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The air was rich with exhaust fumes and sweat. I was sitting on a motorbike, the engine idling, trying to ignore the persistent ache in my arms and legs from yesterday’s training. I had dropped my bike three times, twice while I was still on it. But the absurdity of losing control of a 350-pound motorcycle had me so stunned I hesitated getting back on, not entirely convinced I wanted to give it another go. The rest of the class was easily riding figure eights around pylons.
A couple of months earlier, I was driving to Costco with my husband and two kids and saw a woman with red hair riding a Vespa. She was wearing bright lipstick, block heels and a dress that fluttered around her calves. She was magnificent. She seemed like a ghost from back when I was 20 and in Paris, at a bistro drinking café au lait, when I looked up and saw a woman removing her motorcycle helmet and shaking out a bouquet of long red hair in what felt like slow motion. She walked away with her helmet under her arm and her hair shining in the late afternoon sun. She was the epitome of French cool – radiant, decisive, unapologetic. In that instant, I wanted to be just like her.
I returned to Toronto, worked, travelled some more, thought about getting a Vespa but never did. Years went by and I found myself settled with a husband, a couple of kids, a mortgage and a membership to Costco. That sighting of a red-haired woman on a motorcycle made me pine for some unfulfilled fantasy.
“You’re turning 40, a Vespa would be a great milestone gift,” my husband said.
“But I’d have to get a motorcycle licence, and insurance,” I countered, as if they were impossible things. He shrugged, but his comment sparked something in me. Why not now?
I was the only woman in the class. It was held in a classroom for the first half and out in the parking lot for the second. The instructors were all men in work boots. “So when you have someone easy-on-the-eyes on the back of your bike ...” one instructor pointedly looked at me, then back at the whiteboard, “you have to remember how the weight affects the balance and the turns," he continued.
After the in-class work, we were divided into groups for on-bike training, which would take two full days. They only had two types of bikes – a 450-pound Harley Davidson Roadster and a top-heavy, 350-pound Honda CBR. When I asked the instructor which bike he would recommend for me, given my Vespa goals, he sighed and said I should go with the Honda.
Of course, when the Honda tipped too far on either side, I wasn’t strong enough to stop it and would scramble off as quickly as possible, both the bike and me getting banged up in the process. At the end of the first day, I was covered in bruises, even with all my safety gear. It was hard not to notice some of the men in the group snickering to themselves when another instructor came over to try to give me more advice, again and again. No one else seemed to need the extra help like I did.
I cried on the drive home. Why did I even want a Vespa, anyway? Why did Vespas need a motorcycle licence?
When I got home, my six-year-old daughter asked me how it went, pirouetting into my arms before I even put my helmet down.
"Well sweetie, it was really challenging and I need a lot more practice," I said, trying to stay positive.
She nodded and said, “You can do hard things, Mommy.”
“You can do hard things” has always been my parenting mantra. Whenever the kids get frustrated with learning something new, I try to encourage them with what I hope are the magic words that will give them the strength to persevere when life gets tough: You can do hard things. But now that I was on the receiving end, the phrase felt less like a mantra and more like a flimsy rope bridge over a gaping chasm, strung between fantasy and reality.
On the second day, as I walked back onto the training ground, one of the younger men in the group called out to me, grinning and incredulous: “Didn’t think you’d make it back for another round!”
One of the instructors came over and asked if everything was okay. I shrugged. I had slept badly; my two-year-old had woken in the night, and I had a nightmare that I was in a motorcycle accident and had my leg ripped off. But I didn’t mention the last part.
"You have kids?" He looked startled, then started to rub the back of his neck with his hand. "Yeah, a lot of kids hear about motorcycle crashes and don't want their parents riding, I totally understand."
I want to say that his patronizing, moms-shouldn’t-ride platitudes infused me with the righteous anger of proving a sexist man wrong. I want to say that I gunned the engine and revved off to motorcycling victory.
But I didn't. I turned off the bike, put it safely into the parking stance that I learned only the day before, and walked off the training ground. I drove home and cried big, shoulder-shaking sobs, knowing I just proved all those sexist idiots right.
When I told a colleague what had happened, she insisted that I needed a different motorcycle school – the one she went to, which was more female-friendly. I gave myself a week to nurse my bruises, both visible and ego-related, and signed up.
She was right – it was completely different. The teachers were more safety focused and beginner friendly, there were more types of bikes and I could find one like my longed-for Vespa. There were even other women in the class. I had already had some knowledge from the previous course and I passed my certification on the first try, and didn’t drop the bike once.
I bought a red, second-hand Vespa about a month after my 40th birthday. Every time I look at it, it gives me a quiet thrill. And when I take off my helmet and shake out my hair, I don’t feel like that girl in Paris, 20 years ago. I feel like myself – gorgeous, alive, confident. Like I can do hard things.
Julie Crawford lives in Toronto.