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Rising to the Challenge

Camaraderie rules at the AMA/FIM International Women & Motorcycling Conference

Motorcycling is all about challenges.

For some, it's nailing the triple jump at the motocross track. For others, it's deftly managing the risks of rush-hour commuting, or using the tire all the way to the edge on a road-race track, or logging a 500-mile day, all on back roads.

Whatever got you into motorcycling, you don't do it because it's the easy way. The easy way is a four-door sedan. The easy way is sitting on the couch watching football. The easy way doesn't involve getting cold, wet, tired, hot or achy in order to have fun.

But as true as that is for all motorcyclists, it's even more true for women riders. In addition to the normal challenges, they face the difficulties of finding bikes and gear that fit them. Of getting the salesman at the local dealership to take them seriously. And the big one—overcoming the stereotype that motorcycling is something guys do.

That's why the AMA has organized a series of Women & Motorcycling Conferences over the years. These gatherings provide a place where women riders can share their experiences in breaking down barriers and building up self-confidence.

But they also provide the rarest thing of all: a place where, for a few days at least, women riders are the norm, not the exception.

The fourth AMA Women & Motorcycling Conference, held in August in Athens, Georgia, took the concept beyond national borders, with involvement from the Federation Internationale de Motocyclisme, the world motorcycle sanctioning body.

And from the very beginning, this event wmasn't just about the difficulties of facing challenges. It was about the rewards of overcoming them.

For many of the 900 riders at the conference, the first challenge was simply getting to Georgia. The event's location in Athens was relatively close for those in the Southeast, but with conference participants coming from as far away as Seattle, San Francisco and New York, many decided to log serious road miles rather than fly.

Luckily, a little networking helped out. Thanks to online bulletin boards, many participants were able to hook up with others for the ride to Athens, making friends along the way.

Among those rising to the challenge was AMA CEO Patricia DiPietro, who noted in her opening-night keynote speech that the 600-mile ride from AMA headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, was her longest motorcycle trip to date. And she said it focused her on the challenges faced by those who came before.

"Along the way, I kept thinking of pioneer riders like Bessie Stringfield and others of her era, who traveled without the modern conveniences we have in the roads we ride and the equipment we use," she told the 900 women gathered at the opening ceremonies. "And I thought about how much courage it took to be a woman motorcyclist then."

Ride to AthensThat sense of a shared challenge helped create a feeling of camaraderie that built throughout the four-day conference. It came through in spontaneous touches, like when the opening ceremony's MC, Jenny Lefferts, founder of the MAD Maps company, made it a point to hug each of the speakers who came onstage. Or when the entire crowd sang "Happy Birthday" to the winner of one of the door prizes.

And it was built on the realization that this truly was a conference of, for and about women.

"As a woman rider, there aren't many events you can attend where women riders are the main topic," said Helen Cottongim of Florence, Kentucky. "Usually, you have to fit into the male-dominated motorcycle world."

Friends at the conferenceThat point was driven home by several speakers in the conference’s seminars.

One of them, long-distance motorcyclist Voni Glaves, overcame her challenges to ultimately ride a motorcycle across several continents. An ardent BMW enthusiast, she once clocked more than 76,000 miles in a six-month period.

And, as she told the crowd in a seminar called "The World on our Own," one of the greatest experiences she ever had came while riding in remote South Africa.

More than anything else, she said, the ride gave her, "The good feeling that comes from doing something you thought you could not do."

That struck a chord with many women riders, who shared the experience of thinking—or being told—that motorcycling was something they couldn't do.

Those barriers made the story of South African road-racer Wilmarie Janse VanRensburg, another seminar speaker, all the more impressive.

She was in high school when she first started racing 50cc motorcycles. She loved it, and continued on 125cc and 150cc machines. By the time she made the leap to the 250cc class, she set two South African lap records and ultimately became her country's first-ever Superbike racer.

These days, she runs her own performance-riding school—Speed Queen Racing Academy—and races 600cc Supersport machines.

Closer to home in the U.S., many women riders have not only found ways to fit into the traditionally male-dominated motorcycle world, but created their own places in it. And several of them offered advice to others in a seminar called "Inspire Me."

Lefferts, who founded MAD Maps as a way to turn her love of motorcycling into a career, noted that women wanting to break into the motorcycle industry should simply go for it.

"Don't be afraid to talk to others about what you want to do," she said. "Too many times, we are afraid that someone else will steal our idea, but getting input from others is a tremendous help."

It all comes down to accepting the challenge, she noted. If what you want to do were easy, everyone would be doing it.

Another "Inspire Me" panelist was Jan Plessner, public relations manager for Kawasaki Motors Corp. Throughout her presentation, she stressed the importance of being able to "talk the talk and walk the walk," meaning that if you want to work in the motorcycle industry, you should be a serious enthusiast. Otherwise, people will quickly see through you.

Of course, that doesn't mean you have to be able to ride like a professional racer, she noted. But she recommended that conference participants should accumulate experience in as many areas as possible and be able to hold up their end of the conversation on almost any riding subject.

Schwantz school at Road AtlantaOutside the conference rooms, at the nearby Road Atlanta racetrack, a number of conference participants took on a different challenge—a special, women-only version of the Kevin Schwantz Suzuki School. For many, it was their first time on a racetrack, and it made a major impression.

"Awesome!" is how Denise Carey of League City, Texas, described the experience. A 10-year rider who currently owns a Harley-Davidson, Carey said she learned a lot.

"The most important thing I got out of this conference is that I now have much more confidence in my riding," she said.

Those who didn't get into the track school found another way to challenge themselves back at the conference site through the AMA Asphalt Assault, a tight course set up with cones and lines in a parking lot, where riders could test their skills in a controlled environment.

Even the booths along the vendor midway had the appropriate tone, with most of them selling women-specific items. Among the most popular items were T-shirts reading, "I Am Not a Backrest," and "Silly Boys, Motorcycles Are for Girls."

Demo ridesAlso popular were demo rides from presenting sponsors Harley-Davidson and Buell, along with BMW, Ducati, Honda, Kawasaki, Kymco, Ridley and Yamaha. One participant, Liz Harrell of Clayton, North Carolina, took the challenge of getting a wide variety of motorcycling experiences seriously, managing to log rides on 17 different motorcycles.


"Because I could," she said, laughing.

Challenges came in all forms. And even some of the simplest had significant consequences.

For Susan King, the challenge came in a demonstration by Carol "Skert" Youorski on how to lift a downed motorcycle. At the end, King found herself in a crowd of people standing around a massive BMW R1200RT lying on its side.

Stepping forward, King walked over to the bike, turned around, squatted down, rested her lower back against the seat and grasped the machine with both hands. Then, taking small steps backward, she brought it upright, using leverage instead of sheer strength, until it was resting on its sidestand.

As they had with others who had performed the seemingly impossible feat, the crowd of 20 or so women cheered.

Aside from giving her newfound confidence, the experience had special meaning for King, a new rider looking for her first bike. She noted that her boyfriend had cautioned her she shouldn't ride a large motorcycle because she wasn't strong enough to pick it up.

Now, she said, nothing is off-limits.

As it is, more and more, for all women riders.

Contributing to this report was Amy Holland, editor of Friction Zone magazine.