Olga Kevelos: British Motorcycling's Leading Lady

Sold at an auction in the UK a few years ago was a small but interesting lot comprised of an ACU-approved ‘pudding basin’ helmet and a number of trophies, medals and other motorcycling memorabilia. It was the last link to one of the most interesting women in British motorcycle sport through the nineteen-fifties and ‘sixties.

Back in the days before feminism was invented Olga Kevelos, who died aged 85 in 2009, took on men at their own game and more often than not matched their achievements. She was without doubt the country's leading lady motorcyclist of her day - a road racer, a trials rider and the only woman to win two gold medals in the International Six Days Trial enduro event during that era. In an age where there was a plethora of all-round motorcyclists who could win at anything from trials to the Isle of Man TT, she was more often than not the only female rider in any event that she contested. But she always had the respect of her peers – not just because of her femininity but because of her riding skills as well. Skills that ranged from trials through long distance off-road enduros to endurance road races like Britain’s production racing marathon, the Thruxton 500.

Olga eventually gave up motorcycle competition in 1970 and for 26 years helped her younger brother Ray to run a typically British country pub in a small Northamptonshire village. After Ray’s own death, a few years after Olga had passed on, the auction lot was made up of the mementoes that he had kept to remind him of his sister.

Right from when she was a middle-class wartime teenager, Olga Kevelos showed that she was rather more adventurous than most of her fellow pupils at the exclusive King Edward VI High School for Girls in Edgbaston, Birmingham.In 1943, when she was 19, she saw an advertisement in The Times, placed by the Department for War Transport, inviting women to train for work on the canals. Quitting her job at the Royal Observatory, Olga spent the next two years as one of a number of all-female volunteer crews who manned barges carrying vital war materials along the Grand Union Canal for the 100 miles between London and the Midlands.

In all, some 45 women took charge of the 70ft-long canal boats, which were worked in pairs, with each pair crewed by three women. After initial training, the volunteers would take the helm of the 70-foot narrow-boats, and transport war machine parts from the London docks to Birmingham. On the return trip they would haul coal from Warwickshire to London. The work was arduous and could be unpleasant and even dangerous as the cargo was often disguised, with weapons and even gold bars sometimes being concealed amongst the more innocent -looking freight.

Olga was born at Edgbaston, Birmingham in 1923, the daughter of a wealthy Greek financier and his English wife. From school she went on to study metallurgy and, with the country at war, worked for a time in the laboratories of William Mills, manufacturer of the Mills bomb. Always passionate about astronomy, she was then lured to London by the offer of a job at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. But enemy bombing forced the observatory's closure soon afterwards, and she was evacuated along with other members of staff to the Admiralty offices in Bath.

After the war, she was awarded a government grant to study French Medieval History for a year at the Cité University in Paris. Fit and strong after her wartime exertions, she recalled bicycling all over Paris and travelling extensively in other parts of Europe. "I was one of the first backpackers," she later noted.

Returning to Birmingham, Olga started her own travel agency, harnessing her new-found knowledge of Europe. She also helped her father and other members of the family run their Cherry Orchard restaurant in the city centre. It was a favourite meeting place for the competition riders from the various Birmingham motorcycle manufacturers and a boyfriend keen on motorcycle trials encouraged her to try the sport herself.

Despite having received only a few basic lessons, Olga soon impressed with her natural aptitude. She was almost immediately offered a bike and support by the James Motorcycle Company and the following year (1948) she rode one of their little Villiers-engined tw0-strokes some 1000 miles from Birmingham to San Remo in Italy to take part in the International Six-Day Trial!Crashing in the event left her with a broken wrist and ankle but, undaunted, she rode the bike for the whole of the 1000 miles back home with the broken limbs still in plaster!

In 1949 Olga went on to win the first of her two ISDT gold medals, riding a 500cc Norton in the International Six-Days Trials in Wales. Her second ISDT ‘Gold’ was won in 1953. She was also to ride with varying degrees of success in hundreds of observed trials, including every Scottish Six-Days Trial from 1950 until she finally retired from the sport, two decades later in 1970. And she competed in every International Six-Day Trial from 1949 until 1966!During that time, she won the backing of almost every major British motorcycle manufacturer involved in trials including Norton, James, Francis Barnett and DOT, and the Italian and Czech manufacturers Parilla and Jawa/CZ respectively.

And she wasn’t just adept at the balancing art. She had a need for speed as well and drove Norton and JAP-engined Cooper and Kieft 500cc Formula 3 racing cars, rode Manx Nortons at Silverstone and other circuits and an Ariel Arrow Sports 250cc twin in the 1962 Thruxton 500 Miles race.

After her ISDT rides with Jawa and CZ in the late ‘sixties, Olga forged close links with the then communist Czechoslovakia. And some 40 years later she had retired from motorcycle competition, this led to her being invited to a Foreign Office reception held to celebrate the new and democratic Czech Republic's accession to the European Union. The Prime Minister at that time was Tony Blair, and he apparently spent some time discussing with Olga her views on Genghis Khan, a subject about which she had once answered questions on the well–known TV programme Mastermind!

"He [Blair] probably wanted a few tips on how to successfully invade other people's countries," she is said to have commented afterwards!