Yvonne Montgomery still tearing up the script and the roads
Montgomery insists age and gender don’t matter at all, rather ‘it’s how you see yourself’
Yvonne Montgomery this year has been racing on a 1989 Kawasaki ZXR400 and a 2007 Suzuki GSXR 600, averaging 160km/h and tipping 217km/h. Photograph: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press
Where to begin. A barbecue, a motorbike and a casual spin down the road 14 years ago. It was the first time Yvonne Montgomery had ever taken a ride on a motorbike.
Horses had been her thing in a former life and career of buying and selling in the equestrian business. This was a different kind of horsepower.
The thrill of the simple motorbike ride came as a surprise to her. The acceleration of the machine and the rip of it tearing down the road, it was all too loud, too fast. She loved every second.
She remembers it now as a Honda 750 but at the time didn’t understand the nature or behaviour of so much raw power. A novice on the back holding on, the inclination was to say it was for grim life. But it wasn’t like that at all. She was transfixed.
The sensation of throw-back acceleration, the bike rushing forward and the cars disappearing into the background. That’s where it began, a pillion passenger on a short journey.
“I got off and he said ‘get yourself a wee bike and do your test,’” says Yvonne. That was October 2004. In December 2004 she got her “wee bike”, passed her “wee test”.
“That was me on two wheels,” she says. Yvonne was 47 years old. There was no second guessing. Smitten by two wheels, she had no plans to compete but she went and bought herself a motor.
Her transition was swift from a curious, enthralled commuter to leather-bound, dedicated racer. All it took was a motor show in Belfast and a visit to the Belfast and District Motor Club.
“The banter and craic was mighty,” she says. There has been no looking back.
Last summer Yvonne was racing along the Skerries track. She was doing nicely until she came to a bend. She continued to do nicely but the lad behind her didn’t. He slid off. His bike skimmed the road, hit her bike. Nobody to blame, both of them went tumbling. Yvonne was a month short of her 60th birthday.
“I was going fairly hard around a corner and he came off his bike and his bike hit my bike and turned me straight into the bales,” she says.
“There wasn’t a chance to brake or do anything. I hit the bales on the bike and the bike and me were flung high into the air. I was knocked out but I came down feet first.
“Because I was knocked out I did the splits nearly and that put four fractures into the front of my pelvic bone. I was out racing again at the Ulster Grand Prix six weeks later. I was a mess, an absolute mess and in serious pain. But I definitely wanted to go out racing again.”
Skerries, Kirkstown, Bishopscourt, Nutts Corner, Tandragee, Cookstown, Armoy describe a subculture of racing that thrives in the North and reaches down to Meath and Dublin and sometimes to a wider audience through Stephen “Winker” Watson screaming above the wail on BBC NI at a time when everyone else is asleep. The bikes are a love/hate thing.
Yvonne is the oldest and also one of the handful of women who do it. A latecomer and evidently not a man distinguishes her and a couple of other women racers. Last year the BBC made a fly-on-the-wall programme Suzi Perry’s Queens of the Road with Melissa Kennedy, Veronika Hankocyova and Yvonne, all of them now at the heart of this male-dominated sport.
Of the three, Yvonne was a more obvious counterpoint to the lists of chancy young lads, drawn to the speed and danger. Her age even among the men makes her an outlier and a fearless one. Last year in Skerries was not her only face-to-face meeting with the road.
She also hit the ground in her first race about a year after she did her driving test not knowing a whole lot about racing. More excited than frightened, she rocked up to the grid and took off down the road with the others.
“I was actually going quite well, dicing with another lad,” she says. “Then something went terribly wrong and I was high sided. But I was flung backwards and I landed on my shoulder. I broke five ribs and punctured my lung. So I went home in an ambulance in my first race.”
She is undeterred. Scrape marks on leathers are part of racing life, a patch of tarmac from Skerries or a bend at Tandragee too fast in. Riders and machines rolling together along the road as others brake, shimmy and scoot on towards the finish are not uncommon. There are days like that in the harum-scarumworld.
“The thing with the young ones is they come off, bounce and have a fracture. Whatever,” she says. “Away they go again because they heal quickly. I must admit, I tend to heal very well but I spent a lot of time in a hypobaric chamber to try and get the fractures to start to heal.”
She sees the racing as an expression of her independence, a prophylactic against falling into dreary middle age stereotype. With no children to worry about her choice of recreation, she says she has come to the years in her life where she can do what she wants to do.
Being 50 or 60 years old is liberation. Her age, her gender in a sport that favours the younger riders is a standing challenge. It’s also a motivation.
“Age doesn’t matter at all. It’s how you see yourself,” she says. “I think, especially women who are no longer the mummy taxi and they have got time now in their 50s. That’s their time now they can start doing things. Anything they ever wanted to do but now they think they are too old to do it. I think I can show them ‘no you are not too old’.
“I think women have it harder than men as far as that is concerned. Obviously they are a mother and wife and there’s no reason they wouldn’t be. They have to care for the kids for so long they nearly lose their identity. Now in their 50s and 60s the kids have grown up and they are independent. I’m getting out there and giving it my all.”
She will keep racing until the enjoyment leaves her. “God willing,” she says, she will have the health to keep defying gender and age to spend all of her money on the bike and continue to race between the hedges. Last week it was Tandragee.
“I’m sure there are some who probably think it’s not the place for women to be racing,” she adds unconcerned. “They are wasting their time with me.”
This year she has been racing on a 1989 Kawasaki ZXR400 and a 2007 Suzuki GSXR 600, averaging 160km/h (100mph), tipping 217km/h (135mph). No concessions are ever asked for and none are ever given. As in boxing, there is a standing respect for the person stepping into the ring, who will open themselves up to taking the punch. A septuagenarian more so. In that there is equality.
“Once you put the helmet on and get on the bike you are not male, you are not female, you are a racer,” she says. “That is it.”
The only way she would have it.