Photos by Daniel Simmons and Tom Cabot.
“Are you a boy or a girl?” I was asked that question a lot growing up in a small Oklahoma town in the 1960s and ‘70s. In the hot summers when I was under 12, I rarely wore a shirt. I was a tomboy. I still am I suppose, as I don’t much care for wearing dresses, I like motorcycles and cars, and I’m a pretty good shot with a pistol. I also like to hang out with men. One of the things I love about riding my motorcycle is the feeling of anonymity. When I’m wearing my moto gear, I’m just a motorcyclist. People can’t tell if I’m a boy or a girl, and I like that.
When I ride with my local BMW riding group, I am often the only woman. I am also the least experienced rider in the club, having only logged about 20,000 miles in my five years of riding. These two factors contribute to my feeling a tad self-conscious about being observed when I ride, so I generally like to ride at the back of the group. This also means I won’t slow the whole group down if I feel the need to take a turn more slowly than the others.
On a cool and sunny Saturday morning in August, I embarked on a 250-mile motorcycle ride with 12 men. The ride included some beautiful backroads with lots of twisties in the Adirondacks. The historic route we took that day from Keeseville, New York, to St. Regis, was part of a 19th century toll road known as the Port Kent and Hopkinton Turnpike. Today parts of the route are known as US Highway 9 and New York Route 9N.
I met the group in Keeseville, 70 miles from my home in Vermont, where they were having their first stop and meeting a few others for breakfast. My sweetie, Tom, accompanied me for this first leg of the ride, but was not feeling like a full day of riding. After breakfast, Tom rode back to Vermont with our friend Jim, a long-time leader of our local BMW riding group.
I’m a relatively new motorcycle rider, 58 years old, strong, athletic, but I’m a life-long bicyclist, which definitely counts for something. I’ve ridden with this group of men many times and feel safe and comfortable with them. They are BMW riders after all! I ride a 2016 BMW F 800 GS Adventure and wearing full protective gear.
Normally I prefer riding at the back of the group on such rides, and talked with the group leader, Kenney, about that before we started the ride. Kenney told me Gary had the route in his GPS, and that both he and Wily were usually positioned at the back, so I could join them.
Little did I know what would soon unfold, as the group of 13 riders was quickly divided into two groups; I would be in the second group, which consisted of three riders: Gary, Wily, and myself.
Just as the group was about to depart, Gary decided to fill his gas tank at a nearby filling station, and Kenney wanted to get the ride started, so the first 10 riders took off, leaving me waiting with Wily for Gary to return with a full tank. Five or so minutes later Gary returned, and the three of us sped off to catch up with the other guys. Gary rode in first position, I was in second, and behind me was Wily, a retired F-16 pilot—and the last person on earth I wanted riding behind me.
After the obligatory wrong turn, we found the route and I settled into a nice groove, enjoying the day and trying not to think about the guy behind me. I was certain Wily had to be analyzing my every turn. I have ridden a lot of twisty roads; I live in Vermont and commute to work on a beautiful river road. I know how to press the handlebars and shift my weight in order to make the bike turn. I certainly know to look through the curve—where I want to go—when approaching a turn. I love riding, turning and leaning, but I don’t like the feeling of being watched by a 50-something hotshot pilot I suspected was wishing he were riding much faster on the freshly paved, twisty mountain roads. I wanted Wily to see me as just another rider, not a girl on her bike.
About 20 minutes into the ride, I miscalculated my speed going into a turn, attempted to slow down by downshifting—a bad idea in the middle of a turn—and promptly ran off the road, dumping the bike and landing on my right shoulder. Gary later told me we were in a short dip in the road between two higher, blind curves. He was already through the next set of turns, so my crash occurred with Wily watching from behind. Wily was one of the last people on earth I wanted to see me crash, and the one person that day I wanted to show how well a woman could ride.
Within seconds of going down, I jumped up and confirmed I wasn’t dead. My right shoulder hurt, but I could move my arm, and I quickly felt my clavicle; it was okay. The Schuberth helmet had done its job protecting my head. My BMW jacket, boots and gloves had done their jobs, and my Bohn Body Armor combined with Klim pants protected my legs for the most part. I was going to live and had no broken bones.
I took a look around and saw a straight drop down to a river five or so feet from where I landed Had I been just a bit further over, I could have ended up in the river flowing through the beautiful valley there in the Adirondack Mountains. Big breath. I was alive and I was going to get back on my bike and finish the ride.
A few other things had to happen first. Wily pulled up in front of me, parked in the only place he could (the lowest part of the road’s dip), got off his bike and quickly came over to check on me. In his rush to help me, he put his bike into first gear, but didn’t settle it before putting down the side stand. As a result, the bike rolled forward just enough to come off the kickstand. Down it went, about 10 feet in front of my bike. His helmet was now in the middle of the road between two blind curves. I dashed over to pick up his helmet and he left his bike lying there for the time being. Fortunately, we were not on a well-travelled road, and no one ran over us or our bikes while all this was going on.
Wily helped me get my bike upright, which was challenging because of the terrain, and then he started evaluating what my bike was going to need so I could ride it. Gary showed up, shocked no doubt at the scene, and revealed that while he was making the U-turn on the narrow, newly-paved road, his front wheel caught the edge of the pavement and his bike fell, upright into the swale. Gary rides a HUGE adventure bike—with engine guards, which proved invaluable—and based on his description of where it landed, it’s a good thing he is a skilled rider or we would have had even more of a mess on our hands.
Somewhere in there Wily got his bike back up, and repaired his damaged turn signal with duct tape. In the meantime, I rearranged my luggage because my aluminum side cases were damaged and one of them had come off the bike. I had some Rok Straps and Wily provided some rope to tie the lids on the side cases. Getting the right side case back on the bike took some cajoling since it was badly bent. My two buddies realigned my rear view mirrors and right hand guard, all of which had been “adjusted” when the bike went down. Nothing appeared to be broken, proving another advantage of an adventure bike: They are tough.
Occasionally a car drove by and the folks inside the cars gawked at us.
While repairs were underway I tried to digest what happened. I wondered what it was going to feel like to keep riding with my shoulder hurting like it was, and to top it all off I was getting hungry. Shouldn’t have skipped breakfast. In addition to all these thoughts and feelings, I was trying to remember how I messed up that turn. I was embarrassed, in pain and hungry, and knew it was going to be a long day. I was also determined to finish the ride.
When the bike and I were ready to go, we started out slowly to make sure the bike was okay and that I was comfortable riding. Gradually we resumed a normal speed and were on our way again. I was glad to be moving. I counted my blessings for the good fortune to be riding with two such experienced, supportive and understanding riders.
We rode an hour or so to the designated lunch spot, where we explained to the rest of the group why we were so late. I unpacked my lunch, grateful for the ice pack, which felt good on my shoulder, and gobbled up my sandwich and carrots. The ice-cold Run Wild non-alcoholic beer I packed tasted fantastic. Several of the guys came over to offer help. Philip cleaned my helmet, and Bob offered me pain medicine, which I happily took. When it was time to put my jacket back on, I could barely move my shoulder. I knew I had to keep it moving. I had another hundred miles left to go at the very least, and it was going to be a challenge. The show must go on!
Instead of being in my former-but-no-longer-favorite position at the back of the group, I was in position five after lunch, and position six after the water break. The group was riding fast, and there were plenty more twisty turns to make. I knew there were a lot of guys behind me watching. My hope was that they couldn’t tell me apart from the other riders in the group. I kept my focus, determined to keep their pace, and made it safely—adrenaline pumping the entire time—to the Essex ferry, where the ride with the group would end and I would continue on to Tom’s house.
On the ferry ride from Essex, New York, back to Vermont, Mike came over to me and said he couldn’t tell I was injured by the way I was riding. Philip, who had kindly cleaned my helmet during lunch, offered to ride with me back to Tom’s house. Several others came over to talk to me and make sure I was okay, including Gary, who congratulated me on my solid and confident riding on the return trip.
I took time during the ferry ride to reflect on what I learned that day and not just replay and regret my cornering error, which I spent some time doing, of course. I looked around at this great group of guys and realized we were all just motorcycle riders, with the common bond of loving to ride, and it dawned on me: No-one was judging me. The fact I am a girl had nothing to do with anything. I was just another motorcyclist.
Once off the ferry, I knew I had only about 20 minutes of slow, easy riding left. I had called Tom in advance to let him know what happened, and he was waiting for me with a cold gin and tonic, a bag of ice, our sweet little dog and a big hug as I pulled into his garage. I’m a lucky woman in more ways than one.