Men with long, greasy hair. Pot bellies. Tattoos. Hairy chests. Grimy black leather. Motrhead t-shirts. This is probably what comes to mind when you think of motorbike riders. However, this stereotype is in danger of extinction, especially here in Italy where more and more women are taking up the call of the open road. No longer satisfied with getting backies off their male friends or buzzing around on farty mopeds, Italys army of women bike riders is one of the biggest and most active in Europe.

Chiara Valentini, a 27-year-old Roman who clocks up 40,000 km on her bike in an average year, is one of them. She explained how she got hooked. When I was 17 a friend took me for a spin on his Ducati 750. It was love at first sight. I had a beautiful feeling, something powerful, something Id never felt before.

According to Valentini, new and unique pleasures are in store for those brave enough to give motorcycling a try. Its the most beautiful means of transport there is. Its not just the thrill of the speed. In a car youre shut away in a little box. With the bike you experience the country, its sights, sounds and even its smells. You really feel the joy of the road.

It has taken some time for motorcycling to reach its current levels of popularity among Italian women. Not so long ago simply getting hold of the gear (helmets, protective clothing, etc) in womens sizes was a struggle. And there was also the prejudice that biking is only for men to battle against. When Valentini first took up motorcycling her parents tried to stop her on the grounds that it wasnt a hobby for a signorina. Valentinis solution was to go out and, unusually for a young Italian, find her own roof and rules to live under. Many women bikers complain that even today they are given odd looks at traffic lights, and when they go to motorbike showrooms the assistants always assume they want to buy a scooter.

However, the factor that tends to put most women off initially is the sheer weight of the bike and the fear that it would be impossible to handle. Fortunately, a remedy has been found for such inhibitions: a healthy dose of female solidarity. The old hands regularly organise instruction, repair and maintenance courses for rookies and in this way they are making motorcycling more accessible to other women.

It would also seem that acquiring a motorbike doesnt just change the way you get from A to B; it gives you a whole new attitude to life. You have to be more practical. Valentini says. You dont worry so much about your physical appearance. Fancy hairstyles are no good with the helmet. If it rains you get wet. Sometimes you get covered in oil and grease. If I have a problem with the bike I get off and fix it. There isnt any makeup in my beauty case but there are plenty of tools. Indeed what many women say they find most rewarding about motorcycling is the sense of empowerment that comes from being able to take off when you want, maintain the machine yourself and deal with minor mechanical problems on your own.

Women are also increasingly involved in the competitive aspects of motor-cross and track racing. Valentini took part in her first track race (and won) at the age of 20. With no exclusively womens championship to compete in she often pits herself against men in the 250-1000cc category open races at Italian circuits like Vallelunga in Rome and Varano in Parma, speeding around tracks at up to 280 km per hour. So how do men react to being overtaken by a woman? Some of them resented it at first. However, mostly Ive been treated as an equal. In fact it seems that the prejudice against women motorcyclists stems more from the general male population than it does from the actual riders themselves. And isnt she worried about the risks of travelling at such speeds? Its difficult to hurt yourself at a race circuit. At the track there are so many safety measures. You can break a leg or an arm. Nothing really. It would seem not.

The men in the Motrhead t-shirts may have something to learn from this new generation of female bikers. The fact that women are under-represented in motorcycle crash statistics suggests they take a more prudent, mature approach to motorcycling than men. You have to dominate the bike, is Valentinis advice to all bikers, male or female, new or old, and not let the bike dominate you.

Want to have a go? Chiara Valentini gives courses to women interested in motorcycling (beginner, intermediate and advanced). For more information contact Chiara Valentini at: cnn.cvalentini@notariato.it. Alternatively visit the Italian women bikers website at www.motocicliste.net.