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Self-described tomboy Melissa Rhea is a drag bike racer who wants to empower other women and get them as excited about motorcycles as she is.

"Grab a friend to go with you," she said. "As long as it's not a boy."

Women's interest in bikes is nothing new.

The Motor Maids, a group of female motorcycle enthusiasts, launched in 1941. Its pioneering founders, Detroit-based Dot Robinson and Rhode Island native Linda Dugeau, have been inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame, a honorary club dominated by men.

And the flock of female riders shows no signs of slowing down.

Connie Ransom's lipstick gives her away.

The Valparaiso woman said the best feeling is being at a stoplight next to semitrucks. The drivers look down and, because of the helmet, can't tell if she's a man or woman. Then they see the lipstick.

"It's the greatest feeling on Earth," she said.

About 11 percent of customers at Harley-Davidson of Crete are women, Rhea said.

Charity rides not only are littered with female riders, but also now are dominated by them.

A Harley-Davidson Women's Day Ride in March in Dayton Beach, Fla., raised thousands for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

"The success of the Women's Day Ride reflects the growth of our female riders over the past two decades, from 4 percent in 1990 to 12 percent today," Karen Davidson, a great-granddaughter of the company's founder, said of the successful rides.

Large- and small-scale riding and motorcycle appreciation events crop up all over the country year-round. The Motor Maids' 69th convention is scheduled for next month, in Columbus, Ind.

The Whiting chapter of Women in the Wind -- a national group promoting "a positive image of women motorcyclists" -- is modest, about 10 members. But the so-called Hoosierettes meet regularly, on the second Sunday of each month for brunch and, of course, a post-meal ride.

Women like Audra Paquette, of Bourbonnais, Ill., are fighting the "no girls allowed" mentality that persists among some bikers.

"Four years ago when I started, I saw, like, two chicks on bikes," she said. "Now, there's a ton."

Paquette's male friends told her they'd only let her ride with them if she wore thong underwear. But she wasn't about to be an accessory on their bikes. She wanted the reins.

She started on a used motorcycle.

"No one trusted me enough to practice on theirs," she said.

Now, Paquette owns an '07 Harley-Davidson Sportster Custom.

"It's a real adrenaline rush every time you take off," she said. "People put windshields on their bike, but I like the wind."

It's a hobby that'll inevitably scrape and bruise.

Falling over is not an "if," but a "when," Rhea said.

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