Wired for Adventure: The Girl on a Bike
Wired for Adventure: When a bicycle accident threatened to derail the adventurous life she loved, Vanessa Ruck – aka The Girl on a Bike – refused to take it lying down. Instead, she handled things the only way she knows how. Dusting herself off, she put herself back together. And then she upped the ante.
Vanessa Ruck is a force of nature. Even via Zoom, her energy and intensity are palpable. As the image of her striking eyes and wild, blonde hair fills the computer screen, lioness-like, I check myself. Have I brough my A-game? Because anything less just won’t do. That’s how Vanessa lives her life: all in, or nothing at all.
“Skydiving didn’t scare me as much as I hoped it would,” she reveals, matter-of-factly. “I didn’t find it that exciting – but snowboarding, rock climbing, wakeboarding!?,” her face lights up. If ever anyone was Wired For Adventure, it’s Vanessa.
Raised on a healthy diet of outdoor activities and British weather, Vanessa spent much of her childhood roaming free and exploring near her family home in XXX. “I was fortunate that we grew up around horses and ponies, so that gave me a lot of focus and responsibility. If it was wet and cold, you put the right clothes on and you played outside. I’d be in trouble if I ever said I was bored, because boredom is a lack of imagination,” she laughs. “Our holidays were always to Wales. Boogie boarding, rock-pooling, playing in the sea, kayaking, riding bikes. I was incredibly lucky to have such an active, outdoorsy upbringing.”
As she grew, so did her love of adventure. University provided the perfect opportunity to push her limits and Vanessa found a whole new level to exploring the outdoors. “There was this shining, magical new world of possibilities, she beams. “I realised there was even more adventure out there than I ever knew before. It was like taking my love of sports and discovering there’s even more extreme versions of this fun.” Alongside growing her passion for extreme sports like wakeboarding and snowboarding, Vanessa got to experience a real-life adventure paradise, working for a marine biology research centre and sustainability school in the Bahamas. “Suddenly I was on this a remote island being asked if I wanted to go scuba diving, spearfishing, do shark research, or take a bunch of kids on a seven-day kayaking trip,” she recalls, excitedly. “Really, really amazing, adventurous stuff.” She also bought her first motorbike to help her get around the island.
Twists of fate
When Vanessa returned to the UK and met her perfect partner, Alex, their shared passion for the outdoors blossomed into something beautiful. “Meeting somebody very similar to me – adventurous, motivated, driven, outdoorsy, competitive, the two of us came together and even more possibilities came out of that,” she grins.
After their first date rock climbing in Portland, Vanessa and her now-husband Alex embarked on an insatiable, adrenaline-fueled quest for fun, mastering new skills like kitesurfing and exploring far-off places together. “We’d both cycle to work every day on our bikes, go to the gym at lunchtime, meet after work at the wakeboarding lake, and chase the wind all weekend kitesurfing,” she says, wistfully. “Our holidays revolved around those kinds of sports, too – snowkiting on frozen lakes in Michigan, rock climbing in Spain, snowboarding in Wyoming, Andorra, and France, kitesurfing in Egypt, Morocco, Western Sahara, Brazil …” Life couldn’t have been better for this young adventure-lover.
It was an evening commute just like any other in March 2014 when all this came to a crashing halt. An oncoming car ran a red light at a junction, ploughing across Vanessa’s path and cutting her up. There was nothing Vanessa could do to avoid the collision. As her bike smashed into the car’s rear passenger panel, her shoulder took the full force of the impact. Then her body hit the tarmac hard with the bike still attached to her cycling cleats.
“Time was different. I could feel my heartbeat. My pulse was thumping through my veins, and my surroundings were almost a blur,” she recalls. “Then reality kicked in with a bang. I could hear traffic, car doors, and people crowding around me, voices asking if I was okay. I didn’t even know if I was okay at that point.”
Vanessa was taken to hospital where her injuries were assessed, and she was discharged later that evening with inflammation, bruising, and strict instructions to rest. It would be months of pain before the full extent of her injuries were understood, and seven separate surgeries over several years to get her body anywhere near back to working order. Even now, eight years on, Vanessa still deals with daily pain and restricted movement from the reconstructive surgery on her hip and shoulder. It would have been easy to swap a life of adventure for one of self-pity and Netflix, but that’s not how Vanessa rolls. “When I was about six or seven, my mom was incredibly ill for about seven years,” she reveals. “She was in and out of hospital and spent a lot of time in bed. She ended up having two major surgeries where she actually said goodbye to me and my brother, because there was a 50/50 chance she wouldn’t make it. Seeing my mum, she never gave up. I took a lot of energy from that and the fact that you just have to keep going. The accident changed my life. It took a lot away from me that I didn’t have control over. But so much of life we do have control over. It’s about having that overcome mindset to look at the situation and go ‘right, what can I do to improve this?’”
Back in the saddle
Vanessa worked hard at her recovery, going to physio religiously, eating well, taking supplements, and resting when she needed. But although all these things were beneficial for her body, the adrenaline junky in her still craved its next fix.
“The motorbiking idea came about because it was something both Alex and I could still do together,” she explains. “It became a new way to experience adventure and freedom, the adrenaline, the wind in my hair, without needing to actually do anything except sit on what was essentially a sofa on wheels.”
The accident had taken its toll on Vanessa mentally as well as physically, leaving her with a fear of the road and something called ‘change disorder’ – a condition where you no longer recognise yourself as ‘you’. It took several weeks and a lot of crying into her helmet before she could get up the courage to leave the driveway, but her first motorcycle adventure was well worth it.
“The first time we went camping on the bikes was really the catalyst for everything,” she smiles. “We rode six miles from the house because that’s all my body could manage. It was a beautiful Friday evening in the Chilterns, the sun was shining, we lit a fire and had some steak and wine. And I just remember thinking how alive I felt. Pre-accident, that would have been the lamest Friday night ever, but for where I was in my journey, it was huge. I wasn’t stuck looking at the paint on my bedroom ceiling. I was out there!”
Over the next few years, Vanessa did over 20,000 miles on her Harley around Europe with Alex, travelling through 15 different countries. As her body grew stronger and her confidence soared, the familiar urge for something more challenging began to surface and Vanessa turned her attention to a different kind of riding. One that was sure to get the heart racing and adrenaline pumping. “I was bed bound after my fifth surgery, and I came up with this idea that I wanted to ride off-road,” she explains. “My husband is crazy supportive, so we went out and got me this little WR 250. It was five months before I could even sit on it, but it stayed in the corner as a goal for those days when I really hurt, couldn’t find the energy to get out of bed, or just couldn’t be bothered with my physio. The bike was a reminder of what I was working towards and what I wanted to do.”
Vanessa’s self-confessed motto is ‘go big or go home’. If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing to the extreme. It’s no surprise, then, that she fell in love with off-road riding. Gradually, she progressed from local green lanes to international rally competitions that call for some of the toughest, most skilful endurance riding in the world.
“I wanted more of the adrenaline, the sweat, the pain and that’s when the idea of going off-road kind of escalated,” she confesses. “My body hurts. That’s just something I live with. When I’m on a motorbike in those kinds of extreme conditions, I simply don’t have the capacity to be focusing on my pain, so I find it extra exhilarating. It’s freeing.”
Some of the biggest races she’s entered include Red Bull Romaniacs, a hardcore enduro rally through the Carpathian Mountains, which involves riding over logs, rocks, massive hill climbs, and being fit enough to pick your bike up over and over again. She’s also ridden the Rally du Maroc, a five-day desert rally in Morocco, and the Tunisia Desert Challenge, an eight-day moving bivouac extreme Rally Raid similar to the infamous Dakar. Vanessa was the first female ever to enter the race and came 35th out of 55 riders.
“It was brutal,” she admits. “One day there was 75km of dunes. You could look in every direction and there was nothing as far as the eye can see. All you have is a compass bearing to follow. It’s pretty intense stuff.”
Besides the risk of getting lost or injured out in there in the desert, there’s one danger even the most capable riders and navigators must face: breakdowns. “It was about 5:30 In the afternoon. I’d been riding for 11 and a half hours, and I had about 45 minutes of sunlight left when my bike failed,” Vanessa recalls. “I ended up having a night in the dunes with a campfire. I’ll be honest, it was it was quite scary. But I’m really proud of myself because I used all the tools had with me – thankfully, they force you to carry a survival kit – and made myself as comfortable as possible and then I just sat there, doing a lot of mindfulness to rationalise the situation and stay calm.” After being rescued by race organisers, Vanessa wasted no time getting stuck back into the rally. But her second bike malfunction the following day almost cost her her life. After several hours of being stuck in 45-degree desert heat with no source of shade and limited supplies, signs of severe dehydration started to set in.
“My head started to really hurt. It was like I had my motorcycle helmet on and someone was hitting me with a stick,” she winces. “The wind picked up and I was struggling to breathe. I managed to get my scarf around my head, and I was lying in the foetal position next to my bike to make a pocket of air. I went through the situation in my head, and it was then that I realised, ‘I’m not okay.” Fighting through panic and disorientation, Vanessa pressed the emergency call button on the bike to summon help. She’d been stranded in the desert for seven hours by this point and things were getting serious. A fellow competitor had died two days before in similar conditions.
After being rescued by helicopter, Vanessa was taken to the bivouac and put on painkillers and a drip. “They were pretty scared when they found me. I remember lying there in the medical tent. I had three or four doctors running around me, and they were not calm,” she admits. “I woke up in the middle of the night having horrific night terrors about being stuck in a desert and I thought, ‘that’s it. I’m done.’ I could not handle being stuck in the desert again and I’d obviously taken off way more than I could chew.” Things always look better in the morning, however, and true to form, Vanessa got back on her bike the next day and went on to finish the race.
“I’m really proud of myself,” she beams. “I didn’t have to be there. I didn’t have to take on that challenge. I wanted to grow and become better as a person by signing up to do the race. It might have been the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I might have cried more in a week than I probably cried in my life, but I still chose to be there. And I didn’t want to quit. It was an amazing feeling going over that finish line.
And Vanessa isn’t giving up any time soon. “I refuse to let what happened in my past completely control my future, she asserts. “Yes, I could have less pain if I didn’t push my body as much. But my mental pain would be worse. Getting up and getting out there and managing the pain, I can take control of my mental state and get the satisfaction and the energy from it to manage the rest.”