The Road Ahead With Vanessa Ruck
Pushing the sport to the extreme, Vanessa Ruck’s love of motorbikes and tough races is taking her all over the world. We chat to her about Harleys, happiness and where she’s off to next
By Rachel Ifans
Vanessa Ruck is @TheGirlOnABike, a rider who’s not only pushing sporting boundaries and winning awards* from the motorbiking community, she’s also inspiring a community of fans with her popular YouTube channel and social media accounts. And recently she added to her accolades, as the first – and only – woman to enter and finish the Tunisia Desert Challenge, an extreme rally raid over sand dunes and in blistering temperatures. The eight-day gruelling endurance venture was the toughest you could imagine.
Have a flick through Vanessa’s videos and you’ll get a feel for this wonder woman. See her riding a monster of a Harley Davidson Pan America in a recent Welsh Winter Warmer race for big bikes; despite being one of only two female competitors (out of 22), hers was one of the biggest bikes in the field and, during the gruelling two-hour battle, she negotiated extremely hard terrain in first gear, deep puddles, thick mud, climbs and slippery off-camber turns. And Vanessa has added some dramatic footage of that Tunisian adventure too, facing brutal conditions in the desert, coping with sandstorms, burning heat and getting stranded.
Scroll further and you’ll see her prepping her darling Buddy – a Husqvarna TE 250i – for a race, giving her the full works including oil change and filter, switching the tyres for a clean edge, and firing up Thug, her beloved Harley Davidson DYNA Street Bob.
Vanessa owns five bikes (Buddy, Thug, Bear, Big Red and Woody), has travelled to 21 countries on rides and has entered – to date – ten big races, including the British Extreme Championship, the British Hard Enduro Championship, Rallye du Maroc and Red Bull Romaniacs. She’s definitely making her mark in the biking community as one of the precious few women who ride – and you get the feeling she’s only just begun.
If you could rewind seven years to 2014, you’d see that Vanessa has always been an adrenaline seeker, addicted to extreme sports and endorphins. Whether it was snowboarding, snow-kiting, kite surfing, wakeboarding, cycling, climbing, she was doing it, until, that is, March of that year, when everything changed. Vanessa was cycling to meet her husband after work and a car coming towards her in the other lane cut across her path, leaving her nowhere to go. She crashed into the side of the car, smashing her right side and kickstarting a series of surgeries on her hip and shoulder.
The extent of Vanessa’s injuries and recovery is shocking and she’s been on a mental and physical rollercoaster of surgeries and recovery for years. She explains: “At the time, I wasn’t a bleeding mess on the side of the road. I wasn’t scraped up by paramedics or anything like that. I went to hospital in an ambulance and I was discharged later that evening with bruising.
“However, I’ve now had seven surgeries on my hip and my shoulder. I didn’t have all of them in one go; it was more a case of one every year for seven years – when a previous op didn’t work, complications happened or things were missed. I’ve effectively got a reconstructed right shoulder and right hip involving bone work, ligaments, soft tissue, tendons and cartilage.” As well as hours and hours of rehab, loads of time on crutches and many days in bed, Vanessa’s mental health took a huge hit. “I’ve had some of the darkest days you can imagine; in fact, I’d say that the mental recovery has probably been harder than the physical and I’m quite open about that.” “Mindfulness is now a big part of my life. When my hip is hurting particularly badly, most of the time I can cope with it but there are moments when I get angry and can quickly spiral down into a toxic, negative mental state. Through mindfulness, I’ve learned to be conscious of my thought processes and recognise early triggers.”
After her accident, many of the sports Vanessa had loved before were no longer possible, but remember the old saying about one door opening and another shutting? Not able to cycle to work anymore, Vanessa invested in a motorbike for her commute. She says: “I can’t describe quite how scary it was putting myself back into a situation where I’d almost died. Even now, I still get flashbacks when a car comes from a certain angle but I’ve got a lot better.”
Enter the next bike to steal a piece of Vanessa’s heart: a Harley Davidson which, in the world of motorbikes, is a world away from aggro dirt bikes. Though when you’re in love, you’re in love, and Vanessa recalls how borrowing a pair of these iconic cruisers was the best thing she could have done at the time: “My husband was away with the Royal Air Force for one of our wedding anniversaries so when he got back, I organised a pair of Harleys for an afternoon as a present.
“We loved it so much we went through a bit of an early mid-life crisis and ordered two of our own as a result and it turns out they were the best purchase we made for my mental health recovery. My Harley DYNA Street Bob – yes, the beloved Thug – is like a sofa and to this day, riding it hurts me less than driving a car. Once you sit on it, your hip is in a pretty open position because it’s a cruiser and you don’t have to move your leg around.”
Ultimately, the Harley made Vanessa realise she could have some adventure, some adrenaline, some wind in her hair, without needing to do much physically. It was a real turning point and soon afterwards, while recovering from a surgery, Vanessa had another bike-shaped brainwave – this time she wanted an off-roader. Dirt bikes are specced to handle intense off-road landscapes; they have kicked suspension so they can handle rough terrain with big knobbly tyres for grip, they tend to be light and agile but they’re also rugged in order to handle the inevitable falls and drops.
“I did some research and got a little Yamaha WF 250 F which seemed like an ideal first dirt bike. Five months after buying it, though, I still hadn’t recovered enough to sit on it,” she explains. “But it was there as a reminder every single day of what I was working towards. Those days when I hurt too much, and I couldn’t find the energy to get out of bed, it sat there as a goal.” Vanessa’s dirt bike purchase was six years ago and she’s now making a name for herself on trails, in rallies and races in the UK and abroad. “With an off-road bike,” she says, “there’s a lot of risk, and my body is more vulnerable than it used to be. I make sure I wear the right protection and I work hard on my skill, because the more skill you have, the less likely you are to have big offs and falls.”
She’s focused on the basics and trying to get as good as she can, using YouTube as her teacher and taking part in a few training days too. It’s the biking community and her new friends that have taught her the most though, she says. “My husband and I are quite social and happy. We go places and meet new people, end up riding with them, and a lot of the time they are much better than us so we learn from them. They give us tips, they’re able to look at me and tell me what level I’m ready for and I trust that they’re not going to put me into some suicide attempt race which I won’t be able to handle!
The biking community she’s talking about is, more specifically, Hard Enduro. The challenge comes from the extreme terrain; as Vanessa explains, you’re not necessarily covering much ground and it’s not fast, but it’s really difficult. The first one she did was Valleys Extreme, which was the January before lockdown. She recalls the highs and lows of that first go. “I didn’t even really know what Valleys Extreme was, but it sounded ridiculous. I mean, it had Extreme in the name, so I assumed I’d probably die! A friend said I was capable of doing it so I booked in at the last minute for the practice on Saturday; you can just do part of the track if you’re not ready to do the whole thing.
“So, there we were – my husband and I – changing tyres in the dark in the car park trying to get ready for the race. I remember at Valleys Extreme, standing on the start line and about 20 metres in front of us was a huge plastic drainage pipe. A shiny, slippery, man-made pipe that was about thigh height off the ground. I thought I was going to die but I didn’t – I managed to go straight over it. “We set ourselves a goal of managing one lap but we did two in the end which means we finished in the silver category. I just felt so alive.” Vanessa went on to enter the British Extreme Series and a good chunk of the British Hard Enduro Championship where her goal was always to try not to come last. And she didn’t – in any of them. And then there was that Tunisian Desert Challenge, which was particularly harsh and demanding: one previous Dakar finisher described it as ‘the hardest day riding of their life’. It was equally hard for Vanessa too. After one particularly bad day with several bike malfunctions, Vanessa carried on the following day after having only two and half hours of sleep. And she rapidly encountered yet another bike problem, finding herself stranded in the dunes where temperatures can reach up to 45 degrees.
“I had water as, thankfully, passing cars, trucks and buggies gave me some, but by 5pm I was bad. I called for an emergency evacuation and when they saw me, they were clearly scared,” Vanessa recalls. “I was terrified. I had been trying not to breathe in the hot sand but it felt like my head was going to explode. I was delirious and was put on a drip. One competitor sadly died due to the heat as they didn’t activate emergency support from the organisers, I’m glad I found the strength to hit the button.”
Vanessa has lots of plans for the future: “I’m on a mission to achieve some big races and put myself into horrifically uncomfortable and unpleasant situations,” she says, “but I also have to manage my expectations and keep in mind what my body can cope with.” For her, it’s not about trying to be the best. She explains: “It’s about trying to prove to myself that I still can, and trying to give other people a bit of energy too. It’s about saying yes, bad things happen, and we all have horrible battles and challenges, and that’s okay, it’s normal. With the right attitude, and some determination, you can come through, and come out stronger.”
Talking of strength and determination, Vanessa has picked one of the most male-dominated sports there is, involving some of the heaviest, most powerful machines. “Yes, it’s hugely male dominated,” Vanessa laughs, “In fact, I’m usually one of only three women in an event. At Red Bull Romaniacs, I think there were five women out of about 600 riders. On reflection, she says she understands why. “It’s brutal. The bike is heavy and your body to weight ratio is much smaller. Also, it can feel quite intimidating, because there just aren’t many women.” But with the challenge comes the reward and The Girl On A Bike is happy to admit the taste of victory is slightly sweeter if you’re smashing it as a woman in a traditionally male sport. “I definitely get a buzz from competing with and beating men. They look at you and judge you, thinking you’re not going to be capable, so when you can actually get on a bike and ride pretty well, it’s really satisfying,” she smiles.