Fresh Eyes Driving female empowerment, one motorbike tour at a time By Cheryl Ong / Posted on 1 February, 2021 17:39 Alison Grün’s Harley-Davidson purrs into action. She scoots around the buzzy streets of downtown Kuala Lumpur, zipping past colonial-style buildings, vibrant wall murals and the iconic Petronas Twin Towers. Riding pillion on her Sportster 883cc is a young female on a half-day tour to discover the capital city’s hidden gems. But Grün is not just another biker out on a joyride. She is a woman on a mission to use motorcycles as a vehicle to drive female empowerment and champion inclusive tourism development by creating touring job opportunities for local women riders. The 35-year-old’s love affair with two-wheelers started as a child riding pillion on her dad’s Harley while growing up in France, with both her parents being part of a close-knit motorcycle club. But it wasn’t until her regional sales manager job brought her to Malaysia in early 2015 that she saw how motorcycling could liberate women weighed down by family and societal expectations. Grün shared: “When I joined the Ladies of Harley Malaysia and connected with many women riders in the region, I felt inspired to see how motorcycling could emancipate them, bring some balance in their life, and gave them an opportunity to not only be themselves but also to have fun as women, not as mothers, corporate leaders, sisters, wives or daughters.” When Grün lost her corporate job last year, it was this desire to propagate women empowerment through motorcycling that led to her setting up women-led motorbike tour company FreeW in June 2020. The W stands for Women, Will and Wheels, and embodies the organisation’s aim to provide an ecosystem for women to step out of their comfort zones and realise their potential, and to build a sisterhood of sorts with fellow bikers across the globe. It aspires to provide local women with more enriching economic opportunities in tourism and motorsports. To that end, Grün also teaches women in Malaysia to ride two-wheelers to empower them to find more employment opportunities. FreeW women’s riders night event where existing and aspiring riders get inspiration and support FreeW’s roots, in actuality, go back to 2019. Over the last few years, Grün has been undertaking off-road motorcycle tours in the Himalayas, both in India and Nepal, which ignited her interest and love for rural and community-based tourism. Alison on a motorcycle road trip in Nepal in September 2019 “I was really touched by the women there. I was impressed by both their physical capabilities and mental resilience, and felt we had so much to learn from them. However, the language barrier and travelling with men, even though very fun, limited my ability to interact authentically with them,” she recalled. “I suggested to the Nepali team to hire women tour guides as I’d love to come back with a group of female riders. I knew we’d appreciate an experience above the physical challenge, taking our time to enjoy impromptu interactions and reconnect with our womanhood. They looked at me in awe, saying there was no such thing in Nepal. ‘Why not?’ I said. That’s how it all started.” Riding rough terrain In December 2019, Grün worked with the Nepali team to design a tour that would not only take them to breathtaking landscapes, but also allow them to invest in local women’s economic empowerment through local craft classes and homestays. That Nepal tour was slated to be held in April 2020 as FreeW’s first women-only tour, with a Nepalese woman rider to lead the tour with Grün and her team. Alas, the tour was put on ice when Malaysia went into its first lockdown in March 2020. On the upside, the pandemic freed up Grün’s schedule so she could work on sharpening FreeW’s vision and crafting tours with women rider friends. Ongoing collaborations span the region, including one in India with Jai Bharathi from MoWo, a riding school empowering women through mobility; and another with Anne Cruickshanks from Myanmar Pure Travel. A tour in Iran, in partnership with Mahsa Homayounfar from Not Just a Tourist, is also on the cards. Seeing also a huge market gap in motorcycle training classes in Malaysia – and how both safe riding skills and self-confidence on the road are prerequisites to hosting FreeW’s tours – Grün developed a training programme to coach women (and men) how to ride or boost their confidence on two wheels. The course has begun to gain “traction”, and Grün is in talks with driving schools to help them deliver corporate programmes. Alison conducting an off-road motorcycle training course “I also started doing my own motorcycle tours with my Harley-Davidson to give people an opportunity to experience that thrill, where I take passengers off the beaten path to discover Kuala Lumpur and its surroundings from a different perspective,” she said. “I’m hoping to give Malaysian women riders opportunities to do so too in the future.” Alison hosting a guest on a motorcycle tour around Kuala Lumpur Over the last few months, Grün has conducted about 10 personalised tours – a figure she calls “encouraging”, given that Malaysia was placed under movement curbs for a good portion of the time. Prevailing travel restrictions, however, have posed a major speed bump for her overseas road trips. While about 25 women have signalled their interest in the various FreeW tours, uncertainties around the pandemic and ever-evolving travel rules restrain them from making any definite bookings. Still, that has not stopped Grün from planning her 2021 tour line-up in Nepal, Myanmar and India, hoping to do at least some recce rides. Roping in locally-based women riders to run these tours, she will work with them remotely to adapt the tour to the local environment. Currently, she is also in discussions with women riders in several Asian countries – Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Bangladesh and Pakistan – to conceptualise and lead FreeW tours. “In Malaysia, I want to strengthen the motorcycling classes offering, organise more events, and train other women riders interested in sharing their motorcycle passion with others, as tour guides or riding coaches,” she said, adding that corporate partnerships will also be a key focus to accelerate growth in 2021.