Motorcycle Cannonball Rider No. 89, Cristine Sommer-Simmons, seems to have the world on a string, albeit a very long and busy string. Successful author, journalist, antique motorcycle buff, life-long rider, wife of rock and roller Pat Simmons of the Doobie Brothers, and mother of three children, Ms. Sommer-Simmons is one of just two women in an otherwise all-male field of participants in this historic transcontinental motorcycle endurance challenge.
Cris is bringing her Cannonball steed – a 1915 Harley-Davidson Twin three-speed – to the mainland from the Sommer-Simmons home on Maui in the Hawaiian Islands. The bike has been in her husband’s collection for many years but, prior to prepping it for the Cannonball, it hadn’t been started in long time.
Cris and Pat began work on the bike back in November 2009. She says she picked #89 for her Cannonball entry number because that's the year she and husband Pat – who she calls her number one supporter – met. Cris says Pat “has been a great inspiration to me” and says her celebrity rocker husband “may drop in and ride along with my support team, but he is on tour with his band about to release a new Doobie Brothers CD, so it's a busy time for him too.”
“It's been one of the top selling motorcycle books in the country and I'm really proud of it,” Cris reports. “I've had a busy and fun year traveling to rallies for book signings and speaking engagements. Last month I was a special guest speaker at the Harley-Davidson Museum. It's a great place and I got to meet fellow Cannonball rider Bill Rodencal, who's a pretty cool guy. I also did a nice interview with Jay Leno on his ‘Jay's Garage’ website after he selected my book for his Book Club.
“The best part about the book has been meeting some of the women who are featured in it. I've been interviewing them on film for a documentary I hope to work on after I finish the Cannonball. I just spent a day with 90-year-old Margaret Wilson this past weekend. She's so fun to be with and full of stories about the old days. That's the icing on the cake for me.”
Getting ready to ride
About her “revived” 1915 Harley, Cristine has, “given 'her’ the nickname "Effie" in honor of Effie Hotchkiss, who along with her mother Avis, became the first women to ride a motorcycle across the US in 1915. They rode from New York to California and had some amazing adventures. The bike they rode is also the same make and actual model of bike I am riding, but I will not have a sidecar.”
To ensure that her bike is roadworthy, the Harley was subsequently turned over to Steve Huntzinger, a vintage motorcycle restorer and fellow Cannonball entrant from Southern California.
“I feel so lucky to have Steve Huntzinger helping me prepare my bike for this ride,” Cris maintains. “Not only is he a great mechanic, but he's a very nice guy and has been a real mentor to me and fellow Cannonballer Matt Olsen as well. I can't say enough about Steve and thank him for all his guidance.”
With decades of experience riding motorcycles with the traditional hand-operated clutch and foot shift, Cris reports that learning to ride a vintage machine with a foot clutch and tank shift provides a challenge and “learning a whole new way of riding and shifting.” However, it’s challenge, Cris says, she is really looking forward to meeting.
“While I am an experienced long-distance rider,” Cristine maintains, “this ride will be like no other I have ever done. I will have to challenge myself both mentally and physically.”
Because the Cannonball will require riders to log up to 300 miles per day, Sommer-Simmons says it “will be hard on the body and on a bike like this; I am not only working on getting my bike in the best possible condition, but also my body.” Cris is nothing if not super confident.
“I really think I can finish the ride,” she says, “I'm not interested in ‘racing’ anyone, I just want to finish.”
She smilingly adds, however, that she “probably wouldn't mind beating a few of the guys.” But she says, she’s kidding around about 'beating" the guys.
“To me, finishing IS winning,” Cristine says, “I just want to finish and I don't really care who beats me. It's a 100% friendly competition for me. I've been friends with some of these guys for years and really look forward seeing them and also making new friends with some of the other fellow crazy antique motorcycle fans.
The early days
Sommer-Simmons recalls that her first taste of motorcycling came as a nine-year-old passenger on the back of her stepfather’s Honda 750. By age 15 she was riding her own motorcycle and was, she reports, “the only girl at the time in her area riding and racing with the boys.” ??
"They used to call us tomboys. Now they call us athletic women," Cris says. "I had five brothers and people always assume my brothers got me into riding, but it was the exact opposite. I taught four of them how to ride."
Cris got her first Harley-Davidson, a 1977 Sportster, when she was 19. In 1983, Cris helped to organize the second chapter of the Women in the Wind organization. In 1985 she co-founded the world’s first motorcycle magazine for women. It was called Harley Women. She was the magazine’s co-publisher and editor, often riding her motorcycle across the country for stories. On one such ride in 1989 she met her husband-to-be, rocker and fellow motorcycle enthusiast, Doobie Brother Patrick Simmons. She also worked as a freelance motorcycle journalist, publishing in magazines that included American Iron, Motorcycle Collector, Iron Works, Easyriders and others. Cris had her own column for more than 12 years in the popular Japanese magazine Hot Bike Japan.
Honors and awards
Sommer-Simmons is an Honorary Lifetime member of Women in The Wind. She is also a 24-year AMA member, a Lifetime H.O.G. member as well as a Motor Maid, and a member of the Antique Motorcycle Club of America. She was honored in 1990 as a pioneering woman motorcyclist in the American Motorcycle Associations’ Women In Motorcycling exhibit in the AMA museum in Westerville, OH. In 1994, Cris wrote and self-published the award-winning children’s motorcycle book, "Patrick Wants to Ride," for which she was honored with the AMA’s Hazel Kolb Brighter Image Award. In 2003, Cris was inducted into the National Motorcycle Hall of Fame in Anamosa Iowa and the American Motorcycle Heritage Foundation Motorcycle Hall of Fame in Westerville, Ohio. In 2008 she was inducted into the Sturgis Motorcycle Hall of Fame.
Cris has toured by motorcycle all over the world but maintains that what she loves most is touring the wide-open spaces of the American West. Now that her children are grown, Cris has kept busy with various writing projects, including a screenplay and a book project focusing on women in motorcycling. These days, of course, much of her attention is focused on preparing for the Motorcycle Cannonball and for giving “the boys” more than a run for their money.
“I can't wait for Sept,” Cris enthuses, “It's going to be the "all-girl" support team as well. My friend and custom bike builder/mechanic Athena Ransom will be coming along with me, as well as my friend and pro photographer Gail DeMarco. I feel so lucky to be able to do this ride.”