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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Women Take On Motocross

Dirt-bike divas catch air -- and a thrill -- in this training course.
By Merri Baldwin
Related Tags: Teacher Development

SLIDE SHOW: Here's Dust in Your Eye

Photographed by Randi Berez

"Throw down some hot laps, ladies!" shouts Mercedes Gonzalez-Natvig, our petite motocross instructor, finally giving us the go-ahead to do what we have been looking forward to all morning -- buzzing around the track on our dirt bikes at whatever speeds we can muster, hitting the bumps, banking the turns. In short, pretending we are real motocross riders and not just beginners at our first lesson.

Our group is taking a women's motocross clinic at the Irvine, California, headquarters of Kawasaki North America. On arrival, we are greeted by Gonzalez-Natvig, a motocross legend with nine national women's motocross championships, in her custom bright blue racing outfit. We've been given Kawasaki green gear and are trying to look as if we've been putting this stuff on all our lives.

Of course, wearing the right clothes for motocross is about safety, not style, as is true in all motorcycle riding. The full-faced helmet for dirt riding has an augmented chin guard, and goggles protect a rider's eyes from dust and debris kicked up by the knobby tires.

The loose jersey allows freedom of movement and fits over the rider's body armor, while the pants are made of tough tear-resistant material. Reinforced boots fit up to the knee, with a leather heat shield and steel toes. Safety, not style -- but truth be told, we all like the way we look.

Credit: Randi Berez

And we are joining a fast-growing club. Women are taking to motorcycle riding in ever greater numbers. The Motorcycle Industry Council estimates that at least 10 percent of all motorcycle owners in the United States are women, up from 8 percent in 1998. The number of female motorcycle operators is calculated at more than four million and is continuing to rise.

What women like about riding motorcycles, I'm pretty sure, is the feeling of freedom and exhilaration, along with the satisfaction of doing something half the population has long felt excluded from.

This is not a young women's phenomenon: Close to 60 percent of female motorcycle operators in the United States are over 40 years old. And, just as street motorcycles are increasingly appealing to women, motocross is attracting new female riders, too. All the motorcycle manufacturers, foreign and domestic, are getting behind this women's moto movement, and Jan Plessner, Kawasaki's public relations manager, has made it one of her goals to create schools and events specifically for women.

Off-highway riding is growing across all demographic lines. Professional motocross events (the stadium circuit is called Supercross) are held around the country and have become exciting family events. In fact, Supercross is now one of the most popular motor sports events in the nation.

The evening before our clinic, our group attended the Anaheim Supercross event, where some of the biggest names in the sport were competing. Watching the riders rip through the indoor dirt course at high speeds and soar into the air over jumps with the crowd roaring revved us up to get on the bikes ourselves.

Leapin' Wizard:

Champion Kawasaki racer and dirt-bike-school instructor Mercedes Gonzalez-Natvig catches air, then lines up her newbies.

Credit: Randi Berez

The enthusiasm is catching. The American Motorcyclist Association, which sponsors national racing events, between 1990 and 2003, reports that entries in AMA Sports motocross events nearly tripled. New tracks are springing up around the country to meet the demands of these new riders.

Motocross offers perfect entry-level riding and racing for women, who often feel much less threatened riding on a dirt course than they would in traffic on a freeway or on a paved course, where the speeds are much higher. And dirt bike riding is easier in many ways -- the machine is lighter than a street motorcycle and easier to handle, the techniques are easy to learn, and, if you drop the bike, you can pick it up yourself and get back on.

Plus, it is just pure fun to bank turns on a dirt track, ride over logs, and, if you're lucky, hit some jumps. "We are seeing more and more women take to off-road motorcycle activities," says Plessner. "There are so many great models of motorcycles to choose from, and motocross clothing and accessories designed for women."

Our instructor, who regularly teaches women's motocross clinics, says women get as great a sense of accomplishment by mastering the art of riding in the dirt as men. "My students get a lot of satisfaction from overcoming their fear of going fast and conquering obstacles on the course," she adds. "It's very rewarding."

Three, Two, One:

Tires float up on the other side of the jump, with the coach's encouragement.

Credit: Randi Berez

Our class starts with the basics: First, Gonzalez-Natvig gives us a safety orientation approved by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, and then she introduces us to the motorcycles. The Kawasaki KLX125 off-road motorcycles we ride have 125cc engines with a kick start -- something most of us, all licensed motorcycle riders with varying levels of street-riding experience, are not familiar with, because modern street motorcycles have electric starters.

We learn to brake primarily with our foot brake, which slows the rear wheel, instead of our front-wheel hand brake, as on a street motorcycle. We practice maneuvering the bikes around cone circles, eventually weaving in and out in a figure eight like a team of synchronized swimmers. We learn to stand up on the pegs as we cross obstacles, and practice shifting our weight from side to side in the turns.

When Gonzalez-Natvig finally gives us the go-ahead to ride the entire track, we shoot off through the dust. As I shift into second and third gear on the straightaways, it feels as if I might start flying. Slowing into the turns, we alternate riding tight inside turns and taking the turns wider, rolling up on the bank. In several spots, we have to stand up to clear small bumps -- but we are standing anyway, for the fun of it. After what feels like hundreds of laps (really only ten or so), our instructor finally waves us in for lunch.

When our break is over, the real excitement begins when we learn how to jump off a dirt ramp. Gonzalez-Natvig demonstrates first -- a bright blue figure soaring through the air, landing effortlessly on the other side. We start more slowly, practicing accelerating up the ramp. Finally, with her urging us on, we each hit the jump with enough speed to soar off the other side, all landing safely. It's like jumping on a bicycle -- only faster, and with a much more satisfying noise.

By the end of the day, we are ragged with fatigue. Even so, Gonzalez-Natvig just about has to drag us off the bikes to make us stop riding. If there's a motocross team with room for a bunch of 30-something novice women riders, we are so there.

Merri Baldwin is an attorney in San Francisco.

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