Don't dare call them biker chicks – they're a sisterhood on two wheels, as Kirsten Warner finds

A throaty rumble, a flash of chrome and a bunch of beautiful and expensive motorcycles take off from Kumeu. Helmets on, it's hard to tell all 11 riders are women.

This is International Female Ride Day and the net value of the chrome and engineering is worth a couple of annual salaries. It's a Friday so the stopover at the Puhoi Hotel is noticed only by some admiring tourists.

A weekend would have been different, says ride captain on the day, Jeni Hart.

"The Puhoi pub is the mecca for bike riders and was one of the most daunting experiences when I first started riding. Turning up there on your bike, you have all eyes on you and you had better get it right."


You wouldn't call these women bikies or biker chicks. They're not riding pillion, they're not associates of an outlaw gang. Nor would most of them ever be photographed in sexy underwear draped over motorcycles owned by men.

No, these women are taking charge on two wheels, most of them on bikes weighing more than 250kg.

According to Land Transport Safety Authority figures, in the past 10 years the overall number of licensed motorcyclists has increased only slightly, females by 5.7 per cent, males by only 1.8 per cent. Men still account for 81 per cent of all licensed riders.

Learner licences for females though, have gone up by 57 per cent, compared with a 44 per cent increase for males. Women are an important demographic for motorcycle companies such as Harley-Davidson and Triumph, which market lifestyle as much as sport and speed.

"I'm sure our loud bikes turn heads but girls on Harleys are more commonplace today than ever before," says Jeni. She's 49, from Woodhill, a former model and Plunket nurse who runs Babybuds, a baby gift company.

She bought her 1994 FXLR Low Rider Custom three years ago, as the Sportster most females ride wouldn't be large enough for her 1.8m frame. It's a near-classic, easy handling 1340cc Harley-Davidson with custom seat, T-bars, chain driven, worth around $12,000 and weighing around 250kg. She loves it so much she bought a 1993 anniversary model as a collectable.

Like men, women ride for fun, freedom and control, she says. "There is no better feeling than starting up a big block Harley and hearing that distinctive sound, putting on your leathers and hitting the highway with your mates, taking corners at greater speeds than you can in a cage [car], having the wind in your face.

"Your mind is on nothing else but the motor, the gear changes, the angle you take the corners, the pack you're riding with. When you get to your destination, it seems like the ride wasn't long enough."

You are more alert, more alive, in a kind of meditative state where the only sound you hear is your own bike, says Alina Sanson, 40, from Herne Bay, who works in apparel branding. "The first time I was a pillion passenger, I said to my partner 'We should get an intercom so we can talk'. He just looked at me and said 'No way. That's why we ride bikes'."

Bike culture becomes a never-ending source of fascination. Some women tinker. They Facebook, Tweet, drool over, buy accessories for, quote model numbers and names. For some, like for some men, their bikes are pampered love-objects not to be parked around town. But there are still a few obvious differences between male and female riders.

Donna Moody, 54, manager of Tony's Restaurant, from Ranui, is a diminutive 1.574m.

"Oh my gosh, every man I meet, their jaw drops when they realise I ride a bike. It drops even further when they see it and realise it's 800cc."

Donna is a mother, grandmother and nurturer who rides a 245kg, $14,000, M50 Suzuki Boulevard. There was no man in her life and she'd never even ridden pillion when she decided women on bikes looked cool.

"I thought, obviously, this was a mid-life crisis. By the time I turn 50 I'll own a Harley and I'm going to ride it. Well I don't have the Harley, but I have this instead."

She initially bought a 250cc cruiser, and took off on her own to Wellington. "I'd never experienced anything so cold in my entire life."

Her children agreed it was a mid-life crisis. "I'd always been a mum, a homemaker, not a leather-wearing, motorbike-riding, crazy lady. They still worry if I go on a road trip, but they're all adults with their own families and realise this is what their mother wants to do."

Donna's father was killed on his motorbike when she was 10, so her mother was worried. "But now she says, 'Oh, you're just like your father'."

Donna moved up too soon, bought an 800cc Suzuki Boulevard C50T - a big, black retro-looking bike with white wall tyres and saddlebags. The third time she dropped it was doing a slow turn on her mother's driveway.

Two surgeries later, for a shoulder repair and spinal fusion, she was back on a 250cc before trading up to 800cc. "I've got five children. I knit, I sew, I preserve and I have a vege garden. But when I started to ride it was totally just for me."

You don't have to go far to find a connection between motorbikes and sex. Men like to imagine women riders have a higher libido, are more sexually active and available.

As Alina says, there's something mysterious about women on motorbikes, especially if men don't ride themselves. And a bit sexy? "Yes, a little bit out of the norm."

Do women find male riders sexy? Jeni laughs: "I can't say I've noticed. They're as rare as hens' teeth." Is bike riding sexy for women? "No way, it's the opposite, it's not about being attractive to men. That's not why I ride; riding is about empowering me as a woman."

Anecdotally, some male riders and motorcycle clubs still don't take women seriously, they don't even consider women. But most of the women on the Puhoi ride have found men encouraging and supportive.

Jeni has been road-riding for four years, although she grew up riding farm bikes. She learned a lot from her male partner and other men. "I love getting to places and just talking bikes. I'm obsessed.

I have always preferred male company so I am in heaven at our bike stops."

Jeni has since discovered the pleasures of sisterhood. As has Donna, although she says, "Sometimes I actually feel intimidated by riding with women.

"I guess when you're out with a group of men you feel that you're the woman and if anything goes wrong they'll be there to take care of you. When you ride with women, you feel you have to be really independent and show it."

Dawn Kemp, 50, a dressmaker from Te Kauwhata, started riding as a teen - her mother, 67, is still riding. Dawn wears a girly, pink-embroidered, fringed leather jacket and rides the biggest bike of the day, an 1800cc M109, the most powerful cruiser Suzuki has ever produced.

It has the girth of a large horse and the power of medium-sized car (her car is only 1200cc). "People look at me and say 'You must be very strong'. Well, I'm not picking it up! If I drop it I'm in shit-street."

It's not a racing model. "I've done the ton but only once." That's 100mp/h or 160km/h. Dawn is not tall, so her husband lowered the beast 7.6cm, brought the handlebars forward, fitted aftermarket exhaust for more leg room and boards instead of pegs.

Her last bike was blinged-up with diamantes, whereas this one has only a couple of tasteful silver flames, a tiny pin-up girl on the saddlebag and pink LEDs. She'd like to re-paint the red stripe pink, but hubby put his foot down.

Alina Sanson met a bloke who was into bikes three years ago and started riding pillion. "I always wanted to ride but with a very busy life of kids, work and living behind a typical white picket fence I just never had the time. So it looks like a mid-life crisis but it wasn't. It was that suddenly I had time to live the life I wanted."

She rides "a little 883cc Sportster Harley - she's a pretty little thing. I call her my bratster."

Alina also owns a Heritage Softail Harley, a big-bagger (saddlebags) good for two-up and touring. "That's 1450cc with a 108cc kit in it, which gives it power close to 1800cc - it's a big, big bike."

She spotted it at a classic bike auction. "I got there at the beginning and started on the champagne and by the end of the night I had a big Softail Heritage to bring home."

Valued at $23,000 she paid $10,500. "I didn't have a licence, couldn't ride a bike, I thought that's minor detail, at least I have a bike."

Around the city Alina wear jeans, T-shirt and a leather vest in summer, high boots in winter. "I don't like looking like a biker chick, I like to take off my jacket and you wouldn't even know I was riding a bike."

Donna wears weatherproof Kevlar gear. "I'm completely and fully covered every time I leave the house, there's not one bit of me that hasn't got some sort of armour."

Jeni dresses for safety and comfort - leather boots from the US ($450) Kevlar-lined jeans ($300) and a good-quality, full-faced helmet ($800).

The helmet is the great equaliser. As Dawn says, "helmet hair is a bitch." She opts for a number four crew cut in summer, a bit of curl for winter. No one admits to a hairdryer in the saddlebag. Tyre repair kit, yes, toolkit, purse, wet-weather gear, moisturiser. Dawn has a cozy, plug-in heat suit and customised saddlebags: this girl's gotta shop. Donna takes her knitting.

Alina carries some beer or wine, a bikini, towel, scarf, extra layers. "Always got a lippie or gloss and makeup, just in case."

Jeni is one woman who knows how to use her tool kit. "Forget Fifty Shades of Grey! My night time reading is a Clymer manual on my bike model." She buys best quality tyres (Metzeler) and does some of her own maintenance.

Jeni rides more routinely than others. "My worst experience is not having a bike to ride. It's like I've lost my arms and legs. I honestly get withdrawals from riding. I must be addicted to the adrenalin rush.

"I am very lucky to live in the northwest of Auckland with great roads for motorcycles. We love signs that say 'windy road ahead next 5km'.

"My dad rode a BSA, my grandmother rode her father's Indian and my children both ride motocross bikes. I will ride until I don't have the strength to haul my bike up off the kick stand."