Israels motorcycle mamas beating men in competition

The Saturday morning peace of the Ben-Shemen forest is shattered by the roar of a motorcycle.

A figure astride a souped-up Japanese Kawasaki KLX250, hugely helmeted and dressed from neck to ankle in black leather, thunders past a rudimentary finishing line drawn between two trees. An official waves the traditional checkered flag indicating that the dirt-track rider has won the race.

The rider waves a gauntleted greeting at the crowd and executes a perfect racing turn toward a grassy knoll. There, the bike screams to a halt and the rider dismounts, removes the big plastic helmet, and, undoing a multitude of zips, sheds the skin of leather.

Riki Ayalon then adjusts her hair and dabs a touch-up of lipstick to her mouth so she will look her best when she receives her trophy.

Ayalon, 29, competes in motorcycle races, beating the men at their own game and works as a motorcycle mechanic. She stands out helmet and shoulders above a small, but growing, band of Israeli "motorcycle mamas."

They come from all walks of life. They include, among others, deputy bank manager and mother Orit Halfon, 36, who rides a $20,000, 900cc. Kawasaki capable of touching a terrifying 186 miles per hour; tennis coach Shirley Shek, 31, who goes off-road on a giant, 350cc., all-terrain Suzuki; marketing executive Inbal Amitai, 29, who roars to business meetings on a more staid, 250cc. Honda; and Canadian-born technical writer Charlotte Mendel, 28, who chugs around the country on a battered, 250cc., Czech-made Jawa.

What sets them apart from the many other women who hang around biker clubs is that they want to steer on their own, rather than ride behind on the pillion.

During the past two decades the women of the world have very slowly started to slide over to the driver's seat and grab hold of the handlebars. And Israel's women are not lagging behind.

A survey of the major local cycle dealers shows that women now buy from 3 percent to 5 percent of the approximately 2,000 big (250cc. and larger) motorcycles sold here each year. The percentage compares favorably with figures in the United States and other Western countries.

The Israel Motorcycling Club, the country's only official club, boasts 150 women members out of a total membership of 1,000.

They are "accepted with open arms," says chairman Motti Cohen.

The women unanimously agree that the problems they face are not from male motorcyclists, but from the general male public. The going gets rough when the women pull up at red lights and become the target of catcalls, wolf whistles and inane or crude remarks, usually from male motorists.

"A motorcycle is, rightly or wrongly, a symbol of masculinity," explains New York-born David Bar-On, who owns the local Harley-Davidson dealership. "When a man who can't ride a motorcycle sees a women doing just that, he feels threatened and inadequate.

"On top of that," Bar-On adds with a grin, "there's a little bit of a fetishist in everyone. A leather-clad, helmeted female sitting astride a huge, powerful machine can be an incredibly sexy sight!"

So, what pushes a sane, balanced woman to swallow constant abuse and, to boot, risk life and limb on a mechanical monster weighing more than a quarter of a ton, which can zoom to speeds matching that of a bullet fired from a gun?

"Because it's fun," Ayalon explains . "For the same reason people bungee jump or climb mountains or take up paragliding. Some folk must live on the edge.

"Men don't have a monopoly on the incredible rush of adrenaline you get when you pull away on your bike with tires screaming or, for that matter, on the gorgeous feel of the wind on your face and the sun on your back when you ride to the beach on a sunny day.

"In one of the James Bond books, 007 remarked that riding a motorcycle was man's second-greatest pleasure. He should have said `mankind' instead of 'man.' It's a beautiful high for both sexes."

Ayalon grew up on Kibbutz Ramot Menashe where, she says, she was a "bit of a tomboy…I rode horses because I enjoyed the independence and the power of sitting astride, and being in command of, a powerful animal. It was a natural progression from horses to motorcycles, which is a kind of mechanical horse.

"I was never involved in women's rights groups and I was not trying to make a statement," she adds. "I just wanted to do my thing."

Ayalon was so set on riding a motorcycle she never bothered to obtain an automobile driving license, but went straight for a motorcycle riding permit and, in partnership with her boyfriend at the time, bought an all-terrain motorcycle or "trial bike." When she and her partner broke up, "he got to stay on in the apartment and I kept the motorbike."

She started competing in the off-road motocross races held every week, usually at a makeshift track in the forests around Moshav Ben-Shemen. She taught herself the true techniques of motorcycling, "those that are, unfortunately, not taught to youngsters who prepare for licenses."

She learned to turn the bike by using her body rather than the handlebars, and she quickly grasped that physical strength has nothing to do with good riding.

To her surprise, she started winning events. For a long while she was the only woman who took part in the contests. "The fellows were neither resentful of me when I won nor patronizing when I lost. They accepted me as, well, one of the boys."

Ayalon was between jobs when a friend offered to train her as a mechanic in his repair shop in the town of Yehud, and she has worked there for three years.

Now other women are riding alongside Ayalon. She has been joined by Shek, a professional tennis instructor studying for an M.A. in physical education at the Wingate Institute. Shek grew up in the port city of Ashdod and says she started riding a motorcycle because "as a natural sportsperson I wanted to use my body when I traveled. I didn't want to sit still in an air-conditioned box."

Her introduction to motorcycling was by way of riding pillion behind boyfriends. "It scared me. I wanted to be in control of my life. I moved to the front and I decided the view was much better," she says.

Shek uses her Suzuki XT 350 both for everyday transport and for weekend competitions.

"I'm on a par with most men riders. I — like any other woman — don't have the strength of a man, but I use every other skill to make up for this, and good motorcycling depends on technique," she says.

"I'm conscious of being a woman in a man's game and I try hard not to ruffle their feathers or bruise their egos. However, that's difficult when I beat them!"