Watching a Grand Prix while helping to save lives in Africa. This is Andrea Coleman’s mission through Two Wheels for Life
Some events change lives forever, passions that mark our existences and insights that have the power to change for the better the lives of people we don’t know but for whom we are willing to commit so that they have a better existence.
For Andrea Coleman, the motorcycle is a life companion: both as a means of competition and as a work tool, but above all as a ‘medium’ to savour freedom in its purest essence.
At the same time, Andrea has always been concerned about making medical care within reach for those who live in poorer countries, where access to healthcare is a real luxury, reserved for the few.
In this story, the motorbike is a constant that marks the end but also the rebirth. Andrea has found in her irrepressible desire to transmit courage, hope and love of life the fuel that has seen the birth of Two Wheels For Life, a non-profit organization where Randy Mamola joins her in being committed to the front line, and which has allowed hundreds of health workers to reach the most remote areas of Africa, using the agility of two wheels to assist thousands of people every year, since 1991.
“I have always loved motorcycles. Ever since I was a little girl. They represented something connected to freedom for me,” says Andrea. “I liked the speed, I rode knowing that I was doing something that I had chosen to do. Then, when I was 19, I went on a trip to Mexico and saw people living in very harsh conditions, in poverty. That sparked a desire in me to help others”.
It was with an unconditional love for sports and a desire to do her part to make the world a better place when Andrea entered adulthood. “I didn’t want to go to college, I was just thinking about racing. For a few years, I worked to save up the money to compete and travel. Later I worked for Chelsea Football Club then I married Tom Herron, a professional motorcycle racer. Travelling with him around Europe I learned how to manage a team and how to get sponsorships. In 1979 Tom lost his life riding a works Suzuki at the North West 200 race in Northern Ireland. At that time there were many risks and dangers. Dorna Sports, together with FIM and IRTA have transformed Grand Prix Racing by putting safety at the centre of this sport”.
Following the death of her husband and with two year-old twin girls to raise, Andrea moved away from the world of racing. Until one day Randy Mamola, who knew Andrea’s story, contacted her: “He needed someone to take care of his public relations. I was scared to go back to the race paddock but when Randy proposed that I work with him, I thought that together we could do something good, showing that motorcycles can be a way to save the lives of many people“.
It was working alongside Randy Mamola that Andrea found a way to “connect the dots” by making competitions a resource for supporting initiatives: “I came up with the idea of creating fundraising, asking riders for items such as their boots, gloves and so on and then holding fun auctions for fans. The proceeds allowed me to raise the funds we needed to create an organisation, using motorcycles, that would help people in need”.
So, in the 80’s, Andrea together with her new life partner Barry Coleman and her good friends Randy Mamola and Kenny Roberts Snr they gave life to the Day of Champions a day organized during the Grand Prix of Great Britain where they raised funds for non-profit organizations. Then they made their first trip with Save The Children to get to know some of the people receiving their aid and to find out what their needs were. On that occasion, they realized that there was a lack of help focused on transportation: “Motorcycles, ambulances and other vehicles were sent, but they often broke down and this became a waste of resources that endangered the lives of many men, women and children. At that point, we made sure that the motorcycles became a useful means of saving the lives of so many people who lived in rural areas”.
From that moment on, they founded a new charity Riders For Health to train health workers how to ride and maintain motorcycles to ensure care and medical visits for as many people as possible in every corner of the continent of Africa.
“In 1996 Barry went to Gambia where he met a young man named Ali Ceesay, who was maintaining a few motorcycles with no replacement parts and very few tools. Barry helped him develop his skills and he became the first Riders for Health staff member in Africa. We relied on Ali and then gradually we found more and more local, talented people to manage these programs. A few years later, the oil company Castrol asked us to manage 16 of their motorcycles in Lesotho and from there, our initiative began a real expansion. That programme is now led by an amazing woman called Mahali Hlasa“.
In the early 2000s, after the arrival of Dorna Sports as the promoter of the MotoGP™ World Championship, Andrea asked for and obtained a meeting with the CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta to explain the mission of Riders For Health to him: “What we were doing was received with great enthusiasm and we became the non-profit organization of reference for the Championship. With Carmelo’s full support we changed our name to Two Wheels For Life. Being supported by MotoGP™ and the fans of the sport gives us great visibility and support. Every time we add one more motorcycle to our fleet we create access to healthcare for more than 5000 people. At the same time, the fans who support us can live unique experiences during the Grand Prix, where, despite being immersed in a context focused on competition, they have the chance to live a moment of maximum humanity”.
Over the years, representatives from Dorna Sports have visited Gambia and Lesotho, two places where Two Wheels for Life operates, getting to know riders with an unstoppable spirit. In Africa, the finish line is never the same, but at every pit stop these riders-operators bring hope, along with their care.
The motorcycle, an instrument of freedom and rebirth
Fear of disease, contagion, marginalization, and death have broken into everyone’s daily lives with the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. But thousands of people in Africa have been living with these fears for much longer. Some diseases weigh like stigmata on African communities and, in the case of contracting these infections, the price to pay is removal from the community and, most of the times, women suffer the heaviest consequences.
A person’s existence can be saved in many ways. Andrea and Two Wheels For Life have identified motorcycles and training as two useful tools to offer a new beginning to those who would otherwise be condemned to segregation: “Motorcycles offer people independence and visibility – says Andrea – Years ago we taught a group of women in Kenya with HIV how to ride and maintain their bikes so that they could reach several villages, demonstrating that despite being positive for a similar disease it is possible to contribute to the welfare of others by explaining to them the importance of nutrition, prevention and transmitting confidence to other women. In addition, having become excellent motorcycle riders are helping to diminish the many prejudices that there are against those who have HIV”.
In the communities of rural Africa, women are important because they take care of their families but are rarely valued for their talents. In this case as well, Andrea tells of those who have seen their lives change for the better: “One of the women we trained told us that she gained more respect and consideration from her husband and her entire community after learning to ride and manage her motorcycle, thus becoming a reference point and valuable resource for her village”.
On a continent where roads and infrastructure are often a utopia, as is the ability to obtain treatment and medicine, Two Wheels For Life is committed to ensuring that those living in the most isolated areas of the continent can find comfort by hearing the distant roar of a motorcycle approaching their village: “Over the past 30 years there have been many stories of people who, thanks to the intervention of our ‘Riders’ are still alive – says Andrea, mentioning one episode in particular – One day the director of the program in Gambia called us to express the thanks of a man who lived in a remote part of the country. Without medical care reaching his community, his wife would have died in childbirth while trying to give birth to twins. If, of all people, that mother and those two babies are safe, it’s thanks to the entire MotoGP™ motorcycle community and that’s something to be very proud of”.
In the birth and growth of Two Wheels For Life, the contribution of co-founder Randy Mamola has been immense, as Andrea points out: “His ability to communicate and relate to people of all ages is incredible. His commitment has been unparalleled in managing and building relationships with Dorna and everyone in the paddock.”
Get the first gear to go far away
To ride a motorcycle, you need balance and concentration, Andrea knows it well, but these two characteristics are powerful even once you take off your helmet: “Sometimes life puts you in front of challenging situations that are so complicated that they take your sleep away. But the fact of being alive is precious – she points out – Art, like sport, music or books can be of great inspiration representing the stimulus we need to say: go ahead“.
Listening to Andrea I think that perhaps this is the key to her story: she kept going on maintaining balance and concentration, finding in difficulties the roots to give life a new beginning.