Heads turn as these roadies zoom along the highway in their gleaming Harley-Davidsons. Their helmets and padded gear reveal little about them, but once they stop for a chai break, the onlookers get a reality check.
“Yeh to ledeej hain (they are women!),” is the commonest expression of awe they get. That soon gives way to curiosity — “Yeh kya hai? Kitne ka deta hai? (What’s this bike? What is its mileage?)
The riders strike up a conversation, take a breather and then vroom off, leaving a trail of cheers, waves and thumbs-up behind.
That’s the kind of interest seven women bikers riding Harley-Davidson have generated as they created history with a first-of-its-kind road trip across India. They are the Ladies of Harley, a year-old group of female Harley-Davidson riders in India with 1,000 registered members.
It’s the first time that these seven women, hailing from different states, were riding together, and they were on a mission — to give out the message that Indian roads are safe for women riders.
The ride began at Daman on the west coast on April 8 and wove through the Golden Quadrilateral (GQ) — the country’s largest highway network connecting some of the major cities. The plan was to cover 6,000km — Daman, Udaipur, Delhi, Kanpur, Calcutta, Bhubaneswar, Vijayawada, Chennai, Bangalore, Kolhapur and Mumbai — in a span of 14 days.
Power of seven
Behind their power-packed persona, however, are stories of women following a passion, juggling work deadlines and family responsibilities. It has been quite a challenge matching schedules for this trip too.
“It is not always easy to leave families and work behind. But we have our folks’ full support and so can chase our dreams,” said Sunita Kunjeer, the director of the team, who came up with the idea of the cross-country Ladies of Harley ride.
On April 13, the team made a pit stop in Calcutta at the Bengal Harley-Davidson showroom in New Town, Rajarhat. The ladies had settled down for lunch when we caught up with them.
Sunita said it took a lot of coordination on her part since December to put this group together. There were some last-minute dropouts too. “One rider’s daughter had her exams scheduled around this time. Two others had work commitments,” added the 43-year-old homemaker from Pune with an 18-year-old son and a 16-year-old daughter.
By March, her team was finalised. It had Anushriya Gulati from Dehra Dun and Urvashi Desai from Ahmedabad, both running their own businesses; Krupa Reddy, a marketing professional, Praveshika Katiyar, a techie, and Shirley George, an architect — all from Bangalore; and Sunita Mande, a commercial artist from Mumbai.
Shirley is the eldest member of the team at 48, while Anushriya, 23, is the youngest. All have been bikers for a very long time and have even gone on solo trips in the past.
“I have ridden a Harley for seven years now,” said Shirley, who calls her Heritage Classic “Black Stallion”. When she began riding a Harley-Davidson, there were only three like her in India; now the number of women Harley riders is growing, added Shirley, who was zipping west to east for the first time.
The lone rider from Bengal was Arundhati Das of Shibpur, a techie, and the only woman Harley member from the state. She gave the team company till Bhubaneswar.
“This is the first time I am getting to meet fellow women riders from the Harley family. We have known each other for over a year now. Our Harley Owners Group (HOG) is very active and well-connected. I get pampered by the HOG members as the only woman from Calcutta,” said Arundhati, excited to have joined the GQ team till Bhubaneswar on her silver-colour SuperLow 883, nicknamed Urjja, which she got in 2015. “The name means energy. The bike is my baby,” gushes the 35-year-old who has often gone on solo trips.
Anushriya, the youngest member in the team, was all set to complete over 110,000km with this ride. A resident of Dehra Dun, she has been riding since she was 15. It was her uncle who gifted her a Harley and that changed her life forever. “I am hardly at home. I am always on the move. Life is an adventure for Gulabo, my bike, and me. I was the first girl to ride a Harley-Davidson to Khardung La Pass in Jammu and Kashmir,” said Anushriya, who dreams of riding the world in future.
With the 31-year-old Urvashi from Ahmedabad, Anushriya has gone on road trips in the past, having completed the Big 5 rallies together. Urvashi has covered 70,000km on her bike in between running a business. “My parents always tell me to live my life to the hilt,” said the Ahmedabad resident who rides a Heritage Classic. “I call my bike Maal. Everybody wants to touch her,” she quipped.
Nicknaming their mean machines is a common practice among bikers, who confess to being more finicky about a safe parking area for their “babies” than their night halt.
“We prefer riding during the day. The lights from passing vehicles hit our eyes. So we prefer to rest it out,” added Shirley.
The GQ team has been lucky to get a sponsored “back-up plan” for this trip. “A van with a technician, our food and spare parts and equipment is following us. So for this trip we have help right behind us. The technician can also track us as also our family. We are heavily dependent on GPS,” added team leader Sunita K.
Having a detailed ride plan, route itinerary and knowledge about nearby hotels is important but the riders feel the roads are now better equipped to handle female riders. “The wayside loos have improved. Petrol pumps are better equipped. Signage has improved. Because of better Internet services, we know where we can get the right help,” said Sunita M. from Mumbai. The only problem — speed breakers.
The bikers feel the movement of pedestrians needs to be controlled better. “Since there is no way of stopping locals from crossing highways, unmarked speed breakers have come up at several places. These are often huge undulations that give us a lot of grief,” added Krupa.
They have been chased by cars and other bikers and have had people trying to come too close and take their pictures, but these power women know how to handle roadside adulation. “It’s difficult to discern our gender while we are riding. We do face chasing bikes and cat calls but we know how to leave them all behind,” laughed Sunita M.
The bikers are careful about speed, never crossing 100km-120km on the highway. “We have to be careful as cattle often come in our way,” added Shirley. They also never compromise on their safety gear, even while riding on a hot summer afternoon.
Reaching Calcutta turned out to be a visual treat for the gang of girls. “The highway here is so green and beautiful,” said the ladies who have formed a stronger camaraderie during this trip. From looking after each other and sharing gear to waiting for the last biker to catch up, the GQ girls ensure none feels left out.
“Sunita (Kunjeer) is the mother hen. She takes care of us,” chipped in Anushriya. “I have travelled solo in the past but riding with a team is a lot more fun. I also get to scold around a bit!” said Sunita, tongue in her cheek.
This GQ team is learning from their daily experiences. “The roads are indeed getting better for female bikers and more should take off like us. But we have never seen poverty of this scale before,” added Shirley.
Midway into their adventure, the Harley ladies had already started planning their next. “We need to take off with our bikes every now and then. I already have 100 routes and itineraries buzzing in my head. We have families and obligations, but ultimately we have to make time for our passion,” said the director of team GQ, echoing the sentiment of her girl gang.
She inherited her love for bikes from her father and started learning to ride during her teens. All her previous bikes have been gifts from her dad.
In September 2015 Arundhati Das of Shibpur decided to buy a Harley Davidson with her own money, becoming the first woman from the state to do so. A silver SuperLow 883 made the software engineer the only woman member of the Calcutta chapter of Harley Owners Group.
Since then life has been an adventure for this Howrah girl who has covered 30,000km on her bike. “My first trip on Urjja, my bike, was a solo one to Mandarmani. I rode at night, something we prefer not to,” said the slightly-built biker, for whom her height was never a problem.
“A short person can ride any bike. There have been difficult moments. My teammates were once worried when I was required to do a lot more balancing because of my height while manoeuvring a steep stretch in Ladakh. But the trick is to never lose your nerve,” said Arundhati, who joined the Golden Quadrilateral team for a part of their tour.
Her most memorable ride was also a solo one to Balasore to celebrate the second “birth anniversary” of her “baby”.
The techie often has a tough time managing her adventure schedule with a demanding job. “But I have to follow my passion every now and then,” said the girl who plans to ride across the globe in the future. Even when she travels with friends, she rides while others take a flight.
Not one to get swayed by roadside adulation, she prefers to ride at her own pace. “State highways need to improve. I am not fussy about night halts as long as I get a safe parking area for my bike. But bumpy roads often bother me,” said Arundhati. “Mishaps are a part of life. Not everything will go smooth during a road trip. But one must focus on the road and move on.” So a biker must know her machine well and be able to detect a fault in time. “It’s important to always be alert. If you feel drowsy, take rest and then start again,” she signed off.