Forget flowers and face cream. What do women want? More frequently, the answer is, a motorcycle. Legions of women bikers have come a long way from the rough-'n'-tumble "motorcycle mama" days of the 1960s and '70s. The stereotypical image of the burly male biker straddling his two-wheeled freedom machine and riding off with a "biker babe" in tow is becoming something of an anachronism.
Today, if a woman is draped over a motorcycle, she's more likely than ever before to be sitting at the throttle, decked out in perfectly coordinated riding gear: chaps, jacket, vest, and gloves. Between 1998 and 2003, the most recent data available, the number of female bikers in the male-dominated world of motorcycling has increased nearly 34 percent. That translates to roughly 4.3 million women motorcyclists, or about 18 percent of all riders, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council (MIC), a trade association.
Many women riding groups, safety instructors, and motorcycle and apparel manufacturers say the numbers are growing every year.
Sure, women have been riding motorcycles for more than 100 years, says Rebecca Bortner, spokeswoman for Harley-Davidson, the Milwaukee-based motorcyclemaker. But the recent uptick in sales to women has caused Harley and other motorcycle manufacturers to reevaluate how they market bikes, clothing, and accessories in their showrooms: Grease and grime are out. Dapper white floors and well-polished displays are in.
Five years ago, "motorcycle dealers used to be man shops," says Donna Routh, co-owner of a motorcycle training school in Springfield, Mo. "Everything was chrome and black. Now, they're clean – and there's a pastel side for the ladies."
Ms. Routh rides a Kawasaki Vulcan 800 Classic with a custom blue and silver paint job. It doesn't scream "woman," but it's not black, she adds.
The variety of colors, tidier showrooms, and matching accessories have paid off. Harley, for instance, sold more than 30,000 motorcycles to women last year, according to company reports. Not bad compared with the 600 Harleys purchased by women in 1985.
Today, nearly 1 in 10 bike owners in America is a woman, according to the MIC.
Why have so many women gone "hog wild" over bikes? Money, for one. With more women earning more money in today's workplace, a motorcycle purchase is more feasible.
Another factor has to do with enjoying the great outdoors, and some women say there's no better way to do that than to blaze a trail on the open road.
"I feel like a little kid again," says Karen Bridge, a 40-something rider from Framingham, Mass., who bought her first bike, a pearl-white Yamaha V-Star 1100 Classic, and started riding two years ago. "It was now or never," she says.
Like many motorcyclists, Ms. Bridge now spends most weekends on the road – on her bike, of course – riding with a group of friends, men and women, all of whom share a passion for loud pipes and leather.
"When a woman sees another woman riding, it's inspiring," says Ms. Bortner. It encourages other women to give motorcycles a try, and it reinforces the idea that women can do anything they want to do, she adds.
That message is being heard: Routh says about 70 percent of those taking motorcycle safety courses at her riding school in Missouri are women.
While that percentage is considerably higher than in other parts of the US, enrollment in similar courses among women is high, according to the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, which estimates that nationwide about one-third of the 230,000 riders who took a motorcycle safety course last year were women.
"It blows everybody's mind that most of our clientele is women," Routh says.
She's not surprised, however.
"Generally, most of the women taking courses from us are between the ages of 35 and 50," she says. "The kids might be grown, and [women] are getting back into it or trying it for the first time."
The median age of women riders today is 42 years old, up from 38 in 1998, when there were about 1 million fewer women riders.
Harley has taken the lead in catering to women bikers by offering women-only "garage parties" at dealerships. The information sessions give salespeople an opportunity to address some of the fears associated with riding bikes on crowded roadways and discuss which bikes might be a better fit for women than others, says Harley's Bortner.
The company has no plans to build a women-only motorcycle, "because any motorcycle can be adjusted," she says.
Various motorcycle manufacturers, including Honda, Triumph, Kawasaki, and Yamaha have kits that allow riders to adjust various elements of the bike – from installing a more cushiony seat to lowering the frame – all of which aim to make the ride more comfortable and enjoyable.
Regardless of the bike, most women will want to look good, no matter what they do, Routh says.
"But," she adds, "you can be pretty and ride a motorcycle."
635,000: Number of women motorcycle owners in the United States.
18% of American motorcycle operators are women.
56.7% of women motorcyclists are married.
28% of women motorcyclists who have a college or postgraduate degree.
35% of women motorcyclists hold a technical/professional job.
42:Median age of women motorcyclists, up from 38 in 1998
33.3% of students who took a Motorcycle Safety Foundation riding course last year were women
Source: The Motorcycle Industry Council, Motorcycle Safety Foundation