Please introduce yourself. I am the Founder and CEO of Torch Motorcycles in Calgary, Canada. We design, engineer, craft and build motorcycles, apparel, components and accessory wearables for women. We also run seasonal wrenching courses, adventure rides, and the Handbuilt Motorcycle Exhibition each September in our city.
I am also the Chair, Entrepreneurship, Marketing and Social Innovation at Mount Royal University and teach a number of classes related to creativity, design thinking, and human-centred design. I really like being a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics) geek and think that because of this, Torch will always be a company driven by data and the voices of women, with women and for women.
I draw my inspiration for my own builds from women’s characters, colours and music in popular culture — for example, all of my bikes and builds are named for characters from the Powerpuff Girls. This was an American animated series that I watched with my son as he grew up. We both liked that the girls were brainy and brawny at the same time.
Describe your path into motorcycling. My first recollection of riding is snowmobiling in the mid-1970s. Our neighbours were from Montreal, all boys, who invited my brother and I to spend a weekend with them in rural Alberta. I was exhilarated about the prospect of riding. I was also a little terrified when they said I could go out on my own. As soon as I figured out I was not going to run into anything – Alberta prairies are vast and beautiful – I really went for it.
We also had family friends just outside the city who had Can-Am dirt bikes and some other scramblers. I did the same thing – learned the machine, rode with someone else, and then got on the machine myself.
I was the only girl and my dad was okay with all of this, my mom not so much. My dad was the one who got me on the work bench too. He would tie flys for fishing, do odd electrical jobs, and always had a workbench with multimeters and hand tools. He was the one who taught me how to solder and stood by me when I asked to join the shop class rather than home economics in junior high school.
And then there’s the story of my brother and my very own “motorcycle”. Tired of driving me around during high school – a condition of him getting a Suzuki Jeep – he talked my mother into buying a 1984 Honda Spree. At the time, I had a part-time job at an amusement park outside of the city. If you know Canada, you know the Transcanada Highway that runs across it. On the weekends, I would ride the edge of the highway, towards the Rocky Mountains, back and forth to my job. I’d probably peak at 75 km/hour downhill with the wind at my back. I don’t ever feel like the weather bothered me. I’d make this trek come rain or shine.
After I finished university, I started my career and raised a family. I got back into motorcycling after my son went to university.
How did Torch Motorcycles come into being? Torch came from a collision of experiences and somewhat out of the blue. I’ve always been a serial entrepreneur. I’ve set up and exited two ventures successfully.
I had met my partner and sweetie Bernie May and we were out on a couples weekend on his Kawasaki Vulcan 1500. We met a fella called Lou Brown who works on old British bikes in Revelstoke. He had a beautiful Triumph and referred to it as a “lady bike”. I asked him what he meant — trying to figure out if I needed to fire up my politics but he laughed and explained that the vintage bikes tended to be smaller, still powerful enough, but that a lot of women riders liked them because they could manage them physically.
Bernie and I drove on for about another fifty km and stopped for gas. I hopped off the bike and said, “We’re starting a women’s motorcycle company, it’s called Torch Motorcycles!” In the time it took to ride between two towns, I tried to answer one question – why aren’t motorcycles designed for women? I assumed that someone else was already looking at the differentials between men and women.
I practically ran back to the university when we got home, dug into the research and realized that no one was. Our hypothesis in 2013 was that motorcycles were being sold to women in increasing numbers, but they were not being designed or engineered for women’s unique needs. Three years later, every data point we have collected reveals this to be true.
Can you describe your approach to building bikes? When we started Torch Motorcycles, we thought that we would design and engineer bikes for women. It was naive and wonderful at the same time. We knew that we’d be gathering lots of data because our Human Factors Engineer, Becky Wheat quickly found that there were no data sets on women’s anthropometrics to help us. We checked military projects, NASA, the fashion industry, etc. but found little that would be relevant for the average woman. So we created our own approach. We have a patent pending strategy to measuring women where it matters for motorcycle design.
Today we have six builders who are midway through our ‘proof of concept’ Torch Motorcycles. Six different women, ride experiences, body types and rider profiles. We build from the woman out not the bike up. A great example is Elle West, an adventure rider who has ridden from Alaska to the Panama Canal. We did all of her measurements, ran a search of all makes/models/years of bikes, and short-listed three for her. Elle found one of them as a donor bike. We meet once a week to work on the bikes. We weld, wrench, and really explore the build process together.
When we are done, we will have proof of concept bikes for six different designs, displacements, and rider profiles – everything from a 350 cc scrambler to an electric cafe racer to Elle’s adventure bike. These bikes will give us the industrial design information we need to submit 4-6 frame designs to Transport Canada. Certification for new designs costs $15K each. These grassroots solutions are the best and most affordable way we could think of to develop frame designs that we could use to mass craft for a larger market. Within two years, women will be able to go through the measurement and ride user profile process, be presented frame and component options, and either build their own or have a Torch Motorcycle crafted for them. They can be involved as much or as little as they prefer.
Tell us a good story. Becky runs our pressure imaging station where we collect data for our motorcycle seat designs. We talk guys into taking on ‘Becky’s Bet’ after they challenge us on the notion that motorcycles are unisex. It goes something like this: Becky bets the burly biker – 6’4″ or taller, often bearded, usually twice her size – that her pelvis is bigger than his. All men seem to take on this friendly wager without hesitation.
Becky invites him to have a seat on the digital sensor pad, which incidentally looks like something out of Tron, and takes his measurement. Then Becky plops down and we take her’s. She always wins. Smiles and laughter ensue.
On a more serious note, this is a great teaching moment for a lot of people who simply haven’t given much thought to physiology and body diversity, both between genders and among women. Becky explains to them the multiple factors that have negative consequences for women, specifically those that might exclude women from the sport or shake their confidence.
Have you made any close female friendships due to motorcycling? All the people I work with, no question. I also ride with the Canadian Veterans Freedom Riders as I’m a proud Air Force daughter. The women in that club are spectacular, smart and accomplished. We visit and lay wreaths at cenotaphs in smaller communities in our province. One of the women I admire most is Gail Lane. I’ve had the pleasure of working with her quite closely on a project called Two Wheel Sunday, a family-friendly gathering of motorcycle enthusiasts from around our city.
If you could go ride with any of your motorcycling heroes, who would they be? Clara Wagner or the Van Buren Sisters. And, I don’t know if they ride but I would love to ride with Amy Schumer, Chrissie Hynde, Ellen Page or Francis McDormand.
If you could change one thing about the world of motorcycling, what would it be? Not much. I love the communities we interact with – hand built, women, folks who love touring the Rockies, those who support veterans and other causes. The culture is shifting in this industry and we’re really happy to be thought leaders and innovators in this space.
What legacy do you hope to leave? Our values at Torch are where all things start and where I hope the legacy will grow – a legacy of women’s voices driving excellence, of intentional design and engineering from the woman out not the bike up, of doing our work based on real data from real body diversities, and out hope that this will have an effect on women’s participation and safety. The way women are treated matters and will have an impact on this sport that we all love and want to be a part of.