Harley guns for the female motorcycle market

Garage parties give women a chance to do everything from falling off a bike in the safety of a dealer's carpeted showroom to finding the elusive ignition.

'So when you drop your bike, what's the first thing you should look for?"

Betsi Greene, director of the local Harley Owners Group, stands authoritatively behind a gleaming black-and-silver Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200C quizzing the women fanned out around her. Her blue eyes sparkle with a bit of mischief. She started riding before many of the women here were born.

"You shut it off," a voice murmurs from the group. Most of these women have slid into the second seat of their husbands' or boyfriends' bikes, and a few even ride solo.

Tonight, though, they stand far enough from the Sportster that they look trepidatious. Understandably: This 562-pound bike is going down, and one at a time, they will try to pop it upright again, in front of a crowd, using the two parts of the body from which a woman usually deflects unnecessary attention – her thighs and her rear end.

Greene shakes her head. The first thing women want when their bike drops is simpler. You want, Greene says, "a guy to pick it up."

The women giggle.

"Seriously. There's absolutely no reason to do it yourself if you can get somebody else to do it for you."

Michelle Isidorio nods.

"I always look for a man," she jokes later, "whether a bike drops or not."

But there's a palpable sense of relief and surprise in the group. The women's-only garage party here at Seacoast Harley-Davidson isn't a feminist rally. There's no Rosie the Riveter-style girl-power here, no need to prove a woman an equal to a man, astride a bike or beside a fallen one. This is a room full of women who, like 4 million across the country, just want to ride.

Harley launched garage parties last year to give women a chance to ask questions they might not want – or get the chance – to ask when the showroom swarms with men. Which bike is the right size, for example, or what to do if it falls over. Or where the key goes.

Tonight's garage party isn't quite that basic. Technically, it isn't even in a garage. The women shuffle through the two-story, sparklingly clean, Seacoast showroom, where the objective seems equal parts social and sales. It feels, sometimes, like a reincarnation of the Tupperware party.

Tonight, there won't be any dirt or dust or grease. There won't even be any fuel: The Sportster the women will learn to lift has been drained of gasoline.

Strangest of all, during the garage party, no time will be devoted to what might be the bike's best selling point: the famous engine growl. No one will even turn over a Harley until Greene revs up her '98 Heritage and rides home.

• • •

In some ways, a woman on a Harley is old news. In 1915, 20-year-old Effie Hotchkiss hatched a plan to drive from New York to California on her three-speed Harley. Her mother forbade her to go alone – and so Ms. Hotchkiss bought a sidecar, and the two took off across the country. Twice. During World War II, Bessie Stringfield rode from Army base to Army base in the US as the only woman in the Army's motorcycle dispatch unit. A feisty African-American woman who owned 27 Harleys in her life, Ms. Stringfield was known to drop a penny on a US map and gun for the town it landed on.

Harley has been marketing to women since the turn of the 20th century, but these days, there are fewer barriers to break through. The profile of Harley riders in general has changed, riders say, making old stereotypes passé: Harley rallies aren't crowded with tattooed, pierced, leather-clad rebels – riders are just as often doctors, lawyers, accountants, and others who can afford a brand whose starter-bike price averages $8,000. Another abandoned cliché, according to Genevieve Schmitt, is about women bikers. "The old stereotype of women riders is that they were loose ... had tattoos, and were on drugs," says Ms. Schmitt, who runs womenridersnow.com. "That's definitely gone."

In part, that's because there are so many of them. Explanations vary – increasing gas prices, more disposable income or women's empowerment – but female motorcycle ownership grew at almost double the rate of general motorcycle ownership between 1998 and 2003, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council. Women make up more than 18 percent of solo riders. They also make up 12 percent of Harley motorcycle sales – triple that of 1990. Meanwhile, the average age of riders has jumped to 41. If teenage boys aren't buying bikes in droves any more, middle-aged women, at least, could help plug any profit gap.

If the Seacoast garage party is any indication, this isn't a threatening group. These are professionals in business-casual jewelry, most of whom were introduced to bikes by husbands or boyfriends. Some want their own bike to ride alongside their man; others recently ditched, or were ditched by, their significant other, but the habit stuck.

Everyone in this showroom loves the mythologized open road. For feeling the wind, smelling the air, sensing a connection with the natural world, these women say, nothing is better than a bike. But there's one problem: "If you're going to buy a car, you know if you want a Ford or a Nissan, an SUV or a sports car," Jean Martori-Crum says. "How do you know which kind of bike to get?"

"First of all, there's only one kind of bike. It's called a Harley-Davidson," Ms. Isidorio responds with the knowing confidence of a rider ready to maneuver grips and gears with ease. She bought her used Sportster only this spring and she has no idea how to ride it. She reassures Ms. Martori-Crum: "I can only tell the difference between them by the names on the fender."

Dozens of things will be demystified this evening: Both sunglasses and windshields count as the eyewear required by state law. Boots with two-inch heels are not a rider's friend, even when they're sold in Harley's own gear shop, because the added height throws off a rider's balance. Operator instruction and safety classes are affordable, even if the Harley itself is not.

And never, ever, under any circumstances, try to yank a dropped bike up with your arms.

• • •

Before showing them how to lift the bike, Greene asks the women to mount it while it rests on its side stand. Each woman easily throws a leg over the top and feels out the bike's size and center of gravity. One petite brunette – wearing precisely the boots that the clothing representative warned against riding in – rolls off the other side, taking the bike down with her.

"That's why we like engine guards," Greene says as the woman slips herself out from under the bike. The chrome guards look like two handles and protrude from both sides of the bike; in a real riding situation, this would help keep a leg from getting pinned by the engine or burned by the exhaust pipes. But on the cornflower-blue carpet, it's more of a convenience.

With the bike on the ground, Greene explains that even men who follow their first instinct – to reach over and wrench the thing upright using their arms – often regret it. It's best to do the thing that makes you look, to nonriders, a little silly.

"You want to back up to it, get your butt down lower than the seat, grab the lowest bar, and lean into the bike," Greene says.

A small blonde approaches backwards, squats, and pushes against the seat with her body, but too much of the bike's weight rests on her back.

"Get your butt down," Greene says, and the blonde protests that she doesn't have one.

"It's not that hard to do," another mumbles – but later confesses she's never tried it.

One by one, each woman gives the lifting a go, and most manage to raise the Sportster until it leans again on its sidestand. When the last woman succeeds, the group breaks out into applause.

"Are there any questions?" Greene asks.

"Is it okay to cry?" one woman pipes up.

Then smiling, she insists, "I'm just kidding."

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