How To Ride Like A Girl
Seven local riders explore what it means to be a fearless woman on a fast machine
Thursday, July 5, 2001
Holly Korzilius--polite, athletic, Marine Corps-molded and trained--is by no means a whiner. But she does have a complaint about her protective motorcycling gear.
"The problem with this," she explains, shrugging into her Kevlar riding jacket, "is it has body armor, but it doesn''t do you any good if it moves around." She twists her sleeve so the hard plastic part is on the inside of her elbow. "If I go down, this won''t protect me. It''s made for a man with biceps."
So Korzilius, who rides a sleek yellow Ducati 748 every chance she gets, is preparing to plunk down $1,600 on a set of custom-made leathers, because what she needs, quite frankly, is something that''s strong enough for a man but made for a woman.
Gear is an issue for all female sport-bike riders. Like any self-respecting group of people, they hate to be stereotyped. But most of the riders inter- viewed for this story wear nail polish, most wear lipstick, and all complain about the clothes. Too-wide boots and ill-fitting leathers have got to go.
"I guess it''s still a men''s-gear world," sighs Elena Hernandez, who got her bulky jacket to go with her new purple Ninja six months ago.
Hernandez can thank the conditioned responses of the marketplace that her world is about to stop binding and bunching. Sport bikes are rumbling into the possession of women in unprecedented numbers, spawning an infant industry that caters to women''s demand for comfort and femininity.
If the women riders of Monterey County are any example, those gals run the gamut from manicurists to software industry account executives, from casual newcomers to serious competitors, from 22-year-olds to grandmothers. Most of them don''t even know each other.
They report acceptance, even encouragement, from male riders. But one all-too-common scenario rankles every one of them: By all accounts, a 450-pound machine lying on its side at a stop sign or in the driveway is a source of frustration and embarrassment. You cannot go 120 mph on a bike in that position. You''re lucky if you can heave it back upright without having to ask some smirking guy for help.
When Natalie Knowlton rides with the guys, she goes fast--really fast. So fast she doesn''t want the incriminating number published, lest the local constabulary intervene and spoil her fun. She just loves screaming down the highway on her Ninja, needle in the red, adrenaline slamming through her veins. She doesn''t even mind the part where it feels like she''s getting torn off the seat.
"The way the wind catches your helmet it feels like you''re choking," she says, demonstrating with the flat of her hand against her chin. "So you have to really tuck and duck down behind the windshield."
Knowlton, 31, is a soft-spoken blonde accountant who lives in Salinas. She comes off as wholesome and capable, the kind of woman who might be at home on a ranch. There''s no hint in her mannerisms of an inner speed demon that meets up with a pack of testosterone-struck men each weekend and holds her own on the winding roads and flat stretches that are the proving grounds for sport-bike riders. Isn''t she scared?
She just laughs. "When I was learning how to ride with my dad, I was scared to death to do 35 miles an hour," she confesses. "Everything just seems to be going by you so fast. But you just adjust to it. I took a lot of baby steps.
"I try to keep up with the guys," she adds, "but I''m always last. I ride slow on the windy part and have to catch them in the straightaway."
Knowlton has, nevertheless, won the admiration of an experienced woman rider who went out on the road with her recently.
Carole Vérité McNeill knows fast. Back in the ''80s, when she was still living in France, she performed at road races as a stunt rider, often riding at speeds in excess of 150 mph. Among other feats, she rode backward on her motorcycle at sickeningly high speeds (see sidebar, p. 16). The few times she got on a track she waxed the boys.
"I was amazed," says McNeill of her day on the road with Knowlton. "The guys tell me I ride fast and well. This girl was even faster than me." She leans close, her brown eyes dancing. "We did 120 miles per hour--on the road!"
McNeill is a 61-year-old grandmother with a shock of bleached blond hair and the physique of a 12 year old. She moves quickly and decisively, jumping up from the table to fetch cigarettes, a beer, a photo album. Between her red RX-7 and her Ninja 600, a gift from her husband Dennis, she''s been stopped 17 times in the year and a half that she''s been in the States. "One day a cop stopped me," she says in her French accent. "I think he was surprised when I took off my helmet. He saw I was a woman, but then he thought, ''Oh! My grandma!''" She giggles.
"They ride really well, really fast, but it''s too much for me. What I like is to ride sometimes fast, and after to enjoy, to smell--to cruise."
Knowlton concurs. "There are probably 20 microclimates just in this area," she says. "You can smell all the smells, feel the beams of sun and shade. It takes you away from everything, because you have to be focused. You can''t think about anything else."
There is one thing Knowlton thinks of from time to time, maybe even when she''s on her bike, and that''s her place in this male-dominated world of full-throttle aggression.
"I like the independence or whatever," she avers reluctantly, "but now I''m maybe wondering if it''s too strong, if I''m too rough. Like I see those ''girls kick ass'' signs, and that''s too much for me. I want to be a lady, but I still want to be able to keep up."
Whether she''s engineering it or not, Naomi Parker is developing a formidable mystique. She won''t tell her age (early twenties is a good guess), she does nails in Carmel, she keeps frogs and scorpions and a tarantula for pets, and she rides a 2000 Suzuki GSXR 750, the fastest production bike in its class. The girl just won''t be pigeon-holed.
And she has opinions. Seated on a low brick wall outside the salon, with her nail station visible through the window in one direction and her hulking, splendid, blue-and-white "Gixer" in the other, Parker talks rapidly and animatedly, gesturing with her hands--which really means gesturing with her inch-and-a-half-long French acrylic nails. With her flapper-style auburn hair, sparkly makeup and ebullience, Parker draws attention even off her bike.
"In order to ride, you have to love riding," she asserts. "You can''t do it for any other reason. I think a lot of girls who get into it to be cool, to be sexy, to be talked about, don''t last. They get out of it. ''Cause there''s a lot of stuff--your hair, your clothes. You can''t wear open-toed shoes... " She gestures at her own blue jeans and heavy black boots.
"Everyone would say I was a tomboy, but I wasn''t," she says of her girlhood. "When I was six I started wearing Press-On nails and too much makeup and I was a dancer--but I also wanted to be a mechanic."
Parker''s already crashed her bike, spectacularly so. It was two years ago that a truck swerved into her while she was on her Suzuki GS500, sending her rolling down Highway 1 and toward an eight-day stay in the hospital to treat the road rash that bloodied 40 percent of the lower half of her body.
"I was wearing sweatpants, and when I stood up they were down to my ankles!" She laughs. "And who knows where my underwear went to. I stood up and pulled ''em up. I was screaming and swearing, and the ambulance came and I wouldn''t cooperate. No one really even knew how bad it was."
Some people might have waited until they got out of the hospital to admit they still wanted to ride, but Parker was shameless. When her friends brought her a copy of Road Bike while she was still in recovery, she read about the new GSXR and knew she had to have it. She signed up on the waiting list immediately. Nine months later she had the first one in the area.
"It''s interesting," she says, "people either love you or they say ''You suck, and what are you doing riding a bike that''s too big for you?''"
Parker prefers to ride alone rather than with a pack, stealing away to Laureles Grade or Carmel Valley Road whenever she can. Group riding is too competitive; people get hurt. Anyway, what she likes about riding is the precision of it more than the speed.
"It''s real," she says. "It''s you, your bike and the concrete. The whole concept of dragging your knee around a corner, and anything could go wrong--you have to be so perfect."
Parker practices the brand of feminism that speaks in gestures and attitude--and French acrylics with grease under them--rather than rhetoric. Underlying her easy manner is a commitment to stepping up and doing exactly as she pleases on exactly her own terms. Moving between the worlds of men and women "is huge for me," she says. "I want people to know you can be a man''s equal and not be some crazy robodyke."
This weekend, Lisa Birch will be watching the superbike races with her right arm in a sling, nursing a broken collarbone.
A trip to Bakersfield two weeks ago didn''t turn out quite like she''d planned. Actually, the first day went very well. At Keith Code''s California Superbike School at Willow Springs, the 27-year-old did exercises that tightened her turns and her timing. Superbike School was great.
"I was going around with an instructor and he pulled me off and said I should race, seeing as how I''d improved so much that day and only been riding six months," Birch says, wincing through an ineffectual dosage of Vicodin. "That really pumped my confidence--maybe too much."
On Sunday she was in The Bowl, a deep, fast, steeply banked turn, when she felt something go wrong.
"This time I went through it really hard," she remembers. "My right leg was dragging the ground really hard, my boot was dragging. I tried to correct and it made me go wide. I wound up going off the track for a long long long long time--and then at the end of it I got scared and touched the front brake and got bucked off."
Birch, a former tomboy who was raised with twin brothers, has been bitten hard by the sport bike bug. Last summer she started riding her boyfriend''s 1988 Suzuki Katana 600, and in March bought a new Kawasaki Ninja 600.
First thing, she signed up for the DP [Dennis Pegalow] Safety School, thinking she''d be tooling around orange cones. Instead she spent the day blazing around Laguna Seca. When she got home that night, her boyfriend and his buddies looked at her rear tire. It was worn down on both sides.
"They said, ''You did this?'' I said, ''I did this.''"
It has taken Birch many hours of practice repeating the unglamorous basics--starting, stopping and turning--to get comfortable on her bike. The way she sees it, women are at a disadvantage because of the way they are.
"Being as how men are raised to dominate and women are raised to go along, it feels very unnatural at first," she says. "With the Katana, I didn''t feel in control--I felt like I persuaded it to do what I wanted it to. Then I practiced a lot and one day I came home and realized, ''I never once thought, God, I was so lucky it did that for me.''"
Now Birch has a third bike, a 2000 Ducati 748 that she fondly compares to a Porsche. In spite of her fall, she''s certain she''ll ride again.
"Last night my boyfriend asked me, ''Will you get back on?'' I said, ''Definitely. I''m sure of it.''"
If it''s a warm summer evening and everyone''s schedules work out right, then it''s likely that three gleaming bikes will be parked in front of Plumes on Alvarado in Monterey: a blue Katana, a yellow Katana, and a purple Ninja. And if they are parked there, that means Deena Bennett, Care Brown and Elena Hernandez are close by.
The three have been bonded in the crucible of new riderhood, sharing transformative experiences: riding on the street for the first time, taking their maiden rides on the highway, hearing people shout approval at them.
"I think what probably sold me is I was riding down Lighthouse with my husband, and some girl shouted, ''You go for it!''" recalls Hernandez. Six months ago the 22-year-old nurse''s aide bought her Ninja as part of "a couple thing" on the day her boyfriend proposed. Now she wants to get her windshield airbrushed and start a club called Girlie Girl Riding. This idea meets with a lukewarm response from her fellows, but that does not seem to deter the willful Hernandez.
For 24-year-old Care Brown, riding has nourished a late-blooming, slowly ripening tomboyhood. She describes her youth as a "fou fou" affair focused on dolls and frills. Now, she says, "I''m being more reckless. I want to take the racing course at Laguna. I remember telling Elena, ''I don''t ever want to do a wheelie.'' Now I want to."
The attention isn''t half bad, either. As we talk inside the coffee shop, two good-looking men pause on the sidewalk to check out the three bikes.
"There, out the window," says Brown, sitting up and pointing. "See, that right there is the reason to buy a bike. People stop and look at it. Anytime a woman is doing something guys usually do, it gets attention."
If riding has given Hernandez a hobby to share with her husband and opened the door to Brown''s competitive instincts, it''s emancipated Deena Bennett from a vague confinement. Numerous tattoos and piercings notwithstanding, the 31-year-old single mother "never thought" she could own or ride a bike. "Girls didn''t ride bikes in Utah," she says. But she loved riding as a passenger. She got her first pipe burn--that mark of distinction found on the left calves of many a rueful passenger--when she was six. Now she''s calling the shots.
"I''m not sitting on the sidelines not having fun," she explains. "I can get on my bike and go for a ride if I want to. I don''t have to wait for anybody to come get me."
And then she says the one thing that it seems a lot of these women have said in so many words, with their engines racing and their tail lights blurring and their intimate knowledge of just how fast is too fast. She looks across the table and says bluntly, "It just makes you feel like you''re not missing anything anymore.