LOS ANGELES — They rumble by night, these bikers.
Dressed in heavy leather jackets and gloves, long hair streaming from under their helmets, they straddle smoking black-and-chrome motorcycles, waiting for the signal.
Finally, it comes: “All right, ladies. Let’s ride!”
On a hot Tuesday night, Stacie B. London had come to Silver Lake’s Casbah Cafe to meet her East Side Moto Babes riding club for their weekly cruise.
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London is one of a growing number of women who have taken up the sport with vigor. More than ever, researchers say, women are riding motorcycles.
They are designers, fitness instructors, insurance agents and artists, a mixed community of gay and straight, single and married, young and old.
Female motorcycle owners made up 12 percent of the U.S. motorcycle market in 2012, up from 8 percent in 2009, the Motorcycle Industry Council said. The number of female riders rose from 4.3 million in 2003 to 6.7 million in 2012.
Those numbers are crucial to motorcycle manufacturers, as they represent the largest growth segment in an industry that has stalled since the recession.
Companies, in response, are producing smaller, lighter bikes, more suitable for female riders, and featuring more women in their ads — riding the bikes, not decorating them.
Industry leader Harley-Davidson has been particularly aggressive in pursuing women, perhaps because about 10 percent of its dealerships nationwide are owned by women. Last week the company — the top seller of motorcycles to women in America — unveiled a pair of “Ultra Low” street cruisers that sit closer to the ground and have a shorter reach to the handlebars, which have narrower grips for smaller hands. The company’s online photo gallery for its new Road Glide cruiser features no men among the female riders.
“Our job is to get more women into the sport of motorcycling,” said Claudia Garber, director of women’s outreach marketing for Harley. “And it’s working. We are selling more motorcycles to women than all our competitors combined.”
Honda has doubled its market share of female riders in the past five years, as a result of “the introduction of bikes that better fit women,” the company said, such as its lightweight line of 250cc and 500cc sport motorcycles. Almost a third of all CTX700 and CTX700N medium-weight cruiser sales are to women, Honda said.
Moto Babes founder London may be representative of the new female rider. The daughter of a Hughes Aircraft mechanical engineer and an English teacher, she grew up in Culver City racing sailboats, playing Little League and competing on soccer teams.
She always wanted to ride but didn’t want to upset her parents, who told her, “You’re not getting a bike.”
It wasn’t until she had a master’s degree, a job and her own home that finally, at 36, she bought a classic 1969 BMW R60.
Within two years, she’d bought a racing bike, taken racing classes and started competing. Between shifts as an exhibition designer at downtown Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art, she started going on group rides with the Cretins Motorcycle Club and other all-male riding clubs.
When they wouldn’t let her join, London founded her own club, which soon attracted other women who sought the same camaraderie. The East Side Moto Babes’ weekly rides now often draw several dozen riders — including men.
“Suddenly, there was this community,” London said.
Ana Llorente, a designer and arts teacher born in Venezuela, was East Side Moto Babe No. 2. Like London, she loved riding with the boys, but she felt intimidated.
“I was terrified I was going to drop my bike,” said Llorente, who splits her time between San Francisco and Highland Park. “It’s nice to be in an environment where it’s OK to be vulnerable.”
“They’ve created a place where women can feel cool and safe at the same time,” said motorcycle rider and racer Susanna Schick, who blogs under the name Pinkyracer.
Some men feel that, too.
“It’s a group without any benchmark for brand or displacement,” observed veteran rider James Pluta, who often attends the Tuesday night rides. “It’s about the joy of riding — not cornering skill or how far can you wheelie on the 101.”
On the Tuesday night in Silver Lake, London and Llorente were joined by Venice yoga teacher Toni DiVincenzo, who rode up on a 750cc Triumph, and Beth Whitfield, a construction director for Trader Joe’s, riding a vintage Honda CB550. Kristen Rademacher, a clothing designer, rolled up on a Ducati 696cc Monster. Traci Zycha, account manager for an insurance company, arrived on a KTM.
Even more than male riders who love the speed, power and pure exhilaration of motorcycling, the women are empowered astride a bike.
“It’s such a cliche, DiVincenzo said. ”But it feels like pure freedom.“
”There is a great sense of power and strength,“ said Bernadette Murphy, a Silver Lake writer and writing teacher who fell in love with the sport three years ago while researching biking for a book.
Now she owns a Harley.
”I was immediately hooked,“ she said. ”Riding a motorcycle told me I was stronger than I thought I was.“
London, like Llorente and Whitfield, trained with the Westside Motorcycle Academy, one of the few female-owned Motorcycle Safety Foundation-approved rider schools in the country, and the only one in Southern California.
Founded in 2005 by Erika Willhite and Amanda Cunningham, the riding school has put 20,000 students through training courses. Many are women.
”Women are the fastest-growing demographic in motorcycling, moving from the back of the bike to the front,“ Willhite said. ”And they do really well in the class. They pay attention. They follow direction. Men may feel this pressure to seem like they know everything. Not women."
Willhite and Cunningham boast among their graduates a number of Hollywood names — including singer Alanis Morissette and actress Cody Horn (”Magic Mike“) — and on a recent weekend, actress Michelle Rodriguez (”Avatar“ and ”Fast and Furious 6“) stopped by for a lesson.
Dressed in full biker kit, Rodriguez puffed nervously on an e-cigarette while straddling a motorcycle.
”I’ve always been a tomboy, and I love extreme sports, and I make action movies,“ the small, scrappy actress said. ”I always thought it would be freeing to ride a bike, and I thought, ’I’m 35. I gotta do it now!’“
Since she started riding, London has fallen hard a few times — in the dirt, in the desert, at the track and on the street.
Two years ago she was rear-ended on the freeway at night — a hit-and-run that crushed her bike, sent her to the hospital and left her with stitches, skin grafts and a concussion. Last March, a T-bone collision in Silver Lake mangled her bike again and left her with a broken clavicle, two chipped teeth, multiple contusions and nine stitches on her ankle.
With her beloved BMW still in the shop, London was traffic-directing instead of riding at a late July Moto Babes ride-out.
Standing in a Hollywood parking lot while 40 bikers revved their engines, London called out, ”Remember the rules! The point is to stay together, have fun and arrive safely."