The women’s motorcycle community is changing every day: new riders, new events, new magazines, new gear manufacturers… And while this is certainly an exciting time for our niche, I often find myself craving the insight of someone with experience. Especially when it comes to motorcycle gear.
Enter Joanne Donn, a fit consultant at Revzilla’s flagship store, who writes about motorcycle gear on her blog, GearChic. She’s been riding since 2003, and has worked in the motorcycle apparel retail business for nearly as long.
One of my favorite things about Joanne is her riding story. She started out on a scooter, almost ambivalent to riding — in an early article she said she found her first ride “fun, nothing more, nothing less.”
But, fifteen years later, not only is she an active, passionate contributor to the riding community, she rides a Triumph Street Triple, loves aggressive riding, and is really getting into track days. Did I mention she’s five-foot-two?
Joanne is a perfect example of the adage, “You’ll never know unless you try.” I think you’re going to love what she has to say.
Joanne’s Journey into the World of Motorcycle Gear
In the early 2000s, Joanne and her husband bought a 50cc scooter, to which Joanne credits her entire riding career. Joanne spent a year riding that scooter around San Francisco, and still believes scooters are the best choice for big-city riding.
After awhile, Joanne’s husband got tired of asking her to borrow the scooter all the time, so he upgraded to a Ninja 250… and eventually she stole that one, too. It was around this time that Joanne started thinking seriously about her gear.
On the scooter, Joanne wore what she considered to be pretty decent gear at the time. She had a “real helmet,” a Vanson textile jacket and Dainese gloves. Like many new riders, she considered long pants and close-toed shoes to be enough.
But after upgrading to a motorcycle, and starting to ride farther, Joanne realized she needed more from her gear.
I wanted to stay warm, I wanted more protection, I wanted a little more leverage…
As you ride more you start to identify needs, and then you start to look beyond your snow jacket and beyond your sneakers, because now they’re not cutting it anymore.”
Around the same time, Joanne started a part-time job in the apparel department at a local dealership, which dramatically changed her perspective on motorcycle gear.
“Working at a dealer made a huge difference,” Joanne said. “As soon as I started working there I saw, ‘Wow, there’s so much stuff I could be wearing… I’m going to buy this stuff instead.’”
Since starting her job at the dealership, Joanne has contributed nonstop to the women’s motorcycle community. She started GearChic in 2007 to help other women riders choose the right gear, and began giving seminars about motorcycle gear in 2008.
In 2013, she started the Moterrific podcast with Cristi Farrell, and in 2014, she was recruited by Revzilla to work at their flagship store. Joanne said it was hard to leave the west coast, but as she said, “It was a very unique opportunity, one that I couldn’t pass up.”
Working with Customers
Now, Joanne has been working in motorcycle apparel and writing her blog for more than ten years. In that time, she’s worked with a lot of customers, and she’s learned to find a balance between her customers’ wants and needs.
When a customer comes in, Joanne starts by asking them all kinds of questions. What kind of styles are they looking at? What are their priorities? Overall budget? Fit concerns? What kind of weather do they expect to ride in?
Most people do come in with ideas about a particular style or brand, said Joanne, so it’s her job to make sure that item fits the customer, so it will perform the way it should.
“A lot of the time I have to get them to consider something else purely for fit,” she said. “And usually they can tell it’s just not right.”
But also, Joanne has to listen to what the customer says they need, and help them think long-term about which products will live up to their expectations.
“I try to explain the alternatives, and explain why that may not work. If someone’s really set on what they want, they should absolutely buy it. My job is just to interject and tell them what other options there may be.”
Of course, for most people, one of the most important things about gear is how it looks. “The majority of people are very concerned with the aesthetics and style,” Joanne said.
Joanne appreciates this, but she cautions that if you want both style and protection, you’re always going to have to prioritize.
“To have that protection, [the gear] can’t be casual,” She said. “You always have to give up something, and you have to decide whether it’s worth giving up or not.”
Especially with vintage gear, Joanne says, “You’re just fighting time. Expecting a brand in the 21st century to replicate something from the 20th century… that’s never going to happen.”
However, she does feel that there are some manufacturers out there doing a better job of making casual gear that doesn’t completely sacrifice style. For example, our mutual hero, Laura Smith of Worse for Wear:
“Laura does a much more unique service,” said Joanne. “She is taking the technical aspect of gear and incorporating most of it into the style.”
According to Joanne, the issue with much of the casual, style-focused gear is that the manufacturers start with the style, then try to add protection.
I think a lot of times they listen too much to the customers, and provide purely a style-based product with very little thought to the safety. What use is the body armor if your jacket is going to fall apart?”
Tips for Buying Gear
When trying to figure out if a piece of gear is going to protect you, Joanne says first to check for the basics — such as CE-rated armor — and then take a look at the fabrics.
[The quality] products use some kind of technical material or function, so when you look at a garment you see, ‘Oh, they’re using ballistic nylon that’s 1000 denier,’ or ‘Wow they’re using Cordura fabric,’ or some other fabric that demonstrates higher abrasion resistance — something, anything.”
She also said to look for technical features that show the company has given “some thought to what a rider might need while they’re actually riding.” For example, vents that are easy to open, even when you’re wearing gloves.
But also, Joanne said it’s important to make sure the brand has some kind of “established online recognition,” so you know the company is reputable.
You want a company that’s provided some information and [dedicated] resources to protecting you… If you can’t find anything about them, they’re probably not legit.”
Even if they’re new, Joanne said, there should be something out there that indicates this company has done their homework, and that they care about protecting the riders who wear their gear.
The Importance of Trying New Things
As I mentioned in the intro, Joanne’s passion is sport bikes, and last year she attended two track days, which she says really changed her riding style.
During a track day, you learn stuff that you would never have even thought about… Now I have some different skills to apply, different techniques to utilize. Just a different way to look at the road.”
If you’re looking into a track day, Joanne says, it’s important to pick one that suits your needs. Some track days, like the ones offered by CLASS, are specifically geared to help build street-riding skills, while others are more about race techniques.
For Joanne, track days have been about improving herself and learning new skills. She says her best advice for mid-level riders is simply to “take a class.”
You don’t learn enough on your own. Sure you figure stuff out… but you’re always going to figure out more.
Always seek out ways to improve your riding.”
Whether it’s a track day, an intermediate skills class, a workshop on basic motorcycle maintenance or a new hobby that’s completely unrelated to motorcycles, Joanne believes it’s important to keep learning. “Any kind of learning keeps you open,” she said.
“Ride Your Own Ride”
A theme that kept coming up in our conversation, from gear education to riding skills, is that you should of course do what you want. “It’s your movie,” said Joanne. Just make sure you’re informed.
Ride your own ride, and don’t let anybody tell you what you can do or can’t do. But make sure you’re approaching it in a really smart way.
If you want to buy a 1000cc sport bike as your first bike, you have every right to do that… But if you’re going to make these choices, there are consequences, so make sure you know what they are.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
A huge thank you to Joanne for her time, and for everything she’s done for the women’s motorcycle community.