Rough Rider: Local grower stormed Europe’s dirt tracks in ‘70s and ‘80s

BROWNSVILLE — Even regular customers at the Franny’s Garden tent at the Brownsville Farmers’ Market might not be aware that the proprietor’s name is actually “Vreni,” that she was born in Switzerland or that she was Europe’s first female motocross racer.

Vreni Lane, née Inderbitzin, crashed the gender barrier astride a high-performance dirt bike on the European sidecar motocross racing circuit for 10 years starting in the late 1970s. Her racing days behind her, today Lane tends the farm outside Bayview where she has lived since 1989.

A diminutive woman with a singsong accent, Lane didn’t ride a motorcycle until she was 25. Working as a waitress in her hometown of Arth, she would accompany her boyfriend to a nearby motocross track where he raced, bringing him food and wiping the mud off his goggles. Lane admits she was unimpressed by the whole scene at first.

“I thought, I don’t know what’s wrong with these people,” she said. “I didn’t get into it so much.”

Still, her boyfriend managed to talk her into entering an end-of-the-season “fun race” for amateurs. The cost to enter was 100 francs, nonrefundable. It was Lane’s first race and all she had was a street bike, while everyone else rode dirt bikes. She fared poorly, coming in 14th out of 23. Everybody got a kick out of it. Lane was the only woman in the race.

“I told them, ‘Just wait. I’ll show you next year,’” she said. “Then I did.”

By the next race, Lane had equipped herself with a Yamaha 650 sidecar motocross rig with bored cylinders. She placed third against 63 other teams — all men. Nobody laughed this time.

“Everybody was a little bit more quiet,” she said.

Lane graduated to more powerful motorcycles and made a name for herself, leaving male competitors in the dust. The headline from a 1977 Swiss German-language newspaper article declared: “Wenn Vreni in den sattel steigt, zittern die männer” (When Vreni climbs into the saddle, the men shake). The Swiss edition of Time magazine also did a feature story on her.

Lane rarely placed less than third — fifth if she was having a bad day. Her sister, Marianne Inderbitzin, visiting recently from Switzerland, said that in 10 years of racing Lane never came in less than 10th place. Inderbitzin said the family was concerned her sister would get hurt but that it was all very exciting nonetheless.

Lane gained a reputation for keeping her passengers — “monkeys” in race parlance — from getting hurt, something she attributes more to caution than to skill. Caution doesn’t mean you can’t still go fast, though, which she proved by winning. Lane’s monkeys were always men. She tried training with women but couldn’t find anyone with the requisite nerves of steel, she said.

“You cannot be afraid when you do this.” Lane said.

Another problem was that the women couldn’t hold on tight enough and would get thrown out of the sidecar. Lane had also worked as a masseuse for seven years and developed massive muscles in her hands and arms, so holding on wasn’t a problem. Motocross is physically demanding, and Lane stayed in shape with wrestling, soccer and lap swimming.

Her racing career opened some interesting doors, such as being asked to film an underwear commercial in Vienna, Austria, a place she’d never visited before. The director instructed Lane to ride one direction through a pack of male riders going the opposite direction.

“They made us do crazy things,” she said. “I had a woman in the sidecar. We had boots and helmets, but just underwear. The guys had clothes on. We drove all the way to Vienna. We had actually fun. That was very, very fun. Vienna’s a very nice city.”

Long before Lane moved to the United States, she and her sister traveled extensively throughout North America.

“The first time we went to the U.S. was in 1971,” Inderbitzin recalled. “We took a boat from Italy to Halifax, Canada, then New York, Niagara Falls, Detroit, Chicago, Minneapolis, Winnipeg, Quebec, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, Seattle, Yellowstone, Salt Lake City (and) Tijuana, Mexico.”

Inderbitzins first emigrated to this country around 1900, and California is loaded with uncles and cousins.

“They’re up and down, from Truckee all the way down to Santa Ana,” Lane said.

The sisters visited them all, receiving the royal treatment at Swiss festivals on the West Coast and even garnering press coverage. Lane raced her last race in 1987.

“When you’re 37, the crazy’s not there so much anymore,” she said.