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  • Sarah Merrell

I Almost Didn’t Become a Motorcyclist: Here’s Why

The other day my husband was attempting to organize one of our spare bedrooms that we still haven‘t unpacked in the two years following our move. While picking through the memorabilia he came across a photo album and he showed me a picture. It was me and it captured what is now a profound moment: I was about to ride on the back of a motorcycle for the first time. To say I was terrified at the prospect of riding it, even as a passenger, would be an understatement.

Today, it’s difficult for me to comprehend that girl staring wide-eyed and suspiciously at the two-wheeled machine. Back then, if you told me I would be dragging knee on a race track, I would have told you that you’re insane. It would never happen. But looking at that photo and the person I was back then, I started to wonder. Why was this machine so intimidating to me and why was it so difficult to see myself as a motorcyclist? The answer is it’s complicated.

First of all, back then—in 2006–social media was still in its infancy in many ways. Instagram didn’t exist yet, nor did influencers, in the modern sense. I knew zero women who rode their own motorcycles in both real life and on social media. I had no one as a frame of reference. Yes, there were women racers. But they didn’t achieve the publicity to where (as a non-motorcyclist) I would have seen them. However, it was more than that.

On TV and in movies and motorsports advertising, motorcyclists were always depicted as these risk-happy, speed-thirsty, adrenaline junkies or depicted as badass, hardcore bikers. I just couldn’t see myself as either one. It wasn’t me. I gravitated towards high heels, makeup and spin classes. I couldn’t match my quintessential girliness with the only riders I had ever seen: Men. I thought I would have to become someone I wasn’t in order to be a motorcyclist. Keep in mind this was before the whole “girls can do both” posts went viral.

It’s funny to me that as an equestrian who competed in national championships in eventing, this is not true in the horse world. Horseback riding is predominantly female yet has many similarities to motorcycling: You’re controlling an animal that is far more powerful and heavier than you and that garners respect—and much of the same techniques apply. You have to keep your eyes up, look where you’re going, focus, breathe, etc. But they’re also both sports that require confidence, gumption and overcoming fear and learning to get back up and try again when you fall. Yet until the day I became so uncomfortable riding on the back of the motorcycle that my husband finally told me that (surprise!) I could actually ride my own, it never dawned on me that I could. And once I realized it was a real possibility, suddenly I wanted it. Desperately.

Once I started riding, it was still an uphill battle. I considered giving up so many times. It wasn’t easy for me. Just getting the hang of the clutch was tough. I tipped over on the bike a couple times and laid it down twice in the parking lot. And once I did progress to the road there were very few women I could find to ride with so I was often at the very back of the pack hoping I wasn‘t holding the guys up too much.

Given what I’ve described so far you’re probably wondering why I didn’t give up. But that’s my point. Many women DO give up. I just happened to have a solid support system in my husband—and I was soon introduced to Women’s Sportbike Rally.

The women’s rally in 2009 was the turning point for me. All of a sudden, I had women that not only rode motorcycles but they were GOOD at riding motorcycles. I was in total awe. Many of the women (Brittany Morrow, Stephanie McIntyre, Paige Huston, Suzy Moody) were inspirations, whether or not they meant to be. For the first time I found that I didn’t have to forfeit my personality and what makes me “me” to be a skilled motorcyclist. I could be a motorcyclist just as I am. I could be slow, I could be fearful, I could like having a fresh manicure and no one looked down on me. Quite the opposite. The women accepted me with open arms. And suddenly, I had this intense desire to ride. That weekend was pivotal. It changed my life.

Today, I’m achieving milestones on my bike that I never thought I could. The me that was scared of riding on the back now goes to track days, feels confident on technical mountain roads, leads guided rides, teaches new riders, and is the editor-at-large for a motorcycle magazine. And I never had to sacrifice who I am. Sometimes I look at myself and think, “who is this woman that I thought I would never be able to become?”

2020 is nearly upon us and looking through my social media feed I love it. I follow and see so many women who are passionate about riding and who provide inspiration to so many women who may just need that little motivation to make the leap to being a rider. I also see so many of the major manufacturers catering and marketing to women now. It was a huge milestone that we had Yamaha as a sponsor for this year’s Women’s Sportbike Rally, for example. I also see more women featured in motorcycle magazines as riders and not models and more women as speakers at events. I see many women on my feed getting into racing.

Is there still progress to be made? Sure. But there has been a real change since I first started riding, and it makes me incredibly happy. There are so many amazing women riders to follow on social media now—and real life —who can help usher in the next generation of female motorcyclists. I can’t begin to communicate how thrilled I am that maybe (just maybe) women will see that being a motorcyclist doesn’t mean having to change. Femininity can be found in makeup as much as it can doing a wheelie or wrenching on your bike.

Yes, today the “girls can do both” posts are a tired concept to many people. But I, for one, will always—ALWAYS—applaud it. After all, a woman can be anything she wants to be.

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