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Blazing a trail: The Van Buren sisters

Rob Ryan on the women who rode their motorbikes across the US in 1916 to prove they were equal to men in the looming war effort.

On Any Sunday Daytona Jacket
The women's Spring Summer '17 Collection, inspired by the Van Buren Sisters.

This far removed, it's difficult for us to envisage just how challenging it must have been to travel coast to coast across the United States in any form of motorised vehicle in the early part of the 20th century. Not only were there very few gas stations (petrol was mostly sold in hardware stores and at auto dealerships), decent roads were scarce. The transcontinental Lincoln Highway was formally dedicated in 1913, but travellers were soon dismayed to discover that a grand name did not a surfaced road make (that didn't happen until 1935) and in some places it was just a bone-jarring dirt track. In fact, in July of 1916 The Springfield Daily Republican reported that bandits had held up a stagecoach just outside Yosemite. It was still, in many ways, the Wild West.

It was into this hostile environment that the Van Buren sisters, Augusta and her younger sibling Adeline, determined to launch themselves, aiming to become the first women to ride solo motorcycles across this vast and sometimes inhospitable country. Lively, intelligent and resourceful, the Van Burens were society girls from a sporty and ambitious family (they were descendants of the 8th President of the United States, Martin Van Buren) where the normal suffocating middle-class restrictions on how 'nice' girls behaved did not apply. By 1916, at the age of 24 and 22, they were seasoned motorcyclists.

A few years earlier, in 1908, female riders had been rare enough for Motor Cycle Illustrated magazine to run a banner headline: 'Detroit Has Female Motorcyclist'. That changed rapidly as women such as Clara Wagner, Effie and Avis Hotchkiss (who crossed the US in a Harley and sidecar in 1915) and daredevil speedway racer Margaret Gast put their gender firmly on two motorised wheels, even though when Clara won an endurance race in 1910 she was disqualified on the grounds of her gender.

The sisters set off on their beloved Indian Power Plus motorcycles from Sheepshead Bay racetrack in Brooklyn for their epic journey on 4 July 1916, just days after the slaughter at the Somme in Europe had begun. This was no coincidence. Part of their aim was to highlight the role women could play if and when the US entered the war by becoming dispatch riders, freeing up men for other duties. Alongside that, both saw the trip as part of the fight for women's suffrage (Augusta's watchword was: 'Woman can if she will').

The preparations by Augusta ('Gussie') and her younger sister ('Addie') were comprehensive, including building up their skills, strength and confidence with shorter training rides. They also paid careful attention to their clothing. They wore tan-coloured leather britches, knee-length leather coats, calf-high boots, thick gloves, a leather helmet and goggles. Adeline said: 'Each outfit looks well, is waterproof and will stand very hard usage.'

The clothing was certainly put to the test - there were thunderstorms, dust storms, lots and lots of mud and skids and crashes, which they stoically dismissed as 'spills'. There is a story that the clothing was also responsible for a few delays - they were apparently stopped in several small towns and threatened with arrest for wearing men's 'garb'.

They had originally intended to ride 3,800 miles to reach San Francisco on 9 August. In fact, with detours (including becoming the first women to ride up the treacherous road to the 14,100ft summit of Pikes Peak in Colorado) they arrived, with much fanfare, in San Francisco on 2 September, having covered 5,500 miles.

There is an interesting link between the Van Burens and Belstaff. Of course, the sisters epitomise the spirit of the brand - they were fiercely independent, capable, adventurous and groundbreaking and knew the value of being properly equipped in clothing designed for the task in hand. It is no coincidence, then, that the Van Burens have in part inspired Belstaff's spring/summer 2017 women's collection. But there is more. Following their epic ride, Adeline returned to teaching and a law qualification. But Augusta went on to become a pilot, gaining her licence in 1924 and joining Amelia Earhart's 99s, her international women's flying group, which was formed in 1929 and continues its inspiring work today. Famously, Amelia loved her Belstaff jackets.

Rob Ryan writes for The Times and The Sunday Times.

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