Reader Story: Why I Ride a Motorcycle

Trying to answer the age old question

By Emily Bracken

There are two types of women who commandeer their own motorcycles, the pulp celluloid fantasy: buxom, cigarette wielding, bad ass babes, or the ones in reality: large and in charge, could kick my ass 10 ways to Tuesday and appear to patronize the same barber as my father. I am neither of these. I am your typical aspiring adult: urban-living, liberal arts diploma-wielding, edgy preppy-wearing, considering a dog getting-female in her early 30s. So why the heck am I scanning the Los Angeles craigslist motorcycle section sweating a red Honda Nighthawk 750? Seriously.

Emily on a Honda Shadow Spirit 750.

I haven’t pinpointed the why, I just know the need must be realized. So I take the WMA (Westside Motorcycle Academy) course, fail the written California driver’s license test twice, pass on my third attempt, and, according to the DMV, I’m ready to ride.

Emily out for a ride with her friends

First day out, I don’t notice anything but my heart beating in my throat, though everyone seems to notice me. Women coo out of car windows, men give me a double take, fellow bikers wave (left hand extended low, palm out). I brake at a stoplight, and caddy corner to me across Venice Boulevard is one of the hottest, raddest broads I have ever seen. On or off a bike. She’s leather-clad, older but ageless. I think her husband might have killed someone at Altamont. And now she’s looking over at me. Not in the good way. She acknowledges me–and my bike–by nodding her noggin’ ever so slightly in my direction. I have a split second to decide how to respond. I’m paralyzed, but my inner-Hell’s Angel compels me. So I respond with a subtle nod back. The corners of her mouth appear to turn up. Oh, joy, I am officially a biker. The light turns green, she throws her legs onto her pegs, kicks into gear and roars off. And I think, two motorcycling gals giving each other the once over, now there’s something you don’t see every day. Or is it?

Riding her Ducati.

I do some research and find that from 2003 to 2008, the number of female motorcyclists increased 26 percent. In 2000, the number of women taking the training was under 10 percent. Nationally it’s now at about 25 percent of all students. I talk to Amanda Cunningham, the owner of WMA and my riding instructor, who concurs explaining that in the past five years, the number of women taking her Los Angeles classes has reached up to 50 percent. Clearly, something is afoot and I’m a part of it. But what is it exactly?

Women riders Emily has met on her travels.

I don’t know any other women who ride, so I track down some chopperettes. Everyone who responds is within a decade of 35, has taken up riding recently (other than those who work in the motorcycle business), and aren’t exactly who spring to mind when you think biker chick. They’re more like biker babes.

During each interview, the first question I’m asked is, “What do you ride?” I learn that it’s a quick suss-up question – like a long-time Manhattanite asking in which part of town you reside. Small talk is made and then I pose the simple yet complex question, “Why do you ride?” There are a range of answers: fun, freedom, it’s relaxing, like therapy, flying, I feel connected, present, I was a tomboy, my [insert male family member] rode. While all these reasons are true, for a woman to get on a two-wheeled machine when the majority of bikes and gear are marketed and designed for men and the majority of women on bikes are still seated behind a man, there is some deeper psychology at work. And for the 30-something choperettes, it has to do with gaining or taking back control.
For Tricia Helfer, a model, actress on TV’s Battlestar Gallactica and owner of a Harley Dyna Low Rider, riding is the one place she finds some solitude from the ever-present handlers in her business. It’s the only time “other than when a director yells, ‘action’ there isn’t anyone telling me what to do.” Katee Sackhoff, Tricia’s co-star, good friend and Harley Fat Boy riding is less of an escape and more of a way “to live your life instead of watching it pass you by.”

Loving life on their motorcycles.

The trajectory of an artist’s career and the fate of your work are entirely dependent upon the whims of others. The creative business is a risky endeavor, much like motorcycle riding. And taking hold of those handlebars is one way to gain some measure of control in a life built on taking a risk for a living. For Alexandra Grant, an artist whose paintings have been shown at the MOCA and galleries worldwide, getting on a Ninja 650 was a way she could “be out of the control of others and be in myself” while also learning how to “control the risks I’m taking in the system I have going.”

Loving her Honda CBR 600 F4i sportbike.

The other chopperettes I speak with work in various fields, but share a common thread. Within a year of the end of a relationship with a boyfriend or husband, they all begin to ride motorcycles in earnest. No one did this more famously than Gretchen Rossi, a desperate housewife of Orange County. Jeff, Gretchen’s boyfriend, bought her a Harley-Davidson, but died shortly thereafter. But Gretchen kept riding because it makes her feel “confident and powerful, like I own the road, in total control.” All this talk about power and control stems from the fact that with time and practice, every rider comes to feel a bond with their chosen machine like it’s some extension of themselves. You become a stronger you. It makes it possible to stare down an uncertain future because from behind chrome handlebar with 750 cubic centimeters beneath you, anything is possible and the future feels a lot more certain.

If there’s one thing that’s true about the women I speak with, they’re all very clear about who they are and what they want. No wilting flowers in this bunch. But I don’t know if this trait stems from the fact that they’re strong to begin with and choose to ride, or they choose to ride and so become strong. Either way, making the decision to sit in the saddle is to fully engage, to pro-actively participate in the choose-your-own-adventure that is life, and, in the process, become captain of your own ship.

Catching a candid moment with this rider and her motorcycle.

So is that it? For recent riders of the female persuasion, control is part of the explanation, but like snowflakes, there are a million reasons people ride. And I’d be writing out of my Malibu beach house right now if I got a nickel every time someone said “it’s really famp;%$# fun.” It’s like Hunter Thompson so aptly put it, “Being shot out of a cannon will always be better than being squeezed out of a tube.That is why God made fast motorcycles, Bubba.”I concur, Gonzo. But the question still remains, “Why do I ride?” Isn’t this the question I’ve been asking all along? It’s hard to articulate, but I know I love riding because, on a bike, life at an accelerated rate actually slows down. It’s an anodyne–calming but not necessarily soothing. And it’s a meditation in motion. Because when you’re two feet from kissing asphalt, the body and mind work in unison while the past and future disappear, rendering the motorcyclist free. But I’m describing the feeling, not the reason. I haven’t answered the question.

Emily is all smiles as she contemplates why she rides.

The more I ride, maybe the more I’ll understand. But today as I throttle up the Pacific Coast Highway alongside the chopperettes, only three things cross my mind: going fast is far superior to going slow, the only way to face fear is to feel fear, and the only truth is the present. And so we ride.

About the Author
Emily Bracken currently lives in Venice, California, but splits her time between New York City.A writer of many disciplines and, she rides a 750 Honda Nighthawk she bought off of eBay. It is by far the best purchase she’s ever made. She’s been riding about a year and does not plan on stopping anytime soon.

32 thoughts on Reader Story: Why I Ride a Motorcycle

  1. Wow. I can not even begin to say how much this article touched me. At age 47, I’m just getting started and I find it hard to sum up the “why.” I identified with most of the points you brought out. After losing just about everything, I feel the need to have control, to fly free, to face my fear and feel stronger and more confident because I did. And for me riding on the back was fun, however, nothing compares to grabbing the handle bars yourself! And I definitely don’t fit the category of either of the two types of women you mentioned. Absolutely loved the article, keep up the good work!

  2. Great article. Thanks for putting so many feelings into it, and ditto. Joining the sisterhood of women riders is a good feeling. That subtle nod! I enjoy riding with my spouse, and we take two to three long rides a year (more than 2000 miles). But the occasional ride with a girlfriend, be it a couple hundred miles in a day, taking on those turns, sharing a meal, poking around shops or just talking, can be just as relaxing, fun, memorable. The magic of the “sisterhood” plus motorcycling? Wow!

  3. As I read the comments about Emily’s insightful article it occurs to me that the demographic of women riders falls more in my range (age 53) than “within a decade of 35” as she notes. No matter the age, really, but sometimes it takes the wisdom of having reached a certain age to understand that the only thing we have is now. My kids and friends don’t quite understand but that’s OK; the “woohoo’s” I hear under my own helmet are all I need to know that this is for me! Great newsletter. More, please!

  4. No heart in my throat, but surely a funny feeling in my tummy when I started riding. When I was younger, I always rode behind never even imagining that I would, at age 58, be able to actually command a motorcycle of my own. Must say that every now and then that funny feeling comes back when someone pulls out in front of me or I try to make a fast stop on wet pavement, but so far so good. I ride every chance I get – can’t get enough. Guess I ride cause it makes me feel alive. Can’t smell the lilacs or the mountain laurel in a car with the windows up. It’s a feeling of power and independence. Hope all who reads this has a safe ride where ever you go.

  5. I had to fight for my motorcycle title — this last divorce was so terrible. I almost lost it after having made the payments myself. I believe this darkness caused breast cancer and I had two surgeries removing a mass under my arm. I am so very grateful every time I am able to take my Vulcan for a ride!

  6. Hi Emily,Thanks for the great story about ridng your motorcylce. I did not understand every expression because I’m not a US citizen. But when looking on the last picture while you are smiling I can feel your belief. It feels quite good to take a taste of freedom on the Pacific Coast Highway. Lucky you! Keep motivation and comfort with you all the time.

  7. Emily Bracken has a very nice writing style. Genevieve, give her some assignments.

    1. I totally agree. When she sent me the story unsolicited, I knew I just had to share it with my readers. We plan to work together on projects in the future.

  8. At 44 I thought I wanted to be on my own. I was tired of being on the back. Now there is now way I will ever get on the back again. I understand “in the wind.” I don’t go for all the garb. I just want to ride and have fun. No drinking. Just fun and ride.

  9. I learned to ride out of necessity in 1972 .There were no motorcycle safety classes, no woman’s riding clothes, no helmets, no motorcycles built for woman, no GPS, no AAA, no other woman riding where I lived, and men did not want to ride with me. I had a compass and a map, and my saddlebags full of tools to fix my motorcycle when I broke down on the road. Oh yeah, I do not fit any of your two categories of women who ride their own motorcycles. In fact, I resent your categorizing. There are so many thousands of woman riding today who ride for all their own reasons.

  10. When I was 7 my cousin Pete put me on the back of his chopper and thus began the pining to ride. My mother suppressed and discouraged my begging saying, “Ladies, don’t do that.” Well, more than 30-odd years later, I found myself saying, “Why the hell not?” and landed myself in a Motorcycle Safety course and bought my Yamaha 1100 Classic in 2008. I am not going to be someone’s backrest!Why do I ride? Because I can! Because I want to experience all this short life has to offer. Because I want to feel that tingle on my skin when I stop. Because after a long winter, I want the sun on my skin and the wind in my face, breathing in the flowers and fresh cut grass. Because I want to acknowledge the inside secret that speaks of danger, thrill and independence – the secret only those on two wheels share in the passing greeting. For me, the question “why do I ride?” is just as simple (yet complicated) to answer as “why do I breathe?”Ride safely and rock on!

  11. I can relate to the heart pounding in my throat and the whole entire time I am saying Michelle you can do this! It was nice to finally hear the truth. I remember taking my helmet off once and this women says to me “you’re a girl!” Well yes I am, I reply!I ride for the freedom, but I also ride for the challenge to stretch my boundaries and so far it is paying off. I ride a 535 Virago and love it! Took the class in 2008. My husband has a Dyna Low Rider and my 535 is right there with him.Thanks for sharing! Ride it like you stole it! Woo Hoo!

  12. Great article. Love “calming but not necessarily soothing.” Never would have believed it if I’d been told years ago I’d end up driving a motorcycle. Friends I haven’t seen in a while still look amazed. Took the course five years ago after having a panic attack in the dealership when my husband bought his first Harley. Knew I would need my own shortly afterward. Don’t ride as much as I would like and my heart sometimes still beats in my throat. Gives me such a great sense of peace and accomplishment pulling into the garage after a day of riding. Really is something difficult to explain in words. Have to feel it.

  13. Great Story and Mahalo for sharing Emily. I am a 47-year-old Puerto Rican woman, I work in the corporate world. I have always wanted to ride since I was a child. I have been riding for little over a year. My first bike is a 2002 Kawasaki Drifter 800cc. I enjoy the ride the motor between my legs and the power of my bike. It strengthens me but humbles me at the same time. I ride to work every day rain or shine. Some weekends I ride with my husband. I rarely see other women riders so it is nice to hear that the numbers are growing

  14. My husband took his bike to work everyday. When he got home, he was to “tired” to take me for a ride. So I got sick of that and signed up for the motorcycle safety course. Then bought a brand new 2000 883 Hugger for my 20th wedding anniversray present. Who would want anything else? We are still together but I drive alone now because he sold his.

  15. Well said! Especially love the idea of “meditation in motion. Have had that thought myself but could never articulate it that well.

  16. This was a great article. Emily actually got me thinking “why do I ride” really, why? I’ve always thought of it as fun, great way to disconnect from all the “crap” that goes on with life etc. But I think I know what it really is. All of my young life my parents told me what to do. Then I married fairly soon after high school, then husband, babies, and daily living dictated what I should be doing, what I should be thinking as well. Now, I have been married for 40 years, have grandchildren and love my life. But then four years ago I decided to learn to ride; I now ride a ’07 Harley-Davidson Softail Classic, an awesome, awesome bike. Now, after reading Emily’s article I know why I really ride. No one can tell me what I can and can’t do. It let’s me express myself in a way that other activities can’t. I’m not a golfer, I don’t play tennis, scrap booking bores me. I’m not settled enough to do sewing or art projects. Inside I am a bit of a rebel, a sexy biker bitch, and an adventuress, so me on my bike expresses all.

  17. I learned to ride at age 47. My husband had just gotten his first bike and he wanted me to start enjoying the sport with him. However, I can’t sit on the passenger side of the car for more than three hours without insisting on driving. Why should a motorcycle be any different? Anyway, I made up my mind to either learn to ride solo or else! Three and a half years later I’m on my second bike – a Victory Vegas Low – and loving every minute spent in the saddle. There’s nothing like being out on the road – preferably a nice twisty two lane one – and enjoying the day with my husband.

  18. Thank you for a wonderful article! It brought tears to my eyes as I realized I am not the only one who feels this way. When people ask me why I ride, I have to tell them, I can’t imagine life without my bike. It’s more than a bike, it’s my alter-ego, she (her name is Jezabel) is who I want to be. Someone who is strong, independent, confident, free to decide her own destiny. Last year Jezabel and I rode 10,000 miles together, just her and I. We had so much fun that we’re leaving tomorrow for another journey. I can’t wait to feel that strong and powerful again!

  19. I can’t ever remember NOT having a bike. I have driven/ridden bikes all my life, mostly alone. Real bikers ride because it’s in their blood. It’s who they are; it’s their life. They never have to think about why. Never have, never will. I just do it.

  20. Loved this story. I ride cause my husband has faith in me. One bike or two — I only hope we will be ridding for a long time. His has an 02 R model Sportster he has reworked, and my new bike he bought me is 06 Super Glide.

  21. Very good writer. I like the last paragraph, still no answer to the question. I am a 46-year-old single mom of eight years with two older children. Have had my current job for 13 years (management). My boss encouraged me to get on a bike at the store. In the past I enjoyed riding as a passenger (several years ago). I then took the MRSC here in Colo. at a local training facility. The instructor was a woman. I passed the class with flying colors. I have been riding my boss’ HD V-Rod when he offers it to me (not often enough). I am so looking forward to owning my own HD, however, I recently purchased my first home and finances are extended to the fullest. I too have been asked why I like to ride: still no answer. I feel different reasons are the cause of my freedom. Once may be the need for speed, another may be to clear the days problems — let them blow away in the wind. No matter what the reason, I always feel so much more relaxed at the end of a ride (long or short). With the spring weather and sitting at the newly acquired home (from country to town), I often hear the sound of bikes. Makes me hungry for my own. I will be thankful at this point of my life to have someone who trusts me to ride one of the many bikes they are lucky enough to own. I enjoy your articles each email. Keep up the good work. It helps keep some of us on the bike without throwing a leg.

  22. I’m nearing 50 years old and have been riding since Jan. 2009. Since then I have ridden more than 9,000 miles. I have never ridden on the back of anything and I had never ridden any type of two wheeled vehicle except for kind you pedal. The why I started, was on a dare because a woman friend of mine got a Harley. My husband accompanied me to the 3-day course and did better than he did testing even though he’d ridden dirt bikes competitively as a much younger man. I started on a 250 Rebel, moved up to a 600 Shadow and then a 750 Shadow Spirit. Now, I happily ride a 2007 Honda Reflex 250cc scooter. I’m still on two wheels and the only difference besides the more comfortable seating position, is that I drive an automatic. Don’t knock it til you’ve tried it, because I ride at 65 mph and have ridden 70 plus mph to the Grand Canyon. I ride because I am back seat driver, because I am in control. I am free, riding with my iPod in one ear, and smiling that I am able to enjoy God’s green earth with my husband of 20 plus years rolling behind me. He started with a Harley, then a 1600cc Victory, then my Shadow Spirit and now a 600cc Silver Wing scooter. His backside thanks him for the change.

  23. Great article! I learned to ride, and bought my first bike, one year ago at 52. I have reached that point, early in my second season of riding, where I am one with my bike. I truly enjoy cruising up the road, either alone or with my friends, knowing that I am one of the growing group of women riders who have discovered the joy of riding! Why? Who knows? Who cares? I just love it. I have to ask though…is there REALLY a good way to shit one’s pants? Cracked me up!

  24. I can’t really pinpoint any one reason that I decided to ride my own motorcycle. I was always a passenger, but riding my own bike sort of happened just at the right time at the age of 50. I won’t call it a mid-life crisis, just a mid-life awakening! The start of a new stage in my life. It came at a perfect time. A time when I had to give up my faithful friend (my horse) which left a terrible void in my life. Just at that time I met my husband who encouraged me to learn to ride, and so, we purchased my first bike, a Honda Shadow Aero. The void was replaced two-fold. I’ve bonded with my ‘iron horse’ just as I had (but in a different way) with my warm blooded friend of many years. The satisfaction and freedom I had always felt in one saddle was reborn in another. Life truly has its surprises just waiting around the corner. It’s a wonderful life!

  25. I loved this story. I, too, bought my first bike almost a year ago, and have not regretted it for one moment. I lost my husband to cancer a year and a half ago, and was drowning in my own grief. I could not pull myself together again, and was at a loss on what I should do to get myself out of the deep, black hole I was stuck in. Then one day I had an idea that I needed to do something totally radical to turn my life around and decided on the spot to buy a Harley. I went out and bought one the very next day, and the rest is history. Don’t get me wrong; it did not end my grief for my husband, but it did put it in perspective for me. And when I am on my bike, I have to leave all that “stuff” that takes up residence in our heads behind, and completely concentrate on enjoying the moment. And I have made so many great new friends since I’ve begun riding. It was just what the doctor ordered for me.

  26. Emily,What a wonderful article. You have captured the true spirit of the ride and how far women have come in this sport. I too like so many other women started riding after a bad breakup with a biker boyfriend. Many of my girlfriends were against me riding. Felt I was trying to hold on to this individual but for me, I missed the motorcycle and not him! I missed the social aspect of what it brought to my life. And here I was after seven years, having to reinvent myself socially. What better way than to learn to ride and meet other great people who enjoyed the sport as well!It’s been a great journey and I’m looking forward to many more. Thanks for sharing your story.Ride Safe!MelanieChicago

  27. Wow. What an inspiration. Today I passed my final test. I am 53 years old and it’s something I have longed to do. In the UK we have four parts to sit, first being our CBT (Compulsory Basic Training) which allows us on the road, then we have a theory test, then a Module 1, which consists of slow controlled handling of bike – figures of eight and slaloms, emergency stop, U-turn and a swerve at 31mph (50 Kilometers per mile); then when we have passed all those we can take our road riding test which for me lasted 57 minutes in town, country and motorway riding, and hey, I passed this first time! So now it’s all down to me. Would love to come over and do a coast to coast. Never say never!Go for it girls. If you want something badly you can achieve anything. Back to work in office tomorrow with a big smile.

  28. Asking why I ride is like asking why someone drives a sports car; it takes me where I want to go in a fun way. The difference is in the gear I wear. Removing my gear reveals the embodiment of “motorcyclist,” from the pin-curled hair under my helmet to the business skirt under my riding pants to the high-heeled shoes that replace my boots upon arrival. Being a woman need never be sacrificed to be a motorcyclist.

  29. When I started riding, I was one in 500 guys I’d guess. Today, it’s a whole different story and it’s great to see more women taking up riding. Some are young, but most are not. It’s a shame so many women wait to get on a bike until they need a boost in their life, but whatever the reason, get on and ride.

  30. Emily,What a fantastic article! Way to capture the feeling of riding – which, really may be the reason most of us do it. Hope to run into you (figuratively) on the road.

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