THE LITAS MOTORCYCLE CLUB | News
Raise hell, babes- That’s the motto of the Litas – a group that is encouraging women around the world to get into motorcycling. We caught up with the LA branch
On 7 October 1910 Clara Wagner, a young woman living in St Paul, Minnesota entered a 350-mile endurance race between Chicago and Indianapolis put on by the American Federation of Motorcyclists (FAM). As you’d probably guess, back then the journey between the two mid-western cities wasn’t as easy as gunning down the interstate but a grim slog over roads that in places were little better than dirt tracks.
The 18-year-old Clara, riding a drop-frame four horsepower bike designed specifically for women by her father, manufacturer George Wagner, completed the arduous route with a perfect score. But not being the most enlightened of organisations, the FAM told Martha – no doubt exhausted from her epic win – that being a woman she was to forget any chance of getting the winners trophy and promptly gave it to the runner-up. To their credit, Clara’s fellow (male) competitors, dismayed at the decision, rallied round and bought her a consolation gold pendant.
A hundred years after Clara got told to sling her hook and a pretty pendant for her trouble, a lot has changed, and not just the ease of getting between Chicago and Indi. Women bikers, once a miniscule proportion of the biking population in the developed world (in the developing world where bikes are the de facto transport there has always been a much higher rate of women riders) are now the fastest growing segment of the market and make up nearly 15 per cent in the United States alone (around 7 million people) – a rise of over 50 per cent since 2003, and the UK has also seen a massive rise in women gaining full motorcycle licenses and the proliferation of all female clubs like VC London, whose tagline ‘Moto riding, good times & fun shit. Simple’ kind of says it all when it comes to the new generation of female riders.
Though what has perhaps contributed most to the enormous upswing in women riders, specifically those in the 18-35 age group in the last couple of years or so, is a phenomenon that also brought that epitome of modesty, Kim Kardashian front and centre into our lives: social media. A trawl through Instagram will reveal thousands of accounts dedicated to female biking with tens of thousands of followers, obsessing over two wheels as compulsively as the crustiest old gearhead.
One of the biggest of the groups dedicated to female riding on social media and certainly the one that has made the fastest jump from the online world to the physical are The Litas. The group was the brainchild of Jessica Haggett and Paige Macy who started the group in Utah in autumn 2015. Haggett wanted to, as she puts it, “Change tradition and create something new and uplifting for woman riders to be part of”.
Since then The Litas has grown from a handful of riders in the Mormon state to having branches in 80 cities from New Zealand to Argentina with more than 1500 members and over 300,000 followers across all social networks. Which is why, while we stand outside an old Spanish church in the middle of California’s Mojave Desert, temperatures getting close to 40ºC, awaiting the arrival of the Los Angeles Litas, one of the club’s, biggest and most active branches, it seems ironic that there is absolutely no internet coverage at all.
The Los Angeles Litas roll up to our meeting point on an assortment of bikes. Mainly Harleys but with the odd Triumph and Yamaha scattered among them – the Litas have no official bike policy, believing that any woman, on any bike with almost any skill level has the right to become part of the group. Jennifer Regan, an intensive care unit nurse and Sheena Walker, a former beauty industry worker, are two of the founders of the LA branch. They began the group after seeing Jessica Haggett posts on Instagram.
“She (Haggett) posted that they were going to open up the Litas to any city,” explains Jen. “All you needed were three girls who were willing to ride, put on events and be open and accepting to other girls. I posted ‘LA’ and Sheena posted ‘Oh I’m in LA’ and we found another girl and that’s how we got started.”
Jen has no doubt about how social media has ramped up the number of women riders. “It’s played a huge part in it’s popularity,” she says. “Seeing a woman on social media on a bike, a lot of women are thinking ‘I would like a picture like that’. So some women get into because they think it’s cool. That’s fine, I don’t care how you get into bikes, as long as you get into them.”
Jen believes that although social media has been pivotal in promoting riding to more women it could also have a downside, making women and motorbikes a fashion trend with a limited lifespan. There is a danger that that rather than being a pivotal moment for female participation, it’s spawned a crop of ‘Insta-Bikers’ who will quickly get bored.
“It can swing both ways,” she concedes. “It has really helped but it also could make riding a fad, rather than being a strong movement about women riding.”
Where once pictures of a woman in close proximity to a motorcycle were likely to involve some scantily clad ‘babe on bike’ scenario, the thousands of images of women on bikes flooding social media inspired many to try out biking for the first time. Jasmine, a Lita who started riding in December 2015, fell so hard for a life on two wheels that she quit her job as a make-up artist to work at a Harley dealership. “Instagram was a big thing,” she says. “I started following girls who rode and thought, ‘If they can do it, so can I’. Before I’d always equated motorcycles with old dudes.”
And while many of the Litas worldwide are in their 20s and 30s, their philosophy has attracted women riders who for one reason or another chose for years to ride alone. Gevin Fax, who in her previous life was a rhythm and blues star and stuntwoman, has been riding for 49 years and is the oldest member of the LA Litas – “she’s a legend,” says Jen – and it’s the first time she ever been part of a group.
Gevin joined after following the LA Litas Instagram posts and attending a couple of wrench nights. “I thought these girls ride like little bats out of hell. They were so much younger than me but I’m an old lady with a teenager inside.” Gevin believes the rapid increase in women ridership is also partly down to economic reasons. “Especially with older women in their 30s or 40s, their children are grown and they’re thinking ‘Hey, I get to live my life now’, so they’re buying bikes,” she explains. “It’s not just Harleys, they’re buying Ducatis, anything that rides.”
Gevin, has ridden down from her cabin in the Sierra Nevada mountains for today’s meet-up, and believes the gender balance of bike riders has definitely changed over time. “I’ve watched woman motorcycling grow,” she says. “I remember the first time I went to Sturgis [Motorcycle Rally] in 1990 and I saw maybe five or six women on bikes out of half a million people. Gradually over the years you’d see more and more, maybe one woman on a bike for every 100 men. Now for every 10 men you’ll see one or even two women. It’s completely changed and it’s amazing”
When the LA Litas made their first steps into the world they reached out to other all female clubs in the Los Angeles area, trying to make friends. The reception was unexpectedly cool. “There wasn’t a whole load of open arms out there,” says Sheena. “It was very clique – ‘we only ride with our group’ kind of thing. And we were like ‘What’s that all about?’ ”
The trouble, Sheena says, was that a lot of the existing female MCs were run almost as copycats of male clubs. “They had the same political roles as male MCs and couldn’t believe that we didn’t have roles. We’re not really an MC as such so what we were doing was completely new to them.” But suspicion of the Litas set-up (and motives) has dissipated. “We’re friends with all the female MCs that shot us down at first,” Sheena says. “Now we do joint events, wrench nights. It’s a lot better than it was.”
While the LA Litas are keen to stress that they aren’t some feminist motorcycle cult on a mission to emasculate men (“It’s all about the bikes” one tells me) and men are more than welcome to ride along, nearly all point out that there are significant differences between riding with men and riding with women. Though opinions differ. Sheena states, “Girls are better at group riding together. We’re systematic, we’ve got it down to a science.”
But Mai Franz, a photographer in her early 40s riding a 2003 Harley Sportster, disagrees. “You get women saying that they ride with certain men who are assholes but on the whole they (men) are great. They will hold lanes open for you and be really accommodating. When you ride with a group of women it’s different, because you have to do all that yourself. It’s not like I was being treated like crap by men, not at all, it’s just riding with the Litas has added another dimension, made me feel more accomplished.”
Though that hasn’t stopped the male piss-taking. Jen explains: “The male perspective on the Litas is that it can be a bit of a joke, a bit ‘Oh, girls on bikes, isn’t it cute’. But in general men I’ve come across are envious of the situation we have. We pick up and go camping, there’s no drama – we just get on our bikes and go hang out.”
Callie Horton, in her mid-20s is riding a Triumph Bonneville that she describes as “My very expensive best friend”. She echoes Jen’s experiences of men maybe not taking her as seriously as they should. She first got into riding a couple of years ago, But the first six months she kept it secret (“Kind of like a pregnancy, I wanted to make sure it was real”) and when she told her male friends about it their reaction was blinded by stereotypes. “They asked if I was a lesbian,” she says. “I laughed and said I wasn’t. Woman were a lot better (about it) as you’d expect, seeing it as empowering and wanting to know all about it. And I don’t really care what people think of me now. It’s all about the riding.”
With the wind whipping the sand off the Mojave and daylight burning off, it’s probably better for all the talking stops and the riding begins. As the Litas ready themselves I ask Jen what message she wants to put out to the women thinking about getting off social media and getting on the road. She looks at me as if I’ve just asked the stupidest question and says, “No message. Just raise hell, babes.” And then she is gone, off into the desert.
Litas Down Under
Australian chapters of the Litas are now popping up, with numbers growing steadily since the first club was inaugurated in Newcastle late last year. Kate Gabriel founded the Sydney branch around the same time, and says there are presently five clubs across the country.
“In addition to Sydney, which has approximately 35 members, there’s also Newcastle, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth.”
She says getting the first Australian-based club established was a straight-forward exercise.
“Once we had three members we got in contact with Jessica Haggett. The process was as easy as signing up via the club’s website (www.thelitas.co). It all happened quite literally overnight. Those babes waste no time!”
When asked about the Litas’ ethos, Kate summed it up with a handful of words: “We are a collective of women who share a love for the open road and two-wheeled machines. Any woman on a motorcycle is welcome to join, regardless of the style of bike they ride.” This approach has led to a diverse group of members, ranging from learner riders in their teens up to experienced and returning riders in their sixties. “And that’s the best part – we don’t have a typical member.”
Kate said one attraction of the Litas is being part of something big.
“The network is worldwide,” she explains. “We’ve had a couple of ladies hit us up while visiting Sydney. I had Kira from our Halifax, Canada branch on my couch last weekend. I loaned her gear, as we are the same size, and took her to sort out a loan bike from another member’s dealership. The girls then took her for a blast through the nasho. It’s a really special and incredibly handy network to be a part of. Friendships, adventure, support, encouragement and general hell-raising – it’s brilliant!”
STORY MARTIN PASHLEY PHOTOGRAPHY JAMES CHEADLE