Friday, 15 August 2014

Grey-haired, Harley-riding grandma: 'My goal is to keep riding until I’m 100'

A great-grandmother is bent on riding her Harley Davidson until she hits the age of 100.

This summer, to celebrate her 89th birthday, Gloria Tramontin Struck of Clifton, New Jersey will ride her blue Harley Davidson 2,736km to Sturgis, South Dakota. There she knows she will be treated like a queen, a celebrity, a legend. Grown men will beg to have their pictures taken by her side. 

When the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is over, many of those men will strap their motorcycles onto trailers and drive away in the comfort of their air-conditioned, leather-seated, globally positioned pick-up trucks. Struck will point her Harley towards New Jersey and ride 2,736km home. “We do not trailer bikes,” Struck says. “We ride.”

Few people walking around today can trace their lives back to the early days of American motorcycling; even fewer of them still ride. Struck, who was born in 1925, is known by Harley aficionados around the US as a rare living connection to the days when few people rode motorcycles cross-country, and women rode barely at all.

“Gloria is the matriarch of women riders,” says Kathy McKenzie, general sales manager of Chester’s, an enormous Harley Davidson dealership in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. In May, the dealership paid to fly Struck to Florida so she could speak to an all-female group of young bikers and women interested in taking up the activity. 

“Women were supposed to stay home, they weren’t supposed to speak unless they were spoken to,” McKenzie says of the way things were in 1941, when Struck started riding as a teenager. “They sure weren’t supposed to get out and ride their own motorcycles and make their own path.”

Perhaps it was fate. Her first photograph shows Struck inside the belly of her mother, who was pictured pregnant, smiling and standing next to a motorcycle sidecar. The next photo in Struck’s thick album finds her at age two, tightening a loose nut on a motorcycle. “I never forgot the feeling I had at that moment,” she says. “I was so proud of myself.”

A few months later, her father, Ernest, died in a motorcycle accident. As a child she never wanted to ride, not from fear of what happened to her father, but because riding a motorcycle was a bold pastime for a shy girl. “I was very timid, very meek. And women didn’t ride back then,” Struck says.

Her older brother decided she should ride anyway, and so she did. Five years later, in 1946, she joined the Motor Maids, one of the earliest motorcycle clubs for women. She took her first ride to Daytona, Florida, in 1951 to watch men race motorcycles right on the beach.

And she rode against the prevailing sentiments of the time, which held that only bad girls rode motorcycles. A gas station attendant refused to sell her gas along the way, and a motel refused to let her stay the night. “People thought women on motorcycles were tramps. I hadn’t even had my first date and I was called a tramp,” she says. “Women weren’t supposed to be doing this.”

Struck started riding on a 1941 Indian Bonneville Scout. Since then, she’s owned two more Indians and 11 Harleys. Some she loved more than others, including the Riviera Blue Harley she rode from Toronto to Montreal in 1950. The trip was considered so unique at the time that Harley Davidson Enthusiast magazine ran a full page story about it, with pictures, two years after it happened.

Her current bike is a 2004 Heritage Soft Tail Classic. Unlike so many modern Harleys, it's not a trophy bike, polished to a blinding shine and trotted out on weekends for showing off. It has black studded leather saddlebags that sag from use, a scuff on the windshield inflicted last summer by an errant truck tire that came bouncing down a highway and nearly cut Struck’s head off. The odometer reads 79,912km.

“We rode 1,344km one day when I was 87 years old,” Struck says. Now she rides only in the company of her daughter, Lori DeSilva, who pilots her own Harley Electra Glide Ultra Classic. “We don’t fool around,” Struck adds.

Her daughter prefers to ride slowly and obey local speed limits. This drives Struck crazy. When she can’t take it anymore, Struck pulls alongside and kicks DeSilva’s motorcycle with her foot. Then she twists her own throttle and speeds off down the highway.

Struck weighs 56kg. Her bike weighs 317kg. She's in no way intimidated. Struck has become accustomed to people marvelling at her age. It’s been going on for a quarter-century. In her photo album, she keeps a 1991 story from what was then called the Herald & News about a certain grey-haired, Harley-riding grandma from Clifton. Since then, she’s become a great-grandmother and an octogenarian. She’s been featured in more magazines and newspapers than she can remember.

And still she refuses to stop. Two years ago, Struck woke up the morning of her annual trip to Daytona to find the ground covered in snow. So she grabbed a shovel and cleared a path – just wide enough for a full-sized Harley– halfway down the block. “Me! A grey-haired old woman shovelling a path for her motorcycle!” she recalls.

The 89-year-old Struck has certain standards. For example, she can’t envision a day when, like other older riders, she switches to an easier-to-control three-wheel Harley. “My goal is to keep riding on two wheels until I’m 100,” she said. “Anybody can do that on three wheels.” – MCT Information Services

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