Known as ‘The Girl On A Bike’, Vanessa Ruck took to motorcycling following a life-changing cycling accident. She’s always out and about adventuring on bikes and is on a mission to prove that nothing is impossible if you really want it.
It’s ironic how you feel most alive when your heart skips a few beats. We’d been warned during the morning’s training on some rocky terrain with a mix of deep sand, hard cracked slabs and loose stone that it might be tricky at times. But as my eyes skip ahead reading the terrain, I knew I needed to focus. A deep breath as I calmed my mind, relaxing into the bike’s rhythm and powering on. The deep sand laces its fingers through the Ténéré’s wheels, like a million little sand hands all desperate to guide me away from my chosen path.
I roll on the throttle, throwing my 62kg weight as far back as possible to let the Ténéré’s front wheel float through the shifting sands. Our rhythms settle and it feels like we’re part gliding, part surfing. My peripheral vision captures flashes of the sea crashing down below the jagged cliff tops just metres from the track as I try to keep my focus on what lies ahead. My senses are in override – but I’m feeling smooth. And then ‘bang’ – we hit the hidden slabs of bedrock like icebergs in a sea of sand. The front wheel jumps up towards me as the suspension compresses, quickly followed by knees, and we absorb the shock like one long spring. It’s awesome riding here.
Pulling to a stop a mile later, my heart is racing, breath coming fast and deep, and a smile spread across my face as wide as the expansive views. I was just delighted to still be upright, and the adrenaline fuelled smiles of the other riders with me told the same story. A glance over my shoulder reveals that not all the others following have been quite so lucky. I spot two bikes laying down in the deepest patch of sand. Bars dug in, bikes a dead weight.
Watching the riders as they draw on their strength and training to lift them free of the sandy embrace, feet struggling for traction, I was very grateful to be watching and not down there with them.
On a trip designed to deliver awesome adventure riding and training in one package, it’s becoming clear why it’s such a winning concept. We’re in Sardinia with Dainese’s Expedition Masters team, riding a lap of the island on a fleet of Yamaha Ténérés, soaking up as much training as our tired brains can absorb, while riding through some of the most incredible mixed riding terrain on Earth.
Earlier in the day at our off-road training camp we’d been guided through the art of picking up an adventure bike. There are many ways to skin a cat and it’s the same with recovering a bike, depending on the scenario and how upside-down, backwards and embedded into the terrain you find yourself. It might sound simple but so many put their backs out and don’t correctly utilise the bike’s ergonomics. Or worse, never actually try lifting it until amidst remote chaos. If you think racers make it look tough lifting a 130kg bike out of the kitty litter, try picking up a 200kg+ adventure bike on sand when you’re tired...
Stood in a circle with the Ténéré lying ready for the next lifting victim I quietly watched, gracefully awaiting my turn – which was in fact me trying not to go next. But to my amazement, even with my reconstructed hip, using the bar-squat method it was ‘easy’. It’s one of those tasks you’re never taught when you pass your test. And you never know you need it until you find yourself out in the wildness next to a bike that’s decided it fancies a little lie down. Swear words don’t lift bikes – technique does. Today’s lesson has already helped my confidence, now to stay focused so I don’t end up putting the lift into practice for real.
Energies high, we ride on. Moments later we’re shifting weight on gracefully twisting tarmac as we continue our circumnavigation of Sardinia. As the second largest Mediterranean island it’s described as a microcontinent with its diverse landscape, making it an adventure biking mecca. A wilderness of untouched landscapes, mountains, woods, plains, stretches of largely uninhabited territory, streams, rocky coastline, and long sandy beaches, that’s Sardinia. It has an incredible road infrastructure too, and arguably some of the best road surfaces in Europe. In fact, I didn’t see a single pothole! And there’s something incredibly satisfying about being able to enjoy a full lap of this paradise in just a week.
We enjoyed thrilling tarmac roads to satisfy the feeling of racking up the miles in a beautiful landscape, before ticking off click after click of off-road pistes just begging to be explored. It’s all about where you choose to ride. Our loop gave us a delicious blend of smooth and tight corners, cliff-side viewpoints to pause at and soak in the views, and straights to open the throttle. It’s a perfect environment for focused road riding, but then you can drop the pace and intertwine the tarmac section with miles of dirt tracks, rocky paths meandering into the mountains, sweeping across valley bottoms and river crossings, painted against the backdrop of the Mediterranean.
My mind’s ability to adapt to the terrain was really tested by Sardinia’s diverse routes. One minute it’s sweeping tarmac, then dusty tracks, concrete, then sand, slippery mud and rocks. There’s a natural ebb and flow to mixing the terrain, giving your brain an intense workout when the going is slow and technical, then a relaxed rush when the road unfolds beneath your wheels.
I started out as the pre-corner panicker. Ignorant of road science or any training, I’d grab the brakes, always either too soon or too late, causing rather uncomfortable moments of total alarm. But the road training camps gave me a eureka moment, where I actually understood how to translate my inputs into the bike and reactions to the road conditions. Simply reading the corner isn’t enough. You have to be able to react and adjust at any moment. The training was invaluable, right down to really understanding when front and back brakes have different jobs to do on road – just like they do off-road.
My body needed a kick in the arse to inspire more involvement in my road riding. Corners that would have been seen through wide-eyed nervousness the day before suddenly become a delightful dance. Rolling from apex to apex on the sweeping Sardinian roads, I could feel the movement in my core as I flicked the Ténéré into every turn. Corners that previously tightened up unexpectedly evaporate with more riding purpose. From day one to six it was nothing short of a transformation in my road riding. The repetition across the week nailed it for me.
Many top track racers turn to off-road to help improve their bike skills, so I knew an expedition with a 50/50 ratio of on/off-road riding would be an ideal way to improve my riding in both areas. Each evening we covered riding theory for the day ahead, while enjoying a glass or two of local wine. The morning briefing with our expert guides recapped the previous day’s learning, plus the route we were about to ride.
Practical learning was the reward of the trip’s training camps, where there was always an expert on hand to help us perfect the skills we were learning. The rest of the time was practice wrapped in adventure – the best and most enjoyable type of learning, I feel.
Luca, our tour leader, stops the group so he can brief us on a technical hill climb ahead. It’s rocky, rutted, water swept, and something we’re not all going to manage. We’d done the theory and build up to it, but this was a big one. As he scans around the group, carefully selecting those few who have the riding skill to attempt, it’s like being back at school – the popular kid selecting their favourites for their team… would I get picked? To my delight, Luca’s gaze locks on me. “Vanessa, you’re up!” Here we go then.
As I sit at the bottom watching the guys tackle the climb one-by-one, the tension inside me builds. I can feel my heart pulsing in anticipation, but there’s something magical about having someone believe in you. Luca was sure I could do it, so that meant I did, too. Having worked with me over the last few days, helping me gain confidence and control, he believed I had this task in me. That’s one of my favourite things about riding with better riders - when they feel you’re capable, it gives you the extra confidence you need to safely push your limits.
Did I make it? Yeah, I bossed it! Controlled, smooth and smiling, I was elated at achieving something I wouldn’t have tackled a week earlier. It’s one of the key motivations for mixing a riding holiday with tuition. It’s about making the trip, the riding, and the memories as valuable as you can – enriching every mile you ride on two wheels.
A week’s adventure riding through amazing scenery, with great company, and all topped off by progressing my riding more in just a few days than I could have in years without expert guidance – it was perfection. After seven days and 1300km navigating island roads, mule tracks and the most spectacular routes that Sardinia has to offer I feel so much more confident and comfortable on an adventure bike in all environments. Learning to become a better rider while soaking up a stunning biking holiday feels like the perfect way not to escape the real world – but to get out there and find it.
Expedition Masters places riders into immersive environments, living for the daily adventure. Terrain, environments and weather places high demands on the kit and Dainese stand proud knowing their gear is perfectly designed for the task at hand. Whether it’s open vents for the sunshine, layering up for cold weather front or staying dry in those all too common rain storms, the Dainese gear designed from the technical base layers to the external protection is ready. As a female rider it was incredible exciting to finally find some well fitted, protective and 100% female focus designed adv clothing too.