"Do you need any help?" Was the first thing I asked to the Women Rider's World Relay contact button on Facebook. It all then snowballed like crazy and led to some of the most incredible experiences and opportunities of my life. I had no idea that within four weeks I'd be taking a major role in planning and executing a ride across Italy with a bunch of beautiful, crazy, wild girls and having meetings that would change my life forever and launch me into a motor racing career.
I was checking out some Facebook posts and admiring some amazing female bikers and their bikes and I came across a post about a relay taking place globally over the whole of 2019, with the aim of uniting women and raising awareness to the industry. There's general acceptance that around 10-20% of new bike sales are to women but they are in no way represented in this way by the media or by manufacturers. There's several theories around this, but what mattered most to me was not so much representation by the industry (market forces will prevail where there is an opportunity) but that these women may not be getting out there because of a confidence issue. Because perhaps where they live it is considered a 'man's thing' and they wouldn't be welcome on ride outs or talked over in groups. I was hoping I could somehow share my own positive experiences and let my story encourage other girls to start to mix more with all kinds of other bikers. When you find a good thing, you want to share it.
I understand why women may feel this way. I've been there. Been on trips with a whole bunch of guys and it's been a testosterone fest, dangerous and disrespectful. Fortunately that experience was a one-off and the majority of my rides with chaps has been hugely positive and uplifting. But still, if that experience had been my first.. I may not have had a second.
Si, they said
My offer of help was quickly accepted. The Italian Ambassador (the key organisers for each country who is planning each trip and drumming up support and 'Guardians' - riders and holders of the baton) had recently had to step down from the post and the Relay needed help finishing the route and getting girls and sponsors on board. I wasn't in the country, can't speak Italian but.. Hey… whatever. If that baton needed to get across from France to Slovenia then I it would be the one to do it, single-handed and in my teeth if necessary. I had four weeks to sort it all out.
Attempts by me to get sponsors was fraught because of the language issue. I had a few tries, some great girls came forward including the previous Ambassador to help out but no responses to the emails. Simultaneously I tried to get girls on board. A contact recommended I speak to the UK Secretary of the Moto Guzzi GB club.. Serena Powis. What an amazing woman! An invitation to dinner followed and before I knew it we had a facebook page set up and Serena was channelling all her energies into helping us find more riders. But time was against us.
Final Countdown – Rosaria lands!
Two weeks to go, still only a handful of riders on board but the route was more or less finished. Two English and one French lady confirmed but only a few tentative Italians dipping their toes in the 'maybe' water. Then came a breakthrough when the lovely Rosaria Fiorentino came on board. Rosaria is a high profile figure in Italian racing circles, organising her own women-only tours (Babe's Great Escape) and the annual Distinguished Gentleman's Ride in Rome. She knew people. Lots of people. With her on-board a co-Ambassador the language barrier would be broken and she was my route into a good selection of lady riders who would be up for a giggle.
A frenetic week ensued with Rosaria contacting some of her contacts in Parma (RP Motors), Verona (Special Mr Martini) and Vincenza (Triumph Triple Bike organised by a good friend Sandra of FreeSpirit), all of whom welcomed us with big smiles and open arms. The game was on!
I was able to make it to the official launch of WRWR at the Ace Café in London and met a host of lovelies including Elspeth Beard and Kerri Cameron, the only Wall of Death stuntwoman whose feats of balancing blew my mind. I rocked up on the Blood Bike to draw awareness to the charity and hopefully inspire some other ladies to take up Bloodbiking. (Go to http://www.bloodbikes.org.uk/ to find your local group in the UK.)
On our way
With Rosaria's help we'd managed to get up to a healthy number by the time registrations closed. Fourteen ladies of four different nationalities were on board. The route had been planned in MyRouteApp and shared. We had even worked out who was going to be Road Captain for the first leg. The whole of WRWR has been meticulously planned, advice has been forwarded on how to prepare and lead a section so that even the most inexperienced at riding in a group could have a go. A lot of the hesitancy about group riding is down to fear which is a huge shame. Fear of getting people lost, fear of not riding to the same skill as others. Well it's all nonsense of course. Getting lost is part of the fun.. The best and biggest laughs I've ever had have been after a complete cock-up on the navigation front. And as for skill.. I've been there, been the most scared and slow rider in a pack and all that's happened is I was lifted up by the group and once I'd found my motorcycle legs I found new friendships too. It's all a huge positive so I always encourage others to take that leap. WRWR has helped thousands of women do that.
The day I was to leave was special in another way. It was my granddaughter's first birthday party and it was being held at my home. I couldn't miss the little lady's first year celebrations so all packing had to be done the night before. My head was an absolute jumble, but I absolutely had to leave at midday to catch the channel tunnel and get down to Troyes for my first night. It wasn't too much of a challenge, but required military precision leaving skills, I knew I'd get there around 8pm and I'd stayed at the Hotel du Cirque before and knew the parking was secure. The next day was much, much more challenging. I needed to get from Troyes to Menton, in France where the baton was to be handed over. More than that, I needed to ride 1000km in a day - my furthest ever. And at the end of it, I needed to negotiate a mountain. In the dark. With mashoosive hairpin bends.
Sex on the way to Sospel
All the way along from Troyes to Menton I'd been listening to an audiobook called 'Jupiter's Travels'. An incredible chap by the name of Ted Simon wrote this account of his epic four-year bike journey through 126,000 km across 45 countries on a 500cc Triumph Tiger. It's extremely witty and a great listen but as I was ascending the mountain where I was to meet the French contingent of the WRWR I was dead tired. I had already ridden my furthest ever in a day, over 900 km and it was also pitch black. I hung on to the bike and went extremely slowly, focusing on each bend, expecting it to be a hairpin even if it wasn't. I was getting progressively slower and slower, nearly walking pace. The night air was nippy and I was willing the journey to its conclusion.
I'd turned off the audiobook a few miles back to help me focus. All of a sudden, during a particularly dank and dark section of the route du Sospel, the D2566, at the top of which the campsite was located, it slipped back on again without prompting. Then totally unexpectedly the story launched into a chapter featuring a very sexy narrative of Ted's encounter with a lady after not having had intimate relations for some time. His memory was detailed indeed. Descriptions of milky white breasts and soft, tender skin came unbidden in front of my eyes as his story was recounted loudly and passionately into my ears. I shouted at Siri the iphone assistant to 'Close Book!!' and 'Cancel!' or 'Close App!!' but she didn't hear me and I couldn't stop because I had car headlights right on my tail. So there was nothing for it but to listen to this lovely, sexy passage while fearing for my life on each corner. The silliness of the situation overcame me and I laughed out loud several times. Perhaps relaxing at these times is a good thing.. But, like Ted, I'll never forget that 'ride' and because of classical conditioning I get a warm glow when I approach a hairpin bend now..
I met up with the French WRWR girls at Sospel and we went straight out for dinner. A great bunch of ladies, one of whom, Flo Raison, had said she would continue with me and the Italians into Slovenia. I also met up with the Australian lady, Collette, who was riding the whole of the WRWR and was becoming something of a celebrity to the event. Another English woman, Johanna Boshier, who had joined the relay in the UK was also coming with me. So this was the first part of the team - cracking start!
The next morning we flew back down the mountain and I could see just how much of a sheer drop it was either side. But it was a beautiful descent with the French team down to the official handover spot in Menton. Yamaha had set us up with coffee and croissants just outside their showroom and it was a welcome start to the day. An official handover and we were all on our way with Valentina Bertelli as Road Captain, negotiating the route to our first stop at Chiavari and the Lord Nelson pub. She and Michela Finnochiaro met us here as the first of the Italian contingent. Others would join us along the way, at Chiavari, Vincenza and Villesse.
We followed the coast road, riding at a fair old pace because ultimately we had a lot of miles to cover and these trips always take longer than you plan. Particularly when there are people to meet, events being held and greetings of new riders at various points. But that's half the fun.. If you over plan you'll only get worked up so it's important to go with the flow on these journeys. It is all about the journey and not the destination, after all.
Day One - 537km, Menton to Lake Garda
Lunch was at the Lord Nelson pub in Chiavari. A lovely town on the coast slightly east of Genoa. The pub I had found with good parking next to it. I didn't realise the owner was English, although perhaps I should have from the name. it was a welcome stop and where I was to meet Rosaria for the first time. Dino, her partner, was also there. What a great couple they made… she a popular figure in Italy in her own right and he a famous bike customiser who had been building bikes all his life. His story was fascinating, last year he had entered a bike for a land speed record at Bonneville and nearly got it. I didn't know it at the time but this would not be the first time I would meet Dino. Our destinies were fated to be intertwined…
We said our goodbyes to Dino in a flurry of kisses and hugs and after a quick photoshoot at the Port (Rosaria had arranged some extra publicity for us) we made our way to La Spezia and then sharply north on the E15 towards Parma where our next stop had been set up. RP Motors is a BMW Motorrad dealership and in good Italian style they didn't disappoint with our welcome, even though we were a couple of hours later than planned, the team ushered us to the front where we posed for the cameras again with our best smiles forward.
We arrived at the Adria Hotel on the east side of Lake Garda late.. around 20.30 hrs and we were pretty exhausted but happy. The hotel was perfect, positioned right by the lake and we had room for the bikes round the back. The owner was known to friends of mine and was used by Magellan Motorcycle Tours so I knew the quality would be good.
Day 2 - Lake Garda to Gorizia 426km - Ride of the Valkyries
The next morning we set off after breakfast to the most amazing route around Lake Garda that took in the world famous Gole Delle Tremosine - Strada Della Forra - a winding road carved out of the rock by the lake. Truly beautiful sights assaulted us on every bend as the deep blue lake came into view time and time again as we wound our way through the rugged landscape and through stone tunnels that every now and then gave us a little break from the sun. The glorious sound of bike engines reverberated throughout the length of the caverns as the girls kept an even distance and swept through, looking every inch like Valkyries. We were on top of the world. This was our time.
The road around the lake is stunning, we practically did the whole circuit as we needed to go south again on the SR249 towards Garda. We stopped a couple of times for the view, one particular place was a monastery but a word of warning - the road is steep, narrow and the surface uneven and full of gravel at the top. We had big problems turning and going back down, most girls needed help and I dropped the bike after misjudging my landing spot. Fortunately it was a soft fall, I softened the drop by letting the bike down gently and then rolling free. Embarrassing but hey, I'm only human and it won't be the last time.
After leaving the lake behind we head west on the E45 towards Verona and on to a lunch at Mr Special Martini - an amazing bikers paradise of a restaurant with parts of bikes and chrome tastefully littered around the place. Even the toilets were amusing with a life-size cut-out of Donald Trump looking at you as you wee. Rosaria knew the owners and had recommended it. Another photo call outside the front and then a fantastic lunch awaited us. It was a great stopping place and the hospitality was exceptional.
Vincenza was next and the Triumph dealership where again we were greeted with photos and tea and cake. They even checked over the bikes for us. Rosaria had arranged for a live streaming video with NeuroTV and for a while we all felt very famous. But it was again the story that we were running well behind schedule and the Slovenia girls would be waiting at the border for us for longer than we anticipated. So we jumped on our bikes as soon as we could politely do so and made hell for leather for Gorizia on the Slovenia and Italy border and the baton handover to the Slovenian Ambassador, Nadja Kapalja.
Dash for the Border
It was nightfall by the time we arrived at the border and the girls had waited for hours. But their cheers at our arrival were still hearty and loud as ever and their smiles warm and friendly. This was their time now. Rosaria and I handed the baton over and big cheers went up. Videos from all angles were taken. We had done it, Rosaria and I had managed with just a few days notice to get a band of girls together and get the baton across Italy. And we had done it in style.
All that remained was a night ride towards our hotel in Tolmin, just the other side of the Slovenia border. We were to spend the night here with our Slovenian comrades who were to take the baton on the next part of the epic journey towards Croatia. The sight of a couple of dozen girl riders winding their way to Tolmin, down beautiful roads, all in a line reminded Valentina of a snake as she commented later. Riding at the back you could see the tail lights in front and it was indeed a mesmerising sight.
Thank you Italy!
The Italian ladies will always be remembered by me as high-spirited, beautiful-natured ladies with a love and zest for life that makes you want to sing and smile when you're riding with them. Happy memories and friends always. They were: Valentina Bertelli, Michela Finocchiaro, Rosaria Fiorentino, Monica Zoi, Flora Rossi, Monica Bortolusso, Manuela Ritzberger, Licia Scott, Agnese Mattiuzzi, Barbara Rochetto, Anna Polame and Miki Borghetti. Together with Collette Tindal-Edeling, Johanna Boshier, Flo Raison and myself we achieved a small slice of history together. Jo and I went on to travel to Berlin together on our own mini adventure as we were in no rush to get back to the UK, but that's another story for another time. Needless to say, two girls + two bikes + no plan = ADVENTURE!
And now for A WORLD RECORD!
And I hear you ask, the motor racing? The meeting with Rosaria and Dino? This is the most exciting thing that has ever happened to me and it all happened because I asked, "Do you need any help?" to the Admins of the Woman Riders World Relay. That one message set into motion meeting Rosaria and Dino and her telling me about their Land Speed World Record attempt at the Salt Flats in Bonneville with the Open Eyes Dream Racing Team. You see Dino is a world-class bike customiser. He builds bikes, engines - he's an innovator and super talented. He's entering his amazingly beautiful creation, a partially streamlined motorbike, powered by LNG (one of a kind) and utilising a new air freezer cooling system into a land speed attempt. The bike enters the record attempt and it is allowed up to five pilots. They had four. it didn't take me long to approach Rosaria (the next day, well, I thought it best to sleep on it :-)) to ask if I could be number five. A couple of weeks later and after the Open Eyes Dream Racing Team sanctioned it, I was on the team. I still can hardly believe it. I'm currently in training and have now obtained my UK race licence. I'm an official motorbike racer!
Everything happens for a reason. My reason? I just like saying YES. It's a great way to live.
Believing in your dreams,