“For 115 years, female riders have played an important part of the Harley-Davidson family. They truly embody our all-for-freedom, freedom-for-all spirit,” stated Heidi Skinner, Global Channel Marketing Director for The Motor Company.
That spirit is none more prevalent than today as more women are riding than ever before. Organizations like The Litas and the Motor Maids are flourishing as the community of women riders has expanded exponentially. “Girls’ night out” now means banding with girlfriends and riding to Joshua Tree National Park for a weekend of camping under the stars at Babes Ride Out, or beneath the knotty pines of the Pacific Northwest during Dream Roll. Gatherings like the Women’s Motorcycle Show celebrate the accomplishments and skills of female custom builders. Riding a motorcycle is an empowering experience, and the ranks of ladies embracing this empowerment is on the rise, evident by Skinner’s statement that “a third of all students enrolled in Harley-Davidson Riding Academy are women, so female riders are playing an important role in growing this sport that we all love.”
While Harley-Davidson manufactures motorcycles “to fit the needs of every woman rider, no matter her height, riding style, age, or level of riding experience,” what better way to figure out the best Harley motorcycle for women than to propose this question to a panel of some of the leading ladies in the industry, from magazine editors to social media influencers. After talking to these passionate riders, themes of personal preference, comfort, riding position, and riding style filtered into the discussion pretty much across the board.
Jessica Wise, founder of The Litas, said her first Harley-Davidson was a 2001 Sportster Custom.
“I did a lot to it. Pretty much ripped everything off and changed it to make it more like a chopper. That was really fun. I loved that bike,” Wise said.
Now she rides a 2017 Low Rider S.
“It’s got the 110 cubic-inch engine. I recently put on a Two Brothers Racing exhaust and rode it for the first time a few months ago and it’s freaking crazy. I can’t believe I didn’t do that in the very, very beginning because being a 110, it already rides like a bat out of hell. Doing that made it so much better on the top-end, and when accelerating it’s so zippy. I did put new bars on it as well. The bars were low and it was pretty uncomfortable for my back, so I put on some 10-inch T-bars. It comes with mids so it’s really comfortable. I added a new seat and fairing too,” she said.
When asked what Harley motorcycles she’d suggest for lady riders of all experience levels, newbie to seasoned, Wise had these suggestions.
“If we’re talking about beginner, I think it’s important that you can touch the ground. I personally think mid-controls are good because you’re not going to be overextended. Some of the bikes that come to mind would be any of the Streets because they’re super light and a really good beginner bike.
“If you get into the Sportys, I think the Iron 883 is a good choice because it has the mids and they don’t have that bulky front tire, so for me I think it’s easier to handle.
“The new Street Bob, I rode it from Montana to Salt Lake, it has the mids and mini-apes. I sit on it perfectly. It’s super low to the ground, probably even lower to the ground than the Iron honestly (unladen its seat height is 3.1 inches lower). It had the perfect position from the moment I got on it. It is a little heavier than the Street or the Iron, but if you’re wanting to go longer distances right from the beginning, then the Street Bob would be perfect. If you’re a beginner and a little bit nervous about the weight or comfort, then you might want to start with a Sportster or Street.
“It boils down to preference. Are you going super-long distances, are you going more around town and need like a city cruiser that’s easy to hop on and go? Once you’re experienced, you might have to make small modifications to make it more comfortable, but you’re going to be able to handle any of the Harleys. Comfort and confidence are key factors. One thing I’d add to that is that I think newer Harleys are going to be easier all the way around. They’re more reliable and dependable. It sucks to be stuck on the side of the road and to be constantly fixing your bike, so it’s something to think about.”
Marilyn Stemp, founder and editor of IronWorks Magazine, learned to ride by taking both the MSF class and Harley-Davidson’s Riders Edge course, which is now called the Riding Academy. At the time Harley used the Buell Blast in the course, a bike Stemp liked so much she ended up buying one.
“Once it was lowered for my 5-foot-4 frame, it was ideal for me,” she said. Stemp eventually “scaled up” to a used Sportster, again having it lowered properly.
Instead of singling out specific bikes, Stemp provided these words of wisdom. “Short of recommending a particular model for any newer rider, I’d say this: Ride a bike that's comfortable for you, regardless of social pressure. Because comfort speaks directly to safety, something every rider ought to make a priority.”
The Sportster was the first Harley for another longtime editor in the motorcycle industry, who was more than happy to impart her wisdom but wished to remain anonymous.
“My first bike was a Sportster. I still have it. It’s a 2000 which I got in 1999. I always wanted a Harley-Davidson Sportster. That’s all I ever heard about, that’s what I had in my head, and I didn’t listen to the advice. You know, get a small bike, don’t get this kind of Sportster, get that kind. The heart wants what the heart wants.
“Man, I dropped that bike a couple times. It was an 883. At the time it was the biggest bike I’d ever ridden. That bike was like twice the cc’s of anything I’d ever ridden before. I dropped it riding home from the dealership because I decided I wanted to practice figure eights on it. I wasn’t used to the throttle and power, so I jumped the curb and I went down and the bike went back to the dealership. And that’s when I learned H-D means ‘hundred dollars’ because I had to get a new handlebar and a new mirror,” she said with a laugh.
When asked about what Harley motorcycles she’d suggest for girls, she provided valuable insight.
“I guess there are a couple issues. There’s the height and how comfortable you are. You need to have both feet on the ground so you can really control that bike. Can you maneuver it at slow speeds well? Can you back it up without help?
“If you’re hesitant, you’re not sure you could handle either a powerful bike or a heavy bike or a tall bike, there’s the Street, of course. That said, you have to watch the height of these bikes also. It may be light but it may be tall.
“I love the new Softails. The Softail I like best was the Fat Bob. Also the Softail Heritage Classic was awesome. I was never a big Softail fan, never considered them suitable for good handling or long-distance riding. But the 2018s, the new Softail frame and suspension—amazing. I’m so comfortable on the Softail Heritage, had that bike been available when I wanted to get a new bike in 2017, chances are I would have gotten that Heritage instead of my Road King.
“Even the touring bikes. They’re really comfortable. Now that they reduced the thickness of the primary with the Milwaukee-Eight, I can actually get my feet down on a Road King [she’s 5-foot-4] which I couldn’t before because when they added the six-speed they made the primary fatter. So it wasn’t even so much the height, it was that your legs were so spread out you still can’t touch the ground.”
She finished by adding “The Sportster, of course, is a great bike. It’s really individual. Whatever makes you feel comfortable and is best for you.”
Staci Wilt, a rider, writer, photographer, and a brand ambassador for Russ Brown Motorcycle Attorneys, also provided valuable perspective. Wilt’s first motorcycle was a 2011 Harley-Davidson Forty-Eight Sportster she called “1,200 factory cc’s of fun!” Now she owns a 2003 Sportster that’s built out like a chopper. “It was an 883 that I punched out to a 1200 with cams and other fun stuff added.” Her daily rider though is a 2015 Harley-Davidson Dyna Low Rider. In regard to Harley motorcycles for girls, here’s Wilt’s suggestions.
“For a beginner, I think a Sportster is perfect if you’re looking to get your feet wet. I think that a lot of women fear the idea of power when buying a bike, and it shouldn’t be so terrifying to jump straight to a 1,200. If you plan to put around town, an 883 will be just fine. But if you yearn for the open road, you’re going to want that 1,200cc in the Sportster chassis…or even more!
“Another huge misconception with Harleys is handling. A Sportster is so appealing to a newbie, but they’re also sooo top heavy. Once you ride a Dyna or even the new Milwaukee-Eight Softails (I'd suggest the new Low Rider or Street Bob for starters), you’ll think to yourself, ‘Why did I ride a Sporty for so long?!’ Take it from someone with over 100,000 miles on Sportsters, these models are worth the upgrade once you get comfortable on two wheels. They balance so well, you won’t even realize the bike is larger. I would suggest getting 5,000 miles under your belt, getting comfortable on two wheels, and then taking advantage of test rides at a dealer and seeing how you feel on a larger bike. Warning: You will enjoy the upgrade, and you might walk out with a new motorcycle.
“If you’re an experienced rider, take one of the new Road Glides for a spin. I am a whopping 5-foot-4 and can handle them like a champ. Yes, they’re a little heavier, and you might need a helping hand here and there to back your bike up, but who cares! (No shame in my game—I need help with my Dyna from time to time.) I’ve ridden everything up to the Ultra Classic, and there’s no reason a woman can’t ride the same Harley as a dude. Stay in your comfort zone, always. Ride your own ride, and have fun,” Wilt said enthusiastically.
It’s funny she touched on the Glide because Skinner said the Harley-Davidson Street Glide motorcycle is the “number one seller of all Harley-Davidson motorcycles to women.” Skinner added, “Our 10 Harley-Davidson motorcycles under $12,000 also garner great responses from women riders, but women are not pigeonholed into any one type of Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Women riders select the bike that fits their particular style and our dealers work closely with them to adjust fit, so all riders—women and men alike—can truly make their bike their own.”