by Len Lear
This August, Gloria Tramontin Struck, who will be 90 in July, will ride nearly 2,000 miles to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, where more than one million riders are expected. She’s been making the trek to motorcycle rallies all over the country for over 60 years.
Struck first sat astride a motorcycle in 1941 in her hometown of Clifton, NJ, at a time when female motorcycle riders were as rare as unicorns, and she’s been riding long distances on two wheels ever since. She travels annually to motorcycle rallies around the country and gatherings hosted by the groundbreaking, all-female motorcycle club she joined in 1946, the Motor Maids. This year, as she’s done for decades, she plans on riding the 1,700 miles from her home in Clifton to South Dakota for the 75th anniversary of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.
(Readers may wonder, “Where is the local angle in this story?” Answer: There is none. But this is easily one of the most remarkable stories I have come across in almost 50 years of reporting, so I could not pass it up. The closest thing to a local angle was this comment during my recent interview with Gloria: “I have ridden to Philly to see the Liberty Bell and other historical sites downtown. I first took the PA Turnpike in the 1950s, and I used to go to Langhorne Raceway.”)
Struck was born in 1925 in Clifton, NJ (about 12 miles from New York City), where her father had started a motorcycle and bicycle business in 1915. “I was born behind the shop,” she told me. “I was 3 when my dad was hit by a car and killed. My mom was 28 at the time. Then came the Great Depression and very hard times. But there was no such word as ‘can’t.’”
Gloria’s brother taught her how to ride a motorcycle when she was 16, and she spent her formative riding years on the roads and highways of New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. It didn’t take long, though, for her to cast an eye toward the rest of North America and beyond: over the last 74 years she’s logged over a half-million miles across all of the lower 48 U.S. states and nearly 10,000 miles in Europe. “I was shy and quiet at 16,” she said, “but cycling brought me out of that. Now you can’t shut me up.”
The diminutive daredevil is a beloved, revered figure in the motorcycling community. She’s been featured in magazines, articles and books and appeared in movies and on TV and radio. Motorcyclists of all stripes request photos with her at every rally and event she attends. In 2011, Struck was inducted into the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum’s Hall of Fame. Part of her appeal stems from longevity, but it also resides in her pioneering and fearless nature.
In 2013, Struck appeared in the most critically acclaimed motorcycle movie of all time, “Why We Ride,” and when she learned the filmmakers were planning to make a new movie about Sturgis, she immediately joined their crowdfunding campaign. Bryan Carroll, who directed “Why We Ride” and will direct “I Am Sturgis,” said, “Gloria is a legend. She inspires people whenever she rides, and she still rides a lot.”
Gloria used to ride every day, but now she only rides long distances with her daughter, Lori, 60. They do not travel with a trailer, only with their Harley Davidsons. “I’m afraid to go alone now,” she said. “I could have a heart attack.”
During their annual long-distance trips, Gloria and her daughter ride about 650 miles a day. Gloria’s longest ride was 7450 miles in 2003, which was covered in an amazing two-and-a-half weeks. She went to Chico, California, Los Angeles, Washington state and Oregon. Another trip to Bend, Oregon, covered 6000 miles.
“I stick to the major highways,” she said, “although when I started in 1941 there were no interstates. I rode on the back roads and loved it. My favorite part of the country is out west because of the wide open spaces and the fabulous views, especially from a cycle. Utah is the best. I cannot describe it.”
The worst part of Gloria’s travels across the country? The satanic heat. “We have been in Arizona when it was 98 degrees on the thermometer, and the heat from the engine was 125 degrees. In the Mojave Desert in July, it was 124 degrees on the hot engine combined with the sun beating down, it felt like 145 degrees. And I was wearing a leather jacket! You could die. In Texas we were passing a man in a carwash. His daughter said, ‘Wet them down,’ and he did. The heat was unbearable!”
Gloria was 74 when she took her own cycle to Europe and rode through the Alps in Switzerland and Northern Italy. “The curves were treacherous. They are not rounded. Just straight up. I can’t even stand heights. I had no more nerves left. It was like bungee jumping off the Empire State Building. I went back to Europe, though, when I was 76 and 78.
“People say, ‘Live your dream.’ I’m still trying to live mine. When I am 100, I plan to ride across the U.S. on two wheels. No one that age has ever done it before.
“Everyone is waiting for my book, but when am I ever home?”