders are more affluent, mature and better educated than in the past. One-third of the current generation’s women motorcycle riders are college graduates, and are more likely to work in a professional or managerial occupation than their male counterparts. This growing group of women motorcycle riders is quickly leaving the ‘biker chick’ image behind.”