April 2, 2019

The need for speed

SALIFE met with three local female motorcycling pioneers, who have been immortalised in a book written by a Harley-riding grandmother.

  • Feature photograph Dominik Siedlecki

Hell for leather

Lake Gairdner, 250 kilometres from the nearest petrol station, is the location of Speed Week … “a week-long celebration interrupted by moments of sheer terror. Every now and again it’s your turn to scare the bejesus out of yourself,” says motorcyclist Kim Krebs (pictured above).

Hundreds of competitors make an annual pilgrimage, which weeds out the wannabes. West from Port Augusta, just past the turnoff to Iron Knob, a small sign points down a dirt track. After 160 kilometres of corrugated red earth, sand dunes and salt bush, the road rises over one last dune and gives way to a vast expanse of salt. “You’re in a part of the world where there are only a few colours,” Kim says. “There’s the blue sky, the red earth and the white of the salt.”

More women have gone into space than have set land speed records, putting Kim in an elite club. In America she set a record of 393 km/h (242 mph), making her the fastest record-holding woman on a motorcycle. “You’re only borrowing that record from history; it’s not yours to keep,” she says.

Kim was back at Lake Gairdner in March for the 28th Australian speed week. “We call it salt fever … you either love it or you hate it, and if you love it, you’ll be back with something to race,” says Kim, who got her first taste when friend Greg Watters introduced her to the sport in 2006. She already had a life-long affinity with motorcycles and it was only at age 42 that she bought her first four-wheeled vehicle: a ute to transport her bikes.

Kim says going fast is more meditative than terrifying. “Going fast really sharpens your perceptions; it must be part of the adrenaline. It’s also grounding and quite calming … you’re not being distracted by the radio or your phone. It might only take three minutes to do a run, but you’re aware of everything.

“On the start line looking down the salt lake, it’s so flat that you can see the curvature of the earth. When someone does their run before you, the sound comes and goes as it bounces off the planet. It’s the most amazing landscape.”

Lake Gairdner must be bone dry for racing, and over time organisers have learnt not to hold events during the full moon. Perhaps more folklore than science, the full moon is thought to draw moisture to the surface of the lake, like a high tide.

Formal land speed events have been held in Australia for less than three decades, while Utah’s famous Bonneville Salt Flats have been used for land speed records since the 1930s. Having joined the 200mph club, Kim and racing partner Greg have their sights on a new salt lake event in Bolivia, where they hope to reach 482km/h (300mph).

They are the biggest salt flats in the world, high in the Andes near the small town of Uyuni. The thin air means less drag and the vast salt lake holds the potential for faster speeds, but it comes at a hefty price. “It’s at 4200m above sea level and remote. There are lots of complexities of getting there and it’s going to be very expensive to enter,” she says.

“You can’t be terrified, because if you’re tense on the bike you’re probably thinking about too many things other than the here and now.”

Sticks and stones

When Mandy Beales retired from racing in 2011 she left many wondering what happened to that incredibly fast woman who left her male rivals in the dust. Mandy’s name is still mentioned with veneration at racetracks around the country, from her superhuman ability on two wheels, to becoming the first female to win an Australian road race championship.

As one of the sport’s female pioneers, in 2008 she won 31 out of the 34 races she rode, all against men. Having withstood dirty tricks on track and derogatory comments off track, in the end her racing and sportsmanship did the talking for her.

Pictured on the motorbike that almost claimed her life, Mandy was forced to reassess her behaviour on the road and transfer her riding to the track.

But before all that she was a self-confessed hoon on Adelaide’s roads and in 1999, at age 23, it very nearly cost her life. “I used to do wheelies everywhere. I was a ratbag,” Mandy says. “I’ve broken about 28 bones in total, and mostly from riding on the road.” She was almost killed when she hit a tree after falling asleep on her way home from work. “I broke my hand, wrist, ribs and tore my kneecap. My arm almost had to be amputated, and I snapped my scapula right through,” she says.

Soon after the accident a driver from Adelaide Bike Recovery told her to get off the road and onto the track. “I’ve seen you out on the roads before, if you continue riding like that you’re going to die,” he said. The mechanic gave her a contact for a racing team; “that’s what got me into racing and changed my life”.

She worked in a pit crew for three years, and finally got her shot on the track. “I actually went quite fast for a first-timer. I was well and truly bitten by the bug and had a grin from ear to ear.”

She moved quickly through the ranks, before the expense to her and her family forced her to sell her bike. It was then that one of Australia’s premiere motorcycle builders, Jerry Kooistra, gave her an opportunity on his two valuable Hondas to succeed Bill Horsman – a nine-time Australian champion and Isle of Man TT winner. Mandy broke Bill’s Mallala lap record during her first race in the saddle.

That’s when her string of successes began. She went on to take out the 350cc classic class to become the first female to win an Australian championship. “I managed to set some lap records around the country and they stood for a few years. In two years of racing, I never crashed.”

Competitors would try to intimidate and even knock her off during races, while sexist remarks off the track only served as motivation. “Riders always tried to knock me off and in the end I just ended up way out in front. There’s all sorts of nasty tactics. They got away with a lot. It was never going to make me quit; it made me more determined. I think I earned some respect from standing my ground and not running away.”

Since blazing a trail for women in the sport, there are more females on bikes than ever. There are also more racing categories, enabling riders to avoid being thrown in the deep end. “It has opened the doors for women. There are all these riding groups now and they love it, it’s incredible. They are enjoying the motorcycling experience.

“I think about my career every day since I finished racing. But who knows what might have happened the next time I went out on the track. I’m amazed at the high regard people still hold me in; it’s lovely.”

Off the beaten track

Three English women park their motorbikes and walk into a 1960s bar. It sounds like the start of a joke, but for Linda Bootherstone-Bick the real joke was discovering she wasn’t allowed in Australian front bars with the blokes at all.

Linda and her two friends raised plenty of eyebrows when they travelled Australia on motorbikes in their early 20s. “I first started riding in England and we were a bit more liberated over there in the ’60s,” Linda says. “It was a bit of a shock when we came over here and we weren’t even allowed in the public bars.” It was not until a few years later that legislation allowed women to share the bars with men.

“Three girls travelling on bikes were considered unusual and a bit of a novelty, but we didn’t take any bull from anybody,” remembers the 72-year-old, who has been travelling the world ever since. She spent her recent birthday in Uganda, her 70th with friends in Bolivia and when she turned 60 she was in the Himalayas on an overland bike journey to Australia. “I don’t know where my next birthday will be,” she says.

Linda was drawn to Adelaide, the “most gracious” city she has seen in all her travels, and now lives in Port Lincoln. She lived in Spain for 16 years, which allowed her to visit Morocco dozens of times.

When she lands in a new country she buys a motorbike and maps, travelling without a smartphone or GPS: “I don’t believe in that rubbish. I’d rather get lost and ask for directions.” Four of her travel bags have been pinched and on one occasion one was lifted out of a moving car by a thief on a motorbike. She has funded her travels by working up to three jobs at once and picking up odd jobs along her journeys.

At the age of 59 she began a marathon overland journey from Spain to Australia. “I went through Iran, Pakistan and all these Islamic places that people are frightened to death of, and they were fantastic.” Riding with an open-face helmet, locals would gravitate to the woman on a motorcycle. “They were so incredibly hospitable. People would ride alongside me and stop me, asking to come back to their place, putting me up and feeding me.”

Linda has written three books about her journeys, and is a strong supporter of Sally-Anne Fowles’ book Fast Women. “We needed a book like that; it’s very important to have a record of women’s motorcycling history in South Australia.”

The Writer

Harley Davidson enthusiast Sally-Anne Fowles was not sure where to begin when inspiration struck to pen a book about Australia’s female motorcyle pioneers.

The Harley-riding grandmother, who works as a horticulturalist, was motivated to write Fast Women having recently rediscovered her love of motorbikes.

After posting a newspaper classified ad calling for stories, she was inundated with tales of remarkable women, many of whom have received little acknowledgment of their two-wheeled accomplishments.

Sally-Anne Fowles.

“I had to really hone down the list to women who fit the bill as pioneers,” she says. “The stories are similar, in that if you have a dream there’s going to be fear associated with it. If you’re passionate and you know in your gut that it’s something you need to do with your life: go for it.”

She discovered amazing stories, from the first woman in South Australia to ride a motorbike, in 1910, to women serving as despatch riders in World War II.

“Most of the women that ride are doctors, secretaries and gardeners like me. Across the board, there has been a sense of relief that it has been presented that we’re normal after all.”


This article was first published in the June 2018 issue of SALIFE.

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