Girl power gets serious

Alan Hubbard discovers the nation's youngest speedway rider is a true tough of the tracks

Tucked away in a two up, two down in the tiny Welsh village of Cwmfelinfach, 12 miles from Newport, a 15-year-old schoolgirl sat with her neck in a brace and her arm in plaster. She had fallen off her bike. But it was no ordinary bike and Charly Kirtland is no ordinary girl. Charly - short for Charlene - is a speedway rider, the youngest in Britain and the first female on the circuit in 70 years.

Tucked away in a two up, two down in the tiny Welsh village of Cwmfelinfach, 12 miles from Newport, a 15-year-old schoolgirl sat with her neck in a brace and her arm in plaster. She had fallen off her bike. But it was no ordinary bike and Charly Kirtland is no ordinary girl. Charly - short for Charlene - is a speedway rider, the youngest in Britain and the first female on the circuit in 70 years.

Her injuries, sustained in a crash during a race at Buxton were not as bad as they looked. The neck was whiplashed and her left hand broken beneath the knuckles, but Charly cheerfully reckoned she wouldbe up and riding again within a week - and she was, although the doctors suggested it should have beennearer a month.

A determined young woman is Charly. She has to be, having chosen to be part of what is very much a macho, and, anachronistically, male chauvinistic world. Some of the lads in leathers clearly don't appreciate having a little lady showing them a clean pair of wheels. "Speedway is still in the dark ages when it comes to attitudes towards women and youngsters," says her father, Rob. "And as she comes into both categories she gets a bit of a double hit.The attitude at some of the tracks is atrocious and it is not only the promoters and other riders, but the crowd, and the women are the worst. I've stood among them and heard them shout 'You should be doing your homework young lady,' or even worse, 'You should be back home doing the dishes.'"

As it happens, Charly can often be found doing both. Her mother died of cancer six years ago and her elder half-sister of the same disease last year. Now she keeps house for her father, who is her mentor, minder, manager and mechanic. They moved to Wales from west London two years ago, "to get away from the hustle, bustle and noise" and also enable Charly to chase her dream in a sport that is enjoying something of a renaissance. She now rides for the Somerset Rebels and although she is under contract, she cannot compete officially in their Conference League side until her 16th birthday in January. But she is a familiar figure in the special races which take place during the second half of most meetings, often embracing four or five in a week, and she is also a guest rider for theitinerant Cradley Heath club.

"At the moment it is all about gaining experience," she said. "But speedway is in my blood and I have set my heart on riding professionally."

But while she may be revving up nicely towards her place in history, there are some hazardous bends to negotiate in a sport dominated by foreigners (if the Premiership has problems it should look at speedway where 250 out of 300 riders are from overseas). It is a sport where the bikes have no brakes or gears and the smell of wheels spinning on shale lingers in the nostrils long after the engines have cut.

Speedway was at its zenith in the days when people smoked Craven A and the top riders, usually from New Zealand, married Windmill Girls. "The sport is finding it hard to adapt," says Rob Kirtland. "Basically, it is still run by a bunch of old farts who are living in the past. There's no encouragement for youngsters - particularly British youngsters - and to have a girl like Charly on the scene seems to make them throw up their hands in horror.

"What the sport needs is a Richard Branson, a Frank Warren or a Barry Hearn to drag it into the 21st century. All the indications are that it is ready to explode again, the crowds are 15 per cent up on last year and it is now drawing good television audiences on Sky and Channel 4.

"Fortunately there are one or two younger promoters who think more progressively and it is significant that theirs are the clubs which are recapturing the family audience."

It is one of these new breed of promoters, Somerset's Andy Hewlett, who spotted Charly's potential and signed her for his Highbridge squad after she had made her public debut at St Austell. "She's certainly better than a lot of the guys," says the Rebels coach, Greg Daniels.

Bikes have been in her blood since she was a nine-year-old. Charly's father and half-brother rode in motocross and she wanted to follow them. Dad demurred, but when he took her to speedway meeting at Reading, Charly said she was immediately hooked. "Most people watch the races but I was watching the riders, their technique and how they did it. All I wanted to do was get on a bike. And when I did Iknew I wanted to make speedway my career."

For a time she rode as a mascot for Reading and after progressing through a number of junior events on home-assembled bikes, the engines of which were bought by her grandparents, she decided she wanted to go full-time. She left school ("speedway and school were not really compatible"), had a private tutor for a while and now plans to go to college in September to study sports psychology. She has clearly inherited the extrovert demeanour of her mother, who was half Scottish and half French.

Aptly enough there's a bit of a rebel in her and she won't be deterred by those sniffs of disdain. "I don't see myself as a female role model. When I get into my riding gear I'm not a girl rider, I'm just a speedway rider. Yes, there are some places where they gang up on me and there's a lot of prejudice but it goes in one ear and out the other. I'm just all the more determined to make them eat their words."

At the moment, Charly rides for expenses only, but her 42-year-old father says: "I don't dream for her but in the end it's all about finances. As that great rider Ivan Mauger used to say, 'Make the bastards pay' - and when she makes it, we will. It's all about money in the end. She won't be really ready for a couple of years yet . If it doesn't work out we'll just put it down to experience and a bit of character building.

"Charly's a strong girl in every way. Sometimes I call her a silly bitch, a pain in the arse. But she takes it all in her stride. Just as she does when she's out on the track.I'm proud of her and I know her mother would have been too."

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