More women find freedom on two-wheels

Harley-Davidson motorcycles has a department that deals with female outreach, April 6, 2014. — AFP pic
Harley-Davidson motorcycles has a department that deals with female outreach, April 6, 2014. — AFP pic

LONDON, April 6 — One in 10 UK riders is female and in the US women already represent 25 percent of the motorcycling community and the number is growing fast. So as more and more women decide to choose two wheels over four we look at how to go about choosing the right bike and what it is about motorcycling that’s proving so alluring to so many.

It’s all about ride height, and more specifically, being able to put both feet flat on the floor with knees slightly bent when sitting on a motorcycle, explains Genevieve Schmitt, when asked how a woman should go about picking the right bike. “Without bend in the knees, there’s no play in your legs to maneuver the bike around,” she says.

And as for engine size—bikes range from 125cc to the quite frankly preposterous 2294cc (that’s 2.3 liters) of the Triumph Rocket III—Schmitt recommends starting small and working up over time as experience and confidence grow. “I definitely believe that if you are someone who’s a little skittish or still has fear about motorcycles, consider getting a 250cc, something like a Honda Rebel,” she says.

A cruiser design, with a low, long saddle, limited top speed and curved handlebars like the Rebel is never a handful and is a favorite of US motorcycle instructors.

But even if a rider is brimming with confidence and feels she’s ready to go straight to something with an engine big enough to power a small car, Schmitt would suggest taking it easy, at least to begin with.

“I always advise against starting with a brand new, larger-sized bike because inevitably you will drop the motorcycle and dropping a new big bike will end up costing you in repairs what you would have paid to buy a used ‘smaller’ motorcycle, one on which you can make those ‘beginner’ mistakes,” she warns. Therefore it’s simply a question of experience, and nothing to do with gender.

Because it would be a very strange day indeed if one were to pick up a best-selling motorcycle magazine or log on to a leading bikers’ blog and discover the lead story is about the best bikes for men. The best superbike, or café racer, yes, but best man’s bike would ruffle a few leathers. Yet there’s a growing focus on the best bikes for women, and sometimes the topic’s covered as if women are a separate species.

Schmitt has considered this topic more than most. She appreciates that it can be delicate. “There are definitely two schools of thought: those who think you can’t assign gender preference to motorcycles and get offended when you do—and those who think it’s OK to do so and are interested what you have to say,” she explains.

As the founder and editor of WomenRidersNow.com, Schmitt is firmly in the latter camp. She has been at the forefront of writing about women and motorcycling for over 15 years, highlighting the joys and empowerment that come from going from four wheels to two and helping more women make the transition.

But Schmitt is more than just an expert, she speaks like an evangelist who has seen the light and her enthusiasm is as infectious as her knowledge of new Japanese bikes on sale in the US with a 125cc engine (one Kawasaki) is comprehensive.

The way she tells it, men and women ride for the same reasons and need the same things from their chosen ride. The only difference, the only area where we can be prescriptive is ride height.

Although we all come in increasingly different shapes and sizes, on the whole, men are taller than women and as motorcyclists are predominantly male, motorbikes are more likely to accommodate someone who is taller, rather than shorter. All of which brings us back to the question of ride height being the only real issue. “Of course, if you’re a 5’10” woman then you can go and get a mid-sized bike, a 500cc or a 750cc,” says Schmitt.

But even this last obstacle is starting to recede. Motorbikes in general are getting lighter and more compact as manufacturers search for performance gains without increasing engine capacities. And, more importantly, the leading brands have started to recognize that they’ve been ignoring a massive potential new market for far too long.

“Women riders are the fastest growing US demographic. It’s the one that has experienced the most growth over the last 20 years and one-in-four riders is now a female,” says Schmitt. It’s a trend that’s still growing and one that she puts down to three distinct things.

The first being that in the mid-1990s, motorcycle makers started building bikes with a lower ride height and with a more comprehensive range of engines, what Schmitt calls “filling in the gaps in displacement.” So where a bike range would have once jumped from a 250cc to a 500cc model, and a 500cc to 750cc model, now 300cc and 650cc models are also available.

“The second thing was the aftermarket industry started exploding with lots of different ways to modify a motorcycle,” she continues, “Ways to lower the bike, suspension adjustments, handlebar risers that turn the handlebars closer, so the aftermarket industry responded to fit bikes better.”

And the third reason, Schmitt believes, is success: “In the mid-90s to the mid-2000, women started coming into their own, climbing up the corporate ladders. Women were becoming more confident culturally, and more often were the breadwinner. So they had the means to buy motorcycles.”

And of course, the more women there are pounding the highway on a sportbike or cruiser, the more likely they are to be seen by other women who in turn think, “If she can do that, so can I”. After all, that’s what happened to Schmitt. She didn’t grow up around bikes or biking and until 1990 had no interest in the subject.

“I was working for US TV show Good Morning America as a producer ... and I was assigned a story on women riding motorcycles. And believe it or not I was the type that used to close my ears when the Harley-Davidson went by. But after I did the video shoot I was hooked. I said ‘I wanna be like these women!’” she remembers.

Schmitt was astounded by the energy and sprit of independence exuded by the women she interviewed. She passed her test, bought a bike and the rest, as they say is history. Her hobby soon became her job and in 2001 moved from being a motorcycle reporter to launching WomenRidersNow.com.

As a result, she is probably one of the best qualified people to make recommendations about how women should go about joining the female riding community and in choosing the bike that’s right for them.

Yet when it comes to recommending a specific motorcycle she quite rightly says: “You won’t really know what you want until you start riding. It’s a question of taste. Lean to ride on a standard-style bike then make a choice.”

Historically, the cruiser style, has been the most accommodating for women, due to its riding position and due, explains Schmitt, to the commitment of Harley-Davidson. “Harley leads the charge in selling to women. They are the only manufacturer with a department dedicated to women’s outreach. They make it like you want to be part of the brand and part of the lifestyle, and no other brand has done that,” she says.

Its focus on making its cruisers lower to the ground and dropping their center of gravity has boosted Harley’s appeal among women, spurring on other manufacturers to do the same with other bike styles. Even the predominantly Japanese sportbikes, that traditionally have a higher, more cramped riding position, are no longer off limits.

“What’s so great is that Kawasaki has always offered a Ninja 250cc sportbike and then Honda came out with the CBR250 to compete with that. And so now Kawasaki has a 300cc model and Suzuki has the GW250, which I recently rode and is sporty, lightweight and great for entry level. So although they’re higher, they’re very light and have low displacement so they’re ideal starter motorcycles for men and women,” she says.

But whether you settle on a tourer, a cruiser or an old-style café racer like a Triumph Bonneville, the end result says Schmitt, is the same: “Men and women ride for the same reason—the expression of freedom and the liberation and the fun.”

In fact the only real difference is how men and women come to take their first steps towards owning a bike. A man can simply hop on a bike and no one bats an eyelid, but, Schmitt believes, it’s not so straightforward for women, historically, anyway, but even that is set to change.

“It’s not so accepted in society so women have to go through a different set of mental exercises to get to where they are comfortable to ride, but with this new generation of young women, the 18-25-year-olds, this generation of girls are more empowered than women like myself. They don’t have any of the society rules that say girls can’t do that,” she says. — AFP-Relaxnews

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