Vanessa Ruck, aka The Girl On a Bike, is a well-known enduro and hard enduro rider from Britain. After an epic comeback – Vanessa had experienced a horrific crash leading to several hip and shoulder reconstruction surgeries and years of physiotherapy – Vanessa got into dirt riding a few years ago, but it wasn’t long before a hobby turned into a full-blown racing mission. Just this year alone, Vanessa conquered the Romaniacs Iron Class, finished Qatar International Baja, and raced Rallye du Maroc, one of the toughest rally races in the world where participants battle it out for the chance to race Rally Dakar.
And, sure enough, Vanessa has Dakar ambitions, too – but how did it all begin, and what drives her to achieve so much after such a long struggle just to be able to walk again? We caught up with The Girl on a Bike to find out.
-Vanessa, how was your Romaniacs debut earlier this year?
Romaniacs is absolute madness. It was tough riding on hard enduro-style terrain; I was incredibly apprehensive a first – prior to the prologue, I was so nervous I was almost sick. Romaniacs has a bit of a scary reputation, so I rode the prologue granny-slow expecting horrific gremlins and obstacles on the way. It turned out there were none, save a few steep climbs, and I could have ridden it much faster. I got insanely nervous about Day One again, so I just tried to keep it together and remain as calm as I could. Little by little, I rode with more and more confidence, the bike held up really well; my husband and I trained very hard beforehand, so we managed to pace ourselves well. It was very challenging, but we took it with confidence.
On the other hand, the finish line obstacles at Romaniacs were pretty evil. They’re crowd pleasers, they’re designed to give the spectators entertainment, so you’ve got monster boulders and logs ahead, but the energy of the crowd is really cool! The last wall before the finish was absolutely monstrous, but I gave it a go and just went for it, steady and smooth throttle, ready on the clutch, and I got over the thing just fine. So I think as long as you can conquer your own mind, you can do anything.
The finish line of the last day, you could choose a line of bollards and a deep bog – as in, handlebar deep – or you could go over a 6-foot ramp that kicked you into the air and landed you in mud. A friend suggested I choose the ramp; the crowd was going crazy, this was the finish line, so I went for it, but I landed nose-heavy which meant a heavy landing for my arms and shoulders, then whiskey-throttled it a bit and almost went into the crowd, so it was all a bit dramatic, but hey, I got to the finish line. I was so overwhelmed with emotions – I didn’t know whether to laugh, scream, or cry. I felt incredibly alive.
-After that, it was the Qatar International Baja – your first rally racing attempt. How did that go?
Qatar was, in all respects, brutal. The average temperature was 45-55 Celsius, and only about 45% of riders finished it. I rode with Patsy Quick, the legendary British Dakar rider, and her Desert Rse team; Patsy is a tough cookie, and she put me through my paces. The navigation was hard, because the Qatari desert is somewhat barren and there are no trees, bushes, or anything like that to get your bearings, and if you got lost, it’d take you a while to find your way again. It was intense, but it was an excellent training practice in terms of endurance and prep for Rallye du Maroc.
After the Qatar International Baja, I flew back home, spent 13 hours in the UK, flew to Spain, met the team in Almeria, got on the ferry to Morocco, and got to the Rallye du Maroc bivouac.
-Why did you choose Rallye du Maroc?
On your journey to Dakar, this is the best race to do. Looking back, I could have done this more sensibly – I could have done more roadbook training and raced a few mid-level rallies like the Hellas Rally Raid before. But because of COVID and because of budget reasons, that just wasn’t possible, so I had to throe myself right into the deep end. Having done the Romaniacs, I felt that it was a bit of a confidence boost; I prepared myself as best as I could, and that was that.
-How was the race?
Terrifying, brutal, incredible, emotional, tough, amazing…it’s hard to find words. I’m very grateful for the Qatar experience – I’m sure I would have had a much, much tougher time at Rallye du Maroc if it wasn’t for the lessons from Qatar. Then again, in Morocco, I learned that all sand is not created equal, and neither are the dunes – during the Rallye du Maroc, we had terrain that was relentlessly varied. You had huge rocks, stones, and lumps that would threaten to throw you off, and the dunes were never the same – sometimes you’d get these rapidly undulating dune sections, then all of a sudden, you’d be in the monster dunes with high faces, then rocky terrain again. It was just relentless.
My teammate Tim and I decided to race together – after all, two brains and two bodies in case of navigation mistakes or bike drops are better than one. I was leading with navigation, and Tim would watch out for me; one of the scariest things in a desert race are cars and trucks. I mean, you have collision warnings and beeps when someone is coming up behind you, and you try to move to the side, but you’ve no idea where and what’s behind and often, you’ve got nowhere to go. Sometimes, you’d be in a ravine or a riverbed, and you’d have no chance of getting out of the way, so there were moments that were absolutely terrifying- imagine a racing truck hurtling toward you at speed, and you’ve got nowhere to move. Your life is literally in danger, and you’re gunning it for survival.
-How do you keep t together throughout the rally?
Rallye du Maroc was an event where I had to have a laser-sharp, consistent focus throughout. I was riding a really rough terrain at a racing speed while following a paper chart – I mean, you’ve got to be 100% focused.
Our longest day was thirteen hours on the bikes, 730 kilometers in total – that was a really long day, coming back in pitch black darkness… Moroccan roads at night are pretty scary. When I got back to the bivouac, I just burst into tears, because it had been brutal and the roads back home were seriously scary – I would rather have done another off-road section instead!
The time in the saddle is what made it all so hard. We used camping pillows on our seats just to make it through the liaisons. The length of the day was hard on the nutrition side, and sleep deprivation was tough, too. The bivouac had a rocky, stony floor, so sleeping in a tent was hard; you want to recover after each day, but a bivouac is noisy as hell 24/7, so getting proper rest was difficult. We had to adapt and cope with so many things, so it was a big journey of discovery, and I learned a lot about what I had to improve for the next race.
Keeping it together mentally is taking everything step by step. The only way through it is to keep going: just another two kilometers, then another twenty to the fueling stop, then another ten, twenty, fifty to the finish…You just have to keep going. I don’t know how I kept my shit together – frankly, on Day Two I had a little emotional collapse, the riding in the dark broke me. On Day Three, I had a big off where I was racing at high speed and went over the bars hitting a step that appeared out of nowhere. I and the bike did a full flip in the air, but luckily, the airbag deployed and I was able to keep riding. After I hit the ground, I just sat there trying to figure out whether I could move; I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t speak at first, but then, I took my helmet off, assessed that I was OK, we straightened up the navigation tower and levers, and carried on. I had to navigate, so that just forced me to focus, get over it, and ride.
Sadly on Day Four, my bike decided to stop working late in the afternoon. We tried everything we could, but in the end, I got a sunset helicopter ride back to the bivouac and my bike got back at 4am.
In the morning, I got up prepared to race, but despite several mechanics doing their very best, we just couldn’t fix the mechanical issue, and that was the end of my rally.
I was so gutted that morning. So many people at the bivouac made it obvious they felt I wouldn’t be able to do it because I was a female, and every day, I would surprise them – it’s not that I got something to prove, but… I was the only female in the Enduro Cup, and I just hope that us being there and proving that women can do it will inspire more women to compete and prove these old-fashioned guys wrong. In the end, I got a trophy for winning the Enduro Cup women’s class, and at first, I was skeptical – was I worthy of this title? But you know what, I was. I put in the work and I did my best, and if it wasn’t for the mechanical issue, I would have finished. With my reconstructed body, with my history, hell yes, I’m proud.
-What are your rally plans next, Vanessa?
I’m aiming for Dakar, but I’m not putting the year on it just yet. It will be a long journey, lots of training, another Rallye du Maroc perhaps, and several more affordable rallies in between.
I’m trying to be realistic – we’ve got a long way to go. Tim and I have partnered up for the #becauseican project, which is all about inspiring young people to achieve their goals. There’s so much doom and gloom back here in the UK about the future prospects for young people, and #becauseican is about inspiring and giving youngsters a different perspective. We do talks and workshops in schools and share our stories -Tim is ex-military battling mental health issues, and I’m still dealing with the consequences of the crash, but we are coming together for the Dakar project, and we’re doing workshops on goal setting, resilience, giving young people tools for ambition, energy, drive, finding solutions, battling stress and anxiety with intelligence rather than just giving up. We hope to connect with these kids and inspire them. The energy you see in these kids is just magical, and it makes everything I’ve gone through worth it. If I can take what I’ve learned and help others, that’s huge for me emotionally.
Going into the rally racing world was extremely intimidating for me. But I think these Enduro Cup classes are fantastic for people hoping to get into rally racing, and after all, the only way to find out what you’re capable of is to do it.
Images: The Girl on a Bike