Jenna Senour needed to get in touch with her inner "Easy Rider." "There are times I want to ride so bad that I look for any reason to take my bike out," the Mesa mother of three said. "One day I wanted to get on the bike so bad that I decided to ride to the store to get diapers."
The petite and perky 34-year-old blonde threw on her black leather jacket, strapped on her helmet, straddled her Harley-Davidson Sportster and was instantly transformed from Betty Crocker to biker babe.
"When I tried to fit the diapers onto the bike, I realized the box was too big," Senour said. "So I had to take all the diapers out of the box and stuff them into my saddlebag. Cool kind of flies out the window when that happens."
Cool or not, women like Senour are proving that riding a Harley-Davidson is no longer limited to men. As Harley-Davidson turns 100 years old, sales to women represent 10 percent of its revenue, up from 2 percent in 1987 and 5 percent in 1995, said Mike Morgan, marketing manager for the company.
"You’d be surprised at the number of women who are moms or empty nesters who want to get a hobby and decide to ride motorcycles," Senour said. "There are a lot of women who happen to like motorcycles. We’re not trying to compete with men or keep up with them. We’re just trying to do our own thing."
And the East Valley has become a hotbed for women who want to get high on the hogs.
"In the fourth quarter of last year, 18 percent of the bikes we sold were to women," said Beverly Chosa-LeResche, owner of Chosa’s Harley-Davidson in Mesa. "That was the highest in the country."
Frank Costa, general manager at Chandler Harley-Davidson Buell, said about 30 percent of first-time Harley buyers are women.
A growing financial independence and an increase in the number of riding courses for beginners have driven sales of Harley-Davidson motorcycles to women.
"Women are more liberated now, and when they hit ages 38 to 45, they’re starting to get like men and say, ‘You know what? I want to feel the wind in my hair and have that feeling of freedom,’ " said Judi Almeida of Hacienda Harley-Davidson in Scottsdale. "And it’s a huge accomplishment for women when they’ve been married, raised their kids, get their motorcycle license and ge t a Harley-Davidson motorcycle."
GETTING THEIR MOTORS RUNNING
Linda Lee Gillenwater took advantage of her empty nest status to get her first Harley-Davidson one year ago.
"My 22-year-old daughter was absolutely crazed when I got my bike," the 44-year-old Mesa woman said. "And my father said to me, ‘Why don’t you just keep it in the garage and go out and polish it every once in a while? You don’t have to actually ride it.’ "
But Gillenwater wanted to ride. So she took a course for beginning riders and was hooked.
"You can’t have a bad day when you’re on your motorcycle," Gillenwater said. "And if you’re having a bad day, you should get on your motorcycle because it lets you forget about everything else: Bills, problems, children. It’s just you and your motorcycle and the wind in your hair and the smells around you. They are all the things you forget about when you’re sitting in a car."
Since Harley-Davidson started its Rider’s Edge classes in 1999, teaching safety and skills to people who have never been on a motorcycle, 40 percent of the class participants have been women, Morgan said.
"It used to be that women were content just to be the passenger," he said. "But that started changing a few years ago."
When the change started, a Harley-Davidson advertising campaign started to target women. The slogan: "You don’t take a back seat to anyone. Why start now?"
One of the women who took that to heart was 32-year-old Gwen Flora.
"I had always been riding on the back of my dad’s bike," the Chandler engineer said. "I finally got sick of trying to find a ride, so I bought my own two years ago so I can ride when I want to."
So what did her fellow engineers think of their 5-foot 3-inch Harley-riding colleague?
"A lot of people said, ‘That’s cool. You’re an independent woman who makes enough money to afford a bike and you should do whatever makes you happy,’ " Flora said. "But there were others, like my mother, who were like, ‘You’re going to kill yourself.’ "
For Senour, motorcycles have been a lifelong love. "I grew up on dirt bikes, so getting my own Harley was a natural progression," Senour said. "Plus, my husband is an avid motorcyclist, so it was kind of like if you can’t beat them, join them. It’s a fun family thing, and the family that plays together stays together."
CHANGING FACE OF BIKER
With more women like Flora and Senour trading in their soccer mom togs or business suits for weekend biker leather, the image of the Harley rider is changing.
"When I started riding my own motorcycle 30 years ago, to see a woman on a motorcycle, much less a Harley, was extremely unusual, and people didn’t think nice things about me," Chosa-LeResche said. "Now, seeing a woman riding a Harley is getting to be old hat."
And male riders are more accepting of a woman riding beside them instead of on the seat behind them.
"I love that my wife wants to ride her own bike," said
56-year-old Gary Wallace of Scottsdale. "My mother and father would probably roll over in their graves if they knew my wife was riding a Harley, but I think it’s neat. It’s just another thing we can enjoy together."
And that image of the wife and mother on her own Harley has helped soften the hard-edge Harley rider persona that dates back to the days when Marlon Brando was the original wild one.
"Fifteen years ago, Harley riders were seen as much more hard-ass," Flora said. "Now, it’s more professional people who can afford a bike. Most of the people I ride with are very well-to-do people who don’t go out and cause any trouble. We just go out for breakfast, go for a ride and come home."
As the Hell’s Angels image of Harley riders undergoes a Michael Jackson-sized makeover, women riders said they have embraced the close-knit community of 21 st-century Harley riders.
"There are people from all walks of life with the common denominator being that they all love to ride," Senour said.
Gillenwater believes the world would be a better place with a few more bikers around.
"I really enjoy how everyone sticks together," she said. "There is a brotherhood and sisterhood among riders. We wave to each other even if we don’t know who is on the other side of the road. If you break down, other riders will stop and help. It makes you feel so good. It’s the way everybody should be all the time: Helpful and taking care of each other."
THE MARKET REACTS
To help take care of the exploding number of women who ride motorcycles, Gillenwater and Senour will turn their love of their Harleyriding lifestyle into a business. They plan to open Femme Fatale in May. The store, which will be located at 424 N. Country Club Drive in Mesa, will be the Valley’s only store that specializes in riding accessories for women.
"Most of the gear is designed for men with skulls and flames and is all very masculine," Gillenwater said. "Women are tired of borrowing their husband’s or boyfriend’s gear and looking like a guy all the time when we ride. Women want to ride and still be feminine."
The women plan to sell stylish steel-toe riding boots, purses that women can ride with, do-rags with feminine designs, goggles and helmets that fit women, and even a Senour-designed pair of riding gloves that can be worn with wedding rings.
"One of the things we did to help make it easier for women who want to ride was adding a women’s riding expo," said Chosa-LeResche. The March 9 expo will cover topics such as safety and how women can pick up a motorcycle if it tips over.
"It’s all about bringing a woman’s comfort level up," Chosa-LeResche said. "We want them to be able to take their bike out for themselves instead of waiting for their boyfriend or husband to ride."
As Senour straddled her Harley, letting her inner Pinky Tuscadero shine through, she said that women should not let stereotypes stop them from revving up a Harley of their own.
"We’re only on earth for such a short time that you should absolutely pursue your dreams and interests," she said.
But she also stressed that wannabe bad-ass Harley riders should take a riding class before buying a bike and do everything possible to protect themselves while riding.
"I have three little kids at home that depend on me, and if I were to go down and was seriously injured, I want to know that I did everything I could to prevent myself from being permanently disabled or killed," she said. "So I always wear a helmet even though you don’t have to in Arizona. And some days I wear a full shield so I don’t have to pick bugs out of my lipstick. A woman has to have priorities."
Learn to ride
What: T.E.A.M. Arizona Motorcyclist Training Center
When: Classes are offered on weekdays and weekends. See www .motorcycletraining.com for complete schedule.
Where: 36 N. William Dillard Drive, Gilbert
Cost: $210, $195 for full-time students
Information: (480) 998-9888
For ladies only
What: Women’s Riding Expo
When: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 9
Where: Chosa’s Harley-Davidson, 922 S. Country Club Drive, Mesa
Cost: Free, but limited to the first 150 women to register