Wesley Botton

By Wesley Botton

Chief sports journalist

Women in Sport: SA’s Dakar trailblazer on two wheels

Kirsten Landman overcame severe injuries and a coma to become the first African woman to finish the gruelling rally on a motorbike.

Six years ago, after enduro racer Kirsten Landman’s progress in both her life and career came to a crashing halt, she didn’t think she would compete again.

Now, after facing her fears and embracing new challenges, she has stamped her place in history by becoming the first African woman to finish the Dakar Rally on a motorbike.

“Words can’t explain how I feel,” a delighted Landman said after the gruelling two-week race in Saudi Arabia last month.

“I am speechless, but I know one thing. I am a Dakar 2020 finisher.

“Thank you to everyone who made it possible and for all the support before and during this whole journey.”

Born outside Durban, Landman was seemingly destined to be an extreme athlete, and her hobbies include mountain biking, surfing and hiking.

Pretty much anything that can be done outdoors.

As a reward for competing well in a swimming race at the age of eight, Landman’s father bought her an off-road bike.

The bug bit in a big way and the rest is history.

By the age of 22 she had launched her career as a professional hard enduro racer, and soon Landman was breaking barriers by keeping pace with the elite men at some of the world’s most challenging endurance races.

In 2013, however, her rapid rise in the sport came to a sudden end after she crashed during the Botswana Desert 1000 race, picking up serious internal injuries (including a ruptured spleen) which could have ended her life.

Though she was able to recover, Landman spent 11 days in a coma due to allegedly poor medical treatment and she had to learn to walk again.

At the time, had she been offered a bag full of money to compete in the Dakar, Landman said she wouldn’t have taken it.

Clawing her way back to health, however, Landman leaned on those around her for support and managed to pull herself back onto her feet.

“I was just too scared,” she admits of her initial fears.

Once she gathered the courage, however, she eventually got back on the bike, and in 2018 she announced her return to racing with an act of defiance by turning out at the Botswana Desert 1000.

Already, however, a seed had been planted, and Landman’s greatest triumph would come two years later at the most prestigious ultra-distance rally in the world.

Though she essentially had to learn to ride again, Landman’s career trajectory was back on the rise, and she opted for the ultimate challenge by entering the 2020 Dakar Rally.

This included becoming accustomed to a 180kg bike, which was no easy task, with her standard enduro bike weighing in at 120kg.

“My main worry was crashing, of course, and the high speed stuff,” she says.

Lining up for the BAS Dakar KTM Racing Team at last month’s race, with the backing of Ryobi Africa, Landman became locked in a battle with compatriot Taye Perry to become the first African woman to finish the Dakar on a bike.

While Perry was ahead for most of the event, however, she crashed on the penultimate day and had to be towed to the end of the stage before being forced to push her bike over the line as Landman moved clear.

After more than 7 800km of racing, Landman went on to cross the finish line 16 hours off the pace of American winner Ricky Brabec in the final standings.

Landman, however, did well to finish 55th of the 144 two-wheel competitors who started the gruelling race.

She was the first SA rider to finish, completing the annual contest nearly six hours clear of Perry.

Looking back on how far she has come, Landman is grateful for her survival in life and her success on the bike, and the 28-year-old tomboy is just pleased to be doing what she enjoys most.

“One small mistake changes everything,” she says, reflecting on the path she has travelled.

“You have to hope for the stars to align.”

For more sport your way, download The Citizen’s app for iOS and Android.

Read more on these topics

Dakar Rally Editor’s Choice women in sport