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ADV NewsVanessa Ruck Becomes First Female Rider To Finish Tunisian Rally

Vanessa Ruck Becomes First Female Rider To Finish Tunisian Rally

A trial by fire in Tunisia's extreme rally raid.

Published on 05.24.2022

The Tunisia Desert Challenge is one of the toughest rally races in the world, covering eight days of racing with an average 325 km distance daily and taking competitors across some of the most demanding terrain in Africa. This year, the extreme race conditions claimed the life of French competitor Matthieu de Saint-Exupery: during Stage Three Saint-Exupery tragically passed away as a result of heat and fatigue, despite the organizers’ best efforts to rescue him.

Known as an ‘extreme’ Rally Raid event, the Tunisia Desert Challenge 2022 was won by veteran Dakar racer and two-time Africa Eco Race champion Alessandro Botturi, who admitted this was one of the hardest rallies he has ever been in. However, there was another memorable victory at the race this year: that of Vanessa Ruck, the first female rider to ever enter and finish the TDC. The Brit came in 35th overall out of 55 riders who started in the race – just five places below the Extreme Enduro star Pol Tarres.

First female rider to finish Tunisia Desert Challenge

Vanessa Ruck is better known to her fans as The Girl On a Bike, and her obsession with motorcycles began after her recovery from a horrific car accident eight years ago. Having survived multiple surgeries and hip and shoulder reconstructions, Vanessa took up motorcycling and soon found her passion was riding dirt. Along with her husband Alex, Vanessa has progressed from adventure riding and traveling to taking on some of the world’s most extreme races such as Romaniacs, Rallye du Maroc and, most recently, the Tunisia Desert Challenge.


First female rider to finish Tunisia Desert Challenge
First female rider to finish Tunisia Desert Challenge

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Riding a Beta 480 RR called “Sandy” with the Desert Rose Racing support team on her side, Vanessa was determined to complete the race. Out of 55 motorcycle racers starting on Day One, only 40 reached the finish line, and her 35th place overall didn’t go unnoticed by the race organizers. “Normally, for a category to exist, there need to be at least three competitors, however I am making an exception for this young lady as the first female to ever enter,” Gert Duson, the race director, announced at the prize-giving ceremony.

First female rider to finish Tunisia Desert Challenge
First female rider to finish Tunisia Desert Challenge

Although Vanessa was racing in the same main category as the other riders, she was awarded the winning trophy of the Female Riders category as she was the only woman to show up – and finish the extreme race.

Rescue in the Dunes

According to Vanessa, the Tunisia Desert Challenge more than lived up to its fame for brutal conditions. She had to endure 85km/h sandstorms, mechanical issues with the bike, searing heat, and a helicopter rescue – but she wasn’t the only one.

First female rider to finish Tunisia Desert Challenge

Stage Three in the El Borma dunes proved to be impossible for many riders. Due to extremely difficult terrain and sandstorms, sixteen riders (including Pol Tarres the following day) got hopelessly stuck in the dunes and had to be rescued. Vanessa was among them: having faced an electrical fault, she had just six kilometers left to the end of the dune section – and the one furthest from all the other riders stuck in the sand.

“In those conditions, however, a mere 500 meters is a grueling slog. I had no other choice – I made a campfire and waited for help to arrive. After a rescue in the dark of the night, I made it back to the bivouac at 3:30am, grabbing less than three hours of sleep while my Desert Rose Racing mechanic team frantically got Sandy back to life,” Vanessa recalls.

First female rider to finish Tunisia Desert Challenge

Because of the rescue, Vanessa, like fifteen other riders, got a hefty time penalty, but was allowed to start the next day. During Stage Four, however, the bad luck continued as Vanessa’s bike malfunctioned in the morning and she found herself stranded – again. Alone in the desert, miles from anywhere, deep in the dunes with the temperatures peaking at 45°C (113°F), Vanessa survived by taking water from other vehicles and using her bike as meager protection from the deadly desert sun.

First female rider to finish Tunisia Desert Challenge

“At these temperatures the body starts to shut down and even with water, severe dehydration and heat exhaustion is just a matter of time. 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. 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 he didn’t activate emergency support from the organizers… I’m glad I found the strength to hit the SOS button,” Vanessa shares.

First female rider to finish Tunisia Desert Challenge
First female rider to finish Tunisia Desert Challenge

Despite barely surviving Day Four, Vanessa carried on racing and finished the Tunisia Desert Challenge in a respectable overall position – a solid personal win for her and an inspiration for more female competitors to follow.

Photos by Alessio Corradini, Jan Van Gelder and Vanessa Ruck.

Author: Egle Gerulaityte

Riding around the world extra slowly and not taking it too seriously, Egle is always on the lookout for interesting stories. Editor of the Women ADV Riders magazine, she focuses on ordinary people doing extraordinary things and hopes to bring travel inspiration to all two-wheeled maniacs out there.

Author: Egle Gerulaityte
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