Ladies first…

Dakar 2024 | Stage 11 | ALULA > YANBU
January 17 th 2024 - 23:39 [GMT + 3]

In the Netherlands, they have round cheese, tulips and soon the first 100% female team to have finished the Dakar in a truck. What’s more, the Ladies Team De Rooy has chosen the toughest edition contested in Saudi Arabia to meet the challenge. Anja, Floor and Marije are still going strong with two days left to the finish. Better than that, they have not had a single puncture yet and occupy 13th place in the general rankings out of 40 trucks.

A Anja Van Loon is at the root of this adventure, or rather, it is a promise made to her father that she has come to keep and to share on the 46th edition of the Dakar. Fried Van de Laar, her late father whose portrait features prominently in the cab of Iveco truck number 618, was one of the leading figures in the Dakar truck race in the 2010s and he passed on this passion to his sons Jan and Ben. In 2012, Anja discovered the bivouac for the first time. She grew up with lorries in the family haulage business, where this vehicle is a tradition. At the age of 18, she took her HGV driving test. Later, she married Erik Van Loon, a Dakar rally driver. For the past two years, five-foot-five tall Anja has been preparing for the Dakar. Her husband put an end to his Dakar career last year on his 13th participation, when he rolled over his Overdrive Racing Hilux, but Anja was there in the T3 class to prepare for her attempt in a truck, part of a programme of ten races. With 14th place on the Daker in her class, Anja displayed impressive ease and especially consistency, proven by fifth place on the Rallye du Maroc in 2023 with Floor Maten, her co-pilot.

“Anja's idea was to do it as a three-woman team, and as the rally family is small, it was only natural that we came together. I was already active in a motorbike team. I started in 2017 and I've done six Dakar rallies and around twenty rallies as part of an assistance team, but for me, this is my first Dakar as a racer. My first rally dates back to 2014 as part of the organisation team in Morocco and it's a passion for me. It's my second family. I'm the co-pilot. I've done three motorbike rallies where you ride and navigate at the same time. I think my talents as a navigator are better than those as a rider! We did the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge together at the start of last year to get to know each other and understand each other in a car”.

© Marcelo Murbach
© Magnus Torquato

Marije Van Ettekoven is also a woman of experience: “Like Floor, I started taking part in rallies on a bike in 2008 and learned how to navigate like that. In 2015, I joined a truck crew and we took part in our first rally in an old DAF in 2016. The composition of the crew was already in place, but as I'd come from motorcycling I said that if the co-pilot was ill I could replace him, and that's exactly what happened. That's how I started and I've never stopped. I did it with my partner and a mechanic. We had a lot of problems. We did the Dakar twice and this is my third time. I learned a lot and that's why I became the mechanic on this crew. But we have a secret weapon: Anja. We haven't had a puncture so far, just a slow puncture that we managed to handle and get back to the bivouac. She's very good on the rocks. But I know that the three of us are capable of handling a puncture, in fact no team entrusts the job to just one person. It's mainly a waste of time and energy, but I think that in twenty minutes we'd be able to do it. You have to drive so fast to make up twenty minutes that it's worth slowing down in certain sections to save your tyres and those precious minutes. And Anja is brilliant at doing just that”.

 Anja is the headliner of the crew. The little blonde with the piercing clear eyes, for whom 99% of the men on the planet would stop to help her change a punctured wheel, is transformed when she puts on her yellow and black overalls. As discreet out of the truck as she is communicative in her cab, in the space of one edition of the rally, Anja has become the canary that sings and brightens up the atmosphere. “We have a great time in the cab. Every morning we set the mood. The people at the start are happy when they see us. We try to put a smile on people's faces when we set off. We love it and we owe it all to the volunteers in the organisation who spend hours and hours giving us starter's orders”. Marije, sitting behind in the cab, is a dab hand at multi-tasking: “I’m the mechanic and the DJ, but I also have to feed Floor and do a bit of cooking!”

The tallest member of the bunch has bought a pair of small magnetic speakers that spit out Dutch house music as they roll up to the start. Anja hands out headphones with a grin from ear to ear. They are putting a smile on the face of this 46th edition, but they're also annoyed that Floor's scream when their truck tipped onto the sand in an evasive manoeuvre perfectly executed by Anja made the rounds of the social networks. Marije is no longer joking when she explains the background to one of this Dakar's buzz stories: “The sequence has been taken out of context, even though we have plenty of on-board cameras showing how Anja avoided an accident by just a few centimetres. All we see are three screaming women, who appear to be frightened by the crash. It's demeaning”.

Marije does not need to climb up to the lofty view enjoyed in the cab in order to see the bigger picture: “I think that reaching the finish and taking the finishers' medals home will be quite historic for three women in a truck”.

© Rodrigo Barreto

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