Thrill of the TT Chase

Sunday Telegraph - 6 June 1993
By Anthea Hall

Francesca Giordano races hard and takes her crashes lightiy. She explains why to Anthea Hall

DESPITE her protestations otherwise, not everyone welcomes Francesca Giordano, the glamour-puss of the Tourist Trophy (TT) races on the Isle of Man. This year, she is the only female competitor on the 400cc and 600cc machines, and a looker with it.

It had been raining continually but Francesca's curly hair still looked good as she posed for photographs with her Kawasaki motorbike. A middle-aged Italian, on the bogus pretext that his van could not get past, jumped out and removed her carefully placed bike with a torrent of abuse. Five minutes later, another older man parked between Francesca and the photographer for a pointedly long greeting to an old friend.

Francesca, used to posing, shrugged it off. After all, she has a film star sister, Domiziana, who co-starred with the great Alain Delon in Nouvelle: Vague, so why not a little limelight for Francesca? Anyway there are enough real hazards to worry about.

The next day, for example, during the early morning practice run on the 37-mile course. Francesca took a corner too fast, slid 60 yards across the road, hit a wall, slid another 10 yards and had to be removed, unconscious, from under her Kawasaki and taken to hospital. Three hours later she emerged in a neck-brace, reluctantly accepting her team manager's instructions not to ride again that day.

This week Francesca will twice embark on the world's greatest motorcycling challenge; On Monday she will set off on the mountain circuit on a 400cc Kawasaki and on Wednesday, if she is still intact, on a 600cc model.

Dozens of people have been killed attempting the circuit during the 80-odd years of TT racing. The dangers are pin-pointed by thousands of straw bales dotted around the island protecting telegraph poles, stone walls, trees and other possible crashing points. Ballacraine Hotel, on a strategic corner, which George Formby rode into in the film No Limit is barracaded by a pile of bales.

The roads, including deregulated 30 mph speed limits through villages, are treated as a long one-way street for the race. Competitors roar past as close as possible to beer drinkers at outside pub tables, which makes it the ultimate spectator sport.

Francesca is making the most of her week on the island before the race, learning every bend, bump, and manhole cover of the course by ordnance survey map, watching hair-raising videos shot from motorbike handle-bars, and by doing the course as often as she can for the practice hours at dawn and dusk when the route is officially closed to all but race competitors.

Allan Warner, Francesca's team manager for Gloucester Kawasaki, also takes herself round the course by car. His commentary is remorseless: "Cut in dead tight to the bank, keeping looking at the bank. At the moment, you're going into the corner and looking for the exit. If you do that, you'll drive into the bank. Keep looking at the near side and you'll come out with three foot to spare..." Francesca absorbs it all. After he described in detail a particularly nasty crash, Francesca merely asks: "Were you in fourth or fifth gear?"

She knows all about crashing. Two years ago she broke 10 ribs, the radius and the ulna in her left forearm, her left scapula: a total of 20 fractures. This kept her in hospital for one month, in plaster for two, and in physiotherapy for a third.The next month she she was back on the track and crashed (relatively harmlessly) again.

What is the allure, the compulsion? Francesca has no simple answer. From the age of 14, she said, when she had her first Vespa, she would borrow "real" bikes from friends. As she grow older and her bikes became bigger, one of her special delights was to roar along the old streets of Rome setting off a trail of car burglar alarms. She likes speed, she adores the smell of petrol and motor oil, especially Castrol R, which is used in two-stroke engine fuel: "When I smell it I think 'Delicious ... a two-stroke bike!' "

The greatest thrill, she says, is when the bike turns a corner. "How do you call it? Banking. When the ground comes up very close and you feel the speed."

"I don't know whether other women resent my interest in racing. I don't have any women friends. It seems normal to have guys around me. Most of my friends are mechanics and bike enthusiasts."

Francesca can tune an engine and change tyres, though actually wheeling the large, heavy bike on to the circuit is such hard work for her it seems impossible that someone so slight can race it. She says when she first started racing it hurt her thighs so much that it made her cry: "Now I exercise in the gym for two hours a day and my muscles have got used to it.

"You don't really think about danger - certainly not when you know you are doing well. And when you're going really fast, flat out on the straight, that's the moment you relax, lie forward on the tank and take a deep breath. That's the easy time, not when you're going more slowly round a corner." The reason why more women do not race, she said, is nothing more than social conditioning.

"Also, girls are conditioned not to get into dangerous situations. But like religion, being brought up a Catholic, once they start thinking about it they come out of it.

"It is a shame because, in theory, women have the advantage of being smaller, weighing less and being agile.

"But this social conditioning can be overcome. Last year, my parents finally gave up asking me whether I had stopped playing with bikes."

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