While backpacking through southeast Asia for several months, Kiersten Schilinski heard that a motorcycle could be purchased for as little as $150. When she found out that she could do it without even having a license, the deal was sealed.
There she was, a solo female traveler on her own hog in Vietnam doing something she never thought she could do. And what happened?
“I immediately fell in love,” she said.
As soon as Kiersten got back to her home in New York City, she started taking courses to obtain her riding license. She then became one of the rebels contributing to the boom in motorcycle ridership among females, which is now at an all-time high.
In 2014, the estimated number of motorcycles owned by women was 14 percent, a 50 percent increase over the last 10 years. And the majority of these motorcycle mavens are younger than 40, compared to male riders, who are mostly older than 50.
For many of these women, the sense of independence that comes with going full throttle and learning how to perform basic motorcycle maintenance is a feeling that can’t be beat. And, of course, there is the added thrill of bucking traditional gender norms.
“No one ever told me I couldn’t ride a motorcycle, but I never saw women riding, so I was never really ‘given permission,’” Kiersten said. “Visibility is everything.”
Kiersten came to realize she could be a part of motorcycle culture in America when she stumbled across Babes Ride Out, an international motorcycle riding campout that brings women from around the world to Joshua Tree National Park in California. Ashmore Ellis and Anya Violet created the female-centered event in 2013 with the mantra “No ‘tudes, no dudes.”
Four years after the first campout, which attracted no more than 50 riders, Babes Ride Out is now so much more than a single weekend event. It’s become a movement and community for thousands of women to come together to share their love for the open road. Sister campouts and riding groups are now popping up all across the globe.
“We had no idea it was going to be a thing,” Anya said in a 2015 interview.
Kiersten, originally from Pittsburgh, Pa., jumped at the chance to attend Babes Ride Out East Coast in June 2017, which took her and her Honda CB650 to Narrowsburg, New York. The event marked several motorcycle riding “firsts” for the Bushwick-based bartender and DJ, and made her feel as if she were in a dream world.
“I almost cried,” she reminisced. “It was an incredible energy.”
The new rider now bikes regularly with women from The Litas, an international riding group with a chapter in New York City. Some of those women are now her close, personal friends with whom she meets up to ride, barbecue, and dance.
“I tended to hang out with a lot of people in the restaurant and bar industry,” Kiersten said, “so it’s pretty special to meet ladies of all different ages and occupations with this collective love of riding on two wheels.”
The idea of community is a big one for women who don’t feel as welcomed in groups dominated by men. Knowing you have something almost sacred in common with your fellow riders adds a sense of freedom and heightened awareness to the activity.
Barninder Singh feels the same way about riding with his Sikh brothers.
THE FIRES OF REBELLION
The New Jersey transplant originally from India and his brother, Kiratbir, had been riding for quite some time before they met two fellow Sikh riders in 2009. Together, they bonded over their love of the road and decided to participate in the Sikh Day Parade in New York City. The Sikh Motorcycle Club of the Northeast was then born.
“The bond of riding strengthens our bond of sharing the same religion,” Barninder said. “If we were a group of people who only shared the love of riding, we’d still be a pretty fun group, but it’s an amazing feeling to be a part of a group that also shares the same fundamentals.”
Barninder definitely feels all eyes on him and his brothers when they’re out riding. But he likes to use those moments to connect with people and to show that every single person in their group is as much an American as anyone else out there.
“Showing up to various events, being Sikhs, definitely exposes our identity to others by means beyond the confines of our day-to-day routines,” Barninder said. “We take those as opportunities to educate others about who Sikhs are and what we stand for, but that’s not the core mission for us. We are not out to prove anything to anyone.”
To the husband and father of three boys, the image of the “outlaw” that is traditionally associated with motorcycle riders is fitting for people like him who are devout Sikhs. The religion was actually cast from the fires of rebellion. When the rulers of India made it illegal for anyone who was not part of the royal family to wear a turban, the Sikhs chose to wear them.
And when two of the younger sons of their 10th Master, Zorawar Singh and Fateh Singh, were asked to convert to Islam, they responded with fearlessness, courage, and determination beyond their ages of 6 and 8 by refusing. They were buried alive for their insurrection.
“Sikhs are an embodiment of being rebellious with a cause—wearing a turban and a beard and sticking out in the crowd while the rest of the world looks to assimilate is, by definition, being a rebel,” Barninder said. “Anyone can ride a motorcycle—not everyone can be a Sikh.”
In some ways, riding a motorcycle is similar to prayer for Barninder. It’s a very personal experience that is brought to new, powerful heights when performed communally. And it requires the same concentration and commitment.
“Getting on a motorcycle is therapeutic—we call it ‘wind therapy.’ The world is left behind, the worries fade to the background, the devices and the distractions are put away,” he said. “And you get to know yourself so much more on a bike than in a car.”
One thing Barninder has discovered about himself after riding for so many years?
“I am an impatient person,” he admitted. “Riding a motorcycle requires patience to wear your gear when it’s 95 degrees out, to not do crazy things on the road even though you can, to give the right of way to distracted drivers, to pull over when it starts to rain. Riding is teaching me to be patient with others, with my kids, and, most importantly, with myself.”
The solitude of riding is an opening for all sorts of self-discovery. For Kiersten, the relationship with her bike and with the road has allowed her to let go and not sweat the small stuff.
“My confidence in just my day-to-day life has definitely gone up,” she said. “Maybe it’s constantly putting your life at risk every day that just makes you care a bit less.”
One of the most common words riders associate with biking is “freedom.” For both Kiersten and Barninder, and for other “non-traditional” bikers who are taking to the streets, feeling free in a world that still marginalizes them in many ways is vital.
“Men are by and large the first image that comes to mind when you think of a motorcycle rider,” Kiersten said. “And it has been this way for decades. You have to be a certain type of person to ride a motorcycle in general, so you really have to be a certain type of woman to ride a motorcycle.”
This is why all-female riding groups mean so much to women, especially those who are new to the scene.
“Female riders are more approachable,” she said. “As a new rider, it can be intimidating to ask basic questions like, ‘What size bike should I get?’ ‘What is fuel injection?’ There’s a lot to learn, and you’ll always feel more comfortable talking to someone who is similar to you.”
Breaking down barriers and washing away stereotypes may not be something most people think of when they think of motorcycle culture. But with the influx of women and other riders, like Barninder and his Sikh brothers, being out and open and unapologetic with their love of riding, that may change.
“Like our religion advocates equality for all, our group welcomes all people to join us on our rides, regardless of race, color, sexual orientation, country of birth, gender, or economic status,” Barninder said.
This is a far cry from the outlaw motorcycle gangs known for things like the shootout at Waco, Texas, and the tragic stabbing at the 1969 Altamont Festival in Northern California. It is clear a new tide is turning, and with it is coming a no-limits, open-hearted collective of like-minded rebels with a cause—a cause to be liberated.
“All I want to do is feel more free in my life,” Kiersten said, “and when it’s just me on this machine and the unpredictable nature of the road…it’s everything.”