Los Angeles - The "girl" bike has long been a put-down for motorcycles so diminutive and underpowered that no "real" bikers would be caught riding them.
But a number of niche motorcycle makers that produce lightweight, low-to-the-ground models say they are experiencing unusually high sales these days, particularly among women.
Just 11 percent of motorcyclists are women, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council in Irvine, Calif., but Taiwanese manufacturer SYM says 80 percent of its 266-pound Wolf Classic buyers are women. Cleveland CycleWerks in Ohio says more than 30 percent of customers for its 300-pound Tha Heist are female.
Neither manufacturer designed the bikes specifically for women. In fact, both companies have been surprised by the high demand from female riders who seem attracted to the scaled-down, easy-to-control motorcycles that don't break the bank and achieve a fuel economy of more than 70 miles per gallon.
"When women sit on our bikes, they feel comfortable," Cleveland CycleWerks founder Scott Colosimo said of Tha Heist, a 250-cc, '50s-style bobber with an ultra-low, 24-inch seat that makes it easy for vertically challenged riders to reach the ground. Its price tag of $3,195 is also a draw.
Female buyers are seen as a huge growth market for the motorcycle industry, which has been in a sales slump for three years. But psychological, financial and physical barriers have prevented more women from becoming riders.
Women tend to have less upper body strength than men, making it more challenging to control the heavy motorcycles that dominate the market. Most motorcycles weigh 400 to 800 pounds. The average American woman is 5 feet 4 inches compared with 5 foot 9 for men, so leg length is also an issue.
"Women need to have their feet flat on the ground. That's the No. 1 factor that makes it easier for women to manage a bike," said Genevieve Schmidt, founder of WomenRidersNow.com, a website with 160,000 monthly visitors. "One of the big barriers for women getting into motorcycling is self-confidence. They don't think they can handle a big machine or have the physical skills needed to ride."
Nearly 9 of 10 motorcyclists are male, despite a 45 percent increase in women's ridership, from 660,000 in 2003 to 960,000 in 2009, the latest data available. Still, the major motorcycle manufacturers have in recent years looked to reduce seat heights on some models. They all have some bikes that do especially well with women. Ducati says 17 percent of the buyers of its 796-cc or smaller Monsters since 1993 have been female. American Honda Motor Co. says 20 percent of the buyers of its 750-cc Shadow cruisers are women, and almost half of them are first-time buyers.
Harley-Davidson - which has been proactive in fostering female ridership with bike lift workshops that show women how to pick up 500-pound motorcycles and women-only garage parties at its dealerships - counts lower, lighter-weight models such as the SuperLow among its bestsellers with women.
Although all of the Japanese manufacturers offer lightweight, low-to-the-ground 250-cc starter bikes in their lineups, they cater to only two distinct riding communities: sport bike riders and cruisers. Niche manufacturers are targeting other, more style-specific retro scenes hearkening back to the '50s, '60s and '70s for which there aren't any new, mainstream, entry-level options.
SYM's $2,999 Wolf Classic is a throwback to vintage '70s Hondas and today's enormously popular cafe racer scene - a nod to an era when riders individualized their bikes by stripping them to the basics and racing them between cafes. Cleveland CycleWerks' Tha Heist is a tribute to the spartan bobbers of the '50s, only with precision-cut parts that make it look custom and modern.
California Scooter Co.'s 150-cc motorcycle, available in six colors as well as a pink Babydoll version for $3,695, is an update of a motorcycle first introduced in 1947. Although its tractor seat and wide handlebars are reminiscent of a vintage Indian, its 27-inch saddle, 240 pounds and 65 mph top speed have made it a hit with female buyers.
"There's a lot of ladies who want to learn to ride motorcycles," said Steve Seidner, an aftermarket Harley-Davidson builder for 23 years who founded California Scooter in La Verne, Calif., in 2008. "We hear it all the time. The guys say, 'I want my wife to ride with me,' but … a Harley is too heavy."
There is, however, a downside to lightweight motorcycles: They usually have less power.
"Girl bikes are great motorcycles to start on," said Schmidt of WomenRidersNow.com, "but pretty soon women will outgrow them and want a big girl bike or a man's motorcycle."