Cape Town – Let's begin Women's Month at full throttle as we shine the spotlight on those feisty women who have mixed it with the men in motorcycle racing at Killarney over the years and, in a least two cases, gone on to greater things.
Among the first was glamorous Ruth Abrahams, who earned undying notoriety among the marshals when she pulled her Suzuki GS450 over, halfway down the back straight, during a race in 1979, took off her helmet, fixed her hair - and rode on.
Summoned by the stewards to account for herself, she explained that it was a safety issue. “My hair was in my eyes,” she said. “I couldn’t see where I was going!” The authorities were not amused, but had to concede that safety, indeed, came first.
When Lyn Curling decided in 1981 she needed a big bike on which to go racing, she flew to Johannesburg, bought a new Moto Guzzi Le Mans III and ran it in by riding it back to Cape Town. Curling was a superb natural rider, with such immense self-discipline that she could lie down on the tar of the pit lane amid the noise of a national race day and simply go to sleep.
Her racing career was cut short by a major crash on Turn 4 in 1982, which damaged the bike beyond her financial capacity to repair it.
Suzanne Clark, now better known in bicycle racing circles as the prettier half of tandem racing duo Mearns and Clark, cemented her reputation as an international rider by entering a race meeting at Windhoek in the early 1990s.
The engine of her Honda VFR500 II V-four race bike had just been rebuilt, however, and there was no time to run it before leaving for Namibia - so, somewhere in the Kalahari, they off-loaded it from the van, and she rode it to the Namibian border! Needless to say, it performed flawlessly at Windhoek.
After Clark's defection to the pedal pushers, the only woman still racing on two wheels at Killarney was Jenni Peters, nicknamed the “Loose Goose” after her all-white Moto Guzzi Le Mans race bike. For most of her career the 220kg V-twin was the heaviest bike on the grid and you could always tell where she was because its bass rumble was audible over the screaming multis from anywhere around the circuit.
After a huge crash in Turn 2 in 1995, in which she suffered a dislocated shoulder among other injuries, Peters intimidated a young casualty doctor into releasing her from hospital so that she could return to the circuit in time for prize-giving - where she received a standing ovation. She was racing again within six weeks.
Two years later she suddenly announced after the first race of the day, “I’m not getting any faster; I’m not going to race any more,” and she never did. She was 51 at the time.
When pint-sized law student Cindy Brown - the youngest of six sisters – told her family in 2002 she wanted to go racing on her Honda VFR400 street-bike, all her sisters contributed – one bought her a new helmet, another a leather racing suit, still another gloves and boots.
After a successful career over a number of years, she suffered a succession of big crashes and was advised that she risked brain damage if she fell on her head again.
She briefly tried racing a car but that never held the same thrill as riding a motorcycle to its limit, so she disappeared from Killarney - although she surprised everybody some years later when she pitched up to a reunion of former motorcycle racers on a Ducati.
Seems you can take the woman out of bike racing but you can’t take bike racing out of the woman.
Another woman rider who gained a somewhat unwarranted reputation as a crasher was Mandy Peake, nick-named ‘Steel Bender’ after one particularly destructive tumble from her Honda VTR1000 Firestorm, renowned as a difficult bike to ride at the limit.
The statistics show that Peake fell off no more often than the majority of her competitors, but her crashes tended towards the spectacular - and expensive. Husband Grant undoubtedly heaved a sigh of relief when she joined her daughter Maya in a single-horsepower sport - show-jumping.
More recently we have ultra-fit Slovakian-borne Sandra Stammova, who now calls Cape Town home and who put in a couple of very exciting seasons at Killarney on a BMW S1000 RR before moving on to international level in the Italian Coppa Amatori on a Yamaha R1 - where she finished third last weekend in her very first race in the series.
Top woman rider at the moment on the short circuit is teenager Erin Lane; she’s a second-generation racer, the daughter of former rider and current race-bike tuner Anthony Lane.
A number of women have distinguished themselves over the years on the short circuit, among them Jeannette Kok-Kritzinger, Martie Bosson, Clauwdet Lok (who also raced one season on the main circuit) and Carmen Agnew.
GRAND PRIX and WORLD SUPERSPORTS
The only woman racing in Grand Prix in 2017 is 20-year-old Maria Herrera from Toledo in Spain, who rides a KTM in Moto3; her compatriot, Ana Carrasco, has moved to World Supersport 300 where she competes against New Zealander Avalon Biddle.
And a tip of the helmet here to three very special women: Tiny Finnish teenager Taru Rinne, who was kicked out of Finland’s national karting series as a 15-year-old for beating golden boy Mika Hakkinen too often, and moved to 125cc Grand Prix racing, where she became the first girl ever to score points in a motorcycle Grand Prix.
She briefly led the 1989 German 125 Grand Prix at Hockenheim on a Honda, before finishing seventh, which prompted Bernie Ecclestone (then an official of the FIM) to deny her an international licence for the 1991 season on the grounds that she wasn’t qualified, ending her career. She later said it was the biggest disappointment of her life.
Gina Bovaird from Boston, Massachusetts, was the first and remains the only woman ever to race in the premier class of motorcycle Grands Prix. In 1981 she became the first woman to finish the Daytona 200, and in 1982 she and her husband took their unsponsored Yamaha TZ500 to Europe.
The bike wasn’t competitive, however, and it wasn’t until she was lent a factory Yamaha for the French Grand Prix at Nogaro that she was able to qualify for a Grand Prix. Sadly, she didn’t finish (history does not record whether she crashed or the works Yamaha let her down) which is why you won’t find her name in the history books.
Much more successful is Spanish off-road rider Laia Sanz, who won the inaugural Women’s World Trials championship at the age of 15 and went on to win it another 12 times in 13 years (she finished second in 2007).
She began riding enduros in training for the Dakar Rally and won the Women’s World Enduro title every year from 2012 to 2016. She was also the top woman finisher in the Dakar Rally every year that she entered, from 2011 to 2016, with a best finish of ninth overall in 2015.
** Celebrate Women's Day (Wednesday 9 August) at Killarney, watching Round 7 of the Power Series, including the Mike Hopkins Motorcycles regional series.
* Are you a woman biker? We'd love to see you and your bike. Send your pictures to iolletters[email protected] and we might publish it.