Lady We Love: Olga Kevelos

Amanda/February 24, 2013

Olga Kevelos was a female rider in the motorcycle and enduro trials circuit in the 1950s and 60s. She is the only woman to ever win two gold medals at the International Six-Day Trial and paved the way for all the women in the sport that would come after her. That on its own is interesting enough, but after some researching, we found out that there is even more to this amazing lady and her incredible life.

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Olga Valerie Kevelos was born in Edgbaston, Birmingham, on November 6, 1923 to a Greek financier father and English mother. She studied Metallurgy at the King Edward VI School for Girls, and with the country actively engaged in World War II, worked for a while in the laboratories of William Mills, manufacturer of the Mills bomb. This was followed by a time at the Royal Observatory but enemy bombing forced the observatory’s closure soon after and she was evacuated to the Admiralty at Bath.

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At this point in her story, it’s 1943 and Kevelos is 19 and fatefully comes across an advertisement in the newspaper. The English Department for War Transport had an ad running that invited women to train for work on the canals. Desperately bored by the office work she was doing at the time, Kevelos accepted the challenge and began what she would later describe as a “grueling” two year stint working with the all-female volunteer crew. Her crew was the waterborne equivalent of the famed Land Girls – their badges bore the intials “IW”, for “Inland Waterways”, but the male boatmen gave them the pejorative nickname “Idle Women” which, unfortunately, stuck. The women were anything but idle, however, and  Kevelos spent the war on barges carrying vital supplies along the Grand Union Canal between London and the Midlands. “[It was] hard work, with no respite at all,” she would remember, “We worked an 18 to 20 hour day, and nobody ever stopped”. Living conditions were rough, and the girls were often cold, wet, and hungry. Unlike, the more celebrated Land Girls, the Idle Women did not receive extra rations. “We subsisted on cocoa with condensed milk, national loaf, and peanut butter,” she recounted, “I was always hungry – all the time”.

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In all, some 45 women took charge of the canal boats, which were worked in pairs, with each pair of canal boats being crewed by three women. After initial training, the volunteers would take the helm of massive barges transporting supplies from the London docks to Birmingham; on the return trip they would haul coal from Warwickshire to London. After a three-week round trip, they would have the option of a week’s unpaid leave. The work was arduous at best, dangerous at worst. Their cargo was often disguised, with weapons and occasionally even gold bars being camouflaged as things that were more innocent.

Living conditions were rough, and the girls were often cold and wet as well as hungry. The weather could be appalling, and their craft were sometimes icebound. Many were daughters of middle-class families who would normally never have been allowed to go out to work, the war was a unique experience of manual labour and heavy physical toil. Their work on barges gave the women “a kind of freedom that some of us may never from have known until we got married”, said Kevelos.

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After the war, she was awarded a government grant to study French Medieval History for a year at the Cité University in Paris. During this period she traveled extensively in other parts of Europe. “I was one of the first backpackers,” she later joked. And upon returning to her pre-war home in Birmingham, Olga Kevelos started her own travel agency.

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Here’s where Olga Kevelos’s story becomes even more interesting. Its now the latter part of the 1940s and she has a boyfriend involved in motorcycle racing. Never one to shy away from things, she receives a few basic instructions and decides to try the sport herself. Supposedly, the story goes that her natural ability and aptitude for riding was evident immediately. Very soon after, she was offered a sponsorship by the James Motorcycle Company, which is quite remarkable for the time. The following year, she rode to San Remo in Italy to take part in the International Six-Day Trial. Once there, an accident left her with a broken wrist and ankle. Undaunted, she rode back home still in plaster.

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In 1949 Olga Kevelos went on to win the first of her two gold medals, riding a 500cc Norton in the International Six-Day Trials in Wales, her second would come in 1953 in the 250cc. She would continue to ride in every Scottish Six-Day trial until she finally retired from the sport in 1970, and in every International Six-Day Trial until 1966. During that time, she won the backing of almost every major British motorcycle manufacturer, as well as support from Italian and Czechoslovakia manufacturers to boot. Not wholly satisfied with motorcycle racing exclusively, Kevelos was also known to compete in races driving a Kieft Mk 1, a small race car that had its own competitive racing circuit.

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As if all of this weren’t enough, Olga Kevelos was also an avid scholar. She began very well educated in a multitude of subjects, her favorites being science, geography, and especially, history. In 1978 she participated in BBC’s Mastermind as a historical specialist on Genghis Khan. Her expertise on the Mongolian Emperor was also a topic of interest for former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who supposedly picked her brain about the topic. She later joked, “He probably wanted a few tips on how to invade other people’s countries successfully”.

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Olga Kevelos died on October 28, 2009 at the age of 85. She was a remarkable woman, leaps and bounds ahead of social norms and in her lifetime saw the crumpling of many stiff conventions. She was a boatsman, a sportsman, a historian, an entrepreneur, and perhaps most of all, a pioneer.

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