Monday, November 19, 2007

When it comes to motorcycling, sisters have always been doin’ it for themselves

by Mark Gardiner

In recent years, the Motorcycle Safety Foundation has reported that almost half of the students in most new rider training classes are women. But history shows that there have always been avid, expert female motorcyclists. Here are five famous female riders who are truly “old school.”

1.) Linda Dugeau – The original “Motor Maid”
In the ‘30s, there was an association of female aviators called the “Ninety-nine Club”. This inspired Linda to form a similar association of female motorcyclists. She teamed up with Dot Robinson, a well-known competition rider, to form a club called the “Motor Maids.”
It took Linda and Dot several years to find the 50 members they needed to earn an AMA charter, but the Motor Maids were soon known for their smart uniforms, complete with white gloves. The club still exists, with branches across the U.S. and in Eastern Canada. (

2.) Dot Robinson – Sidecar champion
Dot’s father, James Goulding, was the designer of a popular line of motorcycle sidecars. When Dot’s mother went into labor with her, Goulding took her to the hospital in a sidecar. As an adult, Dot and her husband were Harley-Davidson dealers in Detroit.
When she won a Jack Pine enduro in the sidecar class, she became the first woman ever to win an AMA national competition. She rode until she was well into her 80s, often in a pink riding suit that she adopted in the 1950s, when the customary black leather outfits became associated with outlaw gangs.

3.) Linda Wallach and Florence Blenkiron – Taking the Rugged Road
Linda grew up in the 1930s, in the English midlands near the factories where BSAs and Triumphs were manufactured. Despite her early fascination with bikes and her obvious skill as a rider, she was never encouraged to pursue such an unladylike sport.
Undeterred, she studied engineering and later took her friend Florence on an epic sidecar journey across the Sahara and south all the way to Cape Town, South Africa. The women had to argue their way past French Foreign Legion outposts and face man-eating lions (luckily they weren’t woman-eaters). They rebuilt their engine in mid-journey and once pushed their rig 25 miles. They told the whole story in a popular book titled, “The Rugged Road.”
Linda later became the first woman to earn a coveted “Gold Star” for lapping the Brooklands race oval at over 100 miles an hour. In WWII she became the first woman ever to serve as a British military dispatch rider.
After the war, she moved to the U.S. where she worked as a motorcycle mechanic, eventually owning her own dealership. She wrote a popular motorcycle training manual, then moved to Phoenix where she operated a riding school. She helped found WIMA, the Women’s International Motorcycle Association. She never owned a car and rode until her eyesight failed at the age of 88. She died less than two years after giving up her beloved sport.

4.) Bessie Stringfield – The Motorcycle Queen of Miami
The American Motorcycle Association’s “Bessie Stringfield Award” is given to women who distinguish themselves in the sport of motorcycling.
As an African-American woman in the ‘30s and ‘40s, Bessie made several well-publicized cross-country rides, fearlessly taking on both racists and sexists. She was frequently denied accommodation and there are pictures of her sleeping right on her motorcycle. Once, she was run off the road. Those experiences didn’t dim her patriotism however – during WWII she served as the U.S. military’s first female dispatch rider.
Bessie was truly a larger-than-life character. She once disguised herself as a man to win a dirt track race. She said she’d owned 27 Harley-Davidsons and one Indian. She owned up to no less than six husbands, too.

5.) Marjorie Cottle – Rode in motorcycling’s real “Great Escape”
Marjorie Cottle was one of the first female competitors in the International Six Day Trial, which is often called “the Olympics of motorcycling.”
In 1939, the ISDT was held in Nazi-controlled Austria in the last few days before England declared war on Germany. That year, Britain sent both a civilian and a military team to compete. After four days, when it seemed that war could break out at any minute, British officials told the civilian team to return to England immediately. Cottle refused to leave and competed on the fifth day alongside the British Army team. When they too were ordered to abandon competition, Cottle and the Army team rode their motorcycles to neutral territory in Switzerland.

Next week, we’ll post the stories of five contemporary riders who lend a whole new meaning to the phrase “fast woman!”

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About the author

Mark Gardiner is an internationally acclaimed motorcycle journalist, the subject of a documentary film, “One Man’s Island” and the author of “Riding Man”, an account of his struggle to qualify for—and survive—the world’s most dangerous motorcycle race.

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