Suzanne Walker

When my father asked if I would sell my first dirt bike, the capable, ever-puttering little XR100, my impulse was to refuse.

The 100 was the first bike I had ever sat on (and had flown off of) at eight years old. It was the bike that had imbued me with confidence when we made it to the top of a climb, and apologized to when we skidded out on loose rock. The bike was, in an absurd way, like a pet I had grown up with. Even though I had not ridden it in years (and would look like a circus clown with my knees at my ears should I try), I couldn’t imagine getting rid of it.

“It’s your call,” my dad said. “Just think it over. It’d be for the sheriff’s daughter. Might be nice to pass it on to another girl to ride.”

“A girl?” I asked incredulously.

“Yep, a bit older than you when you started. Thought it’d be the right bike for her.”

I was quiet for a moment as I mulled it over. On one hand, I wanted to hold on to the dirt bike responsible for my love of riding. On the other, I wanted to give a young girl her start. In my mind, there’s no bike better for that age or level. The XR’s short frame allowed me even at a young age to stop and put my feet down flat. The bike’s weight was not overwhelming, either; at 160 pounds, it was much more manageable than the average dirt bike. When I started out on the XR, I needed that sense of self-sufficiency I found when, having fallen over, I was still able to heave my dirt bike back up and start again. The XR was also fairly easy to kick-start, rumbling back to life after one or two tries. Finally (and perhaps most importantly for a kid new to a clutch) it was always very forgiving. Not quite enough gas when I let out the clutch? Not a problem: the XR would putter and stutter along, giving me time to correct my mistake. I have ridden a few other dirt bikes since but nothing that fit quite like that little Honda.

The simple fact is that most dirt bikes are not built for a woman. A woman of average height, for example, will find herself straining to touch her tippy-toes to the ground when she comes to a stop. There are ways around this: a bike can be lowered, or the seat shaven down. Even once the height issue is dealt with, she must contend with the bulk of the bike itself. The WR400 that I ride today is more than 250 pounds, which means that if I crash I’m forced to lift twice my own body weight back up off the ground. Anyone who has ridden with me will acknowledge that this is not my most graceful moment and my lack of weight-lifting technique becomes painfully clear. Conversely, my 12-year-old self could pick up my XR as easily as scooping a tricycle off the ground. Fortunately I’m not so sloppy with the clutch today as I was as a child, but the issue of kick-starting remains. Even though my current dirt bike has an electric start, I force myself to kick-start it routinely for fear that a time will come when I will need to and cannot. Each of these aspects, weight, size and engine build, are more challenging on any other dirt bike than my little red XR100.

Of course, I can admit that I have long since outgrown the XR. Yes, I am now used to the size and the power of a larger bike, from kick-starting to crashing. Yet when asked if I would sell it, I realized that I still hold on to that first dirt bike (or the idea of it) because of the sense of self-reliance it gave me. But perhaps it is time to find that confidence no matter which dirt bike I’m riding.

“We should sell it,” I said at last. “The 100 will be happy to get out of the garage, anyway,” I added, hoping to reassure myself of my decision. What I meant to say was that I was happy to have ridden that dirt bike. I was happy to have ever been given the chance. I was happy to have found the trust in my XR and in myself to do what I’d not thought I was capable of. Happier still that it was time for another young girl to find that part of herself.

Suzanne Walker is from Boulder, Colorado, and has been exploring the Moab desert for more than a decade.