Mariya Avtanska Desert Racing

I’m a woman. Not the most feminine woman, mind you – I wear my hair short and have an unbridled propensity for wearing baggy black T-shirts – but a woman nonetheless. My friend, on the other hand, is by all definitions a manly man. He’s well over six feet tall with biceps the diameter of my thighs (and then some), a whole 230 lb of full, muscled American.

I met him (I’ll use the pseudonym Jeff) two years ago while working in a warehouse adjacent to his garage doing nothing even remotely close to motorsports. I had always found interest in cars and motorcycles, but it wasn’t until I had picked up my first little 300cc bike a year prior that I really gained a love for going fast (I’m aware that a bike that small is not objectively ‘fast’, but at the time, it was for me) and a curiosity for how these machines worked.

Mariya Avtanska Desert Racing

I found myself lingering outside the door to Jeff’s garage in passing, gazing in at the multitude of vehicles, almost all in immaculate condition. Then one day, I finally gave into temptation and asked if he needed help. I didn’t know much of anything about working on vehicles beyond changing my car’s oil, but I was willing and eager to pass him tools or sweep up shop given the opportunity to learn.

Before long, I was coming in on weekends, turning wrenches, making endless trips to auto parts stores for tools, and excessively cursing when things refused to work for no apparent reason. I had always dreamed of tinkering with cars and bikes growing up, but no one was ever able to teach me; Jeff’s shop gave me a place to learn by jumping in and getting my hands – and, more often than not, face – dirty.

Maybe more importantly, it was an opportunity for friendship. I loved the banter, the support, and the overwhelming sense of mutual experience when we were both elbow-deep in grease wondering where that damn 10mm socket went. So, as these friendships often go, I soon found myself riding passenger while out wheeling in a Bronco in the Los Padres National Forest.

Mariya Avtanska Desert Racing

This was in December of 2021, a month or so before the legendary Dakar, a race I was particularly excited about because, well, it’s freakin’ Dakar. I had spent the last few weeks exploring the course and reading about the contestants with an almost unhinged enthusiasm, especially when it came to the few women racing the event on motorcycles.

Women like Mirjam Pol and Sandra Gómez flooded my Instagram feed as I grew more and more curious about their personal stories both on and off the bike. The more I read, the more they became role models, and I soon began to dream of the desert. Rally racing, after all, is an amalgamation of all of my passions—motorcycles, mountain bikes, endurance sports, going fast, and of course, playing in the dirt.

Related Story: I Want to Ride a Dirt Bike, But I’m Not Sure How…

I’d like to try my hand at desert racing someday, I thought. Maybe not Dakar or anything, but something small and nearby in the California desert. I didn’t even think about winning or placing – hell, I had never even ridden a dirt bike before, let alone raced one. I just wanted to give it a try for the experience.

Mariya Avtanska Desert Racing

That was it. The idea was no more than a passing thought, one of many that slip through my overactive brain on the daily, destined to be forgotten as soon as the next idea arrives. But, as I was bumbling along in the passenger seat of that Bronco, the excitement of Dakar fresh on my mind, I brought it up to Jeff.

“You know, I think I’d like to try a motorcycle desert race someday,” I said.

He turned to me, one eyebrow raised. “Desert racing, huh? There aren’t a lot of women doing that. People need to be really strong and, well, women just aren’t built for that kind of thing.”

Mariya Avtanska Desert Racing

That. That right there did it for me.

That doubt, that not-so-subtle hint that hey, you’re not strong enough for this because you’re a woman. That turned desert racing from a fleeting thought into a goal, something I promised myself I would do someday. Because at least for me, there’s no stronger motivator than someone telling me that I can’t do something, especially when it’s just because of my gender.

It’s an issue that we experience in every other aspect of our lives as the result of the pure chance of being a woman. In recent years, it’s been less and less obvious – a change that I can only hope stems from true recognition that women are independent, powerful, and capable people. But this sexism is very much still ingrained in our daily lives, especially in communities as niche and historically male-dominated as motorsports.

Mariya Avtanska Desert Racing

It’s evident in the fact that we, as women, even have to think about proving ourselves in everything that we do. The fact that when we finish a major project, we need to remind the world that no, our husbands did not help us; that we’re told – and, mind you, this is coming from people we’ve worked alongside and people we trust – that it would be really hard for us to be strong enough to even consider racing in the desert.

Well you know what? Screw that.

Mariya Avtanska Desert Racing

Screw all of it. The weird feminine standards, the glass ceilings, the whole notion that someone has the right to come tell you what you can and cannot do, what you can and cannot be, simply because you are who you are. You are smart. You are strong. You are capable, and you are free. Free to do whatever the hell it is you want to do and be whoever it is you want to be.

And if you disagree, then you can go shove your opinion down your tailpipe.

As for the rest of you – I’ll catch you out on the road, trails, or wherever your wheels may take you … including the desert.

Mariya Avtanska is a California-based creative who spends far too much time daydreaming about motorcycles. You can find her writing and photography portfolios at

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