Originally created 02/17/99

When it comes to motorcycles, women also want to be wild



If you think a woman's place in motorcycling is on the pillion, it's time for a statistical reality check.

J.D. Power & Associates, famous for crunching numbers for the automobile industry, recently examined the world of two-wheeled motoring with the nation's first major survey of motorcycle owners, their demographics and buying habits. The study included the role of women in the hobby, and concluded that the dated "Wild One" image is just about as valid for bikers as "Father Knows Best" is for families.

"There were a lot of surprises that came out of this study," said Gil Niv, an analyst at Power who oversaw the study of more than 9,000 buyers of 1998 motorcycles. "But one of the biggest was how many women are coming into motorcycling. Of all persons in the survey who were buying their first motorcycle, 22 percent were women.

"That is significant (for the industry), especially for the future."

But for the present, it will not have much effect on the overwhelmingly male-dominated world of motorcycling. Of all buyers of 1998 motorcycles, only about 8 percent were women, the Power study found. Still, if female percentages remain strong among first-time buyers, Mr. Niv noted, women will significantly chip away at that male supremacy.

There were other indications that more women are venturing into the motorcycle world, and not just as passengers.

About half the women who bought 1998 motorcycles said they had taken the riding course for beginners from the highly regarded Motorcycle Safety Foundation. Only 20 percent of male buyers had attended the program, which Mr. Niv interprets as yet another sign that women are building their numbers within the motorcycle population.

Women who bought new bikes had about the same household annual income -- around $58,000 -- as men in the survey. At a median age of 38, the women were three years younger than their male counterparts.

Another significant difference emerged in data involving education levels. About 40 percent of the women had college degrees compared to 31 percent of the men.

"The industry should be paying attention to these women; there is no doubt about that," Mr. Niv said.

Motorcycling has increased among Augusta-area women, said Virginia Doss, business manager at Vic's Harley Davidson on Ellis Street.

"Nationwide, one in every 10 registered Harleys is registered to a female," she said. "Locally it's about the same."

Ms. Doss, who learned to ride a motorcycle from a former boyfriend, has been riding Harleys for 14 years.

"I rode back before women were supposed to ride," she said. "When I got my license I knew one other female that had a motorcycle license."

Harley doesn't make any bikes that are specifically targeted toward female riders, she said, but the Sportster models are smaller and tend to be easier for someone who is just learning to ride.

"But honestly, next to no women ride those -- they learn on them, then they move on to something bigger."

Ms. Doss owns an Ultra R Road King, one of the biggest models.

The ultimate acknowledgment by the industry that bikes are not just for guys will be when manufacturers start building motorcycles scaled down for women.

Manufacturers of skis and golf clubs make shorter versions of their products primarily for the women's market. But in motorcycles, only laid-back cruiser models tend to be low enough for women riders. Feistier sportbikes and standard -- sometimes called naked -- motorcycles, with their more upright seating positions, typically stand too tall for shorter women.

"It is really frustrating," said Claire Vitucci, 26, who started riding last year. Because she is only 5 feet tall -- the average woman in the Power survey was 5-foot-5 -- Ms. Vitucci's choices are extremely limited. Looking at the array of new models shown at the International Motorcycle Show in Long Beach, Calif., earlier this year, she was faced with one basic consideration before getting around to selecting style or color: "Can I fit on it?"

"Except for cruisers, there was almost nothing there for me," said Ms. Vitucci, a reporter for The Associated Press.

She added that other women riders find themselves in the same boat, including a friend who wants to ride a hot new sportbike so badly that she is willing to risk the danger of stopping the bike and balancing machine and herself on tiptoes.

"I think it's really unfair, and it's bad business," Ms. Vitucci said of the industry's tendency to overlook shorter women. "And I told them that."

If the numbers keep rising, they are bound to listen.

Staff Writer Emily Sollie contributed to this article.