Taking the front seat

Women are taking their turn at the handlebars—and Marg Vatamaniuck is loving every moment of it

Marg Vatamaniuck prepares for this weekend’s Port Alberni Toy Run on Saturday

It’s a new year, a new bike and a new outlook in the motorcycling community. And Marg Vatamaniuck loves every moment of it.

Vatamaniuck will be one of 1,000 or more bikers taking over the city’s streets as part of the 32nd annual Port Alberni Toy Run on Saturday, Sept. 17.

“The first time I ever went in and got a bike, the guy talked over my head to my husband,” said Vatamaniuck, who   got her licence in 2004.

“How do you think that made me feel?”

It didn’t make her feel great at the time but it’s made the change in the motorcycling community all the more significant.

“People are starting to realize that women are getting more and more into it,” said Vatamaniuck.

“The salesmen used to just talk to the men. Now they figure out who it is buying the bike and they talk strictly to them.”

Vatamaniuck, who was raised in a traditional, religious household, attributes the change to the freedom women have in today’s world.

“Some girlfriends and I went on a girls’ trip to Saltspring Island and we saw this little 90-year-old woman, she must have been four-foot-nothing, who walked up to us and said ‘I just want to hug all of you. In my day we just weren’t allowed to do this,’” said Vatamaniuck.

The change in attitudes can be seen everywhere—in the media, in the shops and on the road.

“When you look at the magazine articles, the difference between now and then… there used to be just a group of guys riding but now there’s a woman thrown in there,” she said.

At dealerships, the bikes are being made for women, who are often shorter and lighter than male riders.

It’s happening, Vatamaniuck thinks, because women are getting sick of being stuck on the back of a bike.

“More and more women are no longer financially dependent on men. We have our own money and we can spend it whichever way we want. If we want to get a bike, we can go out and get a bike.”

But it’s been a slow, incremental change.

When Vatamaniuck wanted to buy a bike for her first vehicle as a teen, her father ordered her in no uncertain terms to stay away.

“My father was very traditional and said there’s only two types of women who like motorcycles and my daughter is neither one of them,” she said.

“I got the message loud and clear.”

The rules weren’t the same for the boys then.

“When I was a kid, both my brothers had bikes,” she said, noting that it was her brothers’ love of motorcycles that initially got her hooked.

“I remember it distinctly. Grade 2 was the first time I was ever on a bike because my brother put me in front of him on the gas tank and rode me around the block,” Vatamaniuck said, smiling at the memory.

“As far as I was concerned, we were going really, really, really fast. I know for a fact we probably weren’t but oh, boy did he ever catch it at home from my mom.”

It wasn’t until 2004 that Vatamaniuck bought a little scooter to try out. She’d ridden with her husband, Dan, in the Port Alberni Toy Run the year prior and she was hooked. She’s ridden every year since and will be there again this year.

“I bought a scooter and I think it was my husband’s excuse that if I got a scooter then it was a way for him to get back into motorcycles. So then he got a bike and then I got a small little learner and bombed around in it,” she said.

“Since then it’s been getting bigger and bigger and bigger because we’re going on longer and longer trips.”

Those trips have taken her as far afield as Manitoba and North Dakota—the former of which spurred on yet another upgrade.

“In 2010 we made a trip to Manitoba and I was on a 650cc and at one point my husband looked at me and said ‘you need a bigger bike’ because at 100-120 km/hr I was fighting the bike,” she said.

So Vatamaniuck bought a cruiser, a Harley-Davidson Heritage Softtail.

“This is a cruiser because I like to go long distances. Last year my husband and I rode all the way to Sturgess, North Dakota and that was on a bike like this,” she said. Since then, she’s upgraded to a bigger engine but kept the same style of bike.

“This is a Heritage Softtail. This is the classic bike look without the fairing, which is the big windscreen. They’re light, they’re easy to handle,” Vatamaniuck explained.

“Less weight, more power—I can go really fast!”

The independence of a bike, rather than a car, appeals to Vatamaniuck.

“Although you’re travelling with a group, you’re more autonomous. If you feel like stopping because there’s a really gorgeous viewpoint, you can stop,” she said.

“You don’t have to tap somebody on the shoulder and say ‘you need to stop and find a place to park.’”

Biking also offers a chance to get out of your own head.

“I like the fact that when you get on the bike, you have to concentrate on the bike. You can’t take it for granted, you can’t be not on the ball because you have no protection.

“So whatever junk is weighing you down, you need to leave it because if you don’t leave it, you’re going to get into trouble,” said Vatamaniuck.

And she’s seen first hand the trouble you can get into on a bike. Vatamaniuck works at the Chapel of Memories and never so much as bikes around the block without a helmet. And to keep her anonymity out on the bike, Vatamaniuck has a long blonde braid attached to the back of her helmet—in contrast to her short hair.

“I’ve seen what can happen. It’s not pretty.”

But despite that, she’s excited to see more and more bikes on the road, men and women alike.

“I think that all of North America is starting to evolve,” Vatamaniuck said.

“In North America, we see motorcycles as recreational vehicles. In Europe, not so much because of the history and the economy over there and all their austerity measures—it used to be that people could only afford motorcycles or little scooters.”

Working on call every other week means that Vatamaniuck switches off between her bike and a car.

“When I’m on call every second week I have to answer the phone 24 hours a day and it’s really hard to dispatch calls and crews when I’m on the bike.”

But if circumstances ever change, Vatamaniuck would ditch the car in a second.

“Definitely.”

reporter@albernivalleynews.com

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