KICKSTANDS & KEVLAR
Kickstands & Kevlar is a blog hosted by Overland Expo’s own Motorcycle Community Ambassador, Eva Rupert.
Follow Eva @augusteva.
In October 2017 (does that sound like a lifetime ago to anyone else?), I was somewhere in the California desert with the autumn sun spilling low across the horizon with that amber light that lets you know it’s time to find a place to camp. I was riding, for the first time in my life, with three other women.
Alison, Indy, Tina, and I didn’t spend much time discussing gender on our desert ride towards Joshua Tree. Like all motorcycle trips, our roadside banter mainly consisted of route planning, the lingering heat, and those crazy ideas that pop into your head on a long ride. But the truth of the matter was that it’s a rare day for many of us to ride with a group comprised entirely of women.
There are good reasons to explore the female side of motorcycling, considering the huge movement over the last few years to acknowledge and celebrate the women who ride. There are innumerable events, organizations, and groups of gals gathering together on two wheels.
Now I’m not going to dig into the deep inner workings of gender politics, that’s a little too much unpacking for this piece. Certainly, the playing field is still not fully level, but we live in an era where women have a powerful influence and a strong voice. My goal here is to shed a little light on the female perspective of life and, therefore, motorcycling.
I’ll preface this by saying that I have distinct feminist tendencies. Feminism, to me, is about supporting, cheering on, and empowering all the rad ladies out there to keep on being rad. Unfortunately, the word ‘feminism’ carries an anti-man-ranting, bra-burning connotation. But that’s not what this is about. In my opinion, there’s no reason to knock men in order to lift women up. In the pursuit of progress, it generally does us no good to make people feel lousy. Life is just so much better when we focus on making each other feel good.
When I get to thinking about it, one of the things I love most about motorcycling is that I don’t have specifically male riding friends or female riding friends. They’re just friends and awesome ones at that. Motorcycling has a way of being a great equalizer and an epic empowerment tool. It is guaranteed to knock you on your ass a few times, make you feel like a boss, push your limits, rethink your priorities, and seize the day in a way that no other activity can. And those experiences are gender universal.
Women Riders Now maybe said it best: Although the love of motorcycling is universal to those who ride, most women experience the sport differently than men. Women often learn to ride differently, have different requirements when choosing a bike, and face different mental hurdles when it comes to getting into the sport.
As I opened the panniers to start digging into this, I made a few phone calls to some two-wheeling friends to get their perspective on what it means to be a female motorcyclist. What I discovered is that, at the end of the day, like our male counterparts, we women just love riding.
When I called Alison DeLapp and Azure O’Neil, two of my moto-wielding coworkers at Overland Expo, the conversation naturally skewed towards traveling. Motorcycles are, on the most fundamental level, a mode of transportation and Azure and Alison have certainly put in their fair share of miles.
“I loved riding internationally as a female,” Azure said, “it garners a level of respect that might not otherwise be there.” She feels like being a woman on a motorcycle is a catalyst for connection. Azure said it “melts some sort of barrier” and opens up communication in a wonderful way. When you pull up to a checkpoint and take off your helmet, revealing that you are a woman, it gives the guy in the uniform an opportunity for genuine curiosity.
When Alison was soloing through South America, she met up with another woman riding alone and they traveled together for several weeks. She recalled instances where the presence of not one but two women took locals especially by surprise.
“But, wait, where are your husbands?” was the gist of the response when they pulled into a campground together.
“We equate riding with independence,” Alison said. The surprise associated with seeing women on motorcycles speaks to the fact that we are still overcoming some ingrained stereotypes. Alison said riding reminds her that, “the empowerment of being a woman on a motorcycle is more than just being a motorcyclist.”
There’s something particularly cool about encountering other women while riding, especially young ones. Azure and Alison both spoke about how they loved meeting girls on their travels.
“I loved getting to interact with little girls in the remote villages in South America,” Azure said, “by the look of awe on their faces and their initial shyness, I wondered if maybe they’d never imagined, much less actually encountered, a woman who hadn’t conformed to what we think of as a traditional gender role … never mind one who was riding a motorcycle. I liked to think that seeing a woman in pursuit of a dream may have encouraged these little girls to pursue their own dreams one day.”
Is it possible that, by simply going out for a motorcycle ride, we are unintentionally inspiring others and empowering the future generations? How cool that we live in a time where we women are so far along the path to empowerment. We still certainly have some ground to cover, but thanks to motorcycles, we can cover that ground from behind the handlebars.
Of course, learning proper techniques and building a strong foundation for all riders is essential, but like Women Riders Now says, women learn differently. So, I called Shalmarie Wilson, the co-founder of SheADV and a motorcycle instructor to get the inside scoop on training women. Shal spends a lot of time teaching off road skills and she sees a distinct need for women-only classes.
From her experience, a group ride or a training takes on an entirely different feel depending on whether it is a single gender or mixed group. Neither is better than the other, but “it changes the whole dynamic to have a woman or man in an otherwise single-gender group,” Shal said, “in a co-ed training class, there is often only one woman with a dozen or more men.” Shal sometimes sees women feeling intimidated in that situation. “It takes women longer to process through things; they can get stuck in their heads.”
For women, having an experience where they can learn at a pace that suits them can be the key to success. Shal says women particularly benefit from experiences where they can keep their confidence up and see other women tackling the same challenges. “Plus, we need more women trainers, training women,” she told me.
Erin Sills is a trainer at Rawhyde in addition to being the co-chair of Women Riders Now (WRN) and a record-holding land speed racer. She describes herself as being “predisposed to speed” and over her years of racing, Erin has seen more and more women get into the sport. She told me that “because women are often smaller, they fit the bikes better and tend to do very well at land speed racing.” In 2019, Erin set the current land speed record of 237.275 miles per hour.
Interestingly enough, the Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme (FIM), the governing body for land speed racing, does not separate for men and women. Of course, that’s a throwback to a time when the FIM couldn’t conceive of something so preposterous as women racing motorcycles, but I think it does wonders for serving gender equality today.
Erin noted that the mission of WRN is to be the “number one resource for women who ride and the men that ride with them.” Truly, we’re all out there together and all that matters is that you’re riding.
I feel like this is the opportunity that motorcycling affords us. Riding levels the playing field because the machine itself does not differentiate between who is behind the handlebars. I love that I get to live in a time where women and men ride alongside one another and I love that motorcycles are a perfect vehicle for equality.
On our phone call, Erin described her involvement in land speed racing as the “intersection of passion and opportunity.” That concept resonated with me and I’ve been riffing on it ever since we spoke. Motorcycling, perhaps for all of us, falls at that intersection.
Indy Saini followed that passion across the country in search of other women who ride. Indy is a filmmaker in the process of creating a series called “Women In The Front Seat.” She traveled across the country on her bike interviewing female motorcyclists. What she found was that women ride, not to prove a point, but to do what feeds their souls.
Motorcycling is, in so many ways, a symbol of strength and independence, but that is not the ‘why’ behind ‘why we ride.’ We ride because we love it, because it’s ridiculously fun, because it’s a good way to get through rush hour traffic or see the world, and it’s as practical as it is pure pleasure as it is soul-stretching and challenging. We ride because there just happens to be a motorbike waiting for us at our own intersection of passion and opportunity.
On her 5,000-mile trip, Indy interviewed women ranging from their 20s to their 70s. She discovered an intense camaraderie and a confidence of sisterhood amongst female motorcyclists. She noticed that women who ride see themselves as motorcyclists first and foremost, before considering their gender. None of the women that she interviewed were riding to prove a point, “I’m just doing what feeds my soul,” they would tell her.
Indy was awestruck by how readily people would up to her, share their vulnerabilities, and express themselves authentically. She was a complete stranger, but the solidarity of being another woman on a motorbike led to a depth of connection that might not have been there otherwise. The whole experience, “opened my heart and changed me as a human,” Indy said.
If you’ve made it this far in the article, you should definitely take a moment to watch Indy’s movie trailer. It is a wonderful reminder that we are part of a brilliant community.
Despite all my conversations, I haven’t come up with some laser-focused definition of what it means to be a woman who rides. After all, each one of us gets to define that for ourselves.
What I do know is there are more of us out there riding than ever before, ripping it up at Bonneville, taking on roles as off road instructors, traveling around the world, and inspiring younger generations through our very presence. Between all the solidarity and sisterhood, it’s wonderful to be a woman who rides and I love that we are riding the perfect vehicle.
P.S. The title of this article was inspired by Melissa Holbrook Pierson’s book, “The Perfect Vehicle.” It’s excellent and I highly recommend reading it.