Some women get their nails done or go to book club. For Charlie Thayer, "me" time is tearing through the Santa Cruz Mountains on her neon blue Kawasaki Ninja 250 sport bike.
"You're out there moving through time and space, present in your surroundings," says Thayer, 31, of Santa Clara. "There's also the thrill of going 70 mph. But don't tell my husband that."
Thayer represents a growing trend: female motorcycle riders. According to the Motorcycle Industry Council, the number of female operators shot up from 4.3 million in 2003 to 7.1 million in 2009. Experts attribute the rise in ridership and bike ownership to better education, gear and equipment as well as such high-profile riders as Jillian Michaels, QueenLatifah and Margaret Cho.
While female motorcyclists share their love of the open road with men, they approach the ride differently. "We want to look good and be safe and comfortable, but we might not know the torque and horsepower of our bikes like they do," says industry veteran Jan Plessner, editor of Ladymoto.com.
Nationally, women tend to ride scooters or cruisers (the latter, such as Harley-Davidsons, are designed for long hauls on flat highways). But in the Bay Area, you are more likely to see a woman on a sport bike, which is built to hug the tight, windy roads the region is famous for, from Redwood Road in the Berkeley hills to Highways 9 and 17, which slice through the Peninsula and
"The roads are by far the best," Plessner says. "Twisty, beautiful, and uncongested." Plessner lives in Mission Viejo, but when visiting these parts, she rides up on something "light, responsive, and agile," like a Ducati Monster 696, she says.
The area has a rich history of women who ride. The San Francisco Motorcycle Club, in 1910, was the first in the nation to welcome female members. The Bay Area also is home to dozens of female-only riding clubs and motorcycle shops owned or co-owned by women.
However, this current upswing in interest is about access and education. Industry heavyweights, such as Honda, Yamaha and Harley-Davidson, now are making bikes for shorter bodies and reaching out to women with special events.
Harley-Davidson dealerships offer "garage parties," where women can learn the basics of bike handling and operation in a low-key, after-hours environment. Some offer women-only safety classes. Research shows women are more likely to take such a class before pounding the pavement.
"Several years ago, women told us they felt intimidated going to a Harley dealership," says Claudia Garber, director of women's outreach marketing for the Milwaukee-based company. "So we created Harley 101, where they could come and learn how to switch gears or properly get a bike off the kickstand."
Gear has evolved as well. Designers are tailoring gloves, helmets and riding suits for women so they no longer have to endure ill-fitting menswear. In July, at the American Motorcycle Association's sixth International Women & Motorcycling Conference in Nevada, all eyes were on a $700 Schuberth helmet. The German company makes the only street bike helmet designed to fit a woman's higher cheekbones and narrower face.
To help women navigate the plethora of protective gear options, San Francisco motorcycle maven Joanne Donn started the blog Gear Chic in 2007. She learned to ride in 2003 on a green Aprilia Scarabeo 50 scooter. A year later, she and her husband, Evan, purchased their first sport bike, a Kawasaki Ninja 250, and never went back.
"The plan was I keep the scooter, and he gets the bike," says Donn, who is now 36 and slices streets on a sleek Suzuki SV650S. "Then I realized how much more fun it was to ride the sport bike."
Last year, Donn left her office management job to live the motorcycle life full-time. When she's not blogging or going on rides with the all-women sport bike riding group she founded with San Francisco Moto Shop co-owner Aleksandra Grippo, Donn sells apparel at Scuderia West, a dealership in San Francisco.
Donn says that anyone riding a motorcycle should plan to spend at least $1,000 for head-to-toe protective gear. That includes a full-face helmet, textile or leather jacket, full-fingered leather gloves, boots and abrasion-resistant pants.
"Let's be honest here," she says. "You are on a two-wheeled vehicle, out in the middle of traffic, between cars and trucks that have steel bodies, air bags and every other safety feature imaginable to keep them from being injured. What do you have? Nothing. Except gear."
Sami Monsur, of San Jose, takes great pride in her gear, from her $300 Scorpion EXO-1100 Solid Helmet to the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico, that she cut from a pillow case and sewed to the back of her leather jacket. Monsur, a resource analyst in the College of Education at San Jose State University, gets constant honks of approval when weaving through traffic on her silver-and-white Honda Shadow 750.
The 47-year-old has ridden motorcycles half her life. Her ex-husband taught her how to ride. But even then, at 24, she wasn't made to be a passenger, she says.
"It's more fun to be in front," she adds. "It's so easy to pull that throttle and just go."