You can read some background about the race in my previous blog post. In particular why it was so special for me to be at the starting line after my recent neck surgery: Atlas Mountain Race – grateful for an unexpected season closing
In this post I want to take you with me on the 1.173km long journey through the Atlas and Anti Atlas in Morocco based on the great photos taken by professional photographers Ariel Wojciechowski and Nils Laengner who accompanied the race. Thanks a lot Ariel and Nils for sharing the pictures with us! If you are more interested into the detailed route, altitude profile and cycling parameters you can have a look at my strava recording: https://www.strava.com/activities/7917523383
Before I give you a more detailed report about how the race went just enjoy the wonderful views of the unique landscape of the Moroccan rocky desert.
If you don’t like long text, then just skip my writings and watch the pictures. They are worth it 😉
Registration and Briefing
The day prior to the start was filled with final preparation of bike and luggage, meeting a lot of old and new friends from the ultra-cycling scene and filling the carb stores of my body to the max. With all those crazy guys around me I always feel like a badass even though I’m the serious business guy with the side parting 😉
Last instructions were given from Nelson Trees (Race Director) in the afternoon during the rider briefing before everyone tries to get as much sleep as possible in the night prior to the start.
During the final minutes prior to the start, you can really feel how nervous everyone is but happy at the same time, that they made it to the starting line and the long-awaited race finally kicks off.
The first few kilometers are on flat tarmac road to get out of Marrakesh. And most of the participants ride in a big group following the local police car in this neutralized phase. That’s also the only part of the race where drafting is tolerated. Drafting is actually not allowed during the whole race as every rider should complete the route completely self-supported. Only outside help, that is available commercially to everyone, is allowed by the rules of the race. As soon as the flat part ends and the route winds up into the Atlas Mountains the field splits up and every rider fights on their own.
The fast guys hit the pedals very hard. Based on my body feeling, the watts on the display of my wahoo and the knowledge about my limited training in the last months, I try to ignore them and settle into my own pace. And so I finally arrive on the highest point of the race (Telouet pass) at over 2.500m of altitude in the late afternoon and can ride the very technical mule track that is following during day light that also contains some hike-a-bike sections. It’s the first time after my serious accident that I ride on a technical MTB downhill again and I’m more than relieved that I’m able to ride most of it without fear. It’s hot and the sun is very intense, so my skin and clothes get covered with a salty crust of sweat.
When I reach the first checkpoint after around 125km I’m somewhere around 10th position what makes me quite happy as I didn’t expect to be able to race that fast. Somewhere around the checkpoint first raindrops touch my body before the sunset. That’s not surprising as also the weather forecast showed a little bit of rain during the first night. But during the night the weather changes dramatically. It starts with stiff wind, then heavy rain adds and finally the temperatures drop to 5°C while thunderbolts lighten the dark. I continue my ride because I want to drive straight through the first night as I usually do during ultra-cycling races. At km 260 I enter a gas station already at 4th position to fill-up my bottles again and to buy some food. I’m astonished to see the first 3 riders sitting together eating bread and omelet not being in a hurry at all. After a brief chat with them I finally understand that the race is over for the moment because the heavy rain dramatically increased the water level of a close-by river to a level that we cannot cross it with our bikes anymore.
So, we make the best out of the situation by filling up our energy stores with some additional food, service our bikes and try to get some sleep on the floor of the shop while waiting for news that we can cross the river again.
In the early morning hours Nelson (race director) gives green light to cross the river after sunrise again due to a decrease in water level. And after he crossed the river himself as well by feet. And so the race is back on again with 10-15 riders close to each other who meanwhile reached the gas station.
I have wet feet for the whole rest of the day as I cross the river in my water-proof shoes. And as you can imagine… if there is water in them once, it won’t go out anymore 😉
The rest of the day has it’s ups and downs. Some of the other riders overtake me after the river again and I find myself somewhere around 7th to 8th position. I continue with my even pace and in the course of the day I can overtake one by one again and even end up fighting for 3rd place with Philippe Vullioud after Justinas Leveika (1st) and Marin de Saint-Exupéry (2nd).
I can’t believe that I’m able to compete for podium again and I push really hard into the second night. Justinas has a solid lead but Marin, Philippe and I are quite close to each other. And so, our different sleep strategies lead to some back forth in overall ranking during the night.
I’m even on 2nd position when I decide to stop for breakfast because I only stopped for two short naps in the night sleeping on the dusty ground right beside the racetrack.
After an omelet, some bread and a lot of coke for breakfast I start into the third day meanwhile back on 3rd position heading towards the second checkpoint of the race.
The sun is back again at full strength and a long stretch without any shadow is quite demanding but the beautiful views are more than compensating. Philippe comes from behind like a rocket and it’s clear for me that I would never be able to hold his speed when he passes me. I finally arrive at the 3rd checkpoint in a village at around 650km grouping together again with Marin and Philippe for lunch while Justinas has already left defending his lead after taking a short nap and cleaning his wounds caused by some crashes. Some of us opt for a quick shower and I also do so to improve hygienic situation especially at my butt again. Considering that the high temperatures with lots of sweat and dust start to take its toll and I feel some saddle sores already.
Leaving check point 2 again with full water bottles and replenished food stocks a long stretch without resupply is in front of us that we must tackle in the burning heat of the day without any shadow. It’s quite demanding and I even have to start rationing my water to be able to reach the next resupply.
In the late evening I reach a small town that comes just before the infamous old colonial road. I’m meanwhile back on second position directly in front of Marin chasing Philippe who meanwhile took the lead. Justinas unfortunately had a bad crash in one of the downhill sections and had to scratch from the race. I’m quite motivated on the one side but meanwhile also struggling severe saddle sores on the other side. So, I decide to take a shower again and therefore check-in to a small hotel, which is around 2km off the route, to be able to clean the wounds and apply fresh chamois crème. As I’m already there I also opt for a solid 2hours sleep in a comfortable bed before I start chasing my competitors again. As my French skills are quite limited and my Arabic is non-existent it’s quite hard to explain to the hotel owner that I want to leave at 1am in the morning again. But after some help of google translate he finally understands that he will have to get up again that time to let me and my bike out of the locked building. I would really like to listen to the thoughts of people in such situations when a dirty, bad smelling stranger on a bicycle enters their facilities in the mid of the night for a very short sleep and insists on continuing the ride only two to three hours later again paying the bill in advance😊
After a refreshing sleep I feel much better on my bike again and start into the old colonial road chasing the guys in front of me in the dark. As some of them didn’t stop that night yet I was overtaken by some riders and can see myself on 5th or 6th position on the GPS tracking website. But some of the other guys are quite close and not moving anymore because they had to lay down for some sleep beside the route as well. They lay in their sleeping bags directly next to the track and I try not to turn my head into their direction to avoid waking them up with my headlamp 😉 I pass them one by one in the next hours and get back on 2nd position chasing Marin who is leading the race.
The old colonial “road” is in fact a really rough track with a lot of loose stones. In addition, some parts of the road have completely vanished due to erosion or landslides. At some places you even need to climb up and down steep walls. The pictures show the “road” at daylight. But I sometimes really struggle to find a good way to tackle these obstacles as I must do it in the dark night.
After the old colonial road, a relaxing section of tarmac follows, and the sunset wraps the surrounding mountain scenery in beautiful light. Perfect conditions for the last long day of the race 😊
And the day really feels long as a lot of climbing is in front of us, and the sun is back to full force. I try to reduce the gap to Marin in front, but he also does not seem to have any issues and can defend his lead sustainably. I’m worried for some time because Philippe’s dot left the track and is not moving forward anymore. But it later turns out that he is okay and had to scratch from the race because of technical issues with his tires he couldn’t fix. I’m really happy that my material endured the whole race without any issues. Only some punctures that were automatically closed by the tubeless sealant. Others had much more issues as you can see in these pictures. One rider even lost his bike during a flood tide caused by the heavy rain in the first night:
In the early evening we reach the last checkpoint at around km 1.000 of the route and fill up our stock again.
I feel very good and strong and in my mind the idea materializes that I still might be able to take the overall win 😉 The rest of the route looks not that demanding anymore on the altitude profile as it goes more down than up. And as per the route description, I assume that a lot of easy tarmac will be involved as well. I have aerobars attached to my bike and Marin doesn’t, so this should give me an advantage as well. With all this in mind I put everything I still have in the tank in the following hours to reduce the gap. But every time I check the tracker, I can see that Marin does the same as well…
And so the gap persists as we ride through the night and the last climbs of the race.
Everyone who knows Nelson also knows that there are always some final challenges in his track designs and that’s just how it is in Morocco as well. When I’m on an old mule track which also involves some hike-a-bike sections crossing dry river valleys, sleep deprivation hits me quite hard. I have the perception that I turn in circles and crossing the same dry river valley again and again. In addition, some persecution mania adds as well, and I have the fixed idea of being caught up by the riders behind me even though I always have a solid lead when checking the tracker. In a moment of clear thoughts, I decide to take a last power nap of 10 minutes to give my brain the chance for a proper reset. I’m close to some building when laying on the ground and as soon as I try to fall asleep a dog starts barking… but I’m too tired to get to another place and somehow still manage to sleep for a few minutes before jumping back on my bike for the last long decent towards the finish in Agadir.
There is only the fixed idea in my head anymore to finish this and get to the hotel in Agadir soon… and based on the altitude profile this should be very easy within the next two to three hours. But as said… who knows Nelson knows how these assumptions can be misleading 😉
I don’t have pictures of the last section showing the track by night, but these nice daylight pictures give at least an idea of what was still in front of me.
We have to cross a dirty agricultural area with a lot of sandy tracks that force me off the bike from time to time. I even crash, slipping away in the sand, and find myself laying on the ground like a bug on my bag still having my feet attached to the pedals. In these moments I feel a strong helplessness and a few tears of frustration and the one or the other loudly spoken swearword leave my mouth. The only things that still motivate me are the close finish and the feeling that everyone needs to undergo this and staying strong will help me to succeed.
When I finally arrive at Agadir, I am not 100% sure if I’m dreaming. After quite a long time in rural areas in the Mountains, riding into the city (which seems to be the Las Vegas of Morocco) is a surreal experience. A lot of blinking lights everywhere and multi-lane roads with quite some traffic have to be managed. But when one of the control cars appears with Chris, and Ariel starts to take photos of me tackling the last kilometers, I am reassured that reality still has me 😊
I arrive in the hotel, tired like hell but extremely satisfied and happy of my achievement at the same time.
In these last pictures you can see Marin (who finished first), myself (second) and Rodney (third) arriving at the finish.
The next days are filled with sleeping, eating, chatting about the race with other participants, and finally the finisher party including the award ceremony.
Having a look at the pictures I think you can all imagine that it feels great to finish an Ultra-Cycling race.
Thanks a lot to Nelson, his family and all the volunteers for making such an event possible at such an exciting location. Everyone should go to Morocco once for cycling – just for touring or for a race. It’s really a fantastic landscape with a lot of friendly people. It’s demanding but fulfilling at the same time. And I think no picture shows this better than the one of female rider Nienke Oostra who suffered a Shermer’s neck but was still able to smile, enjoying the beauty of the country and continued the race by connecting her helmet with her bag pack – chapeau!