When Madeleine Marques was 12, she and her parents were making a pit-stop at a gas station on the way back from a family trip to Florida. The two-day drive had been boring, and when her parents went inside to the convenience store, she slumped down in the back seat.
"Then I heard distant thunder," Marques remembers. But it wasn't a storm – it was a pack of bikers pulling into the gas station. At the front, a woman led the group. Marques was mesmerized. "She had black leather on, and a thick, long braid down her back. I thought, 'That has got to be the coolest woman on the planet.' "
Despite being inspired so young, the 46-year-old waited almost 20 years to take a motorcycle course. When she passed, her husband was so opposed to her buying a bike that it became a hot-button issue in marriage counselling. Her traditional European family warned of the dangers of riding, and she didn't know anyone else who shared her interest.
Now, in addition to being a law clerk at Blakes law firm, Marques is also a part-time motorcycle instructor. She loves her Harley-Davidson Street Glide, and she is no longer married.
"Freedom is the big word," she says. "That's what it's all about. You don't think of other things – the grocery list, stuff at work, the fight you just had – because you have to be in the moment when you're riding."
Marques is just one of the growing numbers of Canadian women riders, and her story is just one of 50 inspiring tales that appear in Women, Motorcycles and the Road to Empowerment by Liz Jansen. A Humber College motorcycle instructor and the owner of Trillium Motorcycle Tours, Jansen launched the book at the Toronto Motorcycle Show last weekend.
Jansen, 57, has been riding since she was a teenager, but she didn't look to her passion for motorcycles as a career until close to nine years ago. After abandoning a bad marriage and a well-established career in corporate human resources, she started up a tour company with a focus on rides and events exclusively for women. She wanted to create experiences where people pushed themselves to develop new skills and overcome their fears.
"When you're older and you're a woman, people have had more time to tell you why you can't do the things you want to do," says Jansen, who rides a Yamaha Super Tenere. "When it comes to motorcycles, people have told you it's not feminine, or you're too small, or you're too weak, or people will think certain things about you. Fear is what holds us back. But whatever calls you, that is what you're meant to do – even when it is frightening."
Many women are overcoming that trepidation. About 23 per cent of Canadian riders are female, says Jo-Anne Farquar, director of communications and public affairs for the Motorcycle and Moped Industry Council.
"A lot of women are saying, 'I don't want to be the passenger any more, I want to be in control,'" says Farquar, who recently got her M2 license so that she can ride a scooter in Toronto, where she lives. On average, she says more women coming into the sport are between the ages of 40 and 55, likely because they're financially capable to do so.
The motorcycle industry is also reaching out to women more than ever before. The Motorcyclists Confederation of Canada established its Women Riders Council five years ago. Next year, the American Motorcycle Association will host its sixth annual Women and Motorcycling Conference in Carson City, Nevada.
Harley-Davidson Canada hosts a women's-only event called Garage Party in cities across the country. Attendees circulate through four workshops: motorcycle orientation, gear orientation, customizing a bike for proper fit, and the ever-intimidating lesson in how to pick up a motorcycle. Every rider needs to learn how to get their 250-kilogram vehicle upright if they drop it, which can be difficult for any new rider to master.
But many female riders think the industry still hasn't really figured them out (Harley's website advertises the aforementioned workshop by saying, "Learn how to lift a Harley without breaking a nail."). When it comes to gear, for example, items like leather halter tops still reflect "biker chick" sexual fantasies, but serve no function for riders who want safe and well-fitting gear and leathers.
"I'd like to find a pair of boots that are feminine and functional," says Julie Hansen, an Oakville, Ont., resident who rides a Honda Shadow. "Everything is pink or has roses on it. And it can be hard to find jackets that are tailored and feminine, that go in at the waist, and that still fit your boobs."
"There's a lot of pink, and a lot of sleaze," agrees Laura Liberty, a 44-year-old self-employed computer consultant and bookkeeper who, with Hansen, plans a lot of women-only motorcycle excursions. Although she also enjoys riding her 2001 Triumph Sprint with her husband, Liberty says that as a part-time instructor, she's noticed that women ride a little differently than men.
"You tell a man to do something, and they just get on the bike and go do it," she says. "Women need to think about it and process it. There's also a competitiveness among the men – sometimes they'll be nattering back and forth about whose bike is faster, and then as soon as we hit the highway, they're racing down the road."
Not that Liberty isn't adventurous. She and Hansen recently embarked on an all-women's motorcycle trip through the Austrian Alps. She says there was one day in particular that stands out.
The group wasn't travelling very fast, and despite the noise from their bikes, it was fairly quiet. The practically deserted rural roads wound through the mountains in sweeping s-curves, and Liberty remembers the great sense of accomplishment and peace she felt as she masterfully took each curve as she absorbed the scenery.
"It's your body controlling how well the motorcycle is functioning, and it's like a form of meditation," she says. "I'm a little bit of a control freak. On my bike, I'm totally in control and I'm using all the skills and all the practice I've put in. I can't tell you how much I enjoy being on that motorcycle."