Female Motorcycle Pioneers

This article celebrates a short selection of brave women who have achieved so much in the world of motorcycling. Here’s a few of motorcycling’s greatest pioneering women…

Van Buren Sisters

Female motorcycle pioneers

Can you believe there was actually a time when women weren’t allowed to ride motorcycles? It was ‘un-lady’ like. A woman could even be arrested for wearing men’s motorcycle clothing and if they tried to ride anyway they would be accused of trying to ‘escape duties to their husbands,’ ignored, banned from motorcycle events and laughed at.

But in the face of hardship and chauvinism, there were those who said no. Women who defied convention, broke the barriers of their sexist social world, smashed records, braved extraordinary feats and opened the gates for women today.

Here’s a small selection of incredible women in motorcycling from 1912 to today.

Note: Some of the stories here are explained in more detail in this article, so have a read of that next. 

READ MORE: The First Adventure Riders

The first motorcyclists to ride from London to Cape Town

Theresa Wallach and Florence Blenkiron, Year: 1935, Bike: Panther Model 100 600cc

 “Motorcycling is a tool with which you can accomplish something meaningful in your life. It is an art”

Theressa Wallach Rugged Roads

Forget painted nails, corsets and sexist 1930s Britain. While stay-at-home wives were told to prepare dinner for their husbands Theresa Wallach and Florence Blenkiron were battling through the formidable Sahara Desert and pushing onto South Africa.

They became the first motorcyclists (male or female) to cross the Sahara and the first to make the journey from London to Cape Town. The remarkable women set a precedent: they were following in no one’s footsteps, without proper maps, backup and nobody to turn to for help. Just two women and one Panther Redwing motorcycle with a Watsonian sidecar and trailer. They faced sand storms, dangerous animals, treacherous off-road tracks (as there were no roads in Africa then), total engine failures (which they rebuilt themselves), faced nomads and the French Foreign Legion with perseverance.

Theressa Wallach wasn’t only an intrepid explorer; she was a successful motorcycle racer and won the coveted British Motorcycle Racing Club Gold Star for lapping the classic Brooklands race circuit on a 350cc Norton at over 100mph. She was an engineer, motorcycle instructor and mechanic. When the war broke out Theresa became the first female dispatch rider in the British Army. After the war Theresa headed to America for a 32,000-mile, two and a half year motorcycle tour through the USA, Canada and Mexico.

MORE INFO: The Rugged Road by Theresa Wallach

The first woman to circumnavigate the globe by motorcycle

Elspeth Beard, 1982, Bike: 1974 BMW R 60/6, Trip: three years, 48,000 miles, 23 years old

“Bikes are the best way to get around – cheap, efficient and I enjoy the freedom”

Elspeth Beard

I just finished studying architecture at university and had no idea what to do next, so I thought ‘why not try and ride my bike around the world?’ I couldn’t find any information on carnets and visas and I couldn’t even get maps for most countries. There was no internet or email like there is today which is what made it such an adventure, it really was like stepping into the unknown. My friends and family were concerned, but I’m a determined person and they knew I was going to do it anyway. There were times when I felt vulnerable but most of those fears disappeared quickly because I realised most people are actually good and kind.

I left with £2,500, ran out of money and had to work in Australia for eight months. I cart-wheeled my bike in the Australian outback and ended up in hospital for two weeks with concussion. I hit a cow in India and landed in a river, dropped the bike a few times in Balochistan and rode 48,000 miles over three years, circumnavigating the globe at 23. The trip was a life changing experience and it has made me the person I am today. I know I can deal with anything and what I experienced then keeps my life in perspective today.

READ MORE: The First British Woman to Motorcycle Round the World

The first solo bikes across the American continent

Augusta and Adeline Van Buren, Year: 1916, Bikes: 1915 1000cc Indian

Van Buren Sisters

American sisters, Augusta and Adeline Van Buren, rode 5,500 miles in 60 days from New York to Tijuana, Mexico. They wanted to prove women could ride and were able to serve as military despatch riders. They were arrested numerous times by angry police officers for wearing male rider clothing; national newspapers accused them of using the trip as an excuse to escape their roles as housewives. Undeterred, they faced extremely poor roads, severe weather, mud pools, got lost in the desert and ran out of water. They became the first women to ride solo bikes across the continent and the first women to reach the 14,109 feet summit of Pikes Peak by any motor vehicle.

MORE INFO: vanburensisters.com 

The first African-American woman to ride solo across the USA

Bessie Stringfield, 1927

Bessie Stringfield taught herself to ride at 16. At 19, she travelled across the USA, riding through the 48 lower states, Europe, Brazil and Haiti, earning money by performing stunts at carnivals. Bessie was refused accommodation and often slept on her bike at petrol stations because she was black. She was also denied prize money at flat track races because she was female.

When the war broke out Bessie enlisted as a US Army courier, tirelessly riding for four years and crossing the USA eight times. She was met with racism and was deliberately knocked of her bike by a guy in a pickup truck for being black in the south. Bessie moved to Florida where she was told black women aren’t allowed to ride by the police but rode anyway. Bessie eventually became known as the ‘Motorcycle Queen of Miami’ and was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame.

Bessie Stringfield

The Only female duo to travel round the world two-up on a bike

Tiffany Coates, 1997, 1992 BMW R80GS

Travelling by bike was a spur of the moment decision. My friend Becky and I wanted to travel to India and for some reason decided to do it on a motorbike. At that point neither of us had bikes, licences or even knew how to ride, so it was a steep learning curve. We ended up with a five-year-old BMW R80GS and set off two months later. In the early days we were dropping the bike several times a day as we literally learnt how to ride a big bike, fully loaded, two-up on tiptoes.

It was naïve optimism that got us through, we were thrilled to be on a bike and heading off into the unknown, wild camping somewhere different each night and taking each day as it came. We had the time of our lives and decided to keep going once we reached India, continue onto Australia and home through Africa, stopping to work at various places along the way.

What started out as an eight month trip grew into a two and a half year round the world journey. I was hooked on motorcycle travel and have been riding round the world ever since, becoming the first motorcyclist to ride across Asia on all three classic routes and the furthest travelled solo female ride.

READ MORE: Tiffany Coates on Becoming an Adventure Rider

Tiffany Coates adventure motorcycle traveller

The first motorcyclist to reach all seven continents in one continuous solo journey (including Antarctica)

Benka Pulko, 1997, 1996 BMW F650

“Dealing with all the people, thousands of miles away who said it couldn’t be done was the hardest part. I was shocked that no one had done it before though. I thought I’d be gone for two years but I guess I didn’t really grasp the size of the world.”

I achieved two Guinness World Records for the longest solo female motorcycle trip by duration and by distance and I was the first solo woman to motorcycle across Saudi Arabia and the first motorcyclist to reach Antarctica. It started when I was on my way home from work one evening when I was involved in a traffic accident. Once I recovered I decided to carry out my dream; pass my bike test, buy a bike and travel the world, simple as that. Life is far too fragile for postponing anything worthwhile.

MORE INFO: benkapulko.com

Benka Pulko

The first transcontinental female motorcyclists

1915: Effie and her mum ride from New York to San Francisco in a sidecar outfit

Mother and daughter team, Avis and Effie Hotchkiss, rode 9,000 miles from New York to San Francisco and back on a Harley-Davidson with a sidecar outfit. Read more of their story in our First Adventure Riders article.

avis and effie Salt Lake City

The first solo female motorcyclist to finish the Isle of Man TT

Beryl Swain rode her Italian Itom 50cc motorcycle at the Isle of Man TT to 22nd place in 1962. Her participation led to uproar and the organisers revoked her international licence stating it was too dangerous for women. The ban on female racers lasted 16 years.

Beryl Swain

The first enduro champion 1940

Dot was the first woman to win an American Motorcycle Association Enduro Championship. Dot co-founded Motor Maids, the first female motorcycle club, which is widely credited with bringing the sport to women in the mid-20th century.

Dot Robinson

Women the world over are braking records, setting fastest lap times, smashing speed barriers, travelling further and for longer than ever before and achieving their dreams. Your turn.   

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