Vanessa Ruck is a motorcycle lover who travels around the world pursuing her passion. After being involved in a serious accident Vanessa is determined not to let her past control her future and recently became the first female to finish the 1000 DUNES RAID riding on a standard adventure production bike. We caught up with The Girl On A Bike to talk about her accomplishments, experiences, fondest memories, and how she’s got her sights set on the biggest and most terrifying ride yet – the Morocco Desert Challenge…
Vanessa Ruck | The Girl On A Bike | Interview by Ben Farrin
Hey Vanessa, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us again, it’s always a pleasure to speak with you. Let’s get straight into things! You’ve been very busy having just broken records as the first female to finish the 1000 DUNES RAID riding on a standard adventure production bike. Firstly, congratulations! You must feel super proud?
The feeling of finishing 1000 Dunas is absolutely incredible. Male or female, getting across that finish line is an achievement. I chose to make a tough rally even more brutal by riding a huge Triumph Tiger Rally Pro adventure bike and it really was a test of mental and physical strength to just keep fighting on, even when ankle deep in sand. Doing it as a female just makes me feel really proud for other women out there and hopefully show some inspiration and encourage others to give it a go. Sure, I have to fight a little harder, I’m smaller and not as strong as a guy, but women absolutely can do it, and it’s a very powerful feeling. I’m utterly exhausted right now but buzzing at the same time.
The 1,800km cross-country adventure took seven days to complete, and a total of 70 hours riding across unpredictable terrain such as loose rocks, ruts, riverbeds, and sand dunes. How did you prepare yourself for such a huge challenge?
A huge part of the preparation for desert rallies is the fitness and nutritional planning. Unfortunately, nothing really gets you bike fit other than time in the saddle but there is still lots to support. Stamina, endurance and strength for bike recovery can all be supported off the bike. My daily routine involves as much bike and phys as possible, but it’s not always conventional. With my reconstructed hip I’m a little limited on what sports I can do for fitness due to the pain but with my eMTB I am able to get out and get the heart racing working on my endurance. I’m then super active at home, chopping logs, working to maintain our little plot of land, DIY and even tyre flipping in the garden. Fitness to ride such long days is vital.
It’s then critical to eat well. Energy and recovery comes from what we put into our bodies, so I’m super careful to eat clean, no sugar and a high veg / protein balance. I take active collagen supplements and daily protein shakes on top of a well balanced health diet. But in race week it’s about as much calories as you can take. Riding in such intense heat means the body is burning a lot of fuel. Pre planning what my body gets on with in this environment is key. I’m a big Grenade bar, SIS gel fan and some mixed nuts/raisins for a crunch. Great taste and a huge energy kicks. Most meals on a rally I am eating until I feel sick. It’s not the most pleasant feeling but it’s the only way to ensure the body is getting enough fuel to fight on.
Was there any specific scenarios or situations which took you totally by surprise?
I would have perhaps hesitated a little more before saying “yes” to entering the 1000 Dunas on an adventure bike if I’d known just how brutal it was going to be…Then again, I’m not one to shy away from a challenge, so I was determined to give it my all to get over that finish line. However, while I think going into the desert with rocky riverbeds, boulder fields, dunes, hill climbs, and sand on a Tiger 900 is brave, doing it alone would have been stupid, which is why I chose to ride with Aled.
Day three we really had to dig deep! We had a section of small, uneven dunes covered in camel grass where Aled and I were in full survival mode. We got more and more tired, so it was teamwork to recover the bikes until the unthinkable happened, Aled’s clutch burned out. The bike was dead. I was left with no choice but to continue through the dunes and remaining 180km day alone. As I pulled away, leaving him to be rescued, I knew I was riding for my life. Just one mistake, one drop in the deep sand could be game over. My heart was racing and it took every bit of determination, strength and fight to make it through. Being alone in a desert on a bike like that… that was brutal, and the heat, and fatigue and fear builds very quickly
What was the most challenging part of the ride for you?
1000 Dunas organisers is all about being the ultimate test of how far you can go, and not all riders are expected to finish every single day. This makes the riding a constant battle of just fighting on. You want to stop and have a break, but you know the clock is ticking…but not the organisers clock, instead it’s a race against the sun. How far can you get before the day closes…with the paper-based roadbook navigation being super tricky, covering hard terrain and long distances, and so when night falls it becomes near impossible to continue to navigate. Darkness in the desert is a world you want to avoid! You have to get as far as possible or to a safe pull-out point before the Moroccan darkness takes over. It’s almost a feeling of being hunted, of survival.
Do you ever find yourself in a situation where you’re alone on your bike, miles from civilisation, without a mobile phone signal! What is your back-up plan in this situation should you have a mechanical breakdown?
Yes a LOT. There is something terrifying yet equally soul igniting about this feeling. You’re so vulnerable, totally alone, fully at the mercy of the desert but yet you’re totally in control. This is what you’ve trained for! Equipped with basic tools, food and survival kit you know you have some things you can handle. When things go wrong, your survival training and instincts kick in. I remember back in Tunisia in April I had a bike breakdown and it resulted in me having a pretty terrifying night in the dunes solo. I lit a fire, made a camp and lay watching the stars. While it sounds romantic, it’s definitely recalibrated my perspective on what is scary in life. The key to remember is that part of the huge entry fees for these events is to cover the tracking equipment and organisations rescue vehicles, so eventually you will get help. But the test, is to try and not need them! Riding smart, working to preserve and protect your bike, ensuring you’re doing your daily servicing each night, it’s all powerful steps to help reduce the risk of a breakdown. I can tell you, when the bike goes wrong, it’s a devastating feeling, you feel lost, alone and helpless.
Of all your time spent riding many different terrains and countries, looking back, what is a stand-out moment for you? What is the most picturesque place you’ve seen or stopped at?
Iceland 100% is my fondest memory. That trip was mind blowing.
Over 2.5 million tourists visit Iceland each year to see the big sights. Hot spas, waterfalls, glaciers, geysers, tectonic plates and lava fields. They pack into coaches or hire cars. But riding there on off-road bikes changes your perspective. On bikes you can discover the must-see spots from the less trodden tracks, skipping the crowds, and seeing things most tourists might only glimpse from the plane window. We rode up close to Hekla, slept below the Myrdalsjokull Glacier, recharged in an abandoned spa, explored huge craters without a soul in sight, picked across lava fields, crossed valley basins and crested mountains, riding volcanic ash berms. It was riding heaven combined with cultural and geological discovery: A trip only motorcycles can make possible. Yes it was brutal cold, wet from above and below, but that was also, all part of the fun!
You’re extremely brave and are a very positive person. Would you say that you value life more now, since your accident, and have you managed to overcome the mental difficulties this will have inflicted on you as a person?
I don’t think anyone ever truly overcomes such trauma. I always hate the word recovery as I would not actually want to return to the Vanessa I was pre accident. When people say ‘recovery’, you typically think of returning to how you were before the accident. But there is no going back. You do not merely recover, you reinvent yourself. You learn so much as you fight through; it’s an irreversible journey. While my journey over the past 8 years has been brutal, I feel somehow lucky. I have friends now I would never have met, I have discovered motorcycles, I have realised the importance of a work-life balance, I’ve become even closer to my husband and soulmate, and I have a fire in my soul only this type of recovery could light.
I realised that many see me as positive and brave, but to me, I’m just fighting on. Doing my best to play the cards life has handed me. I believe the gratitude for what I have is the foundation. Having known being bed bound, being in such horrendous pain, not knowing if I’d get active again… when I wake up each day I am so grateful for every moment. I’m determined not to let my past control my future, so despite ongoing pain from the accident, I will get up and do my best to make the most of it. Kick out excuses, set goals and go make them happen.
What would you say to anyone in the world that might have suffered a serious injury that has not yet been able to channel their mind back into a positive place?
It could always be worse, that’s a big fuel for gratitude. But really it’s about shifting your perspective and accepting the situation. I spent a long time in denial, angry, upset and feeling sorry for myself. But that did nothing to help me. If anything it made my situation worse by adding traumatic emotions and upset to an already rubbish existence. The moment I started to accept, to move on and not just dwell, that is when life started to flourish again. There was no amount of upset that could change my situation, so instead I needed to focus that energy on what I COULD do. What was in my control? How could I help myself? Simply but not always so obvious things like 100% commitment to doing physio, to eating well, to becoming more aware of how my pain impacts my mood and attitude to my loved ones. Acceptance empowered me to take control and focus on actually trying to improve my situation, instead of living as a victim. It’s incredible how small steps like listening to your favourite music or eating a nice sweet mango can lift your mood, and then, small steps EVERY day… don’t be a victim… even if you are one – it’s pointless and in the end, will only limit your life!
You’re a true inspiration and a hero. Not only are you empowering women, but you inspire people around the world. Who do you look up to for inspiration?
The reality is I don’t really look to anyone, I just try to focus on what makes me happy. I find trying to compare my life to others doesn’t help my mental state. There are many pro riders who inspire me with their bike skills, showing what is possible if you put the work in, but there isn’t really anyone out there that is ‘who I want to be’, I just want to be me, even with my slightly reconstructed body. I am so grateful for everything in my world, my husband, family, bikes and experiences. If I can help just one person each time I share my story, that is the most energising inspiration I can get.
Life must be a real adventure for you – if you could go back to any place, any time, where would you go and why?
You probably won’t like my answer but I wouldn’t go anywhere. I’d stay where I am in life right now and make some plans for the future for an adventure. Wishing on the past doesn’t bring me energy for today. I think my answer comes from so many moments wishing I could go back in time and change the scene of the accident. Going back over and over those moments about how I could have changed it. That’s not healthy so I don’t look back, good or bad. I use my past to learn and grow but not wish. Instead I’d plot a plan to ‘readventure’ something… I can tell you a current goal is to get back out on a snowboard with my husband again soon, I miss that from pre accident and I finally feel I am mentally strong enough to handle how my new body and pain copes. Watch this space!
What plans do you have for 2023?
The biggest and most terrifying is the Morocco Desert Challenge… I’ve got a lot of work to do to get to the start line including funding a new rally bike. But I’m also going to be spending time at home working on our project house, having as many moments with my family as possible and going on as many road trip adventures as I can squeeze in. I’m sure 2023 will find many ways to put me outside my comfort zone!
Vanessa Ruck | The Girl On A Bike | Interview by Ben Farrin
You can check out our older interview with Vanessa Ruck, The Girl On A Bike here.