The Inspiring Reason This 70-Year-Old Woman Is Riding Her Motorcycle Across America
On April 30, a motorcycle brigade of more than 200 riders will set off on a seven-day cross-country trip from Palm Springs, California to Biloxi, Mississippi. Sticking out from the mostly male crowd will be 70-year-old Damaris Knobler, zooming down highways with yellow braided pigtails stuck to her helmet for the annual Kyle Petty Charity Ride Across America. One of only eight women riding solo, Knobler is taking her own bike on the weeklong journey for the fifth consecutive year.
The retired pediatric cardiologist from Dallas, Texas has participated in the charity ride for 15 years, but rode as a passenger on her husband's bike for the first decade. Although Knobler had taken long trips on her own motorcycle, she didn't feel secure in such a large crowd. Maneuvering an 800-pound bike takes a lot of skill and strength, especially when slowing to a stop or taking off, and being trapped in a swarm of hundreds of other bikes makes it infinitely more difficult. "The guys are very good, so I didn’t want to not be good enough to handle my bike in stressful situations," Knobler tells Bustle in her thick Texas accent.
She finally worked up the courage to go at it alone, and she and her 2002 Harley-Davidson Fat Boy (outfitted with a more powerful motor) haven't looked back.
"I think the guys always are concerned when a female comes on the ride for the first time," she says. "But I believe that since I’ve been there now for [four] years, they know I can handle my bike, and I won't put myself in a position of danger, so I won’t be a danger to them."
On Knobler's first cross-country solo ride, she started in the very back of the pack to feel more safe and stay out of other riders' way, but each day she built confidence and advanced further and further toward the front. She still gets nervous sometimes, but she's a lot more sure of her abilities as a rider these days.
"I don’t think you ride a motorcycle without there being some instances that really scare [you]," Knobler says, explaining that seemingly normal factors like sharp curves or bad weather can instantly make a ride much more terrifying. On last year's trip, a cold, rainy stretch of road made it difficult to see and keep up with the pack, keeping her on edge that she would have to stop suddenly (which is more challenging on a bike than in a car). But she explains, "Nothing that would make me say, 'I’m not doing this anymore.'"
The Kyle Petty Charity Ride Across America, founded by retired NASCAR racer Kyle Petty, raises money for Victory Junction, his camp for children with chronic or life-threatening diseases. Because of their medical needs, Victory Junction's campers can't usually attend most summer camps, and Petty's camp allows them to get the full experience of fishing, boating, archery, music, and arts and crafts for a week. Having constant medical supervision makes it expensive (about $2,500 per camper), so the ride raises money to cover the cost for families.
Knobler pays to participate in the ride each year, and she and her husband pick up the tab for every biker at one pit stop during the trip. As a former pediatric doctor, Knobler was immediately drawn to the cause. "It really is my heart," she says. "I love to think of kids being able to get away from their parents and be with other kids in the same situation."
Knobler finds parallels between her time in the medical field and being a biker, explaining that she applies the same principles she learned throughout her career to bike riding, like remaining focused and aware of her surroundings at all times. "Being a female motorcyclist requires a mentality of endurance, and I think that being a medical doctor for 40 years trained my body for endurance," she tells Bustle.
The trip from California to Mississippi is more than 2,000 miles, and Knobler and her husband have to first ride from Texas to California to join the group and then venture back home when it's done. One year they rode a total of 8,200 miles in two weeks. "The days are long, and the days are taxing," she says, noting that she's always ready to get off her Harley at the end of each day. "I’m 70, so I’m not a spring chicken."
If you want to donate to the Kyle Petty Charity Ride Across America to help send kids to camp, you can do so on its website. You can also see the crew at pit stops along their route, joining in on the fun and supporting Victory Junction in person.
Images: Courtesy of Damaris Knobler and Ginny Talley/Largemouth Communications