Worlds Apart, a Friendship Built on Dirt Tracks and 50cc Engines

Stefy Bau got her first dirt bike when she was 4, an Italjet with a 50-cubic-centimeter engine. She was a quick study. “It was at the age of 6 that I started racing,” said Ms. Bau, who is 45 and lived in Turate, Italy, but now calls the open road home as a digital nomad.

Tanya Muzinda got her first motocross bike when she was 5, a Yamaha PW50, a cousin to Ms. Bau’s Italjet. One day a year earlier, her father picked her up from kindergarten on a motorcycle, and “that’s when I first had a taste of revving the bike,” said Ms. Muzinda, a 17-year-old high school junior from Zimbabwe.

In 1982, Ms. Bau’s father, a butcher shop owner in Saronno, Italy, bought a two-stroke KTM 350 enduro bike and rode trails on the weekends. Soon after, motocross — dirt-bike racing on challenging terrain — became a family favorite, with motocross magazines strewn about the house.

“I got an education about the sport even before learning how to read and write,” Ms. Bau said. “I was identifying the names of colors with the names of the motorcycles.” Each brand had its own color: Honda was red, KTM was orange and Yamaha was blue. “For me, colors were KTM, Honda and Yamaha.”

Ms. Muzinda (whose full name is Tanyaradzwa Adel Muzinda) grew up with a different set of expectations. She was born in Harare, after her family moved to the capital city from a nearby village — the first generation to do so.

Ms. Muzinda, right, with her mentor, Stefy Bau, a three-time world champion, at the 2017 Motocross of Nations event in Britain.Credit…Stefy Bau

“A lot of people, mainly Africans, look down upon women and girls,” she said. The thinking goes, she said, that women should “stay home, do the dishes, do laundry, cook and wait for the men to come home.” If they had enough money to send only one child to school, most families would send the “boy child because they find it pointless to invest in a girl child’s future,” she added.

Two wheels changed her life. Ms. Muzinda’s great-great-uncle owned the family’s first pedal-powered bike, passing it down the generations. “When my uncle’s turn came, he upgraded it to a kinetic motorcycle, which was petrol-powered, until it reached my dad,” she said. Her father, Tawanda Polycup Muzinda, then traded it in for a Yamaha YZF-R6 Supersport motorcycle. It had a bigger engine and was “a lot faster,” Ms. Muzinda said.

This was the kindergarten-pickup bike, which set in motion a life-changing dream. Mr. Muzinda eventually sold this motorcycle to buy his daughter her first motocross bike.

They had broken a family tradition: The family bike is normally passed down to the firstborn boy. “My dad passed his bike onto me, a girl, which caused a lot of argument between him and his father and the whole family,” Ms. Muzinda said. Her family didn’t see the purpose of a girl’s having the bike, especially at her age.

Ms. Muzinda with her parents, Adiyon and Tawanda Polycup Muzinda, as she received a new bike sponsored by KTM Austria.Credit…Bill Pruitt

Before long, though, she was entering races in Zimbabwe — and winning most of them. Then came races, and second-place finishes, in Britain. Once she was competing in the United States in the regional Bartow MX championships in Florida, she notched more victories and took the 2021 overall championship in the 125cc boys and girls class.

Having moved to Florida in 2019 with her family, she is racing in small local events and preparing for bigger contests. “I hope one day to be part of a bigger team with other great riders and achieve more experience,” she said.

Ms. Bau had an easier time with her family supporting her dream, traveling across Italy and then Europe. When she was 6, she recalled, “I looked my mom and dad in the eyes and said, ‘One day I will be the best racer there is, and I will race in the U.S.A.’”

Her teenage years were filled with European races and long hours. While she was racking up wins, Ms. Bau earned a bachelor’s in accounting as well.

In 1998, the Italian Motorcycle Federation declined Ms. Bau’s attempt to be the first woman to compete in the FIM men’s world championship. However, she raced at a women’s world championship in the United States at 21. Neither she nor her mechanic knew a word of English. (However, Ms. Bau packed an Italian-English dictionary.) She won her first international title.

“With all my success in the U.S., Italy came calling,” she said. “It was in 2005 I was asked to be the first woman to race in the FIM World Championship. Now on my terms, I was able to fulfill a lifelong dream.” In addition to three world titles in women’s events, Ms. Bau became the first woman to race alongside men during the FIM World Championship and race on the Supercross stage.

In October that year, however, Ms. Bau’s life changed in an instant: She suffered a career-ending injury. After spending most of 2007 learning to walk again and battling depression, Ms. Bau became the general manager of the recently established Women’s World Motocross Championship.

“It was a way to get back to the sports and share the know-how with all the women athletes to help them grow professionally,” she said.

In 2013, Ms. Bau received an email from Zimbabwe. A young girl named Tanya had a passion for motocross; the family wanted Ms. Bau to become her coach and mentor. “I deleted the email,” Ms. Bau said. “Then a second email came. Same story. When the third email came, I decided to look into it.”

Ms. Muzinda at the start of the 2018 Mini O’s motocross race in Florida, her new home after Zimbabwe.Credit…Stefy Bau

Ms. Bau flew to Zimbabwe. “It was one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life,” she said. “From the moment I saw this little 9-year-old at the airport I was in awe. The energy I felt in her presence made me want to do anything in my power to help.”

Ms. Bau worked her motocross connections to help outfit Ms. Muzinda with proper equipment, taking her from flip-flops to full protective race gear. Sponsors helped with products and equipment, but dollars were hard to come by.

“The problem is that to compete at a higher level, funds are necessary for travel, and it can get quite expensive,” Ms. Bau said. “Her dad is doing everything he can, working two jobs and all, but it’s still not enough to even cover the everyday cost of living for the family.”

Ms. Muzinda took on a job, and Ms. Bau helps financially, too. “It’s very difficult to fund a sport like motocross, especially the fact that I’m a girl,” Ms. Muzinda said. “Motocross isn’t a headline sport in Africa. When looking for sponsorships, the majority of the potential sponsors had no clue what motocross was.”

“I had my moments where I had to sit at home because of financial issues that stopped me from going,” Ms. Muzinda added. “I know how depressing and demoralizing it is to watch and hear everyone going to school while you stay home hoping you’ll be able to join the others.”

However, Ms. Muzinda seems to maintain a “never give up no matter what” attitude. She’s helping girls and young women “open better opportunities for the generations to come.” To date, she has donated a share of her prize money and sponsorship allowance to help the educations of over 200 Zimbabwean girls, as well as a few boys with special needs.

“Other women had to fight and achieve the right for us to be where we are right now,” she said. She hopes future generations have more freedom.

Ms. Muzinda grabbing a sandwich between races at Zimbabwe’s Donnybrook Raceway.Credit…David Bulmer

“We’ve been lucky to attract the media attention thanks to her powerful story,” Ms. Bau said. “We hope to also attract philanthropists and brands that see the same value.” Ms. Bau assists with sponsorship negotiations, found through Ms. Muzinda’s website.

The women formed an instant friendship, “an inner desire to give a chance to someone that was just born in a different culture but that had the same passion as me,” as Ms. Bau put it.

To Ms. Bau, Ms. Muzinda is much bigger than motocross. She sees a girl with a passion the same as hers, with the desire to help others and change the world for the better. So much so that Ms. Bau helped the Muzindas make the move to Florida in search of their daughter’s motocross dreams.

The transition has not always been easy, she said, “but as time is passing by I have slowly started to get more comfortable and familiar to the lifestyle this side despite all the homesick days.”

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