Sitting in a tiny yellow cab, my knees almost against my chest, my backpack and helmet crammed between my lap and the dashboard, I’m staring out at the chaos that is Lima’s morning rush hour. I’m late. The Uber driver that was supposed to pick me up had mysteriously disappeared, so I had to jog down the street and find a cab which might – or might not – make it to Surco before eight. I’m nervous; I have an interview with Gianna Velarde, a young local rider who became the first Peruvian woman to race the Dakar in the motorcycle class. When I messaged her, I figured we’d go for a coffee and a quick chat.
Instead, she invited me for a ride in the dunes.
I know nothing about riding in the dunes. I also know very little about Gianna: her Dakar debut was spectacular but, after her engine blew during day three, the twenty-five-year-old hopeful had to withdraw. I know she also races cars. I know she’s tough and determined because nobody makes it to the Dakar start line by being a couch potato. I’ve no idea who she is as a person, though, or what motivated her to go through the hell that is Dakar.
Miraculously, I do make it in time. Gianna picks me up in her SUV, and we take off towards San Bartolo just outside of Lima where her bikes are stored and where the desert begins. “We’re going to have so much fun!”, Gianna beams at me as she weaves expertly between cars, motorcycles, and buses. “I think maybe we should just chat now, because out there, we’ll be too busy riding”, she says.
I dive right in and ask her about where it all began. How did she start riding, and when did she decide to race the Dakar?
“When I was fifteen years old, I got diagnosed with lymphoma. At the time, I didn’t have a very good relationship with my parents, and although lymphoma isn’t the worst cancer of them all, mine was quite advanced. I felt so scared and lost”, Gianna tells me. “I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. I would have never imagined I would one day race in the Dakar. I mean, a girl with cancer? I felt like the most awful girl in the world. Due to all the chemicals during the treatment, I felt horrible – when you go through that, your body just transforms into something you don’t like. And then, so many people look at you with pity and sadness… so you start pitying yourself. You feel like you’ll never get anywhere, never accomplish anything. So then, when my dad saw me giving up and expecting nothing from life, he decided to teach me to ride a motorcycle.
And when I put my helmet on, I didn’t feel like the sad cancer girl anymore. I didn’t even feel like a girl, at that. I was suddenly somebody else. Because when you put the helmet on, you’re just a rider trying to conquer nature.
Miraculously, my cancer was gone within a year. But to this day, I try to go out and talk to people with cancer, especially children and teenagers, and tell them my story. Because you can never give up, and you can never stop challenging yourself”, Gianna explains.
After she learned to ride and the cancer was finally gone, Gianna began racing. Hard enduro, motocross, and eventually, rally. While her father (who owns a motorcycle rental and tour company) coached her as a rider, her mother supported Gianna’s new passion. “My mother isn’t into bikes, but she has always supported me. Two months before the Dakar, I’d broken my collarbone and I had some doubts about being able to race. It was my mother who supported me through it. My mum is very demanding of herself, and I think I got that from her. I’m stubborn, and I’m self-disciplined, so I worked harder and it got me to that start line”, Gianna says.
The Dakar Debut
As we get onto the highway and leave Lima behind, I ask her about the Dakar. Gianna sighs.
“Because I’d broken the collarbone during training, I had a metal plate and six screws put in. So that was hardly ideal, but I mean, the Dakar has come to Peru, and I just I knew I was going to do it no matter what. It was tough: I’m not a professional rider, I run my own motorcycle riding school and I’m working towards my master’s degree in human rights studies, plus I had to train like hell and knock on doors looking for sponsors. It was definitely a big challenge. But then, I love challenges!”, Gianna laughs.
Unfortunately, due to mechanical failure, she didn’t make it past the third day.
“It all started out so great. I was doing well on the prologue stage, and I was having so much fun during stage two riding with Sara Garcia and Gabriela Novotna, we were all there just chasing each other in the desert, and I felt great. Then, I started having bike problems. At first, something came loose off my navigation tower and it jammed the handlebars so I could only ride straight ahead, I couldn’t turn the bars; I managed, but then the next day, something was wrong with the radiator and the engine overheated and just blew. There was nothing I could do about it. Looking back, I think I made a huge mistake choosing the mechanic. During scrutineering, the ASO staff found a small issue with my bike but my mechanic was too busy taking selfies so in the end, another team’s mechanic came over to help me. During stage two, the mechanic forgot to fill up my tank… it was such a disaster, and I can’t help but think that I probably would have finished if it wasn’t for the mechanical issues”, Gianna frowns.
After the Dakar, she struggled to come to terms with what happened.
“When I announced that I was going to race in the Dakar, I got lots of support, but at the same time, a lot of people doubted me. And I think lots of female riders all around the world face this: people either expect more of you, or less of you. They either want you to be a superhero, or fail, and that creates so much pressure. And I mean, so many people say, “well I don’t care what others think”. But in reality, it’s actually very difficult. When I had to withdraw from the Dakar, it was really hard because so many people said and wrote so many shitty things about me. They didn’t just question me as a rider but as a person, too. They said I didn’t achieve anything, that I didn’t have the guts for it, that I should have kept going, that I’ve disappointed them, and so on.
And look, of course I wanted to finish. Of course I gave my all. But at the end of the day, I’m not a pro rider; I’m not some kind of an all-star enduro champion of Latin America. I’m just a gal with a bike and a dream and I wanted to give it a go, that’s all.
Another frustrating thing is that a lot of people assume that everything’s easier for me because I’m a woman. That I got my Dakar sponsorships because all I had to do was bat my eyelashes. Or that my “rich parents” got everything for me. And it couldn’t be further from the truth – as a woman, you have to prove that you can ride in the first place, that you’re serious about this, and only then companies will talk to you. Guys show up, and it’s like it’s a given that they can ride, that they can attempt the Dakar. For me, I had to knock on a lot more doors and put a lot more energy, focus, and hard work into it.
As a woman, you also have to work much harder once you do secure the sponsorships. I had to wake up at 4 or 5 am daily to get all the workouts and training done, I had to be very strict about my diet, my fitness regime, my bike training, and so on, so that my sponsors would see I was serious, competitive, and ready to race. Lots of guys, in the meantime, would happily stroll around with beer bellies, smoke, drink, whatever, and it’s all fine because men don’t have to prove that they’re competitive or capable. For me, everything was constantly under a magnifying glass, even my social life. I had to be a role model, and the pressure was insane. So it’s really tough: people think you have it easy whereas in reality, it’s very much the other way round”, Gianna says.
The Dunes of San Bartolo
She parks the SUV in front of a small bike workshop. I can already see the golden dunes stretching into the horizon behind it. “Isn’t it cool to have all this in your backyard?”, Gianna smiles.
In the meantime, a mechanic wheels two bikes outside. Gianna’s Honda 450, her new favourite bike, and a KTM450 for me. I’m boiling in my Klim jacket, but I’d left all my enduro gear on my bike back in Europe, and this will have to do. The sun is beating down hard, and the sand shimmers in the distance.
“Ready?”, Gianna asks, putting her helmet on. I nod, and we roll out onto the road, heading south. Soon, Gianna turns to a small side road, slows down, and turns around. She points at the dunes now rising right in front of us. I nod again. She takes off, flying up a sandy hill and disappearing over the edge; I follow. There’s no warm-up: Gianna throws me right into the deep end, as we climb steeper and steeper hills. I pull a few accidental wheelies, but somehow, I make it. Gianna stops at the top of a hill and points towards a gap between two large dunes in the distance. “So we’re going to go up that”, she says. “Don’t worry, it’s not very hard, but it’s deep sand, so don’t go slow. You know, it’s usually all in your head, so be cool, and keep the throttle happy, yeah?”.
I try. Gianna takes off, and the desert seems so white, flat and pristine that I want to open the throttle wide and just fly, but at the same time, I realize just how many holes, dips, ridges and nasty-looking rocks lurk in that seemingly pristine sand. So instead, I creep along in second hear, reminding myself to breathe.
Little by little, I relax my white-knuckled grip on the handlebars. Gianna leads me through some of the most incredible scenery I’ve ever ridden. White, yellow and pink sand rises in the most phantasmagorical shapes all around us, and although I know we’re just outside Lima, it feels like I’ve been teleported into a different world. Much older, much more serene world of ancient, endless sands and desert winds.
We stop on a top of a large hill. To the east, the desert expands far into the horizon, the sand undulating and glistening in the sun. To the west, ocean mists crawl and curl around the dunes, a distant blue of the Pacific glimmering below.
I ask Gianna whether she has any of her own favourite Dakar riders.
“Carlo Vellutino, a Peruvian rider”, she says. “He isn’t just a great rider, he’s also a remarkable person. He helped me so much during the Dakar, he encouraged me and gave me a lot of confidence. He just… he never lets the Dakar get into his head, you know? I mean, he’s focused, he’s got a great strategy, he’s excited, and he’s a very good rider, but at the same time, he’s very aware of what’s happening around him. Very aware of other people. Most riders are just focused on their own Dakar, but Carlo, he helps others out, too. He’s a very humble and kind person. He’s definitely my role model!”, Gianna tells me.
I want to know why kindness matters to her.
“I think my parents taught me that. My mother is a very kind person. And my dad, whenever he leads tours or teaches people, he always looks out for the riders who are behind, he would always help out and encourage people. So I got that from him: whenever I’m riding with people, I will always make sure everyone is doing OK, everyone gets in safely after a day’s ride. And I guess, it’s kind of the same with life. You always have to keep an eye out on people who are behind you and make sure you help them. You chase the people ahead of you, and you look out for those behind. I think I’m very, very lucky – I mean, I beat cancer in just one year. Some people struggle for years. Some never heal. So I know I’m very fortunate, and you can’t just hoard luck for yourself, you’ve got to share.
Besides, I’m not a competitive person. The only rider I’m fiercely competing with is myself, you know? I want to beat my own record, be better than I was yesterday. I admire other riders, but it’s not like, “oh, I’d love to beat X on the track or during a rally”. Actually, wait, that’s not entirely true. I’d like to beat my dad someday. He’s an excellent rider! I’m not there yet, but every year, I get closer and closer to the dust of cloud his bike kicks up”, Gianna giggles.
Standing on the top of the hill, we stare out at sea. Soft breeze tugs gently at our hair and sifts the sand beneath our tires. We fall silent for a little while.
“You know what happens if you fall?”, Gianna asks me. She’s squinting at the sun.
“Nothing. Nothing at all. You just have to get up”, she says, and puts her helmet back on.
I follow Gianna’s tracks as we weave through the mounds of sand. I feel a little braver now; the sand still feels strange, as if I’m skiing while aboard my bike, but it’s not the scary kind of strange anymore. It’s the exciting kind.
Somewhere along the way, Gianna tells me to notice the different colours of the sand. “If it’s dirty beige, it’ll probably be hard-packed. But if it’s white, watch out, it will be soft and deep, so don’t stop. Happy throttle, remember!”.
Soon, we’re heading back towards the base. I can’t believe the hour has passed so quickly. I feel I could spend a whole day, no, a week here, exploring the desert, getting better at navigating sand, getting lost in the golden dunes, watching the morning fog rise from the ocean. The landscape of San Bartolo feels surreal.
The Freedom in Motorcycling
We park the bikes, shake the sand out of our boots, and jump back into the SUV. I notice Gianna has a green bobblehead dinosaur on her dashboard. “Is that your mascot?”, I ask.
“Oh, I just like dinosaurs. Besides, just look at that silly thing. Whenever I’m annoyed by traffic, I simply look at the dinosaur, and I can’t help but smile”, Gianna explains, grinning.
Is she always so zen?
“During a rally, it’s the mental part that matters most. The fatigue adds up quickly during the days of racing… So it comes down to will, really. You might get angry or frustrated, or stress about a mechanical problem, but you can’t let your emotions take over because then you’ll make bad decisions, and in a rally like the Dakar, just one bad decision might end your race. So you’ve got to keep calm and focused. I’m still working on the “calm” part! But I’m very stubborn, and that helps a lot. Even if I’m completely exhausted, I’ll keep pushing. And I try to be smart: pay attention to the roadbook, combine speed with accurate navigation, plan ahead, pick good lines. Mistakes are costly, so I try to avoid them”, Gianna explains.
I begin to wonder if she ever sleeps. If she ever just shuts the world out. If she ever cuts herself some slack?
“I struggle every day. Can I just sleep in today? Can I have a McDonalds? Can I skip a training session or a university lecture? But the answer is always, no. I have such a fast life, and I can’t just let go of it all. After the Dakar, I had a very tough time coming to terms with what had happened. Not just because some people reacted in some really hurtful ways, but also because I’m my own harshest critic. So it really took me a while to realize that my Dakar wasn’t a failure, it was a lesson”.
Gianna’s concentrating on the road ahead now, as we reach the outskirts of Lima.
“And you know… A while back, I was dating someone who was a fellow racer. He’d become very possessive, and at some point, I’d realized I wasn’t in love anymore, but part of me was scared to leave because I feared I wouldn’t be able to race without him.
Six months after the breakup, though, I was at the Dakar start line.
And that was so liberating and exhilarating: realizing that I didn’t need anyone to help me, that I could just throw my bike in the truck and go train on my own, or drive down south, find some friends, and go ride in the desert with them… I didn’t need anyone to drive me or help me or guide me. I could do it all on my own. And I think that’s one of my biggest accomplishments, this new freedom, this realization that you can do anything if you put your mind to it, regardless of whether you have the help of your partner, parents, or friends. Dependence makes you forget who you are, what you feel, your spirit of adventure diminishes. You get stuck in the comfort zone.
And it’s not a good place to be.
How will we ever know who we are if we don’t challenge ourselves? How can we be better if we’re just floating around aimlessly like balloons in the air, directionless? I mean, it doesn’t have to be the Dakar or a motorcycle journey around the world, it doesn’t have to be about motorcycles at all, but it has to be something that inspires you and something that’s worth fighting for. Sometimes you feel like the whole world is conspiring against you, that you’re fighting off the demons with a wooden knife. Sometimes, if you set out to do something extraordinary, people will tell you you shouldn’t, or that you’re not ready, too young, too old, too inexperienced; or, most of the time, it’s you telling yourself you’re not good enough, you don’t have X, Y, or Z. But the thing is, yeah, it won’t be easy, but it will be extraordinary, and it will be worth it. I think nothing truly worth doing is ever easy.
I demand a lot of myself; I honestly don’t believe I’ve accomplished anything special yet. I’ve got a long way to go… I feel like I haven’t even done 20% of what I’m capable of. And the Dakar, that’s definitely unfinished business for me”, Gianna tells me.
But what about simply being happy with what you’ve got, and appreciating the moment?
“I think when you’re doing something you love, when you’ve kicked yourself out of your comfort zone, you’re a lot more in the moment, a lot more present than when you’re content with comfortable things. A lot of people just sort of drift along; they might be happy with what they have, but I’m not sure they even notice it? Whereas if you’re constantly challenging yourself and putting bigger and bigger goals in front of yourself, you’re… I think you’re somehow more alive. And it’s not about forever chasing the high, it’s about growing”, Gianna says.
We’re back in Lima now, and she steers the SUV towards Miraflores to drop me off. There are a million more questions I’d like to ask her; I want to know more about her training, racing, and teaching. I want to ask more about the challenges she faces and the victories she celebrates, like her Atacama Rally race where she was the only female rider in the motorcycle class and where, she told me, the big rally KTM’s had trouble chasing after her and her nimble Honda. I want to ask her about the spark in the eyes of little Peruvian girls when they saw her racing the Dakar.
But we’re in my street now. We shake hands; I thank Gianna for the ride and the interview. She nods, winks, and takes off. I fumble with my backpack looking for my keys, then go inside my little loft.
When I take off my boots, there are still tiny grains of sand clinging to the buckles.
I think of what Gianna said about falling and getting up.
Images: Atacama Rally
Follow Gianna on Instagram: Gianna Velarde