Stories from the Road

Story by David G. Williams// Photos by Tammy Blaze, Sarah Bankert, Emily Smith, CiCi Rider, Deb Phoenix
December 13 2017

As told by women who ride.

Women have been riding motorcycles pretty much since they were invented (the motorcycles, not women). Why, in 1915, Effie Hotchkiss and her mother, Avis, became the first women to ride across the United States when they headed west from Brooklyn, New York, to San Francisco. You can probably imagine what the roads, and bikes, were like back then. I wouldn’t want to do it.

Samson Lang of Rising Sun Motorcycles in East Vancouver says 40 per cent of his customers are women. As the owner of an all-makes full-service shop and custom-bike builder, he sees just about everything. “I think women are entering the sport at double the rate of men, whether it’s a young woman who is into the scene and the fashion or a 40-something who wants to try something different.”

And yet, women riders still seem to be a bit of a novelty to some people. Unusual. Perhaps even something of a mystery. So, I decided to ask some everyday women riders to tell me about their relationship with riding, and what that experience was like, to see whether it was any different from those of us from Mars. Here’s what they said.

Tammy Blaze, 46, Windsor, Ont.

Motorcyclist Tammy BlazeMy life is probably no different than many. A series of ups and downs: moments of great awareness and growth, unbelievable devastations and rebuilding of self.

With that, I’ve always been one to read book after book. I enjoy reading of people’s adventures around this big, beautiful globe. Their journeys inspire me to continue and keep growing, to share my own gifts with the world. The connection of our humanness.

My husband is an avid rider, and one particular year he decided to go on a motorcycle trip all by himself to see different parts of Ontario. Before he left, he passed a book to me saying that he thought I would enjoy it, that it was “right up my alley.”

The book was [musician] Neil Peart’s Ghost Rider. I spent a full weekend sitting on my deck turning page after page, reading the story of his struggles and how the road was his therapist. The vulnerability of his life tragedy, his thoughts and his heartbreak were there for us to read, and to use his story as healing for perhaps our own grief.

When I finished his book, my very next words to my husband were, “I no longer want to be a passenger of life anymore.” With that, I obtained my motorcycle licence. I’ve been riding now for almost two years. I’ve covered thousands of kilometres on my bike discovering Ontario and Michigan, while discovering myself.

Being a professional yoga teacher, I recalled all these years that motorcyclists would say, “I feel free when I ride.” I instantly realized that they were practising meditation in motion. Riding is freeing – you can only be in the moment, in the beauty of the moment, the surroundings and the beauty within you. And in that moment, one realizes everything is okay, everything is exactly as it should be. I am no longer a passenger.

Sarah Bankert, 49, Kelowna, B.C.

When I was seven, I learned to drive on a standard shift Willys jeep. My first experience riding was on my cousin’s minibike. It was an automatic, and my brother and I weren’t allowed to ride it much. We moved from the Kootenays to Kelowna in 1977, and when my mom met her new boyfriend Neil, that’s when I started riding a Yamaha Trials 80, and his Trials 250 when I could. I was 13, and if I stalled the 250, I’d either lean it up against a pole or have to find an older person to start it, which usually entailed letting that person take it for a rip.

My next bike was another Yamaha GT 80, and from there I went to a YZ 100, YZ 125 and then eventually to street bikes on a Kawasaki LTD 305, and a Honda V65 Magna that I had to sell in 2003. I’ve owned a series of muscle cars in the meantime, but right now in the garage sits a 1968 Cutlass with a blown 455, and my latest bike, a Kymco Venox. I consider the Venox my starter bike because I never did have a licence until last year. I am older and hopefully wiser now and I’m focusing on riding safely.

I hung around with mostly guys and still do. I’m also a class 1 driving instructor, and this is mainly the reason that safety is now a big issue. I have to practise what I preach. I’d never want to have any of my students see me doing something stupid and unsafe on the road. No texting and driving!

Emily Smith, 35, Toronto, Ont.

Emily Smith Working on Her MotorcycleI bought my 1994 XLH 883 Sportster in the beginning of 2012, right after a pretty awful divorce of a marriage of 13 years. It was the best life-altering decision I ever made.

Growing up in Toronto, I walked everywhere I could or took public transit when I couldn’t, so I never actually learned how to drive. I took the M2 course with my best friend and sister, and not only did I fall completely in love with riding, but I was a natural.

My boss at the time had just upgraded to her gorgeous Dyna, and with my sister buying her own Sportster, we had the beginning of what would be an awesome women’s riding club. Since then I’ve ridden with huge mixed groups to Port Dover, Ont., and other meets. I’ve ridden with women-only groups around Ontario roads, been chased by storms, rear-ended by a blood-bank van at a red light, taken my little boy to the movies, watched the sun go down over Lake Simcoe, dumped my poor girl in the middle of traffic because of a seized bearing, fixed a snapped throttle cable on the side of a deserted road, ferried my big brother around on his wedding day while he was wearing a dress (yes, you read that right), enjoyed all the winding autumn roads I could find on my own, and tore up the same town I walked until I was 30. There have been so many note-worthy moments in this short time of riding, but truly, there’s nothing like the feeling of being on the road, feeling the engine and the wind and being a badass biker chick!

CiCi Rider, 54, Midland, Ont.

When I was a kid, we were driving to the family cottage on a hot summer day when I heard a loud rumble. I looked out the window and saw a beautiful woman riding a purple Harley, her blonde hair flying in the wind. I gave her the thumbs up and she gave me the “wave.” From that moment I was hooked.

When I decided it was finally time to make my lifelong dream come true, I bought my first bike and signed up for the course. Some people said that perhaps riding motorcycles isn’t for women, it’s dangerous, don’t you know. Well, the first day of the course I made a mistake and dropped the bike.

Then I became nervous that I was going to drop the bike again and I wasn’t riding fast enough. The instructor told me that this is a man’s sport, and the voices of the naysayers were echoing in my head. I thought, no, I’m not giving up, no matter what. The second day was better, but I didn’t pass the test.

They gave me a date for a do-over, so I practised every day on my own bike, and when the time came, I passed. It was one of the happiest days of my life. My first riding season I rode my bike almost every day and had many great experiences. I rode in the wind, the rain, over gravel roads, twisty roads, on highways, back roads, two-lane highways, alone and with groups of new-found friends. The joy of riding has been even more than I had imagined it would be. I’m so glad I never gave up on my dream.

Deb Phoenix, Toronto, Ont.

Deb Phoenix Travelling with Her MotorcycleWhen I decided to learn to ride a motorcycle, the guys I knew laughed.

I’m five feet three inches and 110 pounds soaking wet. I wear makeup and braids and I look good in a skirt. Nothing about me seems particularly tough. I grew up around punk rock in the inner city, and motorcycles always seemed a cross between chariots of the gods and the logical next step.

The sort of step only cooler, smarter, braver people took. Even after most of the guys I knew had bikes, I didn’t imagine I could, or ever would, own one. It wasn’t as common for women at the time. A lot has changed, even in the last seven or eight years.

Two or maybe three women I had ever met rode bikes. They seemed like mystical, ethereal figures.
I would ride on the back of friends’ bikes. I loved it. The thunder of pipes and crack of a throttle. I loved the machines themselves – the lines and mechanics. I loved the smell of the air and the road as it passed beneath me. The motion of the bike moved my blood to the rhythm of a V-twin from the very first ride.

Riding on the back made me feel like a princess, being whisked along in a procession of warrior knights in leather, or marauding Huns, depending how the evening played out. I felt beautiful being a princess, but in my heart, I wanted to be a warrior, too.

So, I started a jar. Twenty bucks or more after every bartending shift. I signed up for the M1 course and the guys laughed hard. They made jokes about how long it would take me to fail, what calamity would scare me off. I bought a Honda 450 Nighthawk. It was much too tall, 30 years old, and looked it. It seized on hot days and had pitted forks that leaked oil onto the front brake pads, rendering them totally useless.

I learned to ride alone on back streets in the city. Most of the people I knew didn’t want to be seen riding with a tiny girl on an ugly bike. It was a terrifying and unfamiliar sensation to be in control of my own ride. I wasn’t very good, but I loved the road. The city traffic sharpened my reflexes and gave me an eye for manoeuvring. I met another tiny girl on her own tiny bike at a gas station. We would sometimes roll out together. Both our bikes have changed since, but we’re still friends.

I saved up and found a pearl white 883 Sportster Hugger in a repo yard. The most beautiful bike I had ever seen. She was carbureted and second-hand; we had a lot in common. I paid up front, in cash. I loved her from her scratched, slash-cut, short-shot pipes to her strangely located speedo (which I never looked at anyway), from her chrome drag bars to her mag wheels and the solo seat in between! She was perfect: Falkor the Luck Dragon, and boy did we ride!
I started jumping in with any pack I knew that was going my way. Sometimes it was an incredibly supportive crew, with encouraging words and old-school advice. The kind of guys who would probably never tell you they were proud of you with more than a nod or a beer, or a “You coming along on this one?” I would form up, crack my throttle, hold on for dear life and learn everything I could about riding.

I kept showing up. Longer rides and crappier weather. I kept up, held my own and didn’t complain. I racked up kilometres and the road became increasingly my home. People began to forget I ever hadn’t had a bike.

I’ve ridden solo through 10 countries since I first began riding. I’ve made new friends I am proud of and grateful for. I’ve been to the top of mountains and along country roads. I’ve seen coastlines and castles, sacred wells, fayre hills, ancient cities and famous motorcycle rallies. I’ve had lucky breaks, unlucky breaks, unexpected adventures, and enjoyed the kindness of strangers. I’m a tiny second-hand girl on a tiny second-hand bike, singin’ joy like a fountain in my soul. I wear lipstick and chunky heels on the bike because I refuse to be ashamed of who I am. I am a woman rider, not one thing or the other. Yes, it is undeniably a woman on this bike . . . and she just passed you.


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