Murray Bridge rider called up to Australian team for the first time
At 15, Makaylah Cooper is representing her country in a sport you might never have heard of: cycle speedway.
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Makaylah Cooper takes a deep breath and grips her bike’s handlebars a little tighter as she lines up for the start of a race.
In a moment the starting gate will snap open and she’ll be away, wearing the green and gold of the Australian national team for the first time – and at the age of just 15.
What makes this moment even more special is the fact it is taking place here, on her home track in Murray Bridge.
“You’re under starter’s orders,” says a voice over the ageing PA system.
Then snap, she’s away, leaning into the pedals and jostling for position ahead of the first corner as the crowd cheers.
The venue is Homburg Park, and the sport is cycle speedway.
The competitors might be cyclists, but the spirit of this sport is closer to roller derby: fast and tough, with full contact permitted.
The competition was particularly fierce on Sunday as Australia and the United Kingdom contested the Ashes of cycle speedway, the first test of several to be contested across South Australia.
Four riders at a time – two from each team – took turns completing four laps of the gravel track, racing for points given out by finishing order: 4-3-2-1.
Some races passed without incident; other times riders had to pick themselves up and dust themselves off after sliding out on the gravel.
A few young cycle speedway riders have gone on to race at the motor speedway across town, as these folks call it – McEwens, Buchanans and Ritters – but retiree Ivan Clothier chose to go in the other direction a few years ago.
“You pass 50 in the motorbikes and you’re getting past it – it’s harder on your body and harder on your hip pocket,” he said.
“I’d recommend (cycle speedway) for anyone – it’s a lot cheaper than motorbikes and a lot of downhill pushbikes … and a lot safer than a footy match.”
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The main problem the sport faced, Murraylands Cycle Speedway secretary Kathryn Thompson said, was its low profile.
Invented in the United Kingdom in the inter-war years, it became hugely but briefly popular during the 1950s, when hundreds of clubs sprang up in London and other cities.
But it never really spread beyond a handful of other countries before being supplanted by track cycling, motorised speedway racing and other pursuits.
Only four clubs remain in Australia: the one in Murray Bridge and three others in Adelaide.
“Cycle speedway? What’s that? Never heard of it,” Ms Thompson said, describing the conversations she had attempted with potential sponsors.
“We’ve been here for 26 years, but it is a very low-profile sport.”
Still, about 40 riders show up at the Murray Bridge track every other weekend between March and November.
Some come from as far away as Mount Barker, Mount Pleasant, Mannum and Tailem Bend.
In the 15th and final race of the women’s test, the Aussie riders whooped and waved as they rolled over the line – Australia had won, 81-68.
Members of the hundred-strong crowd roared their approval.
Makaylah’s mum carried her daughter’s kit bag and spare bike wheels as the worn-out but beaming teenager came to say g’day.
“That was adrenaline-filled, very intense,” the rider said.
“It’s a thrill when you’re on the gate, starting a race, you have to be still; then as soon as the gate goes up you have to go, and whatever happens in the race happens.”
Still, the friendships were what she loved best about cycle speedway, she said – even the British riders felt like friends already, despite their heated rivalry on the track.
A year ago she had been considering pulling out of the sport; now she had half an eye on the 2025 world championships, to be held in the UK.
“I can give it a crack,” she said.