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Bonnie’s cross country Flathead ride

Bonnie French on her '47 Flathead Harley
Bonnie French on her '47 Flathead Harley

Virginia woman Bonnie French, 57, has just completed a solo cross-country trip through 22 US states on a 1947 Flathead Harley to inspire the next generation to get off the couch.

The intrepid rider has been riding over 40 years and her 69-year-old mount features an old-school kickstarter, foot clutch and a tank shift.

Her solo ride was in honour of the pioneering Van Buren sisters who crossed the USA 100 years ago on Indian motorcycles.

She says the Flathead broke down nearly every day.

In the end, “The good lord brought me home safe”.

Here’s her incredible story in her own words:

People ask.  “What is a Pioneer Woman?” For 24 days this July, I rode a 1947, 74 inch Flathead Harley- Davidson west from Dinwiddie, VA, to Pickerington, Ohio to The Motor Cycle Hall of Fame Museum. 

Then, I travelled to Colorado Springs’ Pikes Peak, honoring the Pioneer Women of motorcycling 100 years ago.  I wanted to see if I could master the Pikes Peak which is over 14,000ft. I made it to the 13,000 feet because Sonny, my Flathead, was tired.

Victory Motorcycles Project 156 streetfighter Pikes Peak
Pikes Peak

Then I continued on to the West Coast, San Diego.  Everyone knows what Pioneer Motorcyclist means, but I want to live it, breathe it, eat it and sleep it so that I could experience it.

They rode on dirt.  I rode asphalt.  They had knobby tires to ride the dirt. I had modern tires for today’s highways. I slept on the ground and on the asphalt, in alleys on dirt, and sometimes in people’s houses when offered.  I ate out of cans and also what people offered. 

I broke down just about every day, mostly struggling with the shifts in elevation, but I knew the mechanics of my bike because I had been riding it for 35 years.  I had connections through The Vintage Motorcycle Club of America and many old school motorcycle shops all over the country, just like the Pioneer Women did.  I knew who to call.  I had a cellphone, but most of the time there was little reception.

I chose to travel solo because I kick start my motor cycle and tank shift and foot clutch just like the old gals. Just like my Daddy taught me over 42 years ago.Bonnie French on her '47 Flathead Harley

My Daddy and Mama were my inspiration.  My Daddy taught me how to kick a motor when I was only 13. I felt like the Holy Spirit was running through my veins. I was too young to know then, but Dad had ignited the sparkplug and had sent his Tomboy daughter on an asphalt lifetime journey. He used to educate me about motorcycle women and the labels that society placed on them. Daddy knew that these labels would follow me into my generation, and he wanted me to be strong enough to hand the legacy of the vintage motorcycle off to the next generation.

These are the things that he taught me (The hard-knocks of motorcycle):

1. There is a technique to kicking a motorcycle or riding any motorcycle. 

2. No motorcycle is too big for you. You are always in control of the bike.

3. Always respect it.  Don’t ever lose respect for that machine because that is when he is coming for you, full throttle. Just like a lover.

In the early ’70s my Daddy and Mama taught me the history.  Daddy taught me to be serious and passionate about wanting to ride.  Riding is a dangerous hobby.  You need to ride, learn, know it, and teach it.  Never feel dominated by any other Motorcycle rider because you will be prepared.  I taught myself the basic controls.

Daddy passed on the legacy to me by sharing stories of the Pioneer men and women, about their cycling in the early ’50s.  The 1952 Panhead had big sideboard.  Mama said whenever he turned the corner, the sideboards kissed the asphalt and sparks flew just like the 4th of July.  Just like their first kiss. 

Then Daddy taught me that the relationship between me and my motorcycle was like a marriage. Sonny, was my motorcycle on this tour. He would know my moods.  He would catch my tears. He would feel my smiles, and He would brush my hair with the wind.

Mama taught me the survival skills of life. Although she had very little self-confidence, she was strong and she was going to make sure that I had self-confidence. Command respect and give respect. We are all born with some type of survival skills. I had and aptitude for motorcycles.  I had to connect the motorcycle skills with lessons from my Mama. I call this “My First Tool Box” (full of knowledge)

I knew every sound Sonny made.  I knew every ache and pain. We communicated because we know each other heart and soul.  I am a member of The Vintage Motorcycle Club of America and because of the many helpful old school motorcycle shops all over the country, I was able to get the knowledge from all the other VMCA chapters along the way, and I was able to repair Sonny. 

From all the years of riding and the lessons in respect that my Mama taught me, I knew where to get the information- Only old school shops—and NEVER LEAVE YOUR PARTNER. When I arrived at each destination, they actually pulled their own bikes off the rack and put mine up.  I was treated like a queen.  Just like a man opening a door for a lady. I don’t know if this treatment was because I was a lady or whether it was that I was riding a 1947 74 incher and I knew the lingo. 

I would like to take the time to mention one of many angels along the road.  Most of the time I could get Stanley Miller on my cell. I have never met this gentleman, but through his VMCA connections, he was able to connect me appropriate old school garages. Okay, I know the Pioneer Women didn’t have cellphones, but most of the time there was little reception.

The anniversary of the Pioneer Women attracted notice all over the country with modern day women gathering in Brooklyn, NY July 3, 2016 that marks the 100th year of Adeline Van Buren’s famous transcontinental cross country journey.  I chose to travel solo because I wanted to repeat The Pioneer Women style of riding and their style of living. 

Van Buren Sisters historic ride
The Van Buren Sisters

This bike was appropriate for this ride because of the vintage.  Since my Daddy taught me that day, I have lived, loved, instructed, built, and educated others. I became a professional national educator (MSF). I became a professional for Rider’s Edge-Harley- Davidson.  I had my own private schools for over 40 years.

I wanted to be the Pioneer Woman because I am still, kicking, foot clutching, and hand jamming. People ask me, “Are there other women riding old school, vintage exclusively?”  I haven’t seen any in my travels, but if there are any out there, we need to get together and plan how to pass on this heritage of the most beautiful motorcycles ever born.

Although the women in Brooklyn inspire other modern day women, I wanted to experience the old school trials and trails of the real Pioneer Women. I think I came pretty close to the experience and I want to inspire a new rider to continue the legacy.  I have continued the legacy by teaching.   

I have owned over 200 vintage Motorcycles. In 1988, as an employee of The York Harley-Davidson Company, I founded and was the president of the only inside employee club, and I was the only woman to lead a man’s club. I rode the biggest Harley that they made. 

How did I do that? 

I earned respect from what was perceived as a male dominated industry, by teaching many men how to ride the beast that I rode. I knew my machine, and they knew I knew my machine. In 1993 I led the club to Westernville, Ohio, the original site of the Hall of Fame, and accepted a plaque for the York Motor Company Employees. From this, other branches of the club were formed. 

Currently, I was voted by all men to be Road Captain of the Red Knights, Chapter 8 in Virginia. It is not a male-dominated world of motorcycling.  We just need to know our machines.  Sonny, my motorcycle, is currently my best friend and he shares the garage with my current partner, Jay, a 2005 FLHTCI modified foot clutch and tank shift- Pioneer Style.

I am currently working on a book that will include my personal memoirs.

Bonnie would like to thank: The Red Knights of Virginia promoters; friends and family from Virginia; son, David and granddaughter, Lilly; BA Enterprise for support of all travel parts; Café Custom Cycle for knowledge and sponsor for future race; Black Top Choppers and staff; Blue Star Cycle and staff; Vintage Motorcycle Club of America; Departure Bikeworks and staff; Tuttles family and friends; the West family; Athens Harley-Davidson in Ohio and Small Engines in Petersburg and staff.

  1. 27 and has been riding for over 40 years?
    The panhead broke down ? you said it was a flathead.

  2. Bonnie was a good friend of my family for years, hence, why my mom was WITH HER in her ride. She likes to say that she rode ‘solo,’ but that’s just because of her ego. The truth is, 1/3 of the trip was in the back of my mom’s truck. When she broke down, how do you think she got to the next shop? And when she got to the shops, my mother explained to me that they weren’t always so welcoming. Some complained that she should’ve been more prepared considering she didn’t even look over her motorcycle before she left. She ignores my mom now so the truth doesn’t get out, but it eats me away every time I see her get more publicity when she’s lying to everyone. Look at her Facebook page. She refers to her ‘chase-truck driver’ often. Note: That was my mom. She’s just disappointed that she couldn’t do what she had set out to do, but now she’s painting a picture in your head because she knows you’ll believe it.

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