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Women take the driver’s seats on their own Harleys

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Posted: Thursday, August 23, 2007 11:07 am

For years, Debbie Spink was a Harley-Davidson enthusiast by proxy. The bike belonged to her husband. She was the passenger. Wrapped around his torso like a human backpack, she played Kelly McGillis to his Tom Cruise. And she was content. Then, something snapped.

Seeing how other women in the couple’s Harley Owners Group enjoyed riding solo, the Mesa nurse and grandmother decided to be her own top gun. She took riding lessons. She bought a 1997 Springer Softail. Now she rides alongside her husband, instead of behind him.

“I wanted to be independent, do my own thing,” Spink says defiantly. “Those other old ladies can knit, crochet or scrapbook. I’m gonna ride.”

And she’s not alone. Once the semi-exclusive domain of hard-living itinerants in oil-stained denim jackets, the Harley-Davidson brand now appeals to unprecedented numbers of women — married and single, professional and stay-at-home. They ride Harleys for the camaraderie, the all-American mystique and the liberating, windblown delight of simply not giving a damn what anybody thinks.

Though women now account for the fastest-growing segment of the Harley-Davidson customer base — nationally, 7 percent of new bikes are sold to females — resistance lingers on both sides of the till.

Matthew Lenox, sales manager at Chester’s Harley-Davidson in Mesa, acknowledges the stereotype of the “burly kind of salesman” who refuses “to take female customers seriously.”

“I’ve heard stories,” Lenox says of showroom chauvinism. “It’s really just a traditional mind-set that people have. And it’s changing.

“Women are capable of riding anything a man does.”

Where Harley-Davidson machines are concerned, that often means a heavier bike than most mass-production Japanese models, and a noisier one, too. Pistons in a Harley-Davidson engine are designed to fire at uneven intervals — a vestigial trait left over from early engineering designs — producing the bike’s distinctive, choppy rumble (so distinctive that the company unsuccessfully tried to trademark it).

Acting on a companywide mandate, Lenox now employs three saleswomen on his staff of 10. One of them, Kathy McKenzie, laments the lingering stigma of the “tough, unfeminine biker chick.” This, she believes, is the single biggest impediment to reeling in female customers.

“Men do tend to look at you differently when you ride,” says McKenzie, a robust blonde who commutes to work on a Harley. “That’s a big deal for some women, but maybe it shouldn’t be. Men who are more secure in themselves tend to think it’s pretty cool.”

Defying the biker-chick stigma has become something of a raison d’etre for Gilbert’s Tammy Kastberg. Perky and youthful, with a tattoo-free body toned by exercise classes and a careful tanning regiment, Kastberg hardly fits the traditional physical profile of a Harley owner.

Her line of work is similarly un-bikerlike — she’s a district manager for a chain of fragrance stores.

Kastberg, 38, got into motorcycles last August, when a blind date picked her up on his custom chopper. According to Kastberg, she was instantly hooked.

“Then we didn’t go out anymore,” she recalls with a laugh. “I didn’t miss him, but I did miss the bike.”

Kastberg took riding lessons, bought a Honda Shadow 750 and got involved in the East Valley riding scene. Last March, during Arizona Bike Week — an annual, weeklong bacchanal of all things motorhead — she donned a bikini and competed in the Miss Arizona Bike Week contest. And won.

“That’s one of the reasons I did it — to show everybody that just because you ride, you’re not some drug-and-tattoo type girl,” Kastberg, who later upgraded to a new Harley Nightster, says. “I’m a professional woman who takes it seriously.”

Then again, Harley’s rebellious, rabble-rousing image is part of the appeal, no? Mesa administrative assistant Anna Miner, who rides in the same HOG chapter as Spink, relishes those moments at red lights when her 2004 Harley V-Rod causes a stir.

“It’s got straight pipes, so it’s a very loud bike,” she says mischievously. “So people look over and see this old fat broad, and their mouths are open, and when the light changes I just leave them in the dust. That’s fun for me.”

Like Spink and many other riders, Miner spent years on the back of her husband’s bike before demanding suffrage. Not all female Harley hobbyists are so inclined. Roberta Laird, a friendly homemaker from Mesa, is perfectly happy riding tandem with husband Rip.

“I like the idea that I can watch scenery on road trips, or sleep if I need to,” she says. “I can even watch movies back there. We have a DVD player!”

Laird’s favorite Harley road-trip movie: “Love Story.”

For Miner and Spink and other female Harley devotees of a certain age, riding is tantamount to a second adolescence. It offers a social nexus, an opportunity for road trips and parties, and justification for mildly antisocial affectations.

Spink got her first tattoo last year.

“My husband and I hated them when our kids were growing up,” she says, looking down at the winged human heart stenciled just below her left shoulder. The inscription reads “Nana’s Little Girl 1997,” a devotion to her granddaughter.

“I don’t know why we got them. It was an impulse buy.”

Miner, who got her first tattoo at age 49, is a veritable illustrated woman, with tattoos on each shoulder and shin. She has fully embraced the Harley mythos — not just the tattoos, but the almost religious veneration of the American road. In her words, riding heightens “everything around me, the sounds, the smells, the wind.”

“Harley is America,” she says, sitting in front of the dealership, waiting to embark on the group’s weekly Friday night “dinner ride.”

“You do what you want, go where you want, and be where you want,” she says. “You don’t have to live down to The Man’s standards.”

Indeed. Or the man’s standards.

Harley Scenes

Billet Bar: On weekends, this Old Town Scottsdale watering hole (just south of Indian School on Scottsdale Road) becomes the see-and-be-seen Harley hot spot of the East Valley.

Online: Find your local Harley Owners Group chapter by visiting hog.com. Nonsanctioned riding groups are also on the Web. Meetup.com has an active East Valley profile.

The Medieval Maidens Motorcycle Club: Founded in California three years ago, this rough-and-tumble riding sorority opened an Arizona chapter last summer. Bills itself as the only active ladies-only riding club in the state.

The Hideaway Grill: Tucked away in the rarefied desert aerie of Cave Creek, this restaurant/grill (6746 E. Cave Creek Road) is renowned as one of the most biker-friendly establishments in the East Valley.

Greasewood Flat: This converted bunkhouse (now a sprawling indoor/outdoor bar) is so iconic, there’s a locally produced feature film that bears its name. Bucolic north Scottsdale location (27375 N. Alma School Parkway) makes it a natural draw for riders.

Harley Dealers

Buddy Stubbs Harley-Davidson, 13850 N. Cave Creek Road, Cave Creek. (602) 971-3400.

Chandler Harley-Davidson, 6895 W. Chandler Blvd., Chandler. (480) 496-6800.

Chester’s Harley-Davidson, 922 S. Country Club Drive, Mesa. (480) 894-0404.

Hacienda Harley-Davidson, 15600 N. Hayden Road, Scottsdale. (480) 905-1903.

Superstition Harley-Davidson, 2910 W. Apache Trail, Apache Junction. (480) 346-0600.

Getting started

Matthew Lenox, sales manager of Chester’s Harley-Davidson in Mesa, suggests:

Take riding classes. Most Harley dealerships tout the company’s “Rider’s Edge” program — essentially the same curriculum favored by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation with a few special, Harley-centric modifications. It’s four-day class that costs $349. Bikes and helmets are provided.

Pick a bike. Some prospective riders may choose a used bike, or a smaller one like the Harley Roadster. Others may prefer to jump directly into a new model, or a big, beefy mother like the FLTR Road Glide. “I think it depends on the person, what size they are, and how much money do they want to spend,” says Lenox. Ever the idealist, Lenox recommends having a “bike in the garage” by the time the riding class ends.

Get safety gear. Helmets, jackets and boots are musts for inexperienced riders. Lenox scoffs at riders who wear flip-flops: “Do I have employees that do that? Hello? I want to smack them.”

Find a comfort zone. Lenox recommends exploring a familiar neighborhood or mastering the bike in a parking lot before venturing out into public. “As your skills build, you go further and further out,” he says. “It’s a gradual process.”

Find your look. “That’s what we’re here for,” says Lenox. Most Harley dealerships have a clothing boutique on site.

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