You Go Girl!
by Lisa Codianne Fowler
Move over, Hells Angels, biking ain’t what it used to be. Professional, fashion-conscious
and headstrong, female motorcyclists have emerged as a force to be reckoned with.
Women’s clubs are sprouting exponentially, with memberships comprised mostly of
career women who refuse to take the back seat any longer.
According to the Motorcycle Industry Council, one in twelve U.S . motorcycle owners is a
woman. Harley-Davidson reports that in 1985, 600 Harleys were sold to women; last year
that figure grew to more than 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 of its website devoted to the fairer sex.
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 said. “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.”
Poneleit not only sells and services bikes — BMWs, Triumphs and Hondas — but he also
runs Hap’s Gulf Coast Riders Motorcycle Club, a Sarasota-based group that benefits the
Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation, and provides motorcycle instruction to his customers.
“I would rather teach a 50-year-old woman that’s never ridden before than a 50-year-old
man,”he said. “Not because she’s female, but because she’ll listen to what I have to tell
her, has a fear factor, and would follow direction. She’ll be riding the motorcycle while
the guy is still trying to muscle the thing. You know us guys: we know it all.”
Poneleit 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, was a role model
“Dot Robinson rode a pink Harley until she was 86 years old, ”Valerie said. “And she was a lady. After she rode – maybe 200 to 300 miles – she would shower and put on a cocktail ress 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 said. 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 Italy’s Tuscan countryside, 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 the co-ed Hap’s Gulf Coast Riders,
being a member of Motor Maids adds another dimension to her motorcycle experience. “We ride on our own and we are individuals, and our bikes are as individual as we are.
The fact that we go off on our own gives us a feeling of empowerment, ”she continued.
“We feel the passion and 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 said 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 explained. Some, however, are retired, like local legend Janet Granger, who has put hundreds of thousands of miles on her bike.“ She’ll plan a trip and just take off, ” Bobby said. “The rest of us are still trying to figure out how to do it, and she’s already done it.”
Granger’s soft-spoken tone and gentle demeanor belie her fierce independence and
adventurous 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 of each year because of inclement weather. She retired from her career as a registered psychiatric nurse in 1997 and moved to Florida, where she found instant friends and complete support within the motorcycle community. Not that she requires external affirmation. This perky, petite honey-haired woman gives new meaning to the term “blonde bombshell.”
Over the years, she’s easily mastered everything from a 1975 Honda 200, whose smaller engine size she highly recommends for women new to riding, to the much larger and more powerful 2005 Honda VTX 1300, her ninth bike. She has traveled the world during a three-year stint with the Peace Corps in Antigua, and on a motorcycle tour of Australia, where s
he rode the periphery of Melbourne on a Harley with a guide, who drove “because they ride on the opposite side of the road down there.”
After Granger’s divorce and before her move to Florida, her three children pleaded with
her to find a younger man, someone who could keep up with her. Her current boyfriend is
eleven years her junior. Interestingly, the largest group of new bikers, she said, is 50-year-old women. When Granger asked a fellow Motor Maid why she took up biking at age 50, her friend’s response was quick and deliberate: “It was either take up biking or take on a lover, and I thought biking would be more exciting.”
Granger made the solo round-trip journey from Florida to California solo to attend an
annual Motor Maid convention. It is a stipulation of Motor Maids that they are required
to ride to events, no matter where they are held, as opposed to trailering their bikes to the
site. Traveling great distances alone might seem daunting to some, and Granger insisted that maintaining a healthy respect for danger is essential. She only rides during daylight hours and chooses main highways, versus lightly traveled back roads.
“One of the things people ask me is: ‘Aren’t you afraid out there?’ And I very candidly say,
‘Yes, I am. Sometimes, I’m petrified.’ But if I ever lose that fear and become cocky, I’ve got to get off a bike.” Granger also stressed the importance of being aware of one’s surroundings and remaining as low-key as possible. It’s no wonder she’s safely logged so many miles. “Janet doesn’t know this, but she inspired me to ride,” said 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, Marion said, “I wanted to do something with my husband.”
Marion took the Motorcycle Safety Foundation course, started with a little ’86 250cc Honda Rebel, and within a month, upgraded to a purple 2003 Shadow Spirit. Denis Marion, Mary ’s husband, is Vice President of Hap’s Gulf Coast Riders and has been riding for 40 years.
“Wives and girlfriends ride now, and you see a lot of couples,” he said. “As a result, there are motorcycle clubs for women starting to pop up ... The biker world is much more social, and that’s because of the women.” He also credits them with improved the image of bikers and increasing fund-raising capabilities by introducing new ideas. Changes have taken place within the motorcycling demographic as well as with its image.
“People used to be afraid of bikers, in part because of Hollywood,” Denis said. “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 ‘70s. We’re baby-boomers with money, and many are buying motorcycles and reliving their youth.”
In the past, bikers were feared, but today, he said, “Cities love us...‘ Come have a rally, stay at our hotels, eat at our restaurants. ’” They’ve realized that motorcycle enthusiasts, are good for the economy.
Norman Smith couldn’t agree more about the difference between the bikers of yesteryear
and today’s new breed. “There’s a big difference between them and us,” he says. “Bikers
still exist, but there are a whole lot of us.”
He teaches the Motorcycle Safety Foundation course at Manatee Community College in Bradenton, Florida, which is part of the Florida Rider Training Program, a division of the State’s Department of Motor Vehicles. An instructor for about nine years, Smith has seen a tremendous increase in the number of 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, and others. His student body, he said, covers
the entire spectrum of the professional world.
“One observation I’ve had, speaking in general terms, is that women are more likely to
take instruction and apply it than men are,” he said. “They are willing to ask questions.
And, if you have something to tell them to improve their skills, they are more likely to
In an average class, Smith’s students, male and female, range in age from 18 to 70. He
has taught one 86-year-old male and 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 first-hand.”
Smith owns 16 vintage motorcycles, and one of the toughest decisions he has to make
every day is which one to ride. Which one will it be this time? Old Blue, Silver, or
Red? It seems that Norman is in touch with his feminine side, a good place to be in these
times that are, obviously, a-changing.
Reprinted from Iron Horse magazine