Hot wheels: Women bikers find friendship and fun on the road
The reactions range from surprise to disapproval, double-takes to double
Women typically smile in mutual admiration and voice their support.
Young boys and girls grow wide-eyed and clamor to take a closer look. The
men, however, tend to be more nonchalant, often feigning disinterest as
they casually peer over their shoulders or sneak a peek out of the corner
of their eyes.
The funniest, says Linda Columbus of Danvers, is when a guy realizes,
much to his chagrin, that she's riding the same bike he is.
These women have seen it all as they cruise the open roads on their
Harleys, Kawasakis and Yamahas. Clad in their leather and jeans and bulky
helmets, they have grown accustomed to being mistaken for men.
But there is no denying they are among a growing number of "Women
on Wheels" who find no greater pleasure than revving up their engines.
Every week or so, you'll find a couple dozen or more female bikers from
the international organization's North Shore chapter take to the region's
scenic rural roads for what amounts to a joy ride.
They range in age from 27 to their 50s and even 60s. They spend their
days as police officers, nurses, real estate agents, software engineers and
waitresses. Some are married with grown children. Others are single
professionals. Yet all share a sisterhood around motorcycles, and are out
to prove the stereotypes wrong.
"I love it when colleagues look at me and say, `You don't look the
type,'" said Gail Riley of Merrimac, a 50-something married mother of
two and registered nurse. "I tell them, `That's just what I was hoping
you would say.'"
The women abide by some basic golden rules when they hit the road, the
first of which is "Full tank. Empty bladder." Safety and respect
for fellow riders are top priorities, with members making certain to abide
by all traffic rules.
Talking on cell phones, drinking alcohol and applying lipstick while
riding are definite no-nos. Pit stops along the way for ice cream, on the
other hand, are all but a requirement for any group ride.
Groveland's Pamela Foss, who has been logging miles on a motorcycle
since 1974, started the North Shore chapter a few years ago to unite the
region's female motorcyclists.
The local club -- part of the international Women on Wheels organization
that was founded in 1982 -- has grown to about 50 members from the North
Shore and southern New Hampshire, about 30 of whom actively participate in
its schedule of rides and activities.
Foss, who works for Verizon Yellow Pages and grooms dogs on the side,
loves the freedom her bike -- currently a Yamaha V-Star 650 -- affords.
"It's a great way to let things roll off you," she said.
Columbus, a real estate appraiser from Danvers, equates riding her
motorcycle with "going out on a boat and you're the only one around
and your free to just drive."
"You see a lot more on a motorcycle than in the car," said
Columbus, who has a decade of riding behind her. At the very least, she
adds, "you smell a lot more."
Columbus, who was always looking for someone to ride with, was one of
the North Shore chapter's first members. "I think the more the
merrier," she said.
Chapter Director Sue Poublon - a software engineer from Atkinson, N.H.,
who formerly lived in Groveland - agrees. She said women more than men seem
to enjoy the camaraderie and companionship of group rides.
"You need someone to sit and talk to when you come to a stop,"
said Poublon, whose bike of choice is a Harley Davidson.
Women on Wheels was exactly what Sue Comeau of Boxford was looking for
when she returned to the road in the last few years.
It wasn't unusual to find Comeau and her husband taking off together for
the day on their bikes when they first got married. Then, their children
came, and the bikes went away as they raised their three teenagers.
A few years ago, Comeau bet her husband a bike if he lost 50 pounds. He
succeeded and got the bike. It wasn't long before she got tired riding
passenger, and she got her own. Three weeks later, Comeau's husband got
into an accident and she found herself with no one to ride with. Women on
Wheels was quick to solve her dilemma.
"I found a lot of really great friends," said Comeau, who
added chapter members taught her some basics and even organized a beginner
ride to get her comfortable riding in a group.
The North Shore Chapter sets out just about every week from June through
September. The schedule offers biweekly dinner trips around the area on
Thursday nights and weekend outings to such destinations as Sunapee, N.H.,
the Balloon Festival in Quechee, Vt., and fall foliage excursions. There
have been overnights to Ogunquit, Maine, and trips to the annual National
Ride-In, which is in West Virginia this summer.
There are shorter trips to accommodate the beginner to 250-mile-a-day
treks for the more experienced biker. In addition, members are always
planning their own impromptu pick-up rides.
Husbands and significant others are more than welcome to tag along, but
official membership is limited to women, with men relegated to support
member status. All trips head out from the Banknorth parking lot at the
intersection of Route 133 and Route 1 in Rowley. In keeping with the
national organization's motto -- "It's not what we ride that's
important, but that we ride" -- no makes or models are excluded
Lisa Walsh, a health care consultant from Atkinson, N.H., serves as the
road captain, and is in charge of safety. Every ride begins with an
overview of the group's rules and signals, and what to watch for on the
road. Everything is timed and coordinated, from the fuel and rest stops to
the bikers' travel formation, which consists of a staggered, two-line
pattern that reverts to single file around curves.
"You really have to ride smart," said Walsh, who leads the
group rides, communicating by headset with Poublon, who typically brings up
the rear as the club's designated "sweeper."
"Riding in a group is different than riding alone," adds
Walsh. "You can't stop whenever you feel like it when there are 30
bikes with you."
Members of the North Shore chapter are big on mutual support, and say
women bikers, on the whole, are open to assistance.
The officers recommend the state motorcycle safety course for any beginning
rider, and, they counsel, there's no shame in failing the culminating
license exam the first time out. Several admit to having to retake the
test. They also make themselves available to help newcomers ease into the
While members have all taken their share of falls on their bikes, they
credit the chapter's emphasis on safety with their solid track record on
"We look out for each other," said Judy Bombaci of Rowley, who
adds people get a kick seeing her riding her bike to work at Anna Jaques
Hospital in Newburyport in her nurse's scrubs.
Women don't necessarily have to be interested in group rides to join the
chapter. Membership is open to enthusiasts who love the riding experience,
be it solo or on the back of their husband's or friend's bike, or who are
interested in riding but don't yet own their own bikes. An annual $30 fee
to the national organization is the only cost. Rides are free. Food and
treats along the way are extra.
Guests are always welcome to join a ride or attend a meeting to get
acquainted with the group. The chapter meets the second Sunday of the month
at the Majestic Dragon on Route 1 in Ipswich for sessions that are as much
about business as they are about socializing and dinner.
"Generally, it's an instant thing with people," said Poublon.
"They come and they're hooked."
Contrary to what many believe, members say size doesn't matter when it
comes to riding a motorcycle, with bikes available to fit everyone from a
petite woman to the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Age isn't a
barrier either, they say. The president of Women on Wheels International is
77, and a new trustee is 69 and didn't start riding until she was in her
Riley counts herself among those who discovered motorcycles in her 50s
on a whim. Riding in the car with her husband, Dave, one day, they came
upon some motorcyclists who looked like they were having fun. Next thing
they knew, her husband had a bike, and then Riley got one, too.
"People will say, `What are you crazy?'" she said. "But
I'm learning something new every day and having a great time doing
For information, visit the North Shore Chapter's Web site at
www.nswow.org, or the international Women on Wheels site at