ATLAS MOUNTAIN RACE PART 2
by Scott Cornish
by Scott Cornish
The Cascade de Tizgui sounded idyllic for an early morning food stop, but the river was a trickle and the café not yet open! A few of us had come together by this point, all looking forward to the momentary pause. The way out was a steep hike-a-bike up the access steps, arms feeling almost useless at lugging the loaded bike after days on the trail.
A rise in temperature accompanied the long road climb, meandering its way up and along the hillside contours, revealing wide views of the gaping valley below. The day’s rising warmth was welcome, shedding layers at the top. The hilltop faff attracted a lone local trying to sell packs of dates, no doubt viewing us potential and unexpected additional sales as he lay in wait for the bus loads of tourists we had passed on the way up. He appeared quite forlorn at us all passing up on his offerings. Both high on hunger, the descent couldn’t have been timelier arriving into Ait Saoun to join numerous other riders tucking into omelettes at the roadside cafe.
There was little in the way of conversation between riders, everyone on their own agenda, tired, a little jaded, focusing on getting the calories in, filling up on water and getting back in the saddle. Our turnaround was less fluid, communication between us a little muted through fatigue, waiting for food to arrive. The calories started to revive our flagging bodies, conversation began to flow once more, readying minds and legs to head back out once more. We did our usual checks, to make sure that we were both fully prepped before heading off. It was going to be a hot ride to the next pit-stop 75km away.
Flat sandy gravel tracks led us away, both motivated by our full bellies. Open backcountry surrounded us, passing through small villages dotted throughout the landscape. Children peered at us with intrigue, some vying for a high five. It was a good day, devoid of any mishaps, both of us chatty, making good headway, Mitch’s legs doing strong work on the rolling terrain. Hills boxed us in on both sides of us as we rolled along a brief spell on tarmac, passing over dry, wide river beds which left the mind boggling at the intensity of the flash floods here.
Even with fatigue and the imposing heat, the water point 10km from town was really obvious, ‘eau potable’ scribbled in large letters on the wall. It was a tap likely used by the local people, but neither of us was too sure about testing just how potable it was, pushing on to town. Rolling into Taznackt, it was a quick resupply then onwards into the early evening.
In the late evening darkness, I had a big mental slump, focusing on making it to the next refuel spot. It was a garage and the ‘restaurant’ was a gas hob in the makeshift kitchen with a guy making omelettes. It would do. Feeling cold and lacklustre, despite the temperature not being too low, I had to simply buckle up and push on. The warm clothes and Gore C5 thermal jacket were probably overkill, but they provided some comfort to take the edge off the low. Stashing food in bags, we headed off in silence.
We decided on an ‘early night’ with a 330am alarm call. Scoping track side, the Exposure Diablo fell on a suitable spot behind a low wall, just off trail. It took about 5 minutes of star gazing from the sleeping bag for me to fall asleep. Sleep, food and all was well with the world again, communication back to normal. By the time we got to Tamskrout, we were both sweltering under the late morning heat. A commune of riders had gathered at one of the shops, huddled under the canopy out of the sun’s rays. Everyone was feeling flaked out from the day’s heat already. Exchanging the now customary, acknowledging nod, each of us were us experiencing the same fatigue. Even for me it felt good to be out of the sun, taking the time to devour calories and stuffing the pockets of the Gore C7 Pro jersey.
Back on track, Mitch was getting a beating from the sun, ever mindful of his water levels, but something we had to manage together to make sure that he remained hydrated. As the hours passed, we were keeping a good pace despite the heat, Mitch often taking point. Villages added some distraction, constructed around underground water supplies, their coloured buildings and the greens of the palm trees a pleasing change to the eye from the background of browns. We didn’t always speak much; we didn’t need to, focusing on getting to CP2, which wasn’t far off now. A long climb took us to 2000m, a plateau for as far as we could see. Totally unexpected, was the deep chasm which opened up in front of us, a double track steeply switch backing its way to CP2, located 700m down in the recesses of this hidden, green valley, the Oasis d’Aguinane. There was no need for words, both arriving at CP2 with a happy sigh and a hearty welcome from the 2 ladies manning the checkpoint.
Mitch headed for a cold shower; my mind was on food, especially with tajine on offer. Water came wonderfully cold from the fridge. Snack options were the same as the small shops, sugary long life foods, and some fresh fruit would have been ideal. Our combined time faffing meant we lingered a while, some solo riders came and went during that time, but both of us prepping for what lay ahead. Our plans slightly skewed as the next water point 31km away had run out of water, which was due to be our top up point prior to embarking on 85km of remote riding. Water was a concern, the extra weight of a 1,5 litre bottle wasn’t, so I put one in a back pocket of my Gore C7 Pro jersey. A jersey I use on all bike-packing trips as its design means being able to jam pack the rear pockets without sagging or bouncing around.
Engaging with this next section on well fed bellies and stocked up, the legs felt good, short climbs came and went without issue. The 31km seemed to pass by quickly. Arriving at the scheduled water point, this was another one of those villages where you wondered how people lived, land locked, arid terrain for km around. We streamed past the shop, a tiny outlet, which we wouldn’t have found unless I had asked one of the locals. Luckily, even out here, French (my 2nd language) is widely spoken. Sure enough, out of bottled water, but I was directed towards a tap jutting out the ground. An underground source perhaps, but filling the filtration bottle gave some relief that we had spare water should it be needed. Whilst I had been commandeering water, Mitch had been building international relations with the locals, playing football with a few of the children. Turns out he’s pretty handy with a ball!
Saying goodbye to his footy friends, we had a significant remote chunk to get through, which turned out to the longest section of tarmac on the route, winding its way along open terrain and through canyons. It was the longest flat section we’d experience too, the only time we were jealous of the few riders sporting aero bars. Whilst my trail tyres hummed along the tarmac, Mitch’s slicker tread rolled along in virtually silence. Maintaining a good, steady speed, the km swept by. Not sure Mitch was too enamoured about having his groove broken though with my whim for a quick food break roadside. He went along with it, joining in for a quick snack, whilst I also had a mini faff sorting bags.
With the darkness, my mind too seemed to go on auto pilot, remembering little about the rest of the section, except for simply following the beam of the Exposure Revo and Mitch. A few short climbs woke up sleepy legs. Out of the darkness the lights of distant civilization beckoned us. Town was very much closed for the night though, eerily quiet, disappointingly no options for a pit stop here, which we both could have done with, both pretty tired now. The way out, a steep dirt track did nothing for Mitch’s fatiguing legs, dulling his usual climbing speed. His demeanour said it all, he needed to eat and sleep. The plateau was a relief – for us both. I was ok to carry on for a while longer, but looking at Mitch, it was obvious that he needed to get some sleep now, even though I knew that he would have pushed himself to carry on. Bivvy spots usually present themselves at opportune moments but up here, harsh rocky terrain either side of the trail was revealing nothing. Eventually, I found a suitable spot a good few metres off track. Mitch’s stubborn determination meant that I literally had to tell him to stop and pitch up. There was no resistance though – another early night by bike-packing standards, but necessary.
An early stop meant early to rise and back riding during the colder hours, not the plan, but most plans seem to go out of the window after day 1 anyway! Mitch was back alert, but I hadn’t slept at all well, leaving legs lacklustre, trying to maintain some remnants of a reasonable speed along the rolling, rocky trail. We were joined by a South African bike-packing veteran, Guy, one of the few riders on a full suspension. We rode in a quiet calm of silence, waiting for dawn’s warmth, which seemed to take its time coming. The descent was welcome, becoming flat tarmac for the final km to Tagmout. Whilst Mitch and Guy chatted away, I was simply trying to will the legs to stay with them, wondering where, when or even if I could grab a nap to make up for the lost sleep to make the legs work again.
Dawn and 7am prayer calls accompanied our arrival in Tagmout. This early, nothing was yet open and we wouldn’t get very far on our limited, remaining supplies. Unnecessary loitering never felt right when bikepack racing, but the hour’s wait was a necessary one. It would have been foolish to have embarked on the next lengthy section with resupplying. This wait had a silver lining, selfishly for me anyway. I lay down in a quiet spot just out of town for a micro sleep.
Mitch and Guy were both tucking into their 1st omelette by the time I found them. Devouring 2 and resupplying from the shop next door, we headed off all together, the legs back on line. The old colonial road was the most fascinating and talked about section of the entire route. Some 56km long, built into the hillside around the 1930s, meandering around the contours at an almost perfectly even shallow gradient – a feat of engineering built by many hands. With 2 sections having been swept away at river crossings it was no longer used as an access ‘road’, but here you could see the intricacies of how it was built.
It was delicate footwork to get loaded bikes down and back up the collapsed sections. Today was my birthday and we celebrated half way up for a few minutes with a mini cake from Mitch. No candles though or singing happy birthday. We left Guy to climb at his own pace, reaching the 1700m plateau after 30km of steady climbing, gaining a measly 700m for the effort! Glad we took the time to refuel in Tagmout.
The backcountry silence up here was broken by a solitary shepherd and his goats. The descent was as shallow as the climb, disappointingly offering no easy km, slow going over the rocky and loose track, having to even pedal sometimes. I was back in my element with the WTB 2.4 tyres, but for Mitch it was that bit more arduous on his smaller tyres. Finally the gradient steepened, almost missing the left turn as we sped downwards, the track naturally continuing to the right. Not an error to make out here.
Issafn didn’t seem too promising for a refuel before the hefty chunk to CP3, being listed as having a small shop only. It surprised with much more and a good feed with numerous riders congregated in the roadside restaurant. Ordering food, I quizzed about the availability of tajine. There was, but the last one. I could almost hear the sigh of disappointment of the rider behind me. Sharing with Mitch, we each tucked into a large bowl of lentils too, plus the bread, plus the yogurts. We were hungry. Next stop was CP3 and from there just over 200km to the end, putting a little boost in our legs; still 96km to go before CP3 though.
After 15km of false flat, the next 30km would really make us reflect on our own lives and what we actually do have. The ride into the deep canyon was steady enough, along rolling double track gravel roads, dug out of the hillside. Short, steady gradients, easy access for vehicles to the basic homes which lined the dry river bed, life sustained by an underground water source. It was a mishmash of buildings, new, grand ones built alongside derelict ones; coloured ones alongside unpainted homes, many appearing to be empty. Children played in the road, smiling, laughing, and some holding out hands for a passing high five, their carefree spirit in deep contrast to the more sullen demeanour of the adults – a passing glimpse to make you reflect on what we do have.
The day’s warmth was starting to ebb away, the canyon’s towering walls casting deep shadows. Our confidence for making good progress on this smooth terrain came to a halt with the abrupt end of the managed gravel road, becoming the rocky river bed itself.
Homes continued to line the canyon floor, built into the hillside, right up to where it became too narrow, our way out turning to narrow rocky track, climbs now steep and loose, a challenge for fatiguing bodies. I forgot about Mitch momentarily, thinking he was just behind me, the Shand and the WTB tyres making short work of the terrain. Mitch was clearly working harder than me on his smaller and slicker tyres, evident in his face as he caught up whilst I stopped for him. There was no frustration from either of us though, both taking the opportunity to get some calories in and setting the next goal; breaking out the cheese triangles Mitch had purchased many hours ago, once we reached the top of the climb – whenever that came. Like a carrot to a donkey, his tenacity shone through as darkness gradually closed in around us. A climb with stunning views no doubt, that just didn’t let up. At its crest, we briefly shared a sheltered spot with 2 German riders, heartily tucking into food of our childhoods, under a star filled sky. Again, Mitch was the 1st to be ready to carry on, passing a discerning look my way as I faffed a little.
In the dark we barely registered tarmac becoming dirt road until the large trucks came flying past, showering us in dense clouds of dust, a quarry no doubt not far away. Despite our fatigue and diminishing food reserves, we made the decision to reach CP3 that night, assuming a hearty resupply. Luckily I had a couple of Hard bars left, stashed away for just such a hungry occasion. The villages we were now passing through were in stark contrast to those of earlier. Grand, well-kept homes with gardens and an abundance of palm trees, and eyes of feral dogs glinted in our lights, barking menacingly at our passing presence. Both of us were counting down the km to CP3 now, though I was again humbled by Mitch’s tenacity, knowing that he was virtually on auto pilot, simply focused on making it to CP3.
Arriving after midnight, CP3 was tucked away, in between palm trees and inconspicuous amongst the adjoining buildings, almost missing it. Inside was quiet; sleeping riders lay strewn across the numerous sofas. Fatigued and hungry, we devoured 2 large omelettes each and found free spots amongst the bodies. Normally easily disturbed by others, sleep came easily in this communal sleeping area.