GRR

Ten pioneering female motorcyclists

12th April 2021
Laura Thomson

Pioneering women; we all know and applaud them, as they carve paths through the most male-dominated of industries. Be it in aerospace, engineering, sports and science, females have historically been dwarfed by their XY counterparts.

But slowly, the tides have been turning, and women have staked their place in the world. And while for as long as there have been motorcycles, there have been women who ride them, the female representation has been few and far between.  

Here a handful of women who have smashed glass ceilings on two wheels.

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Adeline (1884–1959) and Augusta Van Buren (1889–1949)

It was 1916; the world was embroiled in the First World War, and Theodore Roosevelt’s Preparedness Movement had swept the United States.
Two sisters, descended from the eighth President of the United States, Martin Van Buren, were dedicated to the cause and endeavoured to become dispatch riders in order to help the war effort and free up men for other tasks. They also had another agenda, and that was to prove that women could ride motorcycles as well as men, and deserved the right to vote.

To prove their point, on 4th July 1916, 32-year-old Gussie and 27-year-old Addie Van Buren departed from Sheepshead Bay Race Track in Brooklyn, New York, in an attempt to cross the continental United States. They rode 1,000cc Indian Power Plus motorcycles (costing $275 each), complete with gas headlights and Firestone ‘non-skid’ tyres and, rather scandalously, wore military-style leggings and leather riding breeches – a point of social contention for the police they met en route, resulting in numerous arrests.

Over 60 days and 5,500 miles, they faced poor roads, bad weather and even becoming lost in the desert near Salt Lake City (they were saved by a passing prospector but not before running out of water). Notably, during the journey, they became the first women to reach the summit of Pikes Peak by any motor vehicle.

After arriving in Los Angeles on 8th September they were lauded by many, however others criticised them and their journey, with a motorcycle magazine calling the journey a ‘vacation’ and praising the bikes but not the riders. Another newspaper accused the pair of using the national preparedness as an excuse to escape their housewife lives and ‘display their feminine counters in nifty khaki and leather uniforms’.

Despite their incredible journey, the sisters’ applications to become motorcycle dispatch riders were ultimately rejected.

Theresa Wallach (1909–1999)

Theresa Wallach made a name for herself when, alongside fellow female experienced motorcyclist, Florence Blenkiron, she rode a 600cc single-cylinder Panther motorcycle and sidecar unit from London to Cape Town in 1935. The 13,500 mile journey took the pair nearly eight months, as they crossed the harsh terrain of the Sahara and encountered extreme climate, wild animals and mechanical failures along the way. Luckily, Wallach was incredible mechanically minded, having taken apart her first engine aged 18, and later studied engineering on a scholarship at university.

After the intrepid journey, in 1939, she went on to become the third women to gain a British Motorcycle Racing Club Gold Star at Brooklands, after lapping the track at an average of more than 100mph aboard a 350cc Norton.

During the war, she became a dispatch rider and a mechanic for the Auxiliary Territorial Service, later becoming the first female tank mechanic.

Beryl Swain (1936–2007)

Beryl Swain was the original female motorcycle road racer. In 1962, she became the first woman to compete in the Isle of Man TT, finishing 22nd on a 50cc Itom after two laps of the Mountain circuit. Despite losing top gear, she managed an average speed of 48.3mph in the Island’s inaugural 50cc race.

Her achievement did not sit well with the male-dominated motorcycling world, who perceived the sport to be too dangerous for women. As a result, they introduced a minimum rider weight limit that Swain could not meet, thus revoking her licence. It wasn’t until 1978 that a woman raced on the Mountain again, when Hilary Musson entered.

Anne-France Dautheville (1944– )

What do you do when you perform a pioneering female first, and upon your return, jealous men disbelieve you, and even go so far to slander your name?

Why, you go back and do it again – and then some.
This was the reality for journalist Anne-France Dautheville who, in 1972, participated in the Raid Orion, riding a Moto Guzzi 750 from France to Isfahan, Iran, before continuing on to Afghanistan. However, upon her return, Dautheville was slandered by the misogynistic motorcycle press, who accused her of being a groupie and of following the Raid in a support truck.

She did what any self-respecting woman would and put an end to the gossip in the finest style possible. The following year, she departed aboard a 120cc Kawasaki, covering 12,500 miles (20,000 km) on three continents and becoming the first woman to circumnavigate the world on a motorcycle. She continued to travel on two wheels until 1981, when France introduced a rule forbidding citizens with less than 5,000 francs from leaving the country. So Dautheville became a writer, penning novels on her travels.

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Elspeth Beard (1959– )

In 1982, at the tender age of 23, Elspeth Beard left behind her life and studies to ride around the world aboard a BMW R60/6, becoming one of very few British woman to have done so at the time.

Shipping her bike first to the New York, she crossed North and Central America, before travelling onwards to Australia, where she took an 11-month working break, before continuing on to Singapore and Asia. Returning to the UK two and a half years after setting off, she had covered 35,000 miles across 23 countries.

Along the way, Beard faced crashes, thefts, state shutdowns and ultimate disinterest in her trailblazing adventure when she returned home. Continuing her studies and becoming an architect, it wasn’t until 2017 that she put pen to paper and documented her intrepid journey.

Patsy Quick (1962– )

The Dakar Rally is one of the most physically and mentally demanding races in the world, with riders facing gruelling terrain, complicated navigation, extreme temperatures and hours in the saddle, day after day for two weeks straight. Success is not guaranteed, and disaster can strike even the most experienced of competitors. Patsy Quick found this out during her first attempt, back in 2003, when a crash resulted in her being medevac’d to an Egyptian military hospital for life-saving surgery to remove her spleen.

Undeterred, the first British woman to compete in the Dakar returned, and became the first British woman to complete the Dakar, in 2006. Today, she runs a training school and rally support business named Desert Rose Racing.

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Maria Costello (1973– )

Maria Costello is a familiar name to British racing fans for her prowess on the Isle of Man TT Mountain Course.

In her successful road racing career, she holds a handful of firsts, including being the first female solo racer to ever stand on the TT podium when she took third place in the Ultra Lightweight category of the 2005 Manx Grand Prix, aboard a Honda RVF400.

In 2004 she achieved a Guinness World Record by becoming the fastest woman to lap the Snaefell mountain course at an average speed of 114.73mph, a speed later surpassed by Jenny Tinmouth at the 2009 TT.

Costello also boasts an 8th place in the Manx Grand Prix Senior race, and finished third in class and seventh overall in her North West 200 Irish road race debut.

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Katja Poensgen (1976– )

German Katja Poensgen pioneered female participation on the motorcycling world stage. Born to the German importer for Suzuki motorcycles, she began riding at the age of four, before working her way up through various junior cup series, including the German 125cc Championship and German Supersport Championship.

In 1998, she made her world championship debut in the Supersport World Championship Nürburgring round, piloting a Suzuki GSX-R600 to a 20th place finish. In 1999, she entered into the Superstock 1000 Championship aboard a Suzuki GSX750R, finishing the following season in sixth, with a best result of second and two fastest lap times.

In 2001 Poensgen became the third woman to compete in Grand Prix motorcycle racing and the first to qualify for a 250cc Grand Prix race when she entered the Championship, riding first an Aprilia RSV 250 and later a Honda RS250R.

She made the switch to commentating in 2004, and in 2011, was named an FIM Legend for her pioneering Grand Prix racing career.

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Laia Sanz (1985– )

Another female pioneer in the Dakar Rally, Laia Sanz has competed in the world’s premier rally raid for a decade now, winning the female category each time and scoring as high as ninth in the general standings. She holds 11 stage wins to her name and to date has placed inside the top 20 riders eight times.

Her passion for motorcycling began at a young age, when she learnt to ride her brother’s Montesa Cota 25cc. She began entering competitions at the age of seven, and by 28 was thirteen-time Women's Trial World Champion and ten-time Women's Trial European Champion. But perhaps most impressively of all, Sanz has had to overcome some serious medical setbacks in order to get to the startline of recent editions. In 2019, she was bedridden for much of the year due to Epstein-Barr Virus and Q-fever, before Lymes Disease struck her down once again in the months leading up to this year’s edition. Nonetheless, she persevered to take 12th and 17th positions respectively in the 2020 and 2021 Dakar Rallies. She now competes in Extreme E, too, alongside Carlos Sainz.

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Ana Carrasco Gabarrón (1997– )

For the final and youngest rider on our list, we’re back on track with Ana Carrasco. The Spaniard has been making waves on the racing scene from a very young age, learning to ride a motorcycle at three and scoring victories in domestic junior motorcycle racing categories thereafter. She moved to the FIM CEV International Championship in 2011 and the CEV Moto3 Championship the following year, becoming the first woman to score points in both series.

She has gone from strength to strength since, racing first in the Moto3 World Championship from 2013, becoming the first woman to score points in in Grand Prix motorcycle racing since Katja Poensgen. In 2016, she moved to the CEV Moto2 European Championship, and then to the newly formed Supersport 300 World Championship for the inaugural 2017 season, in which she became the first woman to win an individual world championship motorcycle race.

It was 2018 that proved to be Ana’s year. Aboard the DS Junior-entered Kawasaki Ninja 400 she became the first woman rider to secure pole position in the Supersport 300 World Championship, winning the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari race the following day and becoming the first female to lead a World Championship motorcycle racing series. She repeated both feats at the next round at Donington Park two weeks later. After mixed success over the ensuing rounds, she eventually took the title, becoming the first woman ever to win a motorcycle road racing world championship.

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