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What Drives You: Two-wheeled Freedom
She’s the only woman who has finished two motorcycle Cannonballs. But it isn’t only about making sure that the bike can finish. “When I’m on the Cannonball, it’s an endurance race,” Cris explained, “It’s about keeping your bike running, but taking care of your body too. It’s as much endurance on the rider as it is on the machine. Riding old motorcycles [all day], with maybe an hour to eat lunch if you don’t break down, is very tiring, even if you have good weather.”
Good weather or bad, Sommer-Simmons has been motorcycling a long time. She started down the path at age nine, when she’d block her stepfather’s driveway until he took her around the block on his Honda 750.
And then, a few endless years later, she got her first motorcycle – a Yamaha Twin Jet 100. “My Step-dad taught me how to ride in the parking lot of the Wonder Bread Store across the street from our house, and I loved every second of it,” she said. Then, about four years later she claimed her first Harley-Davidson.
If you are ever asked who has meaningfully impacted the motorcycle world, Sommer-Simmons’s name should certainly be high on that list. In the 1980s, she became a member of the Women’s Motorcycle Association, which led to co-founding the Association’s second chapter, Women in the Wind. In 1985, she co-founded Harley Women, the world’s first motorcycle publication inspiring enthusiasts just like herself. From there she and her motorcycle hit the road searching for adventure and stories over thousands of miles.
“Being on two wheels on the open road always reminds me of flying without having wings,” Cris said, “It’s an indescribable sense of freedom… there’s nothing that even comes close to it for me.”
It’s also where she met her husband, Doobie Brother Patrick Simmons. But her travels attracted attention from multiple media outlets and Sommers-Simmons began advocating for the increasing number of women who love to ride. In 1990, the American Motorcyclist Association honored her in their Women in Motorcycling exhibit located in Westerville, Ohio.
After 15 years of involvement with her publication, Harley Women, she sold her stocks and continued her two-wheeled journeys. Based on her experiences and passion, she feelanced for several magazines in the United States, including American Iron, Motorcycle Collector, Iron Works, Easyriders and V-Twin, as well as magazines in Japan, Spain and Australia.
“Writing my column for Hot Bike Japan was one of the best jobs ever,” she joked, “I got paid well, no one I knew read it, and I could write whatever I wanted to without getting upset over editing because I couldn’t read Japanese.” She traveled to Japan and made many friends and experienced some great rides.
Marrying her best friend and raising three children tops her personal list of accomplishments. “They inspire me each and every day,” she said. But in the motorcycle world, being inducted into all three Motorcycle Hall of Fames – the AMA Hall of Fame, the Sturgis Hall of Fame and the National Motorcycle Hall of Fame – has been, in her words, an exciting and humbling achievement. Writing three books about motorcycles, one being an award-winning children’s book called “Patrick Wants to Ride,” the other two being “The American Motorcycle Girls 1900-1950” and “The Cannonball Diary”, were three more dreams come true.
“I think pushing yourself to live your dreams is what life is all about. I have this little piece of paper taped up on my desk that is a quote from Abraham Lincoln: ‘It’s not the years in your life, but the life in your years that matters,’ and this has become my mantra.”
Today she proudly owns a few bikes: A 1988 Harley-Davidson Heritage Softail, a custom 2013 Harley-Davidson Softail Slim, a ‘34 Harley-Davidson VLD, a 1915 Harley-Davidson Twin and a 1911 Wagner. “I’m mostly into the vintage bikes these days,” she said, “They are lots of fun to ride once you get the hang of the tank-shift and foot clutch.”
Although she loves all of her bikes, one is particularly irreplaceable, “I was riding my ‘88 Heritage Softail when I met my husband in Sturgis in 1989, so that one is extra special,” she said. “I’m very lucky to have all of my dream bikes, but what’s one more? Perhaps a Crocker or a beautiful Vincent would be nice.”
Having a lifetime love affair with the two-wheeled variety led Cris to meeting many wonderful people whom she may have never met, and for that, she is grateful. She continues writing and is looking forward to the 2016 Cannonball coming up in September. To top it all off, she will become a grandmother late this summer and will most likely be the first grandma to Cannonball.