We speak to three women from different riding backgrounds to get the inside story on their passion for Harley-Davidson
Sian Flavell has been riding since 2001. In 2005 she joined the team at Chester Harley-Davidson® and caught the custom bug, working on various projects. She’s currently manager in the MotorClothes® department at West Coast Harley-Davidson.
Vicki Green is the H.O.G.® media co-ordinator and is actively involved in member events. A long-term Harley-Davidson fan, she’s been riding since 2014.
Meanwhile, Gemma Harrison has been riding for eight years and co-runs motorcycle collective VC London. Part custom workshop and part event series, its aim is to engage and encourage the female riding fraternity.
We caught up with them to get the lowdown…
Gemma Chapman (photo: Sarah Emma Smith)
Why do you think Harley-Davidson has female appeal as a brand compared with other motorcycle companies?
SF: Harley has attracted female riders right from the start – Bessie Stringfield rode across the US solo in 1911. Other motorcycle companies still seem to focus on the big boys’ club, which doesn’t attract female riders. As well as the ability to customise your Harley® to your style and taste, rather uniquely, they also have a wide range of tailored rider wear and apparel that really fits women’s various shapes. You don’t get that choice with other manufacturers.
VG: I think there are two main reasons Harley appeals to women. Firstly, the riding style. Many women have a higher awareness of risk and are not drawn to getting their knee down and riding super fast (admittedly this is a broad generalisation, there are of course exceptions!). So, the relaxed 'ride your own ride' attitude of Harley, and finding your own version of 'freedom' on the open road is hugely appealing. Furthermore, many ride-outs are in groups, so there’s a social factor involved!
Secondly, Harley offers super accessible methods of customising your ride and your gear to suit your personality. There are easy means of changing elements of your ride so it’s completely individual. The amount of customisation can vary from a few decorative parts to huge engine overhauls and a whole new paint scheme. There aren't many motorcycle brands where you can buy off-the-shelf parts, fit them yourself, and make your bike unique. That 'mix and match' option also means you can continue to update both as your style evolves.
GH: I think Harley has an ‘everyone’ appeal, not just a female appeal. The heritage and history behind the brand make it part of most people’s dream of riding a motorcycle (what rider hasn't ever said they'd love to cross America on an H-D®!). Personally, I've found Sportsters® to be popular among a lot of female riders I know, due to their low seat height and low centre of gravity, making the weight of a bigger bike easy to handle, no matter what your height or build.
How would you describe the sense of community between female Harley riders and what benefits does it bring?
SF: They have a real spirit of adventure, a resilience and an appetite to chase the next ride, the next rally, the next chapter of their riding story. We share and support a lot too – we want to keep pushing to the front and welcome other like-minded riders. In fact, chances are, if you’re a non-Harley rider and you want to try one, we’ll be happy to sling you our keys!
Over the years I’ve met a lot of female riders, new and skilled, and we all seem to have the same mindset – ‘yeah, we can do that’. I hear a lot about how some female riders always wanted to ride but felt there were barriers in the way, whether culturally or practically. I’ve always reaffirmed that it is possible; that you should keep trying. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to do it again, and if you do, keep going! We’re the tomboys who grew up.
VG: As it stands, ladies within the Harley world are still a minority, so this really amplifies the sense of community. The existence of Ladies of Harley® (LOH) allows women the opportunity to network and connect with other ladies nationally and even globally, which gives women an opportunity to develop their own identity within the world of H.O.G. Many women, myself included, came into the world of Harley through their partner. So, by finding the wider female community, women are given the opportunity to be inspired by the journeys of others.
GH: There’s something about owning a Harley that means an automatic ticket to a massive community of riders and people who love adventure, more so than with other motorcycle brands. With that type of community comes friendship, advice and support – along with all the various rider and owners’ groups and an opportunity to experience new things with all the events that happen around the communities. Now that’s pretty special!
What can you tell us about bike customisation for women riders? And can you share your custom history?
SF: Anything is possible! If you’ve got a concept or an idea, H-D can make it happen and guide you through the real-world outcomes too. Lowering, seat sculpting, handlebars; all those ergonomic aspects are changeable to help make that bike fit your shape and riding requirements.
Performance-wise, bikes can be restricted for those who need it, but performance can also be added – this is an aspect that’s unique to Harley-Davidson. Say all of those adjustments have been done – low seat, different bars, forward foot controls and a custom paint job – only to find two years down the line you fancy something with a bit more punch. Well, you can take 883s and make them into 1200s, or add cam upgrades to Milwaukee 8s without losing all that customisation. On any other bike, you’d be starting again.
I’ve been riding since 2001 and in that time I’ve done track days, twin-shock classic trials riding, a spot of stunt riding, as well as road riding. No matter what machine I was riding, I was always attracted back to Harley-Davidson. So much so that in 2005 I joined the team at Chester Harley-Davidson and worked my way through the business, learning about parts, accessories and technical aspects, as well as customisation. In that time, I was very fortunate to have free rein on customs we were building – it was ace, building bike after bike, taking an idea and turning it into a reality, supported by Steve Creaser, the Master Tech, and an aesthetic eye from Kirk Herbert, the dealer principal. We created some pretty interesting builds, including Stroker kits and Screamin’ Eagle Drag engines into Street Glides®.
So, it wasn’t surprising that after a run of different bikes, my next project was going to be my own. I’d bought an 883R that had seen better days and took a summer to ride it out to various events, ready to do something to it through the winter of 2017 – which I did. I was very lucky to have a bench on Saturdays at Chester H-D to work at.
One thing I will say is that I did that work, and I know that bike through and through, from the whine of the fuel pump priming to the tick over; every vibration and engine note. I know when something’s not right, which is a comfort as I can usually trace it and fix it. It seems people like to touch the bike, as it looks bare metal. They’ll ask if it’s mine and “who did that for you”, I love that I can say it was me. It’s now a 1200 with 1200 heads, a conversion completed in the winter of 2018. This took the bike from a meagre 50bhp to 83bhp with 82 foot pound of torque at the back wheel at 4500rpm. So he’s a bit of a flyer too!
VG: Women are getting into it! Harley has it right when it comes to customisation, because you don't have to be mechanically minded to upgrade your bike. Master Techs at dealerships are a fantastic source of knowledge as to what's available, and the impact it'll have on your ride. My own personal journey into customisation started with my first Harley, my XR1200®. I bought it with a Stage 1 upgrade and a Vance & Hines Widow X full system exhaust. The noise was unbelievable!
It also came with a unique custom paint scheme – I loved that the exhaust turned heads and the paint encouraged people to engage in conversation. From then on, I wanted to customise every Harley I owned. I never want my bikes to look 'off the shelf' and love the fact that people recognise them at rallies etc. I still own my XR1200 and have plans to buy a new set of tins and get a second custom paint scheme made up. And I've recently changed my exhaust for the Basani Road Rage 2 into 1.
My other bike is a Road Glide® Special in hard candy red featuring custom 16" apes, custom pegs, grips, covers and HT leads, custom screen, additional LED lighting, and I've just had a custom sissy bar made (it's totally in your face and TALL! But I love it!) At first, I just wanted to make my bikes loud, but the more miles I've ridden, the more I’ve learnt that my Sporty is the noise-maker and head-turner, and my Glide is the comfort machine that can mile-munch and I can stay sat on for hours!
GH: I started by tinkering with small bikes as it’s a great way to understand basic engines and cosmetic customisation, from welding to spraying. I now ride a custom bobber. I didn't build it, but it comes with a lot of maintenance, so it’s been a great way to learn about older bikes as an alternative to a full-scale build from the ground up.
Custom bikes can be great for women who want to get into riding. For instance, we get a lot of questions at VC about the height and stance of certain bikes. With custom-built bikes or bikes you can begin to customise yourself, you can tailor the bike to the right height and stance a lot of the time so it opens doors for riders who are shorter or want something lower down for instance.
What are your ambitions for engaging with female Harley riders and encouraging potential female riders?
SF: Personally, I want to see more females out there full stop, and of course more Harley riders. I think the old school misconceptions of it being a big boys’ club are fading, thanks to movements like Babes Ride out and VC here in the UK, along with LOH.
We’re also pretty visible in Harley’s advertising too, and depicted as riders, not just pillions. But having somewhere to go, to meet like-minded Harley riders, is key, as well as making us more visible as fully fledged riders. I’m now at West Coast Harley-Davidson in Glasgow and we’ve got some seriously epic roads to ride up here. I’d love to be blasting along here with a pack of female Harley riders – it’s something we’re focusing on in 2020.
We want to knowledge-share so that our female riders can get to know their bikes technically, that they can customise the bikes to fit them, and that there is a place they can come to, Harley or not, and be welcomed and supported on their own riding journey. West Coast has a fully skilled workshop for fabrication and customisation for those wanting to take the plunge.
VG: I'm super passionate about growing the LOH community! Meeting so many female H.O.G. members with massively inspiring stories really makes me want to share these far and wide in the hopes that other ladies may be inspired to get involved. There's something pretty amazing about a grandmother passing her test in her 60s!
There’s also a large number of younger female riders who are coming into Harley straight away after passing their tests. These ladies are drawn in by the community and opportunities that Harley and H.O.G. offer. Rallies and international touring, alongside female-specific events like the Sparkle Tour, are a huge draw. It gives ladies the opportunity to grow and develop their riding skills in a safe and comfortable environment with like-minded ladies.