Four motorcycles roar into a parking lot with a flash of chrome and pink decorative LED lights. Long black pigtails streaked with pink and gray fly past. A biker wearing a helmet with skull insignias and ponytails breezes by. • As the posse dismounts, one of the riders swings down the kickstand with her black stiletto boot. Helmets come off, and long hair tumbles out. The sleek cyclists straighten themselves and address each other by their riding names: Dukkes, Bebe, Rock Steady and Boo-Boo.
A group of men standing outside a local coffeehouse stare. The cyclists know this reaction well. The women also catch the attention of children, who often wave and smile as they pass.
In the bay area, watching women motorcyclists ride solo is like seeing a snowstorm in South Florida.
Heidi Laracuente and her friends Gail Guthrie, Sarah Murray and Ini Soto are part of a growing sisterhood in the motorcycle culture. The Motorcycle Industry Council reported a 28 percent rise in female motorcycle operators in 2008, the last year the council surveyed riders.
At Barney's of Brandon, sales manager Thomas Griner said sales to women cyclists have increased over the past 10 years.
Still, female motorcyclists are an unusual breed.
"We know we're far and few between," said Murray, 30, a federal Department of Defense contractor and former Marine.
Long hair and tight jeans aside, these ladies can handle their bikes. Guthrie, for example, said she knows how to change her R1 Yamaha's oil and battery and oil its chain. Before being certified to ride, each had to complete a safety course required by the state. Each rider says she has a healthy respect for the bike and the highway.
The women share a love of the open road that began with their husbands and fathers, who had motorcycles. Laracuente, 29, a mother of two and an insurance adjuster, remembers how she once feared motorcycles. But they kept calling her.
"I sat on it in the garage one day and said, 'One day I'm going to ride this thing,' " said Laracuente, who lives in Valrico. Eventually she got her own bike and now rides a black and gray 1300 Suzuki Hayabusa with pink LED accent lights.
In this group, there are novices and old hands. Soto, a 30-year-old who lives in Tampa, has been riding solo for nearly a year. Laracuente has ridden solo for two years. Guthrie and Murray are the veterans, with four years of experience apiece.
They remember the harrowing experience that was their first solo ride. And some of them have injuries to prove that they've been battle tested. Guthrie, who lives in Brandon, has bruised her knee and her chest.
Laracuente racked up a hipbone injury and "road rash," or lacerations. She gave herself the riding name Boo-Boo, which is what she told her family she had gotten when she arrived home from the accident.
Neither woman lets accidents deter her desire to ride.
"You trust yourself and you trust the bike," said Guthrie, 30, a purchasing assistant. "If you don't get back on, you'll never get back on."
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The women, who have now gathered inside the coffee shop, talk about their fears, in particular, careless motorists. Sometimes drivers don't see the bikes. And the women said they can't stop as quickly as cars.
"You've got to keep going," said Murray, recalling a near-accident she had earlier in the day when a white Cadillac quickly merged in front of her on the road. "I paid too much money to stop."
Murray, who lives in Tampa, prefers to ride in open spaces, away from traffic. Sitting atop her Yamaha V-Star 650 Classic and cruising over local bridges is among her more peaceful riding experiences, she said.
"On the bike you can think," Murray said.
"This bike has helped me find myself," she said.
For Laracuente, riding is her sanity and therapy. Her motorcycle passion inspired her to lead the Click Chics, a branch of the co-ed motorcycle club known as the Click.
The group unites women who enjoy riding together for fun and to support fundraising efforts for causes like breast cancer research.
Laracuente said riding with women is different from riding with a mixed group. Women cater to one another in a way that men don't, she said. Men go for several miles until they get hungry. Women stop for more bathroom breaks. They ride slower, and they don't mind stopping to freshen up their lipstick.
Belinda Kramer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.