Over two rounds of beer and six baskets of chips and salsa, the group of tattooed and leather-vested bikers from New Jersey traded tips on gear and motorcycle dealers. They regaled each other with stories of wild road trips and lamented the difficulties of righting a toppled Harley. Then one rider produced photos of a powerful new Honda Shadow Sabre, a black dream bike with gray flames painted on the side. Why, she wanted to know, didn't it come in the same shade of red as her lipstick?

Women have long been viewed, especially by men, as ornaments on the backs of motorcycles. Not anymore. According to the Motorcycle Industry Council, more than 4.3 million women operated motorcycles last year, up 34 percent from 1998. "We just got tired of looking at the back of someone's helmet and wanted to see what the view was like from the front," says Marlene Smith, 40, a systems manager and president of the New Jersey Spokes-Women Motorcycle Club. Jill Carlton, 47, a former doughnut baker who quit her job to work full-time for a motorcycle distributor, says riding gives her a natural high: "It's as much fun as... well, I won't say, if you know what I mean."

According to the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, one out of every three new riders enrolling in training school is female. Women have become such a significant buying force that companies like BMW and Suzuki are designing bikes tailored to women's physiques. Buell, a company that makes high-powered, easy-to-handle sports bikes, reduced the weight of its Blast model, giving it lower seats with modified suspension and an easier-to-use clutch.

Women are as passionate as men about the open road, but perhaps not as likely to take chances. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, motorcycle fatalities--which are on the rise--remain a largely male phenomenon. After five years of declining rates, motorcycle deaths began rising again in 1997--with 90 percent of the deaths among men. (Experts attribute this, in part, to a failure to wear helmets.)

Today's female riders are reinventing motorcycle culture. The Ladies of Harley in Billings, Mont., have abandoned rest-stop visits to pubs and taverns, instead taking breaks at clothing and craft stores. Forgoing flames or the skull and crossbones, the New Jersey Spokes-Women chose the mariner's compass as their symbol--a traditional quilting pattern. But when it comes to the joy of feeling wind on your face, all genders benefit equally. "There's nothing better," says Smith. And now there's no guy blocking the breeze.