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The Pioneer Woman

Bonnie French, Member #28907 | Published on 4/1/2017

People ask.  “What is a Pioneer Woman?” For 24 days last summer, I rode my 1947, 74-inch Flathead Harley- Davidson (Sonny) west from Dinwiddie, Virginia to Pickerington, Ohio to The Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum.  Then, I travelled to Colorado Springs’ Pikes Peak, honoring the Pioneer Women of motorcycling 100 years ago.  I wanted to see if I could master Pikes Peak, which is over 14,000 ft. I made it to the 13,000 feet because Sonny, my Flathead, was tired. Then I continued on to the West Coast, San Diego.  Everyone knows what Pioneer Motorcyclist means, but I want to live it, breathe it, eat it and sleep it so that I could experience it. They rode on dirt.  I rode asphalt.  They had knobby tires to ride the dirt. I had modern tires for today’s highways. I slept on the ground and on the asphalt, in alleys on dirt, and sometimes in people’s houses when offered.  I ate out of cans and also what people offered.  

I broke down just about every day, mostly struggling with the shifts in elevation, but I knew the mechanics of my bike because I had been riding it for 35 years.  I had connections through The Antique Motorcycle Club of America and many old school motorcycle shops all over the country- just like the Pioneer Women did.  I knew who to call.  I had a cellphone, but most of the time there was little reception.
I chose to travel solo because I kick-start my motor cycle and tank shift and foot clutch just like the old gals. Just like my Daddy taught me over 42 years ago.
My Daddy and Mama were my inspiration.  My Daddy taught me how to kick a motor when I was only 13. I felt like the Holy Spirit was running through my veins. I was too young to know then, but Dad had ignited the sparkplug and had sent his Tomboy daughter on an asphalt lifetime journey. He used to educate me about motorcycle women and the labels that society placed on them. Daddy knew that these labels would follow me into my generation, and he wanted me to be strong enough to hand the legacy of the vintage motorcycle off to the next generation. These are the things that he taught me (The hard-knocks of motorcycle):
1. There is a technique to kicking a motorcycle or riding any motorcycle.  
2. No motorcycle is too big for you. You are always in control of the bike. 
3. Always respect it.  Don’t ever lose respect for that machine because that is when he is coming for you, full throttle. 

In the early 70’s my Daddy and Mama taught me history.  Daddy taught me to be serious and passionate about wanting to ride.  Riding is a dangerous hobby.  You need to ride, learn, know it, and teach it.  Never feel dominated by any other motorcycle rider because you will be prepared.  I taught myself the basic controls. Daddy passed on the legacy to me by sharing stories of the Pioneer men and women, about their cycling in the early 50’s.  The 1952 Panhead had big sideboard.  Mama said whenever he turned the corner, the sideboards kissed the asphalt and sparks flew just like the 4th of July.  
I am a member of The Antique Motorcycle Club of America and because of the many helpful old school motorcycle shops all over the country, I was able to get the knowledge from all the other AMCA chapters along the way, and I was able to repair Sonny. When I arrived at each destination, they actually pulled their own bikes off the rack and put mine up.  I was treated like a queen.  Just like a man opening a door for a lady. I don’t know if this treatment was because I was a lady or whether it was that I was riding a ‘47 74-incher and I knew the lingo.  I would like to take the time to mention one of many angels along the road.  Most of the time I could get Stanley Miller on my cell. I have never met this gentleman, but through his AMCA connections, he was able to connect me appropriate old school garages. Okay, I know I had a step up on the Pioneer Women who didn’t have cellphones.

The anniversary of the Pioneer Women attracted notice all over the country with modern day women gathering in Brooklyn, NY July 3, 2016 that marks the 100th year of Adeline Van Buren’s famous transcontinental cross country journey.  I chose to travel solo because I wanted to repeat The Pioneer Women style of riding and their style of living. I wanted to be the Pioneer Woman because I am still, kicking, foot clutching, and hand jamming. People ask me, “Are there other women riding old school, vintage exclusively?”  I haven’t seen any in my travels, but if there are any out there, we need to get together and plan how to pass on this heritage of the most beautiful motorcycles ever born.
Although the women in Brooklyn inspire other modern day women, I wanted to experience the old school trials and trails of the real Pioneer Women. I think I came pretty close to the experience and I want to inspire a new rider to continue the legacy.  I have continued the legacy by teaching.   I have owned over 200 vintage Motorcycles. In 1988, as an employee of The York Harley-Davidson Company, I founded and was the president of the only inside employee club, and I was the only woman to lead a man’s club. I rode the biggest Harley that they made.  How did I do that?  I earned respect from what was perceived as a male dominated industry, by teaching many men how to ride the beast that I rode. I knew my machine, and they knew I knew my machine. In 1993 I led the club to Westerville, Ohio, the original site of the Hall of Fame, and accepted a plaque for the York Motor Company Employees. From this, other branches of the club were formed.

Thank you to:
The Red Knights of Virginia promoters
All my friends and family from Virginia
My son, David and my granddaughter, Lilly.
BA Enterprise for support of all travel parts.
Café Custom Cycle for knowledge and sponsor for future race
Black Top Choppers and staff
Blue Star Cycle and staff
Antique Motorcycle Club of America
Departure Bikeworks and staff
Tuttles Family and Friends
The West Family
Athens Harley-Davidson in Ohio.
Small Engines in Petersburg and staff.

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