From designer chic to biker chick ... why Petra Wolsey loves to take a ride on the wild side
Viewers of the recent BBC series on the Merchant Hotel saw Petra Wolsey as an impeccably groomed business woman, but in a revealing interview with Alison Fleming she talks Harleys, tattoos and why she won't be letting her six-year-old follow in her wheel tracks
As Harley Davidson riders go, Petra Wolsey doesn't exactly fit the mould. Running a major hospitality business including the award-winning Merchant Hotel alongside husband Bill, it's easy to imagine her lifestyle is more designer chic than biker chick.
But the petite 42-year-old is equally at home on her Harley as she is in a five-star hotel, and has just fulfilled a lifetime's ambition by taking part in a major motorcycle event, ticking the experience off her bucket list.
This time last week, she was in the company of thousands of other like-minded Harley owners at the legendary Thunder in the Glens festival in Aviemore in Scotland, something she's wanted to do since she was a teenager.
"I like flouting convention, and I like that notion of freedom that comes with being able to ride a bike," says Petra, who lives in Holywood with Bill and their six-year-old daughter Caoilinn.
"I had a vision of being like Jack Kerouac and trundling along Route 66, which I'm hoping will happen one day.
"I thought it would be such an amazing way to see beautiful parts of the world and it's not that it feels rebellious, more that it's a fun thing to be involved in. When I was 18, I thought it was something that I needed to be a part of."
She credits Bill as being a motivator in making it happen following a chance conversation over dinner, when he first expressed an interest in getting a motorbike "so that kind of galvanised it for me."
The couple took lessons together under the tutelage of Jean Waterworth, who Petra describes as "magnificent".
But the prize of sitting astride a Harley was hard won. Gaining a full motorcycle licence involves passing two levels of basic training, a theory test, manoeuvre test and a road test - and this is where Petra fell down, literally.
"I had completed my theory test, and was taking my manoeuvres test, but in all honesty, I had no business being in the test centre at all. I was dreadful!
"I made a lot of mistakes, but the second time I went to do it, I nailed it. The instructor was waving me over to pass me and I had one more cone to go around and realised I was going to hit it, so dropped the bike which meant an instant fail.
"I then had to do it again, and got it only to find out my theory test had expired and I had to redo it.
"On the day I finally passed I went out and bought Jean a big bottle of vodka, and the examiner a bottle of wine. I was like a Cheshire cat."
While Bill, who secured his coveted licence before his wife, bought a Ducati to indulge his new-found passion, Petra still yearned for the Harley she imagined herself taking to the roads on when she was still a teenager, and is now the proud owner of a Harley Super Low 883 "a decent size of a bike for a 5ft 3in scrap like me!"
With her licence in the bag, work and family commitments meant Petra, who is group marketing director for the Beannchor Group, only managed to rack up 150 miles in the two years since she passed her test. That is, until last weekend when she took to the roads in Scotland with close friends and fellow bikers Collette and Paul Dobson for the Thunder event. Her pilgrimage took her across the Irish Sea, clocking up 500 miles in one weekend.
While readily admitting to being a rookie, Petra says the people she met were as important in making her dream a reality as the bike she was riding.
"They were the most fantastic bunch. We were staying in cabins and Colin McLearnon, who's the director of the Belfast Chapter of the Harley Davidson Owners Group, and his other half Aggie were amazing and really looked after me.
"Everyone I met up there were just warm, caring and incredible human beings, and they really took me under their wing.
"Bikers get a bad reputation some time, but the guys I rode with in Scotland were incredible. Such warm, funny, self-deprecating and caring people, making sure I was safe the whole way up and down.
"Jonny Diffin, who was leading the pack, was checking for potholes left, right and centre. I could see him constantly checking his rear-view mirror to make sure the rest of us were okay.
"Paul Dobson was at the back, making sure no one got lost or fell behind. They were a really tight unit of people. I'd only met some of them for the first time, they're now friends for life.
"Aviemore is the biggest UK event, with 4,000 bikes involved, and on the Saturday for the 50-mile ride out round the glens, 1,000 bikes took part.
"It's quite extraordinary to be in the middle of this huge line of bikes, and to look up and around the valley, around the glens and see more bikes.
"To be spinning through the stunning Glens of Scotland with thousands of other like-minded souls at around 65mph, it feels like being alive, it really does.
"It's very special, and my fellow bikers were the most wonderful people to share the experience with."
Petra says the experience of taking part in a bona fide biking event was made all the sweeter because she had to work so hard for it. It's not the first time she's challenged herself either, having 'bullied' herself into attempting the notorious Harakiri ski slope, Europe's steepest, which she's now done three times. It's clear that "can't" doesn't exist in Petra Wolsey's lexicon.
"I knew this process would be scary, but I wasn't going to stop until I'd achieved it. I guess that's the fun thing about it, being able to switch on different aspects of your personality and surprise yourself and other people as to what facets of your personality exist. I'm a tattooed biker chick at heart and have the tattoos to prove it."
Indeed she does, sporting two and planning more. It's no surprise that her approach to body art boasts the attention to detail that's been the hallmark of her commercial success, utilising a lengthy audition process to ensure there's no risk of regret.
"One of my dearest friends who has about 18 tattoos told me that when you find a design you really love, you have to make sure it's unique to you, and it's special and significant and not about fashion.
"Find that image, live with it on your wall for two years and if you still like it then get it on your body as a tattoo, and if you can't commit to that then you've no business getting a tattoo in the first place. I thought that was great advice.
"It worked for me, and I got my first tattoo about 17 years ago and the next 15 years ago and I still love them.
"One is taken from a microscopic image of a snowflake showing all the minute detail, and the girl that did it also did Green Day's tattoos, so that's my claim to fame.
"The other one is taken from a cave painting, which I came across when I was doing my thesis. I was at university studying ancient tribal sub-culture versus modern culture and all the books I researched with cave paintings were all of males until I found this female one.
"She had a nipped-in waist, an earring, she's very overtly female but has a quiver of arrows and a bow so was clearly a warrior. That really resonated with me at a difficult period in my life, so she is there too."
Not so much a reinvention, as a work in progress, Petra's new hobby looks set to become a family affair, as Bill contemplates taking part in similar events. But she's adamant that daughter Caoilinn, will not be part of her mum's new-found passion.
"There'll be no riding pillion for her, and the most she got out of this weekend was a Harley T-shirt.
"She does think it's cool, and has sat on top of the bike in the garage pretending, but that's terrifying enough for me and I'm not encouraging her! Do as I say and not as I do."
Ironically, Petra's own parents, Rosie and Irvine had the very same concerns about their youngest daughter ahead of her debut ride-out.
The baby of the family, with three older sisters, she says her 85-year-old dad just quietly rolled his eyes and let her get on with it although Petra admits they were mindful of the fact that family friends tragically lost both their sons in separate biking accidents.
However, the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree, and Petra reveals that her mum may also have a yearning to be part of the biking sorority.
"My mum had what I scathingly referred to when I was teenager as a 'hairdryer', a 50-cc step-through moped which she absolutely loved.
"I think it was push-pull for my mum because she has the bug herself. My friend Paul took her out as a pillion passenger on his huge Harley and she completely adored it.
"She'll be 80 on her next birthday and I think if she had the chance she'd go and get her bike licence tomorrow."
As far as safety goes, Petra says her big concern was about falling off her bike in front of the thousands of spectators who flock to Aviemore each year for Thunder in the Glens, although she did experience some terrifying moments during her ride, when the lead rider had a near-miss.
"Occasionally, it's true to say that cars don't see you and I did get cut up a few times. The other thing is that sometimes the state of the roads is so bad.
"Johnny was spending so much time looking out for me and pointing potholes out that he disappeared into a crater and did a big speed wobble.
"Collette and I were screaming in our helmets, so we took five minutes to breathe again after that happened.
"He's such a professional rider it didn't fizz on him. I felt like I was very cocooned, and riding behind him gave me a lot of confidence.
"I think it's probably a similar thing to skiing, in that it's very mindful and meditative. You have to be in the moment for your own safety. You can't be thinking about emails or concerns that are bothering you.
"It feels like a real achievement to be able to ride a big powerful bike. I felt completely safe, at no stage was I intimidated or concerned, I was more like a kid at Christmas."
With the adrenaline of the Thunder event still pumping through her veins, Petra is planning her next adventure, taking part in The Distinguished Gentlemen's ride at the end of September, raising funds for research into prostate cancer and mental health programs as part of their mission to support men's health globally.
She also hopes to squeeze in a ride-out to Sligo before the end of the season.
But in the longer term, her attention is now focused on the big one: the Sturgis Rally in South Dakota, a Mecca for riders from all over the world which attracts more than 700,000 bikers in August each year.
"Definitely Sturgis is going to happen. I don't know when, or if I can pull it off, but it's something I'd really like to do.
"I hope to ski and bike until I'm physically incapable of doing so.
"I saw a bike in Scotland that clearly belonged to an older lady. It was covered in roses and fairies and it was massive, I thought 'fair play. You're having a blast'."