We celebrate a group of incredible women who happen to have made motorcycles central to their remarkable lives.
At the age of just 15, Susan Berg’s life changed in an instant when the boat she and her family were travelling aboard sank, with Susan the sole survivor.
What followed is a harrowing tale of survival against all odds.
The boating accident was also the catalyst for a series of events throughout her life that many people would not be able to survive; sexual abuse, drug use, domestic violence, financial ruin, cancer, and raising a child as a single parent were just some of the additional challenges Susan had to overcome in the 25 years following the horror of losing her family.
The recovery and healing processes were arduous and difficult. Along the way, Susan discovered motorcycles. From the moment she took up riding, she realised it gave her a new sense of freedom, empowerment and achievement. But it was more than that; being on her bike and riding long distances gave her the space and time to start the healing process.
“When you are on the bike and alone with your thoughts, it’s a time you get to reflect on your day-to-day life. It’s during this time that I find the healing happens,” she says with remarkable honesty.
BIKES AS THERAPY
Without a doubt, riding bikes had been an essential element to the recovery of Susan’s stability.
For Susan, riding gave back some of the most fundamental requirements for happiness: freedom, empowerment and achievement.
I’m not sure there are too many sports that can provide that as readily. But it’s more than that, as Susan found out. Being alone in her helmet gave her the time and space to think and introspect.
For more than 30 years, Susan fiercely avoided both swimming and open water – they remained her greatest fear after the drowning death of her family.
But as part of her journey of self-healing, and to encourage others to confront and overcome their own fears, she accepted a challenge to swim the world’s largest open water event – the Lorne Pier to Pub.
Susan achieved her goal of swimming the 1.2km Lorne Pier to Pub in 2017, overcoming another difficult challenge ¬– swimming “The Rip”, from Point Nepean to Point Lonsdale in treacherous Port Phillip Bay.
Susan set her sights on swimming the Everest of all swims – the English Channel – in a four-person relay.
Her team successfully swam the 34km distance from England to France on 17 August 2018.
The life of African-American motorcycling pioneer Bessie Stringfield (aka “The Motorcycle Queen of Miami”) seems like the stuff of which legends are made.
After being orphaned and adopted by an Irish woman, Bessie taught herself to ride motorcycles at 16.
In 1930, at the tender age of 19, she began riding across the United States, making seven long-distance trips including all 48 lower states, Europe, Brazil and Haiti.
With the double challenge of being of colour in a prejudicial environment, she was often refused accommodation when travelling and denied prizemoney when she won races.
Bessie served four years with the US army as a domestic dispatch rider during WWII, and owned a total of 27 Harley-Davidson machines in her lifetime. “To me, Harley is the only motorcycle ever made.” — Bessie Stringfield
AVIS AND EFFIE HOTCHKISS
While they were certainly not the first women to ride a Harley, mother and daughter Avis and Effie Hotchkiss were the first with an ambitious plan that they successfully
It was to ride across America from New York to the San Francisco World Fair and back, which they did in 1915, two full years before women were even allowed to vote.
Mum, Avis, rode in the sidecar (aka “The Bathtub”) while Effie, 22 (and something of a speed demon), rode their brand-new Harley-Davidson V-Twin the 9000 miles (approximately 14,500km) there and back. “I got a lot of non-family discouragement,” Effie recalled in her memoir.
“Decent roads would be non-existent for most of the way; there would be deserts to cross, high mountains to climb, lack of water, no repair shop, no this and no that.
“Some things there would be, such as wild animals, wilder Indians, probably floods, maybe cyclones and other offhand acts of God; until it began to sound so interesting I would not have missed it for the world.”
A few women were able to serve as dispatch riders during WWI, but many capable female riders, such as the Van Buren
sister, were rejected for no other reason than they were women.
Nevertheless, such was the publicity from the Hotchkiss women’s mammoth event that by 1920, The Motor Company was openly encouraging women with its marketing, which included a full range of women’s riding attire.
Mary McGee bought her first motorcycle in 1957, when a friend needed to sell a 200cc 1956 Triumph Tiger Cub. She knew nothing about motorcycles at that time but was willing to learn and ended up falling in love with the sport.
The Tiger Cub didn’t always start, so she traded it for a Honda C110 that she used to commute to her job as a parts manager at Flint British Motors.
In 1960, while she was racing a Porsche Spyder in Santa Barbara, California, the car’s owner, Czech race-car icon Vasek Polak, suggested to McGee’s husband that she should ride a motorcycle to improve her car-racing skills.
When he told her, McGee responded with, “Okay. Why not?”
A female road racer in the United States was a new phenomenon.
McGee was already known to be an expert car racer, but the American Federation of Motorcyclists (AFM) wanted to be sure she could also perform on two wheels, so they told her she’d first have to attend a try-out.
She passed the audition and became the first woman to road race and hold a FIM license in the United States – on a 125 Honda CB92 wearing her pink polka-dot helmet.
She raced motorcycles from 1960 to 1963.
Wes Cooley Sr. was President of AFM during this time. In 1962 Mary had earned enough points in all classes to run the #20 AFM number plate on her bike in 1963.
In 1963 at a New Year’s Eve party attended by Hollywood stars who raced both cars and motorcycles, McGee’s friend actor Steve McQueen told her “McGee, you’ve got to get off that pansy road-racing bike and come out to the desert.”
Car racer and stunt man Bobby Harris was McGee’s mentor. Her rite of passage came several months later in 1963 when Harris and other celebrity racers convinced her to enter a desert race, an AMA District 37 Enduro in Jawbone Canyon, California.
McGee rode with Bob Drake, Bobby Harris & Al Tinker. The men all rode 650cc Triumphs while Mary rode a 1962 CL72 250cc Honda Scrambler. The men promised McGee that the event would be easy, but she recalls it being anything but as she was exhausted and cold in the snow that fell.
McGee’s career highlight racing bikes in Baja was in 1975, when she rode a 250 Husqvarna solo in the Baja 500, passing 17 two-man teams.
McGee says that the hardest thing she ever did was Baja. “It was very barren, no electricity, no doctors, no phone. I carried Percodan in case of injury because you’d have to ride injured to get to someplace where someone has a car to get to Ensenada or La Paz to a clinic or back to the States.
“Luckily, I never had to use the Percodan, but I did come off the bike several times.”
McGee ended her motocross and long distance dirt racing around 1976 for several years. In 2000 after moving to Northern Nevada and meeting old motorcycle friends, she bought a 1974 250cc Husqvarna and started entering the women’s class in vintage motocross events. She started off in the over 60 class then moved on to the over 70 class a few years later.
AMY HARBURG, RODERICK EIME AND INFO MOTO TEAM