The Plight of Women Motorcyclists

My daughter, Jeannine recently started a conversation about the plight of women riders that inspired me to write this post.

Daughter and Father

Daughter and Father

FamilyWomen riders are a significant part of motorcycling’s future, but the motorcycle industry doesn’t seem to recognize this. With relatively few young males entering the 2 wheel world, bike manufacturers would be wise to wake up to the fact that it is worth offering greater selection, as well as more R&D and marketing resources for women riders.

What Do You Know? You’re Not a Woman

No, I’m not a female motorcyclist, but I am the husband and father of two accomplished female riders and I consider myself as strong an advocate of women riders as they come.

Jeannine has been on two wheels since she could reach the passenger footpegs and was twisting her own throttle at age 8. Jeannine is now a control rider for Tony’s Track Days and has worked in the motorcycle industry.

My wife, Caroline learned to ride after we were married and eventually became a certified MSF instructor and track day rider.

With this background, hopefully you can cut me some slack for penning this post. Sure, it might be best written by a woman but Jeannine is busy with nursing school. So when I asked her to write it she gave me a look that said “Really? Another thing?”

There are a couple of topics that came from this conversation that got me thinking. One was the often-heard complaint of an inadequate selection of riding gear. The other more compelling topic was the plight of being in the constant shadow of male riders.

First, let’s talk about the riding gear problem.

What Do You Mean I Can’t Get the Same Boots as my Husband?

Jeannine rocks her men's Macna Night Eye riding gear.

Jeannine rocks her men’s Macna Night Eye riding gear.

Caroline wears a men's jacket and pant combo, because they offered the best features.

Caroline wears a men’s jacket and pant combo, because they offered the best features.

Even though selection is getting better, serious women motorcyclists must often settle for riding gear that is a compromise between style and protection. And, from what I hear, women riders aren’t wanting to wear gear that says “isn’t she cute in that pink outfit?”.

Because a lot of women-specific gear has become a bit over the top in the styling department, many female riders choose to wear gear designed for men, which often doesn’t fit right and may even lack the best venting or adjustability. I can’t help but think that the gear that manufacturers offer to women are designed by men who are hunting for what women really want. To be fair, it could very well be that women don’t quite know what they want in riding gear, since their identity as motorcyclists is constantly evolving.

Style is one thing, but a more significant issue is protection. Most women-specific riding gear provides inferior protection compared to gear that is routinely offered to men. Riding jackets and pants may not have the best armor or the most rugged materials.

One of many examples is the selection of Sidi race boots. The most advanced women’s boot offered by Sidi is the Vertigo Lei, which in comparison is middle-of-the-road Sidi boot for men. If you want a boot with all the protection and features of the top of the line boot, you’re plum outta luck, girls.

Here is a great post from GearChic about how to design motorcycle gear for women without being sexist.

Get Out of the Shadows

The second point Jeannine made in our conversation was quite intriguing… and that was the fact that women riders cannot often detach from their significant other who also rides. In the beginning of Jeannine’s riding career, she learned from me and rode exclusively with me (and often with her Mom).

Only recently has she realized that being in my shadow has held her back from gaining a deep level of confidence and being fully immersed in motorcycling. Her trip to Alaska with MotoQuest afforded her the opportunity to ride with a group of male riders, none of whom were her Dad.

This made her more dependent on her skills, knowing that I wasn’t there to take care of her (not that she needs me to take care of her anymore… although she will always be my little girl). With this freedom, Jeannine experienced riding at a deeper level of self-competence.

I’m Going Riding with The Boys, Have Dinner Ready, Okay?

It wouldn’t be inconceivable to think of a man saying that to his wife (or girlfirend), but can you imagine a woman saying that to her husband? Since most women riders probably have a male partner that is a motorcyclist himself, it is not bloody likely that the woman would think she could ride with another male rider who wasn’t her boyfriend or husband.

What does this mean? It means that a serious woman rider can’t ride with other male riders, lest she be scrutinized as a sort of loose harlot who would rather ride with someone else rather than her husband. To avoid this situation, she must either ride with other female riders (it’s easy to imagine her saying, “I’m going riding with Sheila”), or be stuck riding with her significant other (S.O.).

Yeah, But My S.O. Sucks at Riding

Imagine the conflict that a female rider would have to deal with who is more accomplished than her S.O? I can tell you that the male ego doesn’t tolerate being told that he is not as good as he thinks he is. This is a problem for anyone in this situation, whether male or female, but it rarely goes well when coming from a woman. Just ask Jeannine who is a track day control rider to mostly male riders.

Time to step aside so your shadow casts away from your partner.

Time to step aside so your shadow casts away from your partner.

What to Do?

So, what’s the secret to the harmonious motorcycling relationship? First, if your wife or girlfriend wants to ride without you, ask her why and then listen carefully. If she mentions feeling stifled, encourage her to arrange a ride without you. She shouldn’t need your permission, but she needs your support.

If she says something that suggests that she doesn’t like how you ride, then listen carefully without your hairy ego getting in the way. Be a man of the 21st century and believe that it is possible that a woman can know more and ride better than a male.

The fact is that men weren’t born as proficient riders. If you accept that you don’t know all there is to know, then you’ll be a better S.O.

I can see where this topic could upset some riding couples’ status quo, but I think it’s worth a discussion, with the hope that both partners can reach their full potential as motorcycle riders. There is a lot more to consider around this subject, including the pressure women have from overbearing male partners, the intimidation that goes along with branching out, and the evolution of a self-identity that is more than being the second half of a riding couple. Stay tuned for more. In the meantime, give me your thoughts.
And check out this interesting post from Ride Apart about marketing to women.


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Ken is author of "Motorcycling the Right Way” and "Riding in the Zone" (book and blog). He is also the "Street Savvy" columnist for Motorcyclist Magazine, and former longtime author of the Proficient Motorcycling and Street Strategies columns for Motorcycle Consumer News. Ken is Lead Instructor for Tony's Track Days, a 20 year Motorcycle Safety Foundation instructor, and owner of Riding in the Zone Motorcyclist Training.

Posted in All Things Motorcycle, Family of Riders, Motorcycle Musings, New Rider Zone, Women and Motorcycling Tagged with: , , ,
22 comments on “The Plight of Women Motorcyclists
  1. Ken Condon says:

    Valarie posted a very poignant reply to an earlier comment. I am re-submitting her reply so it lands at the top of the comment list. Here it is.
    ____
    I came across this article looking for help with an issue my SO and I are having. We both ride, and both love it. He has more riding experience than I do, so he basically rides much faster and is MUCH less cautious than I am. I love to ride in a manner that allows me to take in the scenery. I do the speed limit, and sometimes slightly less depending on the quality of the road (we have SERIOUS potholes in PA, not to mention cinder and salt on the roads during the winter), and don’t think I should go faster just because he thinks I should. For some reason, he thinks I’m going slow just to tick him off, and no matter how many times I tell him that’s not the case, he doesn’t believe me. I keep telling him it’s a safety issue for me, but he says it’s not safe for me to do even slightly less than the speed limit, because I’m holding people up and also because they’re on my tail. I told him that I have noticed it doesn’t matter if I’m doing 5 under, the speed limit exactly, or 10 over, there’s ALWAYS going to be someone who tailgates, so that argument doesn’t really hold water with me. He has dropped his bike 3 times (that I know of) due to going around corners too fast and encountering gravel, and I tend to approach corners slowly and come out faster once I see the road is clear. He sees this as me not feeling comfortable on the bike. I see this as safe riding.

    I have taken two of our state’s 3 motorcycle safety courses. He has asked me to take the 3rd, and I really don’t want to just because I don’t like that forced group interaction type of atmosphere, but I will just to shut him up.

    We had planned a trip in May (went on one last May when he graduated from college and had a great time), and now I don’t want to go because I feel like I’m going to have to either drive faster than I want to, or risk having a bad vacation. The thought of doing nothing but staring at the speedometer (to make sure I’m going fast enough) and the road in front of me for 7 days does not sound fun. The alternative is telling him to just ride ahead of me and we can meet up somewhere, but then we’re not really riding “together.” I am very upset about this and don’t know what to do. We love riding, and until recently loved riding together and I really can’t tell what has changed to make this an issue.

    • Caroline White says:

      Hi Valerie, this is Caroline, Ken’s wife. 🙂 I have been riding 20 years now. When two people ride together both have to make adjustments for the other, just like a relationship. You say that you both had a great time on your vacation last year, so what has changed? Perhaps the issue with riding is a reflection of something in your relationship? To focus on the riding, your SO needs to improve his situational awareness and ride within the limits of his environment and you would do well to become comfortable riding a bit faster and ride at least the speed limit if not a little faster. Riding under the speed limit tends to encourage car drivers to make dangerous passes and you certainly don’t want that.

      • Valerie says:

        I sure don’t. And to be clear, and I should have said this, when I’m on roads that are heavily populated or those with which I’m very familiar, I have no problem with speed. (One time I was riding to Harrisburg and my speedometer was broken. I didn’t want to hold anyone up, so I was riding as fast as my head would allow. A friend was behind me and told me I was doing 25 over the whole time). I live in a very lovely area of PA, with beautiful farms and fields and skies, and my way of relaxing is just tooling around the country roads at a leisurely pace. Likewise, if we’re riding some place new, I feel safer at a slower speed.

        I think you hit the nail on the head with the relationship issue – he’s jealous that I love the bike more than him! LOL But seriously, I am going to make an effort to ride faster when we’re riding together, and just enjoy my leisurely pace when I’m alone.

        Thanks for your input!

        • Ken Condon says:

          It’s common for us to adjust our riding style (a bit) when riding with others, but I caution against ever riding faster than you feel comfortable. No matter who you’re riding with. Your partner needs to respect that.

    • Ken Condon says:

      Valerie, Your situation is rather common. Men tend to ride harder and faster than women, as a matter of course. Not that women cannot or will not ride that way; it’s just more common for women to be more cautious and men to be more daring.

      Differences in behavior aside, if you are indeed riding dangerously slow, then your S.O. makes a legitimate point that you need to keep working to increase your confidence so you can safely ride at or slightly above the speed limit (with exceptions as needed, of course…like debris or potholes). It may be a sign that you are missing some key survival strategies and control techniques that are causing you to ride overly timid. Not having seen you ride, I can only speculate.

      But, let’s put that aside for the moment and talk about your relationship. Let’s assume you are a proficient rider who simply chooses to ride conservatively. That is a whole other matter. If this is the case then your S.O. needs to grow up and respect the fact that you place a higher priority on safety than he does. Yes, this will dampen his ability to ride the way he wants when you’re riding together, but that’s what being in an adult relationship is all about…compromise.

      You mention the technique of having him ride ahead at his pace and then meet you later. I agree that that isn’t really riding “together” (if you are separated for long periods of time). But, that doesn’t mean he can’t shoot ahead to ride through a fast section of road and meet you on the other side, and then continue your “together” ride. Caroline and I do this all the time. I’m only gone for perhaps 5 minutes until we reunite again.

      A few more suggestions:
      Have you S.O. look into track days. This is where he can get his speed fix in an environment that is a lot safer (and legal). For a lot of riders, this helps them separate their fast riding (track) from their street riding (touring).

      Use communicators. These can be a double-edge sword, but we find them helpful for checking in on the other person.

      I hope this helps. I will spread the word to encourage other women (and men) to comment.

    • Jim W says:

      Valerie,

      It’s impossible to trust his line and pace when you don’t trust his judgement as a rider. The fact you brought up his pace and its results show us you don’t trust him – and you’re right not trusting his judgement on pace thus far. I’m sure that’s something eating at him, but he needs to build a bridge and get over it.

      He needs to be aware that you’re not trying to slow him down, but instead you’re riding within what you feel are your abilities. Provided you’re doing it in a safe fashion, he needs to build another bridge.

      The first and foremost thing you should do is go riding by yourself to see if your riding style changes without him present. You may be expending too much mental energy and emotion considering how he’s feeling about your riding style that it is subconsciously affecting your focus in turns and overall flow.

      Secondly, I wholeheartedly support you taking the Advanced Rider Course here in PA. However I would recommend either not taking it with him, or if class size allows not working within his group. You two clearly have two different riding mentalities and your voice is not being heard by him – yet.

      You mention you’re not sure what’s changed – have either of your bikes changed? My wife (who I met through riding) and I had two very different chassis with *vastly* different performance windows. It made riding with her a bit tenuous as I would be ringing my bike’s neck riding at 8 or 9/10ths and she’d be loafing along at 3/10ths. And she wasn’t even remotely trying to make it difficult to stay with her – quite the contrary – but her skills and her bike’s capabilities set an unintentional pace that was tough for me to match. Is that’s what’s happening here? Has your SO ridden your bike to understand it’s dynamics, and realize what he’s asking of you may not be appropriate?

      This passion is inherently dangerous and I applaud your strength thus far in not getting dragged in beyond your comfort zone – provided that you’ve been riding safely. Don’t let his insecurities in not believing your answer be a force in you going over your head before you are ready and wanting to “turn up the wick”.

    • Wendi Roy says:

      So two things… I do ride my own bike and we do ride together. I am a very conservative rider on my own. I know my SO and know when he can be patient about slowing down the pace and when he needs to shake out his yayas. If it is a patient day I’ll take my own bike for 1 – 2 hour rides. If it is the other kind I’ll either ride passenger or if the yayas are REALLY bad, I’ll give him a kiss and see him MANY miles and smiles later.

      Motorcycling has made a us a more united couple and a far better team. So we both make concessions.

    • Kris W says:

      Valerie,

      Jim W’s wife here. I full-heartedly agree with his statements.

      I think it’s very important to ride by yourself. The zone is so different by yourself. Not focusing on what others are thinking of you is so liberating. I’ve been a timid rider myself in the past and would focus so much on the group I was riding with. You don’t grow that way. When I rode by myself, I was able to test different skills without feeling that I’m dragging others down. You will learn a lot about yourself as a rider hitting the road by yourself.

      I also think that you should take the ARC. I am a RiderCoach and I was certified to instruct it a few years ago. I love that course. The classroom portion is something that I think will benefit both you and your husband. It’s about analyzing your responsibility as a rider. The range work is so much fun! It gets you to push your limits a little bit further than before. I think that both of you should take the class, but if possible, on different days. You will grow much more not having him there. It’s just what happens with couples. Not having the pressure of your SO there will have you focusing on the skills being taught.

      Please be safe out there, and that does include not going too slow. There is such a thing. If you aren’t comfortable on the road at speed, take MSP’s courses over and over again. They are free and you can take them as often as you want. I still take them being a RiderCoach.

      Stay safe ride your own ride!

  2. Bart Thomas says:

    Great comments for Rider Coaches who interact with female students frequently. Oftentimes in classes attending with their S.O. Helps to recognize that we color our observations by the lenses of experience/bias that we wear.

  3. Brendan says:

    Great article Ken!

    Last year, my girlfriend decided to do her first track day (with TTD of course! :D). This is when we started to look for newer, better gear. Boy you aren’t kidding when you say women have to “settle” for riding gear. She definitely ended up settling on boots that have protection, but are nowhere near as protective as some men’s boots.

    Lets hope this changes in the near future!

  4. Brenboy says:

    Gotta say women bring to riding a certain finesse that men really lack given the testosterone baggage they drag along. I learned long ago in the shooting sports that if skill development was treated and marketed differently to women they flourished. My wife rides and developed a skill level that exceeds mine, I learn from her, her Zen level seems easier for her to attain than me… btw I will never change my oil or do scheduled maintenance, I will always pay someone like my local dealer. Many of us are at an age where we don’t want to do it anymore and have enough money where we don’t have to. I like supporting my local dealer anyway.

    • Jeannine Condon says:

      Thanks for bringing up the topic of differing riding styles! I have had many thought provoking conversations with both male and female riders over the last couple of years that has taught me just how differently people can conceptualize riding technique. This strengthens the argument that it is very important to learn from multiple people in order to grow as a motorcyclist if not as a whole person! As a relatively small sized motorcyclist, my threshold for being able to “muscle” the bike seems to be much lower than many of the people I ride with, mostly dudes. To minimize my risk of getting in a sticky situation I must consider things all the way from my parking position to a deliberate choice of line up a rocky hill. I am constantly thinking of how to perfect the line or the technique to conserve energy and perform more efficiently.

  5. Ken Condon says:

    Interesting replies. Thanks for sharing. It’s time to open discussions like this, because I believe that issues that go unsaid have potential to alienate those who are a vital part of our society. And society is changing fairly rapidly in some areas. Take gay marriage for instance. In the span of 10 or 12 years we are seeing a concept that was not even imagined in most social circles. Now, we are seeing state after state recognizing gay marriage and making it law.
    Is this the equivalent of gay marriage? No. But, revolutions (or evolutions) start with people thinking out of the box and imagining possibilities that can change the course of any community, including the motorcycling community. Keep talking.

  6. Cassie says:

    And then there are the couples where one likes track riding and the other touring. In my opinion it’s always a give and take as with any couple issue. I will attend some track days with you if you ride with me to where ever. I will go to the Catskills when you go to the track. Whatever it is, Ken you are spot on with listening carefully, removing ego, and believe in your partner. That goes for both parties. In Sals comment he mentioned a very real role reversal where those actions will be key to a successful riding partnership! Thanks ken!

    • Every point made was dead on. Gear-wise, I’m so not that pink girl, unless it’s to represent a breast cancer functions or the likes. However, my first pair of race boots sure left me w/o a choice but to wear the pretty pink & white design on an all black boot. Now after a year or so it’s time to move into a men’s boot because that pretty boot is hard on my toes. Custom suit fitting is the way I chose to go. Designing my own custom race suit and street jacket with Comet Race Leathers. I found the 2 piece race suit that I purchased fit ok in some spots and just didn’t fit right in others. *sigh* a “plight” it truly is on and off the race track. Relationship wise there will always be give and take, there will always be egos male and female alike, on the track and on street riding. Ken you mentioned the “Danica Effect” in NASCAR for track days and road racing I’ve heard it called the “ponytail effect” some men may hold back just because we are women and some may go twice as hard to not let the woman get passed them, it seems we just make you guys better no matter what we do 🙂 be it ride with you or marry you. ;). We need each other one way or another. I’m still learning how to simply load and unload my bike on and off of a pick up just in case ( and there will be a case) where I will be heading to a race alone. However, my eyelashes work pretty well and the same gentleman that I hope to be banging bars with soon, will be the same gentleman that will help me load and unload my 380-400lbs bike on and off that pick-up. Either way I agree with Sal, if your lucky enough to have a spouse/partner that rides with you Thank the heavens above. 🙂 Thanks again Ken. See ya next season. – SJ #24

      • Karl Borree says:

        Thanks Joi,

        I think I am finally starting to understanding what you have been telling me about the women’s motorcycle riders market for the last year.( sorry I’m little thick at times)

        No doubt in 2014 with your help and guidance Comet Racing Leathers will be very focused on servicing the women’s custom fit market in 2014

        Thanks again all for your help in educating me to the women’s motorcycle market

        Karl

  7. Sal Paradise says:

    Sometimes I think people make problems where there really isn’t one. There are also disadvantages to for men who have riding spouses. Can you imagine a man having his wife change his oil and do his valve adjustments? Without a partner who can do maintenance and rebuild engines in the garage, the male rider is forced to make a difficult choice; either pay a shop to do his maintenance work, or invest in tools and getting the technical know how and spend hours working on it. The problem is compounded because men are often pressured to work on BOTH their own bikes and on the bike of his uncaring and non mechanically inclined partner. See? It’s either a terrible problem or not a problem. Live your life and if you are lucky enough to have a spouse who rides — thank your lucky stars.

    • Ken Condon says:

      Yeah, I hear what you’re saying, Sal. I have been in a similar situation as the keeper of the bikes. However, I made sure to educate Jeannine and Caroline as much as I could about bike maintenance so they could experience the joys of taking care of their own bikes. There are always tasks that arise that are outside the ability of either a man or a woman, which means an experienced mechanic needs to be called. I am truly lucky to have two wonderful women who share my passion. I just want to make sure I’m not inadvertently holding them back.

      • Valerie says:

        I came across this article looking for help with an issue my SO and I are having. We both ride, and both love it. He has more riding experience than I do, so he basically rides much faster and is MUCH less cautious than I am. I love to ride in a manner that allows me to take in the scenery. I do the speed limit, and sometimes slightly less depending on the quality of the road (we have SERIOUS potholes in PA, not to mention cinder and salt on the roads during the winter), and don’t think I should go faster just because he thinks I should. For some reason, he thinks I’m going slow just to tick him off, and no matter how many times I tell him that’s not the case, he doesn’t believe me. I keep telling him it’s a safety issue for me, but he says it’s not safe for me to do even slightly less than the speed limit, because I’m holding people up and also because they’re on my tail. I told him that I have noticed it doesn’t matter if I’m doing 5 under, the speed limit exactly, or 10 over, there’s ALWAYS going to be someone who tailgates, so that argument doesn’t really hold water with me. He has dropped his bike 3 times (that I know of) due to going around corners too fast and encountering gravel, and I tend to approach corners slowly and come out faster once I see the road is clear. He sees this as me not feeling comfortable on the bike. I see this as safe riding.

        I have taken two of our state’s 3 motorcycle safety courses. He has asked me to take the 3rd, and I really don’t want to just because I don’t like that forced group interaction type of atmosphere, but I will just to shut him up.

        We had planned a trip in May (went on one last May when he graduated from college and had a great time), and now I don’t want to go because I feel like I’m going to have to either drive faster than I want to, or risk having a bad vacation. The thought of doing nothing but staring at the speedometer (to make sure I’m going fast enough) and the road in front of me for 7 days does not sound fun. The alternative is telling him to just ride ahead of me and we can meet up somewhere, but then we’re not really riding “together.” I am very upset about this and don’t know what to do. We love riding, and until recently loved riding together and I really can’t tell what has changed to make this an issue.

  8. Greg Tutunjian says:

    I agree that it’s foolish to ignore women riders (and not provide the same bike and gear options for women’s sizes and color preferences as manufacturers and accessory companies do for men’s sizes and color preferences.)

    I thought The Way We Ride featured women riders prominently. Family riders, too. Mass media (even to a targeted audience) is one way to start to improve conditions and minds at motorcycle manufacturers and accessory companies. I’m headed to The Boston Bike Show on January 11th – will be interesting to see the ratio of men to women attending the show.

    Running and road cycling experienced the same conditions a few decades ago when women weren’t considered tough enough to compete in long road races and multi-day cycling events. So…no one “programmed” for women. (Fortunately, all this has been disproven.)

    It took public pressure to change those conditions: articles in local, regional and national periodicals. TV coverage. Letter writing to official groups. Some level of embarrassing (the official groups to accelerate change, too.) I think the same is needed for motorcycling too.

    • Greg Tutunjian says:

      ‘The Way We Ride”? I was under the influence of a Barbara Streisand reference in the newspaper…”Why We Ride” – saw it in Burlington, MA and then ordered my own copy.

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