MotoGP: Can teenage British biker girl Georgina Polden make it?

By Ben DirsBBC Sport
Georgina Polden
Georgina Polden is one of a number of female motorcyclists hoping to compete at the top level

The man with the spanner stops tinkering with his bike and gives my question some thought. "Is the motorcycling world still a macho one?" he finally says. "Our competition certainly isn't - most of the boys haven't even hit puberty."

It is a throwaway line with a kernel of truth. As the riders in paddocks have got younger so the motorcycling world has become more liberal: if you are a boy who has been racing against girls since you first slung a little leg over a bike, you are more likely to have accepted, embraced and forgotten the difference.

The man with the spanner is Ryan Saxelby and he entrusts his machine to a woman. "I was riding it at the start of the year," says Saxelby. "I couldn't see anyone else who might do a better job than me. And then I saw Georgina."

Georgina Polden is in her second year of circuit racing but has already got plenty of people wondering what she might achieve on two wheels.

The one-make Aprilia Superteen Challenge is a fertile breeding ground for motorcycling's future stars - two-time MotoGP champion Casey Stonerexternal-link and Britain's Cal Crutchlow both won it - and Oxfordshire's Polden, 18, finished second in this year's series, albeit behind 13-year-old Scottish prodigy Rory Skinner.external-link

Georgina Polden
Polden won four races in this year's Aprilia Superteen Challenge series and finished second overall

At Snetterton in May, Polden became the first female to win a race in the series,external-link which has been running for two decades. "I couldn't believe it at first," says Polden, talking to the BBC from Donington Park, where she was competing in a British Superbikes (BSB) support series.

"I came off on the third lap of qualifying but ended up on pole. I was going to take the race steady because of the bang to my head but I ended up winning it. I think the guys I was mixing it with were a bit surprised as well.

"But I don't have any rivalries, we all seem to get on quite well. If the lads give it out, I give it back. I don't want to be viewed any differently."

Polden added wins at Cadwell Park, Anglesey and Donington and had two podium finishes in the BSB support series, including at Brands Hatch last Sunday. All of which raises the question: Could Polden become the first woman to compete in MotoGP? Because Polden will, whether she likes it or not, be viewed differently.

Female motorcycling pioneers
Ana Carrasco (Spain, 17): Currently the only female rider in Moto3 and the first to score points in the series
Jenny Tinmouth (UK, 36): The only woman to compete in the 2014 BSB Championship and female Isle of Man TT lap record holder
Mara Herrera (Spain, 18): Currently competing in Spanish Moto3 feeder series and received a Moto3 wildcard in 2013
Maria Costello (UK, 41): First woman to secure podium finishes at Isle of Man TT and Manx Grand Prix
Laia Sanz (Spain, 28): Women's World Enduro champion and 13-time winner of the Women's Trial World Championship
Elena Myers (US, 20): The first woman to win an AMA Pro Racing sprint road race and a pro race of any kind at Daytona

"Georgina's progress will shock some people because it's still a very male-dominated sport," says Polden's childhood friend and MotoGP rider Bradley Smith, who grew up riding motocross bikes with Polden's older brother Craig before following him into circuit racing.

"But there are female crew chiefs in MotoGP, female data engineers and female riders doing well in Moto3 [Spain's Ana Carrascoexternal-link became the first woman to win points in circuit racing's third division last year at the age of 16, while her compatriot Maria Herrera won a race in the Spanish Moto3 Championship]. So now is the time.

"When you're wearing your leathers and a helmet, you're just a number. But if a woman is doing the same lap times as a man, from a sponsorship and marketing point of view it makes more sense to have the woman in the team.

Repsol Honda Team's Spanish rider Dani Pedrosa celebrates second place after the Valencia Moto Grand Prix at Ricardo Tormo racetrack in Cheste near Valencia on November 10, 2013.
"Dani Pedrosa is 5ft 2in and eight stone wringing wet. So if Georgina, or any woman, works hard and believes in herself there's no reason why she shouldn't be able to make it to MotoGP." (Shane 'Shakey' Byrne, Three-time BSB champion.)

"People who haven't got involved in our sport in the past might if there was a successful woman battling it out at the front. That's got to be good for our sport."

BSB series director Stuart Higgs believes motorcycling leads the way in promoting gender equality. But he also acknowledges that women riders have an advantage over men with similar talent.

"Only one woman has tried to qualify for a Formula 1 Grand Prix since 1980 [Italy's Giovanna Amati in 1992]external-link and that shows how archaic motorsport has become," says Higgs. "But in motorcycling there have been many examples in recent years of female riders who have got to a good level quickly but for whatever reason not managed to get to world championship level.

"If you're a minority in any sport you're going to get more media coverage and you might get places quicker. But it's a competitive world, so go with the advantages you have. And anything to do with our sport that is of human interest and might reflect well on society generally, we're going to encourage it."

Whether women racers posing in not a lot reflects well on society - or on the status of women within society - is open to question. But this hasn't stopped Formula 1 hopeful Susie Wolffexternal-link and Nascar driver Danica Patrick from doing just that. However, Polden is adamant she will not be heading down that road any time soon.

"I just want to be treated like everyone else," says Polden. "Posing in men's magazines wouldn't really do it for me."

Everyone I spoke to for this story stressed that MotoGP is a significantly more serious examination than the series Polden is currently competing in: MotoGP bikes weigh 160kg and deliver 260 horsepower, compared to 80kg and 50 horsepower in Moto3. But this is not to say that Polden, or another woman, would not be able to make the transition.

Ana Carrasco
Spain's Ana Carrasco became the first woman to win points in Moto3 last year, at the age of 16

"Years ago you might have said women wouldn't be able to compete in MotoGP," says three-time BSB champion and former MotoGP competitor Shane 'Shakey' Byrne.external-link "There was all this talk about MotoGP bikes being absolute animals that were going to kill you at every corner.

"But [Spanish MotoGP veteran] Dani Pedrosa is 5ft 2in and eight stone wringing wet. So if Georgina, or any woman, works hard and believes in herself there's no reason why she shouldn't be able to make it to MotoGP."

Smith believes Polden's grounding in motocross, which she competed in from the age of 12, has given her an edge. "A lot of top racers have come from off-road backgrounds," says Smith. "Because the bike is always moving around off-road, up and down hills and in mud, you have to learn a lot of control and feel, and you can transfer that into road racing."

Polden's dad Steve owns a motorcycle shop in Kidlington and funds what is essentially her hobby. There is no prize money on the lower rungs of the motorcycling ladder, Polden pays Saxelby for the privilege of riding his bike and a meeting might cost as much as £1500 all in.

Bradley Smith and Georgina Polden
The 18-year-old Polden has been mentored by childhood friend and MotoGP rider Bradley Smith

But while Polden Sr would love to see Georgina break new ground, and perhaps get some return on his significant investment, he is also winningly realistic.

"I can't see why she couldn't make it to MotoGP," says Polden Sr, over tea and biscuits in the family campervan.

"But we haven't got too much time, she's 18 and it's a short career. There's only so much pushing you can do, and I'm not a pushy dad. And I'd be more comfortable for her to ride in the lighter classes, so we're able to keep her safe."

Some people might view the words of Polden Sr as further proof that girls often fail to fulfil their potential because they are held back by a lack of expectation, while boys often achieve because they are expected to.

Steve Polden, Georgina's Dad, comments on Georgina's potential
"I can't see why Georgina couldn't make it to MotoGP. But I'd be more comfortable for her to ride in the lighter classes, so we're able to keep her safe."

But the tail of excellence in the motorcycling world is long, meaning that even if Polden does not reach the pinnacle, she hasn't necessarily failed. Just as fellow Englishwoman Jenny Tinmouthexternal-link hasn't failed in motorcycling by making it all the way to British Superbikes and regularly competing in the Isle of Man TT.

"Not many make it to the elite level, but there are plenty of other ways to make a living in motorcycling," says Smith, who secured his first MotoGP podium finish in Australia last Sunday.

"There is World Superbikes, BSB, the Endurance World Championship, a lot of riders have come through from the Italian and Spanish championships.

"Georgina has been winning races with no real experience, practice or testing so there's no reason she can't win a British championship and maybe make it into Moto3. There's plenty more to come from Georgina."

Polden sounds in awe of MotoGP riders and the speeds they achieve and her stated ambition is to race in the only slightly more sedate Moto3. But if more little girls are encouraged to sling little legs over bikes - it is not unusual for kids in Spain and Italy to start riding at three - a woman riding in MotoGP might not be too far off.

"To any parents wondering if motorcycling is the right sport for their little girl, I wouldn't worry about it," says Polden. "It can be dangerous and scary but it's good to live life on the edge a little bit."

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