'It's exploded': Female riders fastest growing motorcycle market

Heather Thomas has been riding motorcycles for nearly four decades. She's ridden across Canada, throughout the United States and Australia.

‘I come from the days when females were — pardon the phrase — the bitch on the back’

Heather Thomas says she's seen interest in motorcycling explode amongst women since she started riding 37 years ago. (Heather Thomas)

Heather Thomas has been riding motorcycles for nearly four decades. She's ridden across Canada, throughout the United States and Australia.

Her daughter rides a motorcycle. 

In recent years, she's witnessed an influx of women learning to ride.

"It's exploded," Thomas said. "I know so many [women] that ride that just a few years ago I may have known them, but they didn't ride motorcycles. Now they do."

That's a different picture from what Thomas said she experienced when she first got on a motorcycle to avoid the long trip on the school bus from her farm home in Castor, Alta., east of Red Deer.

"I come from the days when females were — pardon the phrase — the bitch on the back," Thomas said. "I come from that background, so you learned to deal with that. It's changed significantly, it's not like that anymore."

The guys that we were riding went, 'OK so you girls can ride motorcycles,' and went, 'yeah, so keep up!- Heather Thomas

Marketing to women

The industry is also taking notice of the popularity of motorcycling among women.

As the annual motorcycle and ATV show rolls into Edmonton Friday, the events kick-off with the She Rides event aimed at women.

Kawasaki launched the event five years ago as part of its plan to prioritize marketing to women.

"Within the last 10 years it's been the largest growing segment within the motorcycle industry," said Brad Goodbody, manager of marketing.

"Previously, the female riders were few and far between, but in the past 10 years or so there's been a real movement out there."

​A survey released in November 2018 by the Motorcycle Industry Council in the United States found one in five motorcyclists are women, nearly double the percentage in 2009. 

Johanna Poultney started The Litas, a women's motorcycle group, in Edmonton in 2015. (Andy Dawson)

"Companies like Kawasaki are providing bikes into the Canadian market that have a lower seat height, they're lighter-weight, not as big engines," Goodbody said.

"That makes it more approachable for all riders, but especially for women who tend to have a bit of a shorter inseam."

Thomas said she's also noticed in recent years companies have worked at providing a broader range of styles that might better appeal to women.

Thomas has ridden her motorcycle throughout Canada, the U.S. and Australia. (Heather Thomas)

"Even the coloured apparel, from the pink helmets to blues and yellows and greens, whereas when I first started it was black or black," she said.

Though she rides alongside many more women now, she said attitudes are sometimes hard to change.

Two summer ago, she and a female friend were invited on a trip with a group of men to ride through B.C.

"We got a whole bunch of old-school boys riding motorcycles there and as soon as we pulled up we got the eye rolls," Thomas said.

But once the ride started their attitude shifted.

"As we got into B.C. we pulled over for fuel and the guys that we were riding went, 'OK so you girls can ride motorcycles,' and went, 'Yeah, so keep up!'" she said.

"You did run into that and you still run into that, but it's a different time and it's a different era."

'Women are standing out more'

In 2015, when Johanna Poultney formed an Edmonton chapter of The Litas, an international group for female motorcyclists that started in Salt Lake City, she only knew two other women who rode motorcycles.

Now, she said, she knows hundreds.

"Women motorcyclists have gained a lot of publicity," Poultney said.

"Women are standing out more, taking more photos riding. There's also a lot more events for women that ride that are showing up and all-women motorcycle rallies, so that has definitely helped encourage more women to get on motorcycles."

This year Poultney studded up the tires on her Harley and took her first winter ice road trip, 1,000 kilometres through Wood Buffalo National Park.

Riding in frigid temperatures was worth it, she said.

"You're experiencing the whole environment around you," Poultney said. "You can smell the smells and feel the air, and feel the atmosphere. It's really cool when you see wildlife because you're so present. Everything else melts away."