Published in The Vancouver Courier, May 2002.
This story was my last cover story for the Courier and sadly, one of the main sources for the piece, Julia Sit, died in a motorcycle accident a few years later. Looking at the story from that perspective I now think that it lacks a balanced discussion of the dangers inherent in the sport.
It took 20 years for Francis Galea to move from the back to the front seat of a motorbike. The child of strict, middle-class parents living in semi-retirement in Scarborough, On., Galea describes her childhood as sheltered-that is, until she met her Harley-riding husband Peter when she was 15. They married two years later. When their son Ryan was born, she found herself relegated to the rear, driving a van behind her husband with the baby and the gear.
This rankled, but even after her son, now 27, grew up, she was still riding on the back of the bike. Then she and her husband were involved in a serious accident on a road trip to Calgary, after a delayed reaction to wasp stings caused her husband to black out while riding. “Ever since, I’ve been afraid of riding on the back; it pushed me to do something I’ve been thinking about for years,” says the attractive, dark haired 47-year-old. Listening to an enthusiastic friend in Toronto who bought a Harley five years ago persuaded her the time was right to buy her own bike. Seeing a couple on two cruising bikes, with the man giving the woman instructions while riding, clinched the deal. “I thought, if they can do it, so can we,” says Galea, who ended up buying and riding her own Harley 88 Sportster Hugger. She says her husband has never pushed her, but now that she’s riding, he gives her pointers. “This is definitely the most exciting thing I’ve ever done-it’s such a super thrill.” A baby boomer with a good job as a customer service rep for a software company, Galea is typical of the new breed of biking women who are predominantly older. Maturity, money and a sense of “if not now, when?” drives women like her to take up what is undoubtedly an expensive sport that demands a certain level of fitness and confidence just to get started. ICBC statistics show the number of female motorbike riders was holding steady at around 10 per cent of all riders until about five years ago, but that number is currently closer to the 30 per cent mark, according to the B.C. Safety Council. More novice women are taking the Safety Council’s $700 motorcycle courses than ever before-the March 2002 class of 40 students has 12 women in it, and that’s actually on the low side. Sometimes 50 per cent are female, says instructor Lynne Allin, although it varies from season to season. Capitalising on the trend, savvy WTN has already launched “Head Over Wheels,” a new series about women racing cars and motorcycles and generally charging full force into hallowed male territory. That said, most women riders are different from their male counterparts-they’re more conservative on the road, take fewer chances and are more concerned with riding properly than the average male, say instructors at the B.C. Safety Council. Yet, though they’re not as reckless as men, the same adrenaline rush of the road draws them. As Julia Sit, owner/manager of Vancouver’s Flying Swan café, puts it, “It’s so empowering for women to do this, and you get respect and admiration from the men-there’s a real limelight factor.”
It’s a brilliantly sunny Saturday and the tarmac at the Delta airport, dotted with orange pylons, stretches out into the distance, with Mount Baker gleaming on the horizon. The air vibrates with the guttural growl of 20 bikes, as students take turns practising. The class is divided into two groups of 20, one for people in their 20s and 30s, the other for those in their 40s, 50s and older. Instructor Lynne Allin shrugs in embarrassment, saying, “We have to make some concessions to age, unfortunately.” In fact, riding a motorbike is physically demanding. Riders use their entire bodies, including their feet, to control the bike, and reaction times, which tend to slow with age, are crucial. Galea says it’s easier to learn when you’re young because you have more physical confidence. On the other hand, older riders are likely to think things through and take the rules seriously. Galea is among women in their early to late 40s are enjoying a break after an hour on the tarmac. Asked why they’re taking the class, they say it’s about fun, freedom and doing something exciting for themselves a change. There’s also a sense of violating longstanding, unwritten rules. One of the women taking the course is Kathryn Nicholson, who is in her early 50s and looks comfortably middle-aged. Keenly aware of old prejudices against motorcycle riders, Nicholson is not advertising her newfound romance with the road. “I’m not generally a quiet person, but I’m trying to do this quietly,” she says. Reactions among friends and family have been ambivalent at best, says Nicholson, a palliative care nurse with a specialty in music therapy. She’s unusual in that she is the only person in her family who rides a motorbike -her husband, an electrical engineer, is supportive, but worried. Ditto for her three grown children, although they-along with her nieces and nephews-think what she’s doing is “totally cool.” They wanted to see her on the bike, so while she was making Easter dinner, they trotted her out to the garage for a show and tell.
“There I was, in my apron, sitting on the bike,” she says with a laugh. Nicholson says she’s always been bit of an adventurer and risk taker, and dreamed about riding a motorbike one day, although she admits it can be scary-“There’s so much to remember and do all at once.” When she bought her Kawasaki 400 Eliminator, the salesman advised against buying the smaller, less powerful 250 cc model. “I can tell you’re a woman who’s looking for action,” he said, oblivious to the implications of his remarks. Nicholson says her fellow nurses are also full of warnings, reminding her that she’s riding a “donorcycle.” She remains determined, however, saying she’s waited a long time because of her three children.” If I don’t do it now, when will I ever?”
Nicholson’s desire to keep her hobby quiet is not surprising. There was a time, not so long ago, when it was scandalous for women to ride motorbikes. In Europe and Asia, motorcycles are the preferred mode of transportation for everyone from secretaries to school children because of clogged and narrow streets and the relatively cheap cost of owning and running a bike. In car-crazy North America, however, riding a motorbike has been seen as the province of a select group of toughs, their image tarred by biker gangs like the Hell’s Angels. Galea remembers the bad old days, when a couple on a Harley simply wasn’t welcome at a hotel. “We used to park the bike on a side street, and I’d go in and make the reservation. If we didn’t do it that way, we couldn’t get a room.”
Jeff Edgar, a senior instructor with the British Columbia Safety Council, says two decades ago, his family wasn’t thrilled when his older sister took up riding, and got him interested. His grandmother summed it up this way: “Only loose women ride motorcycles.” Old motorcycle movies, such as the classic biker epic The Wild One, certainly agree with granny. A leather jacketed, super-cool Marlon Brando falls for the local good girl and later rescues her from his gang by taking her for a moonlight ride on the back of his bike. She hangs onto him, disoriented and scared, but later admits she liked it. One more good girl bites the dust. With more women taking up riding, Edgar says, that macho image might change, which he thinks would be a good thing. There’s a larger phenomenon at work, however-the increasing visibility of the Rich Urban Biker, also known as RUBs. RUBs are bikers who are typically hitting middle age, with a solid income, disposable cash and a need to rediscover the joys of youth: freedom, excitement and letting loose with a bunch of friends. They even buy stock in Harley Davidson, which is still performing well on the market and on the road. RUBs like to outdo each other in gear-they want the right bike decked out with the right decals and the leather jacket, gloves, boots and helmet-a good one can cost $500. Julia Sit owns three customised bikes, and estimates she’s spent at least $45,000 on her hobby. A basic price for Sit’s Drifter is $10,000, not counting the custom paint job and insurance. In addition, Sit owns a CBR600F Honda and a red GSR1300 Suzuki Hayabusa, the fastest production bike on the road. Even if you buy a second-hand bike, you’re likely to spend several thousand dollars just getting started. Nicholson says buying second-hand kept her overall costs below $5,000, a figure considered low by most novice riders. Scrimping on the tough Kevlar jackets, the leather pants, chaps, boots and heavy duty gloves isn’t advisable, however-if you crash, wearing the proper clothes can save your life. Galea spent $10,000 on her bike, and although she already had some of the leathers and boots, she admits the sport is costing her “thousands.” Most dedicated female riders spend all their free time and expendable cash on their passion for riding, and the poser factor is an undeniable part of the game. The latest trend is to throw biker fashion shows. Sit and racer Suzanne Fettig are planning a high-profile biker fashion bash May 13 and 14 at the Flying Swan. “We expect up to 80 bikes out front, and with Suzanne there, it’s going to be pretty exciting,” says Sit.
From the outside, the Flying Swan looks like an ordinary lunch spot, with an eclectic menu ranging from grilled cheese to chow mein, but Sit is working hard to transform the family restaurant into a genuine biker hangout. On Saturday mornings, the place is bursting with men-and some women-in biker gear, as the cheery, petit Sit runs to fill the orders. In the corner, a small TV shows nothing but footage of motorcycle races. Sit got her first taste of motorcycling at the age of eight, riding increasingly powerful scooters while growing up with two brothers in a traditional Chinese household on Commercial Drive. Her first motorbike was a 250 Kawasaki, and she got her motorbike license at 22. “My parents hate me,” says Sit, although she admits her mother has learned to cope with her daughter’s dangerous lifestyle. “What can she do?” Sit recently upped the ante and got her racing license at the Mission track, which she says was a challenging experience. “It was just me and 33 guys in race formation, and it burst my ego bubble-it put things into perspective.” She says everybody should take a racing course, because it teaches you about yourself. “You learn that you’re not invincible, because you’re really pushing the limits of your body and the bike.” Sit has also been actively promoting all-female riding clubs. She’s started two new ones, Babes on Bikes and Carter’s Sportbike Girls, formed after Carter Honda Motorsports realised it was selling an unusually high percentage of bikes to women. The clubs are still pretty small, with a membership of roughly 20 women, but Sit is optimistic. “The season is just starting, and it will be great.” The oldest all-female riding club is the Surrey-based Freewheeling Women, which has been around for a decade and caters more to older women-from their mid 30s to their 60s-unlike the new clubs, geared to a younger crowd. Sit says some women riders would prefer to ride with other women because they do things a bit differently from the men-they like to take it easy and enjoy the ride. While Sit admits that the clubs involve a certain amount of egging each other on to get a cool bike, that’s not nearly as important as the social aspects. “It’s just such a bonding thing; you go out and ride with someone you’ve never met before, and by the end of the day, you’re buddies for life.”
As for Galea, she has to make a few decisions. Ownership of her bike automatically enrolls her in a club, but she generally doesn’t go riding with them, preferring to ride with her husband. To his horror, she’s been invited by a bunch of women to ride to the Grand Canyon in 2006. ‘That’s a long haul, and it’s hot,” she says. She’s pretty sure she won’t go-but then again, she might.