A burly gang of bikers cruises up Highway 94, a blur of black leather and chrome weaving through the oak-speckled countryside into the nether regions of East County. When their leader signals that it's time to stop, they veer uniformly off the road and onto the driveway of a quaint roadside café. The din of their pipes subsides and they glide off the backs of their machines, their boots crunching in the gravel. Everything is tranquil for a second, but as soon as they wrest their heads free from their heavy helmets, the air erupts with boisterous cackles and excited chatter-the unmistakable sound of female glee.
Sachi Wilson, Becky Marodi, Karen Gabriel, Colleen McBride, Deborah Jenkins and Bonnie Sherwood have had a good ride so far. The day is overcast and a bit hazy, but the air is temperate and comfortable. They peel off their gear, excitedly discussing a near-mishap with an ambulance-Wilson has a hearing impairment and didn't hear it coming up behind her-and taking turns trotting off to the bathroom to pee. (Unavoidable restroom breaks can set large groups of women woefully behind during long-distance rides.)
When everyone is refreshed and ready to ride again, they strap themselves back into their gloves, jackets and helmets and climb back onto their bikes. Some of them have full-face helmets and leave long locks of hair trailing out behind them. Two wear only half-helmets and tie bandanas around their faces to keep the bugs out of their teeth. Each one has a different bike and a different style, but they all sport the same gold-embroidered patch on the back of their leather jackets-a lion-haired woman on a motorcycle beneath the script "Women in the Wind."
A bevy of these leather-clad women of vari-
ous ages, shapes and sizes descended in noisy splendor upon Mission Valley's staid, pastel-hued Handlery Hotel in mid-February for the Women in the Wind Winter National conference. The gig was just getting off the ground at 11 a.m. on Friday, but swarms of cheerful women with patches on their jackets proclaiming "lady rider" and "traded husband for Harley" were already swigging Mike's Hard Lemonade, snacking on pretzels and carrot sticks and perusing the biker merchandise spread throughout one of the conference rooms. Choice items included potholders, fanny packs and license-plate frames bearing the Women in the Wind logo, leather jackets, saddlebags and T-shirts featuring a silhouette of a woman on a motorcycle underneath the slogan "My vibrator has two wheels and five speeds."
Founder Becky Brown-who rides a Harley Davidson Heritage Springer and makes a living as an industrial electrician-was only 23 years old when she organized the first group of Women in the Wind in Toledo, Ohio, in 1979. Her role in enhancing the visibility of women riders has made her something of a celebrity in motorcycle circles, and she was inducted into Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2002. She also had her portrait shot by Annie Leibowitz for Leibowitz's 1999 book, Women. (The photo didn't end up getting published.) Despite her notoriety, Brown bears no trace of pretension or self-importance. She's allowed natural streaks of gray to settle into her long blonde hair, and she blends in with all the other women as she stands quietly behind a table, folding tie-dyed T-shirts and casually chatting with members who come up to greet her.
Her pale green eyes indicate happiness when she's asked to comment about how much the group has grown in the past three decades, but she admits she sometimes feels a little nostalgic for the early years.
"Now it's trendy; then it was scary," Brown says with a wistful smile. "I got to be radical then; now I'm just like everybody else."
It's not that she isn't proud of her achievement. She visibly revels in the bike-chick camaraderie that surrounds her, saying that the single greatest compliment she can receive is having a woman tell her she met her best friend through Women in the Wind.
Gale Collins, the current president of the group, pops up at Brown's side. A petite, dynamic 53-year-old with a reddish-brown bob, it seems like the words pouring out of her mouth could probably outpace her motorcycle, a Harley Davidson Dyna Super Glide.
"I knew I was going to ride when I saw Easy Rider in high school," Collins says. "I just had to live some of my life first."
Like many of her fellow women in the wind, Collins ended up getting a degree, getting married and having two children before deciding she wanted a motorcycle for her 40th birthday.
"I went to college, I went to law school, I've been in sororities, I'm a certified Jr. Olympic bowling coach, I've been a Cub Scout den leader," says Collins animatedly, her gold Women in the Wind earrings dancing around her face. "We're all do-ers, obviously, but I never felt like I belonged, and I never felt like I fit in, until this."
Many of the women riders ended up on road bikes after spending their youth on horses and off-road dirt bikes. Others say they just got sick of riding on the back behind their men.
"I broke up with a boyfriend on the way home from a trip, and I had just bought a new pair of chaps," said Judi Hart, a member of the Lake Havasu Desert Divas. "So I got myself a bike instead of a new boyfriend!"
There seems to be a certain "If she can do it, I can do it" phenomenon that has boosted the number of female riders in recent years. Many of the newer members of Women in the Wind say they were inspired to ride by witnessing other female friends getting so much out of the experience.
"It's a joyful thing to do. It is just joyful," says 55-year-old Pat Romero, a contractor who's been riding her Harley Davidson Fat Boy for nearly three years.
Though they all came to riding their own way, the women are united by the common pleasures they experience while riding. Feeling viscerally connected with nature seems to be primary.
"When you're on a bike, everything is alive," says 50-year-old Colleen McBride, who's been riding for 10 years and currently owns a Yamaha 650 VStar. "It's like you're right in the middle of everything and it's just... like being in the middle of a pinball machine or something, it's just all around you."
The ability to smell the surroundings-for better or worse-also seems to be a particularly enjoyable experience.
"It totally explains why dogs like to stick their noses out the car," added Dorene Bloomer, another Desert Diva.
The '70s cult-classic book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance comes up in discussion every so often. Most of the women agree that there is indeed a zen element to their riding.
"People usually say, "Don't drive if you're upset,' but if you get on a motorcycle, you have to deal with that upset in a way that's very controlled-if you don't, you'll die," explains Bonnie Sherwood, a 58-year-old grandmother who works as a sign language interpreter and rides a Harley Davidson Sportster XL1200L. "If you want to get away from whatever's troubling you for a while and get a mental rest from that, get on a motorcycle because it absolutely forces you to be away from that."
Jennifer Shaver is a pretty, bookish-looking 33-year-old who's been riding her Honda Shadow 750 for almost a year. She explains that riding isn't about thinking as much as reacting and feeling.
"I have a very serious job in a finance company; it's very dry, and it is very painful to me," says Shaver. "I don't think that's why I ride the motorcycle, but for sure the motorcycle provides some desperately needed balance in my life."
"When I'm on my bike, it's like the only thing that's mine," says McBride. "Everything else I do for everybody else."
Romero says she thinks that's true for most women.
"Your whole life long, it's about taking care of family, taking care of kids... a household, whatever it might be," says Romero. "And you reach a point where you need something, want something, for you. And this is all about me. This motorcycle is all about me."
The women zoom down Silver Strand Boul-evard toward Coronado, bracing themselves against the headwinds. To the left, the Pacific is a deep slate blue under heavy clouds. To the right, the bicycles making their way up the road appear flimsy and ineffective, rather useless tools when it comes to the pursuit of exhilaration.
But bicycle riding is a much less expensive hobby. Motorcycles can cost anywhere from $4,000 to more than $30,000, depending on the manufacturer, the size of the engine and any desired accoutrements-not to mention the cost of a helmet and jacket, pants, gloves and boots. Bikes with smaller engines and lower CCs (cubic centimeters) are cheaper and are recommended for beginners, but are easily and rapidly outgrown. Insurance companies also charge higher rates for bikes with more CCs.
Turnover seems relatively frequent, but "it depends completely on your financial situation," says Sherwood. "Everyone's lusting for a fleet of them in their garage."
Sherwood says she always dreamed of owning a Harley, but for years the company didn't make a bike small enough for her short legs to reach the ground.
"No amount of talking is going to make people understand what's so special about a Harley Davidson," says Sherwood. "It's just something you sort of have to understand by being around the culture for a while."
Sherwood was happy enough riding her Yamaha VStar 650, but in 2006, after she'd waited for nearly 40 years, Harley released a low-model Sportster that she could ride. When she got the news, Sherwood says she immediately began combing eBay in search of a used one and ended up finding two of them in Poway.
"I thought, This is meant to be! I have to go buy one of them! and so I did," says Sherwood. "And I no more had a notion to buy a bike in December than fly off the top of my house."
Female motorcycle riders seem to be sparsely represented in pop culture-a recent exception being Sandra Oh's badass biker mom in the movie Sideways-but American women have actually been riding motorcycles for longer than they've been allowed to vote.
The two most notorious early female riders were socialite sisters Adeline and Augusta Van Buren, who were only 22 and 24 years old in 1916 when, hoping to prove that women were capable of serving as dispatch riders in the military, they set out to ride their Indian Power Plus motorcycles from New York to San Francisco. After they left New York on July 4, they became the first women to summit Pike's Peak on motor vehicles, were slowed down by multiple arrests for wearing men's clothing and still managed to reach San Francisco by Sept. 2. (Despite their record-breaking achievement, the military still rejected Augusta's application to enlist and she eventually became a pilot and joined the all-female aviation group, The 99s.) Another female motorcycling pioneer was the "Motorcycle Queen of Miami," Bessie Stringfield, a black woman who was 16 when she rode her first bike in 1927 and went on to ride solo across the country eight times between 1930 and 1950.
America's first female motorcycling group was founded only 20 years after the Van Burens' seminal ride, when legendary ladies Dot Robinson and Linda Dugeau started Motor Maids Inc. in 1939. Still thriving, Motor Maids is one of countless women's riding clubs in existence today. Most official female biker groups are specifically devoted to promoting safety and a positive image of women motorcyclists, in addition to regularly participating in fundraising rides for various women-centric charities.
Some of the biggest groups include the Women's International Motorcycle Association, which was founded in 1950 and has more than 3,000 members in more than 20 countries, and Women on Wheels, which was founded in 1982 and has more than 100 chapters with 3,500 members across the United States and beyond. Women in the Wind, whose 40-member Sol Sisters chapter meets and rides around San Diego County the third Saturday of each month, currently has almost 80 chapters that include more than 1,400 members.
Stopped at a light somewhere around Chula Vista, the
Sol Sisters take turns gunning their engines. They grin at each other sideways from under their helmets as a woman in an enormous SUV glances at them witheringly, moving her cell phone to her other ear and rolling up her window.
Even when they're not deliberately trying to be loud, when traveling in large groups the Sol Sisters do attract attention. It's possible that they're often mistaken for their lesbian counterparts, Dykes on Bikes, who seem to be the most commonly known female motorcycle group among local non-riders.
Some of the Sol Sisters are lesbians, but they all agree sexual orientation has nothing to do with loving motorcycles.
"People mistake me for gay, and then they find out I ride a motorcycle and it's like, "Oh, for sure you're gay,'" says Shaver. "We ride motorcycles, for God's sake. What does that have to do with anything else?"
Becky Marodi, a 31-year-old firefighter who rides a 750 CC Honda but pines for a Harley Davidson Road King, says she doesn't believe motorcycling is an inherently masculine hobby.
"It's just a cool, sexy thing," says Marodi. "I think that people interpret motorcycle riding as being sexy."
Most of the straight Sol Sisters are supported by their boyfriends and husbands, and they even have a few honorary male members they refer to as their "boys in the breeze."
But not all the men in their lives have been equally encouraging.
"I am divorced largely because I chose to ride a motorcycle," says Shaver, going on to explain that her husband's attempts to prevent her from riding were indicative of deeper problems and signaled the beginning of the end of their relationship.
"I think riding motorcycles really exemplifies and magnifies a woman coming to power," says Sherwood, "and that can be very threatening to men."
Romero says taking up riding has boosted her confidence.
"Each time you challenge yourself to do a little more on that motorcycle... [and] step just a little bit beyond what your envelope of comfort is, that sense of empowerment grows," says Romero, "and it is a tremendous thing."
Shaver's current boyfriend doesn't ride, but she says she's tremendously thankful he's supportive of her.
"The whole men-being-threatened thing, the whole husband and the power-struggle thing, they need to get over it," says Shaver. "It's part of who I am, but, you know, women ride motorcycles; it's a fact of life.... We're not crazed. We're not weird. We're just people who like to ride motorcycles."
The Handlery ballroom echoes with rowdy hoots and catcalls during the Sol Sisters fashion show as the women take turns modeling the latest gear from BMW, Harley Davidson and a new female-specific bike apparel company, She-Moto.
"It's time we looked like women on the bike," said She-Moto founder Tiina Perttu. The ladies applaud vigorously and audibly enjoy the sight of Perttu's tailored red jacket and the buttery soft texture of its Italian leather.
But bike apparel-leather in particular-has traditionally been much more about function than fashion. Leather works best to protect against the abrasive injuries that come from sliding, explains the group's "safety queen," Sachi Wilson, a 55-year-old lawyer who's been riding for more than 20 years.
Despite their cumbersome look, Wilson also encourages the women to wear full-face helmets, which not only protect the brain, but also the chin and jaw. The women who choose to wear what are called "half-helmets" either do so because they say the fuller ones restrict their vision or because they just can't enjoy a ride without the feeling of the wind in their face.
As of 2005, California was one of only 21 states requiring that all motorcycle riders wear a helmet, and according to a 2004 estimate by the National Highway Transit Safety Administration, helmets reduce the likelihood of a crash fatality by only 37 percent.
Of the 469 motorcycle-rider fatalities recorded by the NHTSA in California in 2005, 87 percent of the riders were wearing helmets.
The Sol Sisters certainly understand that riding is high-risk-many have close friends who have perished on their motorcycles.
Sherwood says she had a friend who was thrown from her bike after running over a ladder that had fallen off someone's truck and onto the freeway. Six cars ran over her body and she died on the spot.
After that, how could Sherwood get back on a motorcycle?
"That will never happen to me," says Sherwood. "That's just what I know. That's the mantra that has to go through my head."
"I'm a little more numb to death and things like that because I see it all the time," says firefighter Marodi. "It is scary, but I'm not going to let it stop me from doing what I want to do."
Shaver's job also forces her to consider the mathematical possibility of disaster.
"I work in a risk-management company," she says. "I'm very concerned for my personal safety-if I get hurt, I can't ride. If I get killed, I can't ride. So I do the things I need to do to avoid getting hurt or killed. I hope that it's enough. I accept that it might not be."
That's not to say Shaver doesn't experience fear.
"I'm afraid of tons of shit; I'm the ultimate chicken," she says. "Mentally and emotionally, I'm very fearful about many things. But I'm sort of learning from riding the bike that it's OK to be afraid.... Just don't let it dictate your actions necessarily."
Sherwood puts it another way:
"How would you like to trip on a bar of soap in your shower, fall against your shower stall, break your damn neck and wind up in a wheelchair? If I'm going to be in a wheelchair, girlfriends, I am going to be there because I have fallen off my bike!"