More women out on two wheels
LEARNING TO RIDE: Dana Wilke, left, helps Lizzy Dabczynsky test a motorcycle in New York. The number of women motorcycle riders in the US has increased slowly to about 7.2 million of about 27 million.
Author: Leanne Italie
Cris Baldwin was seven when she commandeered her brother's minibike on their Wisconsin dairy farm and first felt the wind in her face. More than 250 000 miles (400 000km) and 42 years later, it's still two wheels and a petrol tank for the school administrator.
Baldwin is an assistant dean at Washington University in St. Louis, but that's just one part of her. She's also past president and a chapter founder of the 30-year-old Women on Wheels, one of the US's oldest and largest motorcycle clubs for women at about 2000 members.
"It really is freeing from your day-to-day obligations, enjoying the moment, not thinking about bills or sending kids to college," Baldwin said. "I wouldn't trade it for anything. It's my two-wheel therapy."
The number of women motorcycle operators in the US has increased slowly to about 7.2 million of about 27 million overall in 2009, according to the latest survey by the Motorcycle Industry Council. About 1 in 10 owners is a woman, said Cam Arnold, a vice president for the trade group.
The American Motorcyclist Association has about 225 000 members. The number of women is under 10%, but the number of new women members has increased, driven in part by a higher profile for women on two wheels, more training opportunities and better equipment, said AMA board member Maggie McNally.
Dozens of female-only motorcycle clubs have joined more established groups like Women on Wheels. The makers of bikes and gear are reaching out to women like never before through special events and marketing campaigns that include Harley-Davidson's "No Doubts. No Cages." programme.
MADE TO MEASURE
Women no longer have to endure jackets, gloves and helmets designed for men. And it's easier to find or modify bikes for shorter bodies, said McNally, the AMA's vice chairwoman and the highest-ranking female in the group's 75-year history.
McNally started riding in 1981 after hanging out with friends, thinking up dream cars, in a New York parking lot, the same parking lot where she now teaches newbies of both sexes how to ride safely.
McNally recalls: "I said that I wanted to get a motorcycle, and one of the guys said, 'You can't; girls don't ride motorcycles.'
"I thought, 'He shouldn't be telling a temperamental redhead what she can and cannot do.' I had my permit within a week."
Women are generally more interested in formal safety training than men, with 58% of women taking a rider course, compared with 44% of men, according to the AMA.
Harley-Davidson, based in Milwaukee, is the market leader in sales to women. The company travels around the country offering training and safety tips for women, including a recent event outside Manhattan's Flatiron Building.
Claudia Garber, director of women's outreach for Harley, said: "We've heard from enough women who think they might like to do it but don't know how to get started.
"They're worried about things like the bike seems too big and too heavy for me, or maybe I don't know other women who ride."
Roshani Dubel, 33, an eighth-grade math teacher and mother of three was more than ready, but she had to face those fears after winning an essay contest telling Harley why she wanted to learn to ride. She and three others were flown to Milwaukee for mentoring and training last summer.
A video documenting her struggle shows her breaking down emotionally as she tries to walk the bike back and forth. "I'm 5 feet tall. I kept thinking to myself, 'How am I going to ride if I can't even walk this monster?'"
Things clicked eventually. She's logged more than 800 miles (1280km) on her Harley since, cheered by her students and fellow teachers when she rolled up to her school on it for the first time.