Kelly Yazdi is thinking what I’m thinking. We’ve just picked up a pair of Indian motorcycles on the Pacific Coast Highway near Malibu. We’re supposed to shuttle them to downtown Los Angeles for a women’s motorcycle event there. Showing up at such mixers is certainly a part of the 27-year-old’s job, which can be loosely defined as follows: model, biker chick, event planner, brand ambassador.
But a quick scan of the brake lights in an unrelenting line from Pacific Palisades to the city has inspired an audible. The words “We don’t have to go to downtown L.A.” have barely left her lips before I’m nodding in agreement and we’re blasting down the 1 toward Baja.
Becoming a successful model once required Amazonian height, a waifish waist and high cheekbones, and hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers. No longer. Yazdi, who’s wearing what she calls her “Paul Bunyan flannel” with paint chips on it, is among a legion of pioneering women who ride motorcycles and who are rewriting the rules, opening doors with their looks but then creating lasting brands that transcend physical beauty in favor of something they actually like doing. And they might just save the motorcycle industry.
As we blast down the PCH, Yazdi goofs off, dropping a foot on the asphalt, leaning forward until she’s almost prone to punch the air ahead, tricks she picked up working as a stuntwoman in Hollywood from 2012 to 2015. Moves like this inspire scorn from the legion of grumpy old dudes who are not entirely pleased that the fairer sex is elbowing its way into their hobby; just as they “mansplain” at the gym, men like to chastise women they deem posers. Yazdi laughs it off. She grew up riding dirt bikes in the backwoods of Minnesota with her brothers, and she’s entirely comfortable fending off the haters.
She’s also well aware that the future of the motorcycle industry is female. Motorcycle ownership among all adults has declined precipitously over the past decade or two, thanks largely to economic instability in Yazdi’s generation: Millennials can’t afford to buy cars these days, much less motorcycles. The weekend riders of yore are graying, and that’s a terrifying sociological shift to the makers of motorcycles. Their brands rely on growth, and thankfully they’ve recently discovered what Yazdi calls the “secret sauce”—women.
Yazdi wants to build a culture, not a following, and a brand for herself that’s not just based on appearance. She works with Indian Motorcycle and other bike companies not only to pose for pictures but to put together events: Last year she was the principal creator of the women’s only festival Wild Gypsy Tour at Sturgis Buffalo Chip, the nation’s premier motorcycle gathering.
Women now make up one of the industry’s fastest-growing segments, and they have for the past decade. In 1998, only 8 percent of motorcycle registrations belonged to women, according to a recent survey conducted by the Motorcycle Industry Council. By 2014, the number of female owners nearly tripled. What’s interesting about that growth transcends statistics, though.
Many women are discovering motorcycles as an expression of freedom, as a potent symbol that they’re not content riding shotgun on the back of a man’s bike. For some, it’s even deeper than that. “There’s always been this box for women to fit into, that [says] women can only do these certain things,” Yazdi says. “I want to make that box bigger.”
Leah Misch, 31, is a nurse in Wisconsin. The first time she’d ever gotten on a bike was at age 10, and she pulled the throttle of a dirt bike so hard that it flipped back on top of her. She rediscovered motorcycles eight years ago after one of her friends decided she wanted to learn how to ride one. “I was like, ‘Girls don’t ride motorcycles. You’re going to get hurt.'”
But the woman took a riding safety class and “came back so excited,” Misch says. “I thought, Huh. I wonder if I could learn to ride a motorcycle.” That year, Misch left an abusive relationship and penned “bucket list” to inspire her. Near the top of the list: Learn how to ride. Misch took the same class as her friend, and by the end of the day she was a motorcyclist.
Misch has laid down her bike a few times; once, in 2010, she broke her back and punctured her lung in a wreck that nearly paralyzed her. But every time she’s laid a bike down, “I’ve learned from it,” she says. In 2015, Misch took her Indian Scout on a road trip around the U.S. People would stop her at gas stations and ask bewildered questions like, “Are you riding that? Are you by yourself?”
Last year, she went to Sturgis, with no windshield and a tent strapped to the handlebars, and met Lee Munro, the great-nephew of New Zealander and “World’s Fastest Indian” Burt Munro, at a track race nearby. Three months later, Misch was in New Zealand, riding with Munro around the South Island, at his invitation. She agrees with Yazdi that women riders are the future of the industry. “For every one woman rider,” she says, “you can bring in four men.”
The first leg of my ride with Yazdi lasts about five minutes before we duck into Duke’s, a cheesy Hawaiian bar, for a beer and a backstory—hers. When Yazdi was 11, her oldest sister died of a drug overdose. Two years later, her father fell asleep at the wheel and collided head-on with a tanker truck at 70 miles per hour. He was in a coma for a year.
“I literally had to reteach my dad how to talk. I was feeding him Gerber baby food,” Yazdi says. “I missed a lot of things.” He suffered various complications over the next decade, and in 2014 died of a burst growth between his aorta and his lungs. Yazdi emerged from that trauma determined to live at the peak. She has never had a nine-to-five job, and she has the physical beauty to keep it that way. But she wants more than Instagram likes of pretty pictures of herself.
For Yazdi, motorcycling represents a way to live life at its maximum setting. Last year, she quit social media for three months, weary of a virtual world full of click-based accolades. “I don’t need to be a social media star,” she says. “It’s not a real thing.”
In December, tired of L.A. and needing to recalibrate her life, Yazdi, her Australian shepherd, Kai, and her Weimaraner, Moose, moved to the frozen north, to Fairbanks, Alaska. Now she’s organizing an event that will launch in 2019 in Hawaii, called the Aloha Way of Life Festival, featuring music, motorcycles, surfing, and art. “I wanted to be in a place I could really launch something.”
What that looks like is weirdly simple, in a way. The morning after we meet for beers, a photographer and marketing guy for Indian joins us for a day’s drive along the coast. Her job is just to ride, and to look good riding, and to stop at scenic vistas along the way and whip off her helmet and shake her hair and smile for the camera. My job is to tag along and stand there awkwardly while she and Indian make a bit of a scene on the PCH.
In one way, I’m watching a standard modeling shoot. But I’m also watching Yazdi build a brand (herself) and a relationship (with Indian) that she can leverage to sponsor the adventure rallies and festivals she creates. “That’s how I tie all this stuff together,” she says.