This summer, to celebrate her 89th birthday, Gloria Tramontin Struck of Clifton, New Jersey will ride her blue Harley-Davidson 1,700 miles to Sturgis, South Dakota. There she knows she will be treated like a queen, a celebrity, a legend. Grown men will beg to have their pictures taken by her side.
When the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is over, many of those men will strap their motorcycles onto trailers and drive away in the comfort of their air-conditioned, leather-seated, globally positioned pickup trucks.
Struck will point her Harley toward New Jersey and ride 1,700 miles home.
“We do not trailer bikes,” Struck said. “We ride.”
Few people walking around today can trace their lives back to the early days of American motorcycling. Even fewer of them still ride. Struck, who was born in an apartment behind a motorcycle shop in Clifton in 1925, is known by Harley aficionados around the country as a rare living connection to the days when few people rode motorcycles cross-country, and women barely rode at all.
“Gloria is the matriarch of women riders,” said Kathy McKenzie, general sales manager of Chester’s, an enormous Harley-Davidson dealership in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. In May, the dealership paid to fly Struck to Florida so she could speak to an all-female group of young bikers and women.
“Women were supposed to stay home, they weren’t supposed to speak unless they were spoken to,” McKenzie said of the way things were in 1941, when Struck started riding as a teenager. “They sure weren’t supposed to get out and ride their own motorcycle and make their own path.”
A photo in Struck’s family album finds her at age 2 1/2, tightening a loose nut on a motorcycle.
“I never forgot the feeling I had at that moment,” she said. “I was so proud of myself.”
A few months later, her father, Ernest, died in a motorcycle accident. As a child she never wanted to ride, not from fear of what happened to her father, but because riding a motorcycle was a bold pastime for a shy girl.
Her older brother decided she should ride anyway, and so she did. Five years later, in 1946, she joined the Motor Maids, one of the earliest motorcycle clubs for women.
And she rode against the prevailing sentiments of the time, which held that only bad girls rode motorcycles. A gas station attendant refused to sell her gas along the way, and a motel refused to let her stay the night.
“People thought women on motorcycles were tramps. I hadn’t even had my first date and I was called a tramp,” she said.
Struck started riding on a 1941 Indian Bonneville Scout. Since then, she’s owned two more Indians and 11 Harleys. Some she loved more than others, including the Riviera Blue Harley she rode from Toronto to Montreal in 1950. The trip was considered so unique at the time that Harley-Davidson Enthusiast magazine ran a full-page story about it, with pictures, two years after it happened.
Her current bike is a 2004 Heritage Soft Tail Classic. Unlike so many modern Harleys, it is not a trophy bike, polished to a blinding shine and trotted out on weekends for showing off. It has black studded leather saddlebags that sag from use, a scuff on the windshield inflicted last summer by an errant truck tire that came bouncing down a highway and nearly cut Struck’s head off. The odometer reads 49,655 miles.
“We rode 835 miles one day when I was 87 years old,” Struck said. Now she rides only in the company of her daughter, Lori DeSilva, who pilots her own Harley Electra Glide Ultra Classic. “We don’t fool around,” Struck added.
Her daughter prefers to ride slowly and obey local speed limits. This drives Struck crazy. When she can’t take it anymore, Struck pulls alongside and kicks DeSilva’s motorcycle with her foot. Then she twists her own throttle and speeds off down the highway.
Struck, who once stood 5-foot-5, has shrunk with age to an even 5 feet, and she weighs 125 pounds. Her bike weighs 700. She is in no way intimidated.
“She’s not a large woman. But she rides better than a lot of men I know,” McKenzie said.
Struck has become accustomed to people marveling about her age. It’s been going on for a quarter-century. In her photo album she keeps a 1991 story from what was then called the Herald & News about a certain gray-haired, Harley-riding grandma from Clifton. Since then, she’s become a great-grandmother and an octogenarian.
And still she refuses to stop. Two years ago, Struck woke up the morning of her annual trip to Daytona to find the ground covered in snow. So she grabbed a shovel and cleared a path – just wide enough for a full-sized Harley – halfway down the block.
The 89 year old Struck has certain standards. For example, she can’t envision a day when, like other older riders, she switches to an easier-to-control three-wheel Harley.
“My goal is to keep riding on two wheels until I’m 100,” she said. “Anybody can do that on three wheels.”