I’m chasing after Imogen Lehtonen through the twisted and narrow Apennine Mountains, a spine of limestone and granite that cuts through 7,500 miles of Italy. We roar beneath canopies of trees and through vibrant green tunnels that quickly break into blue skies. The wind smacks my face as I close in on her; scents of Italian farms in the blooming hillsides try to keep up. Speeding ahead of me on a Ducati Scrambler Café Racer, Lehtonen looks chic and cool in black, her ghostly helmet spilling out raven hair in waves.
As we rip full-throttle past centuries-old castles and picturesque village vineyards, Lehtonen and her Café Racer seem symbiotic with her feminine curvature outlining the Italian-designed tubular steel trellis frame. Woman and machine, melded into one.
Hitting third gear, my tires grip the tight-radius, two-lane blacktop at speeds that taunt me. We cover more than a hundred miles of meandering Italian asphalt before reaching a long straightaway that leads us into the heart of Bologna, a charismatic city arranged around a beautifully colonnaded medieval grid. As we relinquish our bikes, she doffs her helmet and flashes me an exaggerated simper. That’s when I realize who she is—and what she represents.
Lehtonen grew up in this world. She rides for herself, and for the pure joy of it—not out of self-absorption or in pursuit (or exploitation) of sponsorships and online followers. And so, with current moto culture suffering mass infiltration by selfie-seeking millennials with a penchant for instant social media gratification, Lehtonen stands tall among the real and worthy women who ride.
Not to be a dick, but I don’t respect new blood coming in just because it’s cool to be on a motorcycle right now.
Born in London, raised in New Zealand and settled in Los Angeles, Lehtonen has become a sought-after rider, model and ambassador for women in motorcycle culture. Those who may have seen her on AMC’s RIDE with Norman Reedus are keen to her sultry foreign accent and enchanting disposition. But it was her moxie that prompted Reedus to invite Lehtonen to co-star in the series’ inaugural episode. “Imogen is just such a badass on and off the bike,” Reedus tells Playboy. “After I had her on the show, I had so much feedback from girls telling me she inspired them to get into motorcycles, plan a ride or join a group of girls that ride.”
Reedus first reached out to Lehtonen in summer 2015 when she was crossing America with four other women on motorcycles. He invited them to a barbeque at his home in Georgia, where he lives while filming The Walking Dead. Six months later, he invited Lehtonen to shoot an episode of RIDE wherein he visits her family’s jewelry shop, The Great Frog, on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles before beginning a joint four-day journey along the Pacific Coast. “When we filmed RIDE, Imogen was flying down Pacific Coast Highway, zipping in and out between the bikes and camera crew, and doing this Cirque Du Soleil performance on her bike,” recalls Reedus. “It made my camera crew completely forget about me and focus on her.”
But in as much as Lehtonen has come to symbolize the ultimate feminine badass on a bike, she is intent on not representing any woman other than herself. The downside of the recent inflation of women who ride, she says, is that it’s become a scene and a trend, and she’s after something more authentic. “Not to be a dick, but I don’t respect new blood coming in just because it’s cool to be on a motorcycle right now,” Lehtonen says. “These girls go to the Born Free Show and wear little 1970s biker chick clothing because they wanna hook up with some guy who rides a bike. It’s like, fuck off. Get your own bike.”
Having learned to ride from her father, who succumbed to cancer after a seven-year battle, participating in the sport represents something greater than social currency and celebrity. “I still have conversations with my dad,” she says. “I talk to him in my helmet while I ride. My dad taught me to let go of expectations and follow my intuition, my gut and my heart. I have this necklace my cousin made—it’s a bullet with some of my father’s ashes inside of it—and I don’t go a day without wearing it. I can’t imagine riding without it.”
So how has Lehtonen become an ambassador for women who ride when she’d much rather just disappear and ride by herself? It’s that genuine disinterest has made her all the more interesting to both moto masters like Reedus and outsiders (she has 75,000 Instagram followers)—and all the more fucking cool. “Admittedly, I’m a reluctant ambassador,” she says. “There isn’t such a need to prove yourself anymore because there are so many women in motorcycling now. And I’m not a scenester or some girl who rides out once a year to Babes Ride Out. I love riding because it makes me happy. If you’re in it for the right reason, and it makes you happy and you love it, then do it.”
Lehtonen’s criticism of the devolution of motorcycle culture into a selfie-driven interest comes with a sharp warning. Trendy biker garb aside, there’s an inherent danger that comes with her world being penetrated by inexperienced babes on bikes in their quest for the motorcycle version of Coachella. “I don’t like riding with groups if I don’t know who is riding,” she explains. “I’ve known so many people over the past several years that have lost their life or been badly hurt on a motorcycle—people really close to me. And that scares me.”
When Lehtonen isn’t out shredding on two wheels, the gothic moto queen toils tirelessly in the back of The Great Frog’s workshop—a family business founded by her uncle, Paterson Riley, 1972. The Lehtonen-Riley radically pioneered the market for heavy skull-infused designs, including the skull ring, by pedaling wares to clientele at local custom bike shows. The Frog has since become the standard in rock and roll jewelry for heavy metal bands like Guns N’ Roses, Metallica and Motörhead. The latter has a longstanding signature ring designed by her cousin Reino, and other designs from The Great Frog have been snatched up by the likes of Mick Jagger, Lady Gaga and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who invested in a 200-gram silver skull cuff.
Like motorcycle riding, firing torches and grinding silver aren’t skills that came easy. A second-generation silversmith, Lehtonen learned to prep waxes for casting and chemically treat newly sized skull rings from Riley during a dark spell in London. “I lived in the attic of the London shop—a creaky old building along a cobblestone street that overlooks Carnaby Street,” recalls Lehtonen. “I stayed in what they called the rat’s nest—a peaked-roof attic, four floors up from the shop level with no windows. I got really pale and strange during that time, but it was a huge inspiration to me.”
Lehtonen later moved to Los Angeles, where she opened The Great Frog’s shop under the guidance of her cousin. Aligning her two passions—riding motorcycles and pounding out silver in the back of her workshop—came quite simple. From her perspective, the two share common ground. “For 45 years, our family has been handcrafting jewelry that bikers would want to wear,” she says. “It’s all rock and roll.”
Despite her reticence in becoming one of today’s most well-known female riders on the road—and a role model of sorts—Lehtonen does credit her hobby as the source of several life-enriching friendships with strong and inspiring women. “I’ve met girls who do leather work, or footwear, or work with special needs kids, and they all ride motorcycles and they’re fucking cool and they don’t need guys to carry them along. That’s what I respect,” she says.