Shelley Burkett (© AMA International Conference)Click to enlarge picture

Shelley Burkett took a Motorcycle Safety Foundation riding course in 1996 ‘just in case’ her husband couldn't ride. She has now ridden over 100,000 miles by herself.

My daughter will soon turn 24 and has just completed her master’s degree in architecture. For the past 12 years or so, this aspiring architect has been learning to ride and jump horses as a hobby and as a precious release from the stresses of her work and studies. Over time, she has also become an excellent driver, with a spotless safety record. She once had thoughts about skydiving but has now found a new passion: motorcycles. Let’s just say her leisure pursuits are a bit on the risky side.

Her mom has never been all that fond of the horse riding, but she is simply petrified at the thought of her daughter on a street bike. I am, on the other hand, torn. Having ridden motorcycles of all types all my life and raced motocross in my younger years, I know about the absolute thrill of two wheels — as well as the serious dangers involved. If there is any solace here, it’s in knowing that we are not the only parents concerned about their daughter’s desire to take up motorcycling.

Women from just about every age group are coming to the sport more than ever before, whether for pure enjoyment or as an inexpensive and environmentally sound way to travel and commute. According to the Motorcycle Industry Council (MIT), women have doubled their presence among Generation X motorcyclists (turning 28 to 44 this year) to 15 percent since 1998. Meanwhile, motorcycle ownership has grown 62 percent within Gen Y (about 15 to 29) since 2003 and 14 percent are women.

Long Riders
Historians tell us that women have been riding motorcycles for as long as their male counterparts, just not as conspicuously and not in the same numbers. At the turn of the previous century, motorcycles were the simplest of machines and little more than bicycles with engines. Families bought them for transportation, often with a sidecar attached, at a time when cars were beyond their means. Women would ride them, too. Henry Ford’s Model T would soon change this as mass production brought car prices down radically and rising wages increased buying power, relegating motorcycles to a mostly recreational role from that point on.

Women have their motorcycling heroes, too. In 1916, for instance, the sisters Adeline and Augusta Van Buren, descendents of eighth U.S. president Martin Van Buren, rode a pair of Indian-brand motorcycles from coast to coast. There were few paved roads at the time, let alone freeways.

And then there was Bessie Stringfield, an African-American orphan raised in Boston by a proud Catholic woman of Irish descent. A free spirit, Stringfield rode motorcycles for 60 years, starting in the early ’30s. She completed eight solo rides across the nation, including the South, long before the days of integration. Yet Stringfield and the Van Buren sisters are among only 18 women to have been inducted into the American Motorcyclist Association’s Hall of Fame, out of almost 400 members.

A Bike of One’s Own
While the vast majority of motorcycle owners today are men, things are changing and changing quickly. Women now own 12.3 percent of all motorcycles in the country, up from 9.6 percent in 2003. That’s a 28 percent increase in five years. To put these numbers in perspective, ownership levels were 8.2 percent in 1998 and 6.4 percent in 1990. Women also make up close to 23 percent of the entire population of motorcyclists, which was estimated at 25 million total riders nationwide for 2008. The proportion was 18 percent in 2003, for an impressive gain of about 27 percent in five years.

Among all two-wheelers, scooters were typically the first stop for female riders.“Scooters already enjoy a large percentage of women riders, around 50 percent,” says Paolo Timoni, president and CEO of Piaggio Group Americas, who brought the iconic Italian scooter back to these shores in 1998. Scooters are popular with young women as a first two-wheel purchase because they are easy to ride, with simple controls and automatic transmissions, and clean-running with a fully enclosed powertrain. You just hop on and go. Just mind the potholes with the tiny wheels on smaller models.

Larger scooters are a solid trend, too, with engines up to 650cc in displacement on the pioneering Suzuki Burgman. Honda is also treading new ground with the spacey-looking DN-01, which it labels as a “crossover,” powered by a 680cc engine and fitted with a dual-mode continuously variable transmission.

What type of two-wheel machine are women choosing to ride today? The MIC survey shows that 69 percent of them favor “on-highway” motorcycles while only 19 percent prefer scooters. Of the remaining group, 11 percent ride “off-highway” bikes and only 1 percent can enjoy riding on or off paved roads with their dual-purpose machines.

Size Is an Issue
Longtime motorcycle rider and enthusiast Elke Martin, who started her career at Motorcyclist magazine and helped launch Dirt Rider magazine in the ’80s, is quick to point out the crucial importance of seat height and machine weight for many women. Within the wide category of “on-highway” motorcycles — aka road bikes — custom bikes are popular with women for their rakish, chopper-like looks and a typically low seat that makes it easier to “flat-foot” them when stopped, for better control and easier parking maneuvers.

Are you a woman thinking about taking up motorcycling? What are your main reasons for doing so? What are your concerns?

Every mainstream manufacturer has entry-level bikes that fit the bill, too. The Honda Rebel 250, Kawasaki’s Eliminator 125 and Vulcan 500, the Suzuki Marauder 250 and the Yamaha V-Star 250 are good beginner’s bikes with their low weight, low price and proven engines that combine good yet unintimidating horsepower and excellent fuel economy. Smaller sport bikes such as the Kawasaki Ninja 250R or 500R and the Suzuki GS500 and SV650 also do a fine job as first mounts.

So does the U.S.-made Buell Blast, a “standard” or “nude” model that is used as a training bike in Harley-Davidson’s Rider’s Edge New Rider program. The Blast is powered by a 492cc single-cylinder engine that is rated at 69 mpg and can be fitted with an optional seat that reduces seat height two inches further, from an already low 27 inches.