Bugs in her teeth. Heeding the call of the open road, a reporter joins the growing number of women who say, `No more back-of-the-bike'

WE stood in loose formation, a ragtag group in denim and leather, struggling to control the cycles beneath us without gunning throttles by mistake and ending up kissing the pavement. It was nobody's idea of a motorcycle gang: one computer scientist with a waist-length braid, a sales manager with perfectly manicured nails, and a couple of mothers - not to mention one relatively petite journalist sure she was about to meet her destiny as the deli meat in a Kawasaki sandwich.

Hardly a sight to strike fear in the hearts of Hell's Angels.

But 10 years ago we probably wouldn't have been here at all.

Until recently women have occupied a decidedly peripheral role in the world of motorcycling. Ornaments in leather bikinis draped behind macho boyfriends, or the stereotypical ``Harley mamas'' that even Lou Ferrigno wouldn't want to meet in a dimly lit alley.

This, after all, is an industry in which any kind of backrest is called a ``sissy bar.'' They might as well have hung out a license plate saying, ``No girls allowed.''

Yet here we were in this last bastion of shining chrome and well-oiled machismo - seven women on motorcycles and not a tattoo in sight.

The setting was a rider training course - one of the 700 classes nationwide sponsored by the California-based Motorcycle Safety Foundation. These courses and the kinds of bikes they provide for training are two of the key reasons that more and more women are assuming the once-forbidden seat on the front of a motorcycle.

According to industry experts, the female constituent of motorcycle owners in this country is 8.3 percent, up from only 1 percent in 1960 and growing.

In recent years all of the major motorcycle manufacturers selling to US consumers have introduced small 250 cubic centimeter models (about the height of a moped or scooter). Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki, and Yamaha market these bikes and have found a good number of women - up to 30 percent of all small-bike purchasers - buying them. Even Harley-Davidson recently developed a smaller, ``sportster'' model, and its has found its percentage of female buyers increasing as a result.

Manufacturers say the bikes' smaller size makes them more manageable for women riders.

Throttle up

But our Suzuki 250s felt anything but manageable as my class - half men, half women - waddled like mother ducks down a paved riding range, engines roaring beneath us as we walked them along the blacktop in our first lesson.

Cathy, who gave credit for her interest in motorcycling to a 19-year-old son, said the bike felt too small for her large frame. Barbara, spoiled by years on the cushy back seat of her husband's top-of-the-line Honda Gold Wing (sort of like a motor home on two wheels), complained of the low comfort level on a bottom-of-the-line Suzuki.

And we all exchanged nervous glances before tentatively gunning our throttles, even though we were still in neutral.

The only student who looked calm was Karen, who also happened to be the only one of us with experience: three years of riding her own 400 cc bike in a space-age-looking helmet.

Our initial 20 minutes of hands-on instruction (after hours of classroom learning the previous evening) consisted solely of climbing on the bike, getting off the bike; climbing on the bike, turning it on, turning it off, and getting off the bike; climbing on the bike and shifting into first gear. It was a slow-immersion method - dull, hot, and devoid of thrills - but it succeeded in acclimating us to the sound, bulk, and feel of the machine before riding.

``Just the idea of a motorcycle can be intimidating to women,'' says Kerrie Goodwin, director of public affairs at the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. ``Women are generally so much smaller.''

The traditional method of learning to ride, of course, is being taken to an empty parking lot by a husband or boyfriend, shown the clutch and gearshift of a 500-pound motorcycle that a woman may not even be able to hold up, and told to take this baby for a spin. Little wonder that so many women have shied away from biking.

Susan, national sales manager of the Frye Company and a member of my class, said she wouldn't have learned to ride any other way. ``My husband took the class and forbade me to ride without taking it myself. He wouldn't even teach me a little before the course.''

Hitting the skids

We placed ourselves in the steel-nerved care of Joe, Dan, Arthur, and Shelly, riders with years of experience (the group included one former motorcycle police officer) who guided us through a world of tight corners, figure 8s, and rear-wheel skids.

In the classroom, Dan - who could have been a camp counselor with his ``get psyched'' approach to teaching - taught us a nifty acronym for remembering what to check before starting a bike. (``FINE-C'': Fuel valve on; Ignition; Neutral; Engine cutoff switch; Choke & clutch.) Shelly warned us of all the silly mistakes we would probably make in the first few months of riding; she once pushed her gasless bike for quite some time before remembering that motorcycles have reserve fuel tanks.

And they both talked up the protective qualities of denim and leather in case of a fall (I thought leather was just part of the image). We even learned time-honored motorcycle jokes like: You can tell a happy biker by the bugs in his teeth.

On the range, Joe screamed directions in triplicate over the roar of our engines, while Arthur (looking like a latter-day John Lennon in black leather, dark glasses, and a three-quarter helmet) demonstrated exercises with precision.

Like anything involving balance, it's more difficult to control a motorcycle at slow speeds than on a highway (which is why a lot of bikers ride down the shoulder when traffic becomes stop-and-go). So, the rationale goes, anyone who can master swerving in and out of orange cones in tight spaces at slow speeds should be able to handle almost any situation on the road.

That is, of course, unless she dumps her bike in the process. (It was a tough exercise).

In fact, most of the exercises were tough. Like the time our instructors explained that you never want to apply the rear brake so quickly that the wheel locks and skids. It's very dangerous, they said.

And then they had us do it (to learn how to keep from falling).

``Shift into second, get going as fast as you can, and hit the rear brake to skid,'' Joe said in his Johnny Cash voice.

Right, Joe. And who's going to scrape us off the pavement?

Even turning on a motorcycle can be surprisingly difficult. As we all learned quickly, a bike will only go in the direction the rider is looking. That makes sense for riding in a straight line, but it's harder on a curve. Unless the rider keeps her gaze fixed on a point at the very far side of the curve, the bike will never reach it. In our case, we would have landed in the woods.

Our second day on the range focused on the perils of riding in traffic. To demonstrate, the instructors had six of us trace one figure 8 at the same time. Pretty easy until you whiz swiftly around the bottom loop of the 8 and find you're going to cross the center at the same time as Tommy - who's coming from the top and tends to ride a little too quickly. It made for a lot of frantic head motions - and a couple of fast prayers.

Riding the wind

According to Ms. Goodwin, the majority of women who enroll in the foundation's training classes do so to learn to ride, while most of its male students are concerned mainly with sharpening skills or learning to ride more safely. Women represent 36 percent of the foundation's students. And 35 percent of these women purchase motorcycles upon completing the course.

Soon after graduating from our class in June, Susan bought her own 550 cc Honda - with an engine more than twice the size of the bike she learned on.

``I like the kick of it,'' she says, ``of controlling something powerful. Besides, in a car you can't feel the wind.''

The latter, most bikers agree, is the main draw to motorcycling: the feeling of freedom that comes with traveling the open road outside of a metal box, being close enough to the elements to notice the dip in temperature caused by a lake a mile away, becoming a part of the bike - knees hugging the gas tank - while leaning into a really tight curve. Reasons, unlike engine grease and a macho image, that cross gender lines.

There are also indications that motorcycling is becoming safer. According to the Motorcycle Safety Foundation's Kerrie Goodwin, statistics from recent years show a downward trend in motorcycle fatalities - due in part, she says, to the growing availability of rider training courses. Over 90 percent of the motorcyclists involved in accidents have had no formal training.

Grading on a curve

That was easy to understand after seeing just how tough formal training can be.

At the end of our final afternoon of riding, we took a driving test to determine whether or not we would graduate. Joe took his place at the corner of the rectangular range, stopwatch in hand, red scarf at his neck hanging limp in the oppressive heat, and signaled us to start.

When my turn came, I completed the obstacle course of staggered weaves, corner turns, and stop-and-gos with picture-perfect precision, certain I must have received an impressively high score - the reward for 2 days of exhausting concentration and clutch pulling.

When I was handed my final evaluation, though, I found I'd come within 6 points of failing the test: 10 points off for barely crossing the painted yellow line on a curve, 3 points for letting the clutch out too quickly after shifting, another 3 for stopping a few centimeters ahead of the designated cones. The score was not particularly good for my ego. But it still earned me a completion card good for a discount on insurance. And all the other members of my class also passed - except Barbara and Cathy, who decided after one day of riding to follow up with individual instruction.

Of course I still have to buy a motorcycle. I'm shopping around. But I am eager to get started. I want to see if I'll really get bugs in my teeth.

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