Did you know that 37 percent of women bikers report that they “always feel happy” vs. 16 percent of non-bikers? That more than half of women riders say their bike makes them happy. That 35 percent of women bikers report they always feel confident, vs. 18 percent of non-bikers? That 60 percent report biking has helped them communicate better with their significant other vs. 38 percent non-riders. That 33 percent of women bikers say riding reduces their stress. And believe this — 74 percent of women riders say that riding has improved their quality of life!! These are not just numbers spun from one’s imagination, but surveys and stats conducted by a Harley-Davidson survey in 2013.
To find out for myself, I decided to hop into bike gear and onto Alison Grun’s sturdy Harley Davidson, just as the calendar turned a page to 2021. It was a ride that shot my endorphins to all the happy spots in my brain, as we sped across Kuala Lumpur roads – The wind in my face, arms outstretched to the sky and hormones pumping across the circuitry of my body. Confident and composed like a road-devil pro, French born Alison curated a tour for me on the fly as we hit off with each other, sharing stories of our journeys across the Planet and finding ourselves in Malaysia. “The Trybe finds each other,” she told me, as she took the curves of the road as smoothly as one dives a sure spoon into chocolate ice-cream! A stop to catch KL’s fabulous skyline at KL Tower, a ride burning rubber to Batu Caves, a detour to the rusty village of Kampung Bharu and its bustling wet markets, riding through the city and finally cruising to a pitstop at Levain Boulangerie & Patisserie (No. 7, Jalan Delima off Jalan Imbi 55100 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia) for a bite of French delicacies and heart sharing experiences of women who rise to find themselves.
Landing in Malaysia herself six years back in 2015, Alison gave up her cushy job with a telecom company to start Free W – an organisation that aims at igniting women’s emancipation and self empowerment through motorcycling experiences (classes and tours). Alison had been riding through Nepal, traversing the dangerous roads of the Himalayas, inspired by the freedom of her own choices, and coming to realise how important it was to empower women with self supporting skills and a mindset that set them to be masters of their own destiny. As we munched on hungrily on hot chicken quiche, cinnamon rolls and cold chocolate milk, I got Alison to share her story with my readers. Time to invest in that leather jacket and rider boots, baby! You’ll soon know why 😊
Excerpts of my interview with Alison Grun:
Ethel: How did Free W come about, Alison? What inspired you to start it?
Alison: I have been into motorcycles since my childhood, growing up in a bikers’ community with both my parents riding Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Born and raised in France, I’m a free-spirited individual who likes to do things differently and questioned the status quo all her life. I have always been encouraged to speak my mind, to be myself, and to make my own life decisions, even if they were unconventional, which I later realized was a real chance that many girls and women didn’t have.
My move to Asia in 2014 was a turning point on two fronts. On the professional one, I travelled extensively and witnessed the power of womanhood. How women were stronger together and how much they could achieve when they leveraged on their female sides, rather than copy the male leadership styles. On the personal front, I realized the many societal constraints women live under and the power of motorcycles to emancipate them. I joined the Ladies of Harley Malaysia and connected with many women riders in the region. They are the ones who inspired me. When we’re riding together nothing matters, we are not mothers, corporate leaders, sisters, wives, daughters. We are just ourselves, leading our life and having fun. This is a liberating feeling that is difficult to put into words. It doesn’t matter where we’re from, how much we earn, how young we are, or, what our marital status is. We are all united by this sense of freedom and understand each other without words.
I also undertook off-road motorcycle tours in the Himalayas, both in India and Nepal, which totally blew my mind and heart. I felt deeply connected with the people there, and was really touched by the women who face daily adversities and still welcome you with a smile. I was impressed by their capabilities and felt I had so much to learn from them, not only in terms of skills, but also in terms of mental resilience. Motorcycling is an amazing vehicle to reach those communities, but being surrounded by men limited the authenticity of our communication. While I’ve always enjoyed riding and traveling with men, I also realized that traveling with women gave a different dynamic. We would take our time, we would appreciate nature, not only the physical challenge, connect with people and recognize women more.
While I was busy head on with my work, trying to change things I didn’t have control over, destiny made the decision for me. Losing my job at the end of 2019 was a blessing in disguise. I went back to Nepal, and suggested the team who had led my previous tour that they should have women guides, so that guests can interact more with and learn from local women in the communities we were staying at. They looked at me in awe, saying there was no such thing in Nepal. That’s how it all started: Why not? I said.
I decided I wanted to make the most of my business skills and passion for a cause that is closer to my heart, and has a positive impact on people. The idea was out and I wanted to start something tangible fast, so why not share my Nepal ride experience with other women riders while investing in local women’s economic empowerment through local craft classes and homestays. Using the motorcycle as a vehicle of human encounters, to inspire and be inspired, and invest in local women by offering them more enriching economic opportunities in tourism.
Street art hunt on a Harley with Alison 🙂
Indeed, 54% of people employed in tourism are women, but they are concentrated in the lowest paid and lowest status jobs, while they also perform a large amount of unpaid work in family tourism businesses (UNWTO, 2019).
I created FreeW in June 2020, W for Women, Will and Wheels, with the aim to provide an ecosystem for women to go out of their comfort zone, realize what they are capable of, and to extend my sisterhood bonds to other women across borders. Since road trip overseas had to be put on hold, I started developing local tours and teaching other women how to ride or improve self-confidence on motorcycles.
Ethel. Sounds fantastic. What has been your experiences ever since you started Free W?
Alison: A rollercoaster ride could probably describe best what has been going on. And starting a tourism business in the middle of a pandemic isn’t the best timing (LOL). Cancelling the Nepal road trip in April 2019 was heart-breaking, especially after so much work had been put into looking for a local woman guide to join us. But on the positive side, it also gave me more time to develop other trips in Myanmar, India and soon Iran.
It also gave me the opportunity to witness the huge gap that exists in terms of quality motorcycle riding training in Malaysia, and therefore to develop my offering on that front. Training women to ride safely and build their self-confidence on two wheels is a pre-requisite to taking them to explore other countries.
While looking for local partners, I also met other women riders in motocross and track racing and that has also opened my perspectives, making me realise that no matter what bike we’re riding and what country we’re from, we have more in common than what we think. And we should build more inclusive riding communities. Interviewing women riders around the world (please check the FreeW Youtube channel) and particularly in Asia has been really enlightening on that front. For some women, riding is a passion. For others it’s life saving. In all cases, we all search for our own freedom.
Most importantly, coaching women how to ride has probably been the best experience ever. Many women come thinking they can’t ride because they have been told they can’t, or, because of their self-limiting beliefs. Seeing them discover their own capabilities, seeing the huge smile on their face, seeing them having fun, and hearing them telling me how confident and empowered they feel is really my daily motivation.
I also experienced immense kindness. A biker friend, Stacey, sponsored the riding classes of another woman who couldn’t afford her dream to ride a bike due to her many other financial responsibilities. A man also sent me money to offer riding classes to women anonymously, as he wished to contribute to their well-being. I wish to offer more such opportunities in the near future.
Last but not least, through FreeW, I was able to connect with other amazing women around the world who have the same vision and wish to contribute to women’s emancipation through motorcycling. In particular, Jai in India who founded MoWo, Anne in Myanmar, and Mahsa from Iran who are all passionate riders and the leaders of the road trips in those respective countries.
Ethel : What is the vision you are trying to achieve?
Alison: A society in which women are free to do whatever they love and be their true-selves, to improve their quality of life and that of those around them.
Ethel: What services does Free W offer?
Alison: Ultimately, I aim to provide an eco-system for women riders and women who want to become riders to connect, learn, and explore together, while creating economic opportunities for other women. There are currently 3 main pillars to facilitate those: motorcycle riding classes and motorcycle day tours in Malaysia, and longer motorcycle road trips in India, Myanmar, Nepal (and soon Iran).
FreeW acts as a platform to provide those different offerings, leveraging on locally-based women riders.
Ethel: What is your own understanding of women’s empowerment, and how you see it impacting women’s lives in Malaysia and across regions you are building a network for?
Alison: I really struggle with the term empowerment because it suggests again that women need something external to be “empowered,’ some form of validation. When in fact, I’m convinced that women are extremely powerful, maybe too powerful, and that’s the reason why society tries to disempower us, to reduce our feminine power to mere female weaknesses. I witness every day women who are extremely resilient, brave, powerful, who juggle with so many roles and cater for so many people, yet they tend to forget themselves and undervalue their capabilities. They are imprisoned by their self-limiting beliefs, nothing else. Women don’t need to be empowered. They just need to break free from societal expectations and recognise their feminine powers. I’m just giving them opportunities to do so.
Here’s good news for women interested in having a go at motorcycle riding. Take part in the IG competition (see flier below), as FreeW is currently offering trial classes to 2 women! Deadline, January 31st. Good luck 🙂
Know more about FreeW here: https://vulcanpost.com/722991/freew-malaysia-women-motorbiking-classes-tourism/
Contact: Alison +60122468400
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