Grace Beahm // The Post and Courier
Nancy Ward is a member of the Patriot Guard Riders. The group pays respects to fallen military members by shielding their families from protests and other interruptions at funerals.
Holly Sellers was 10 when she inherited her brother's old dirt bike. When she was about 20, her place was on the back of her boyfriend's motorcycle. At 30, she bought a Harley-Davidson 883 ELC Sportster, a small, agile motorcycle marketed to females.
"I just really wanted to be in control," Sellers said. "It's a risky sport to ride a motorcycle. And to ride on the back, you are putting yourself in someone else's hands.
Sellers prefers riding solo.
"It's so much easier to jump on a bike and go, rather than coordinate your stops. Who has to get gas? Who is hungry and who is not? It's sort of a mental health thing. I can just zone out and think about things. I know whenever I stop, I am going to make a new friend."
There are 189,428 licensed motorcycle drivers in South Carolina, including 19,452 females, according to the state Department of Motor Vehicles. In 2007 there were 15,781 female motorcycle license holders. The number of females has increased each year.
Females, once expected to ride on the back of motorcycles, if at all, now are taking control of them. The number of female motorcycle owners, or primary riders, increased by 52 percent from 2003 to 2008, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council.
In August, Sellers attended the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota, which draws about 500,000 people annually. She won the trip in a Q1045 and Harley-Davidson contest.
Sellers traveled there over five days on a rented 2011 Road King, a much larger bike than her own. She took camping gear, a computer and other basic necessities.
She went from Charleston to Knoxville, Tenn., to St. Louis, Mo., to Paduca, Ky., to Omaha, Neb., to Sioux Falls, S.D., and on to Sturgis. Her only regret is not having had a few more weeks to travel on through Montana, Utah and Washington state.
Sellers, who owns Absolute Property Solutions and Admit One Event Services , said many women have the desire and talent to ride, but are intimidated because biking has always been a man's world.
Maria Rivers, a sales executive at Harley-Davidson in North Charleston, sees many of the women who purchase their own bikes. Like other sources, she said the numbers are increasing.
They include young women, military women and middle-aged women who have been in a controlling personal relationship.
The first-time female buyer is a lot more analytical than men tend to be, Rivers said. It would not be unusual for a woman to visit the dealer's showroom 12 to 15 times before selecting a bike. Most are attracted to sports models because they are lightweight, yet have more torque than many larger bikes. In addition, they are marketed to females, because they are smaller.
"It's all about ergonomics for women," Rivers said. "When a woman sits on the bike that's right for her, she'll know it and she'll buy it." One bike that appeals to females is the Harley-Davidson Switchback, a touring bike, low to the ground and compatible with the female biker's center of gravity, she said.
The company's Switchback has joined the pink Cadillac as a status symbol for top-performing Mary Kay beauty consultants. The company introduced a pink one to its sales force in August with a cloud of smoke, a rumble and pyrotechnics.
Rich Hartnett, a sales consultant at American Biker in Ladson, said half the females who shop there are shopping alone. The others often are accompanied by a husband or boyfriend who rides.
Most of his female customers buy a Harley-Davidson, Hartnett said. Many of the rest buy one made by one of the Japanese manufacturers.
Riding for a cause
Nancy Ward, a member of the Patriot Guard Riders, has been riding for two years. When she started riding with the group that shields families of fallen military members from protests at funerals, she did not own a motorcycle. Then, she went on a memorial run to Harleyville on the back of a friend's bike. Like many other women, Ward decided she'd rather be in control.
"Within a month or two I signed up for the motorcycle safety class at Trident Technical College and bought a bike within a month after that," said Ward, a Charleston County school secretary and bookkeeper. At 44, she purchased a Kawasaki Vulcan 800, a big red-and-black bike, that's not thought of as a girl's bike.
"I wear a leather jacket and vest and chaps" in cooler weather, Ward said. "I always wear motorcycle boots."
Over the three years she has been a member of the Patriot Guard Riders, Ward said more and more females are riding their own bikes on the group's missions. But, she also wants to ride with more women when she's just out for recreation.
"I do think that unless you ride, there is no way to understand why we ride. You just have a feeling of being free and there is just no other way to get that feeling.
"It really just soothes your mind when you get out there. You would think that it would be stressful because you have to deal with traffic. But, if you are having a really stressful day, sometimes getting out there on that bike makes it all go away.
In 1987, Faye Holmes' father used to take her on his silver-colored Harley. The two would ride across the train tracks in their hometown of Orlando.
"I felt the rush," she said. " 'Go faster daddy! Go faster!' It was very adventurous. It was like father-and-daughter fun for us."
But her father would never let her take control, said Holmes, a massage therapist and phlebotomy teacher.
In 2004, Holmes, now president of BLACK KATZ motorcycle club, asked her husband to teach her to ride his bike. He tried teaching her twice, then gave up. So, she went out and bought her own bike, a 2004 Suzuki 600. The self-described fast learner already knew what type of bike she needed from trying out her husband's.
The style of her Suzuki is what attracted her, she said. It was very big and bulky.
One day while her husband was fishing, his cousin taught to her to ride.
"It only took me 45 minutes to learn how to ride. I learned in Forest Hill subdivision. He took me out on Dorchester to Ashley Phosphate, down Rivers Avenue and back around to Dorchester. I loved it. We rode up on him (her husband) at the boat landing while he was fishing. He was so amazed and shocked."
From November to February, the Florida native rides on sunny days because the weather usually is too cold. In other months, she rides three days a week, often with members of her co-ed club of 10 females and three males.
When her motorcycle's engine starts to rev, Holmes becomes Lady Eyez. She's someone who won't have to ask a man to make the bike go faster. Like more and more women these days, it's all in her hands.
From the Motorcycle Industry Council
--Women own nearly 1 in 9 motorcycles.
--In 2009, there were 11 million motorcycles in the United States, and women owned 1,155,000. That year, 27 million people operated motorcycles, and 7.3 million were women.
--Among female motorcyclists, 40 percent are married, 36 percent have college or post-graduate degrees and 25 percent are in business or health care.
Motorcycle information for women
--In South Carolina, those 15 and older may take the Department of Motor Vehicle's vision and knowledge tests to obtain a beginner's permit to practice. Those who have the permit can drive from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. (8 p.m. during daylight savings time).
--The beginner's permit is good for one year and can be renewed an unlimited number of times.
--A license to drive a passenger vehicle does not permit the driver to operate motorcycles.
--For more information, visit www.scdmvonline.com.
Trident Technical College offers motorcycle safety classes, typically 40 percent female: basic for those with no bike and basic for those with a bike, $239; intermediate for those with limited experience, $139; experienced, $79; and advanced, $99. For information, call Steve Price, 574-6683 or visit www.tridenttech.edu/ce_23357.htm. To register, call 574-6152.
Harley-Davidson's entry-level safety class, "The Riders Edge" is monthly for $225. For information, call Jim Pascarella at 554-1847.