Biker chick Jeri Leonard parks her Harley-Davidson motorcycle in her bedroom during the winter. She was very happy earlier this month when temperatures reached into the 80s and she was able to take it for a ride“It’s a true feeling of freedom,” said the Hampden resident, who has had her motorcycle license for 11 years. “It’s just you and the road.”
Leonard, who owns a 1,200 cc Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200 Custom, is one of a growing number of female bikers in Maine who are hitting the streets on two wheels.
“There are a lot more girls,” she said with a smile on her face and the sun glistening off her dark sunglasses. She said that before she got her license at age 24, “it never occurred to me that I could. It wasn’t a girl thing to do.”
Now, she couldn’t imagine life without her motorcycle.
Area motorcycle businesses, those that sell motorcycles and others that train operators to ride safe, along with motorcycle groups and law enforcement, have noticed an increase in women who ride.
“It’s not just a male thing anymore,” Stephen Seccareccia, sales associate for 3D Cycles of Bangor, said Wednesday. “More women are taking to it. I think technology has helped with that … It’s also just cool and girls are cool.”
3D Cycles specializes in sport bike, or “crotch rocket” style, motorcycles and apparel.
Central Maine Harley-Davidson in Hermon also has seen an increase in sales to women, to the tune of 20-25 percent, according to Clark Sproul, one of several owners of the family-run business.
“We sure have [seen an increase],” he said. “It’s been going on now for the past two years, ever since we started the riders program.”
The rider program “is a class that will put you on a motorcycle, even if you’ve never sat on a bike, and teach you how to ride and will teach you the mechanics of the motorcycle,” Sproul said.
Women riders “want a little more freedom,” he said. Harley-Davidson recognized a few years back that women were an untapped market and began building bikes for biker chicks — and created a clothing line called Pink, he said.
The Hermon dealership is the sponsor of the Ladies of HOG, short for Harley Owners Group, a local ladies riders group.
Another riders group, the STAR Touring and Riding Association, was chartered earlier this month in Bangor and is sponsored by Friend and Friend in Orono.
Chapter president Vicky Blanchette is one of only 11 female presidents in the international organization, which has 285 chapters based mostly in the United States, Canada and Europe.
Blanchette started riding as a teenager 30 years ago on a 1976 Puch, and nowadays can be seen riding a 2009 Yamaha V-Star 1,300 cc touring cycle.
“I was 15 riding on it, singing ‘Born to be Wild,’” she said. “I still have that moped. It’s in my garage.”
After buying her Yamaha she was given a year’s membership with STAR and after doing a little research decided to organize Maine’s second chapter. The other chapter is located in Portland.
“It’s really built on having fun riding and doing good charity work in your community,” she said.
The new Bangor chapter has 36 members. About a third are female riders.
The stereotypical motorcycle owner is changing, said Chief Deputy Troy Morton of the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Department, a 20-year motorcycle enthusiast who rides a 2008 Harley-Davidson Street Glide.
There are more female riders in Maine, he said, adding, “I think it’s a great thing.”
The number of registered motorcycles in Maine has doubled in the past decade, from 25,604 in 1998 to 51,414 in 2008, according to figures from the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. How many of those are female is not known.
Two local driving schools, A and J Motorcycle Safety School in Bucksport and Bair’s Driving School in Bangor, have seen more women taking classes.
“I’ve got the only female instructor in town,” Jim Bair said of motorcycle instructor Ellen White. “She rides and she teaches.”
Bair said about 10 percent of those taking his motorcycle safety classes are female.
Terry Atwood, A and J instructor for the past five years, said there is no doubt in his mind that more females are driving motorcycles.
“Two seasons ago we had more females than males,” he said. “Last season, we had three classes that were all female.”
Most of his female clients have been motorcycle passengers who have decided to learn to drive, he said.
“I’ve had several mother-daughter teams who want to ride as a family,” Atwood said, adding that, “I’ve also had a few males come in and say, ‘I‘m taking the class so I can do more with my wife or girlfriend.’”
Bangor resident Charlie Sargent has been riding bikes for 20 years and has taught four female friends to ride.
“One of my best riding buddies is a girl,” he said. “She was sick of riding on the back.”
The liberating feeling Leonard gets from operating her bike is too incredible to describe, she said. She likes to feel the wind blowing through her hair and the thrill of the open road, especially if it’s curvy.
Last year she rode to Tennessee to ride the Dragon’s Tail, a twisty trip along Route 129 situated just below the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and crosses into North Carolina.
“It has 318 turns in 11 miles,” she said, adding she logged around 8,000 miles on her bike last year.
She said riding motorcycles runs in the family.
“My gram drove back and forth to work and I rode with my gramps right up until he was 83,” she said. “That’s the year he died. It was inspirational.”
Those who catch up with her might find Leonard riding with her uncle, her brother or one of her many motorcycle-riding friends.
“I can’t imagine anything else,” she said. “I love to ride.”