Meet Simona Zaccardi: the fastest mum in the North West
This year, spectators at chicanes on the North West 200 motorcycle road races will see more curves than usual, as a sport dominated by men gets the female touch.
Those who remember shaggy-haired heroes of the Armoy Armada like the legendary Joey Dunlop should be pleasantly surprised as the sport gets a makeover with more women getting in the saddle.
But those who think female riders are just there as eye candy are sorely mistaken — these women are putting speed — up to 150mph in fact — before style and proving not to be poles apart from the men.
Among the competitors on the north coast and hoping to win on the 6.8-mile Portrush-Portstewart-Coleraine circuit in 2012 are two international female riders.
Returning for their second year at the NW200 are Simona Zaccardi from Italy and France’s Ornella Ongaro.
And organisers of the world famous road race are keen to encourage more women to get involved in the sport.
Zaccardi (37), from Rome, has taken part in the Manx Grand Prix as well as the Italian and the European Championships.
And after a successful rookie year in 2011 she has returned — with her young baby Gillian. She described the north coast as “incredible”.
“I have some fun with the other riders because I'm a woman and I joke about with the other guys,” she said.
“I love racing, but it makes it even more pleasurable for me when I beat the men.”
Ornella from Cannes, France, travelled over with a small team and, speaking to the Belfast Telegraph through an interpreter, the road specialist and French Champion said she loves the North West: “It is magic to race on the road in Ireland and I love the craic and really enjoy the people, who are friendly,” she said. “I love it, I love it, I love it!”
The 20-year-old said racing against the men is something “she doesn’t think about”.
“I am here to race. I don’t think about racing against the men.”
In fact, the road specialist and French Championship rider said she is confident she will improve on last year’s performance.
“It is not a problem for me. I do not mind — I am not a movie star, I am a road racer.
“I feel I will ride faster than last year.”
Event technical director Mervyn White said he would like to see more female competitors at the North West.
“We’ve had a number of female competitors over the years,” he told the Belfast Telegraph.
“From the likes of Anita Buxton who came here from the very start and then Maria Costello. It is part and parcel of the NW 200 — they should have them on the grid.”
He added: “Simona and Onagaro have been here in the past and really enjoy the North West and part and parcel of the whole event.
“They are every bit as talented. They can do equally as well and achieve international status for the NW itself.
“They have been racing motorbikes at various road and short circuits to gain international status so they’re up at the same level.
“It is great to have women competing in the NW 200 and there should be more racing.”