For a girl to make it into professional bike racing is rare enough. For a girl to make it all the way into Grands Prix is even rarer
For a girl to make it into professional bike racing is rare enough. For a girl to make it all the way into Grands Prix is even rarer. And for that girl to be (let's be frank here) not a complete minger, is absolutely unheard of. But 23 year-old Katja Poensgen fits the bill, and despite her recent departure from her Aprilia GP team, she remains motorcycle racing's prettiest face.
Surely your friends and family thought it was all a bit weird when you told them you wanted to be a In the beginning, when I first started racing bikes, all my friends were like, "what are you doing? Shouldn't you be doing a normal job like everyone else?" And my mum is still a bit scared for me when I go out on the bike racing. She's always really happy on Sunday when I call her after the race and say, "mum, it's me, I'm still alive." But every mum is the same. I know that 250 rider Marco Mellandri's mum panics after his every race!
Do you bore your mates to death with racebike stories when you're off duty?None of my friends are really interested in motorcycle racing, which is very good for me because when I'm with my mates, we don't talk about racing at all! They just ask me how it went for me at the weekend, and that's it. Then it's time to go out on the town!
Bit of a diva down the local Heroes nightspot, then?I don't have time to go to nightclubs now, sadly. It's not such a good idea for me to be drinking during the season, anyway...
Bikes, birds and racetracks: normally a combination only associated with brolly-dollies. How did you get into the racing saddle?In 1992 my dad - who works for Suzuki - had to go to Calafat racetrack in Spain on business, and there was a training school there for first-time riders. I had to go with him on the trip - I so didn't want to, I just wanted to stay at home and get my friends around for a big party - but dad said no way, I was too crazy and couldn't stay at home by myself, so I had to go with him. I was totally pissed off that I had to go to a racetrack in the middle of nowhere - I was so furious that I didn't eat or talk for three days! So in desperation, dad asked if I wanted to have a go on these RG125 school bikes, and I said no way! I just want to go home! By the fourth day, I was so bored I was looking at the bike, and thinking, "should I or shouldn't I?" So I went for it. Dad was telling me where the clutch was, where the brakes and gears were, here's the gas - the most important thing - and now go, just go! I rode onto the circuit and off I went.
Then racing full time the next year?I told my dad that I wanted to race in the German Junior Championship the following year, but he didn't take me too seriously because I was changing my mind every 10 minutes. One day I wanted to be a tennis player, the next minute the Karate Kid, the next I wanted to be an actress, so no-one took me very seriously when I said I wanted to race bikes. But I persisted, and he gave in.
Were you an instant success?Oh God, no. My first year I was really slow and learning how to ride the bike and circuits properly. I improved year-on-year and won the Junior Championship in 1995. Racing is my life now, but only a part of it. I never lose sight of the fact that I won't be racing bikes forever. What comes after my racing I don't know. Anything can happen. But at the moment, I live for racing and this is all I want to do.
Do you find that as your riding skill has increased, the pressure to do well has mounted up?In the beginning it was quite easy, in 1995 I didn't have to do much to win races. I could go to Macdonalds and eat pizza every day and my natural riding talent was enough to win, but now I've raced in GPs, things are up to a new level. Now I have to train properly, commit everything. I'm still having fun, but it's different now. Much more intense.
Your dad works for Suzuki Germany. Would it be true to say you wouldn't have had the rides you've had if it hadn't been for him?Without my dad I would never have got to where I am now, that's true enough. But when you're 15 years old you need someone to pay for everything and take you to the racetrack, so obviously because my dad is into bikes so much he is a part of my racing effort. I am not sure, but perhaps if my dad worked for BMW in Munich, then maybe I would be a car racer now!
You're a bit of a daddy's girl, then?I don't think so. I have a very good relationship with my dad, obviously. We manage to separate our professional and personal lives quite easily. Things would be difficult if we couldn't do that. He helped me a lot in the last few years, and now I have to do more for myself. He's always with me over the weekends and that is really important to me. He has a strong hand and he is always there for me. The great thing is I can trust him 100% because he's my dad.
So, blokes and bikes. Big egos everywhere - how long was it before the guys took you seriously?In my first year in the Junior Championship I was very slow, finishing second-last and all that, so nobody took me very seriously at all. But by the second year at the last race at Hockenheim I got a third place, up on the podium, and I think this was a turning point in my career. For the first time, the boys, were like "oh, she CAN ride a bike then," and started to treat me with some respect. Then in the third year, 1995, when I won the championship, I had respect from everybody.
And now you get on well with the other racers?I get on really well with all the other riders. Whenever I have a question about a certain corner or what gearing to use or whatever, they're always dead helpful. But I know that this will only last for as long as I'm slower than them!
What's the most extreme reaction you've had from another rider who didn't want to be beaten by a girl?Oh yeah, on the racetrack no-one wants to finish behind me! It used to be that if I overtook someone, they would often give more than 100% to take me back, and that could lead to a few crazy moments. I would guess about eight times, people have crashed into the side of me because they refused to believe I was quicker than them. I don't know if it was the teams egging them on or what, but sometimes people used to take stupid risks to get back past me. In 750 Superstocks last year, though, the guys seemed to take being beaten by me pretty well. A few long, sulky faces on the podium, but if I beat them they accept that I was faster on the day and they're like, "okay Katja. You beat me this time, but next race I'll have you back." It's cool. Have you always been competitive?Absolutely. I've always been really, really competitive. Since I was at school, I always wanted to jump the furthest or run the quickest in sport. And most times, I did.
Do you find the whole speed and power thing of a racebike sexy?
I never think about the speed or power of my bike in a sexual way - this is my job now, and it could never be sexy. It's too serious for that! But there's a lot of emotion in bike racing, for sure.
When I got two GP points at Mugello, it didn't even sink in for a few days. Then you wake up in the morning and think of what you achieved, finishing 14th, and you can't quite believe it. An amazing feeling.
Is that why you come back for more?I want to become faster and faster and have nobody in front of me and everybody behind me. This is what keeps me coming back to racing all the time.
You were in a coma once for three days in 1997 after a crash. Don't you worry about hurting yourself? I never worry about crashing and hurting myself. I stopped counting when I reached 100 crashes and I've broken a few bones in my body, but I can live with the pain. You have to accept pain with bike racing!
Has being a girl been a help or a hinderance, do you think?I know I am good for publicity but I am also a very fast bike racer, and trying to mix those two is the trick. I've won four titles in the last four years, and there's lot of guys who have better bikes and teams than me who have never achieved that.
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