ATLAS MOUNTAIN RACE
by Scott Cornish
by Scott Cornish
It is odd to think that the Atlas Mountain Race way back in February was my last race of 2020. The ever present uncertainty has moved it to October for 2021 now too. So here are some words reminiscing about what was and is a beautifully tough event.
From mountain passes to the sea, following a route far from the tourist trail, discovering the more remote parts of Morocco’s backcountry. The Atlas Mountain Race resonates all the creativity of the minds behind the now infamous Silk Road Mountain Race. As with the SRMR, wise planning and a sense of being able to deal with remote riding would count just as much as physical ability, although the temperatures turned out to be warmer than predicted – a nice bonus.
Riding these events solo is one thing, no one to think about except you, riding duo needed a different attitude and approach. Having raced numerous duo mtb stage races, I opted to take part in the AMR as a pair with Mitchell Jones, who I had ridden with previously, although not planned, at the Italy Divide. Being of a similar pace and mentality when faced with fatigue and riding in the early hours, it seemed like a good idea, but racing brought different pressures. With MTB stage races typically being full on for 4-6 hours, then finish for the day, there is plenty of personal time for rest and recovery and personal reflection. Solutions to mechanicals and food and water are never far away either. Duo bike-packing racing is a different beast, with fatigue and calorie deficit playing havoc with our actions, even between the best of friends. As we discovered, riding a bikepack race as a duo would test our resilience as a team.
Part of these bike-packing events is the bike check, not just the official one, but checking out other competitor’s rigs and setups, as there is always something to be learnt. There is never the perfect bike for such events, the best being the one you own and have adapted for the way you ride and the expected terrain. Every rig was different, with tyre sizes ranging from 700x40mm to numerous 650b set ups to drop bar 29ers and full suspension mtbs, to the largest tyres at 29×3.0 and of course a single speed set up. It’s a minefield of good ideas, tips and products you may never have come across. Although it can make you momentarily start to question your own setup! Morphology is no predictor of ability at these events, with psychology playing a significant part as well as the obvious physical capability. Registration was slick and straight forward, so long as you started in the correct queue! Which we didn’t.
My personal rig was the fully rigid Shand drop bar Bahookie shod with high volume WTB 29×2,4 Rangers, a solid and dependable tread which I have become accustomed to across numerous events. Mounted on 29mm ID 9th Wave Cycling Yarrow wheels with a custom built front onto a SP PDX8-110 Dynamo hub, powering an Exposure Revo light. A helmet mounted Exposure Diablo provided extra light for technical sections combined with their external battery pack, doubling longevity. Bags were my dependable Wildcat Gear set up. PNW Components supplied their Coast stem and wide drop flare bars, 480mm at the hoods and 540mm at the drops; a more familiar wider stance coming from years of mtb riding.
Mitch was on his Cervelo gravel rig, set up 650b running the same SP PDX8 dynamo hub and Exposure Revo light. Gravel bikes with a 650b wheel were the most common rigs, but the AMR route is a tough track and I was a little smug at times on the bigger wheels!
Conversation flowed as riders gathered for the civilised 9am start, months of planning and training about to play out. 20km of quiet tarmac warmed up eager legs, speed surprisingly high, everyone settling into their pace for the impending hills we could see looming in the distance. We chatted to other riders within the groups that formed – pleasantly social before business started as we headed into Morocco’s backcountry.
Those first few km of dirt tracks confirmed that I had made the right choice with the high volume WTB tyres and high protection sidewalls. The rollercoaster trails were biased towards gradual climbing, heading to the highest point of the event, the 2600m high Telouet pass. Our first glimpse of rural Morocco and the type of resupply we would come to expect was in the first of numerous villages we would ride through; a small shop selling all manner of long life foods, from sugary snacks, to tinned fish to the essential bottled water. Being vegetarian you’d have to get creative, being vegan would seem to be an impossible challenge – neither of us were either, so negotiating our way through the food options was grab and go.
I did carry some familiar foods, numerous Hard Bars, just in case and because I knew that they gave me what I needed; happy foods for a psychological and calorific boost. Mitch’s happy food was simply genius – a 500g pot of peanut butter, strapped into his downtube bottle cage. It was a food that we both craved which went perfectly with the local flat bread.
Everyone was now spread out over many km, legs tested on the first long climb, exertion kept within individual limits. The barren landscape was quite unlike the stout beauty of the Alps, but stunning in its own way, a landscape that would be far from monotonous, regularly changing over each pass.
With regular resupply options until CP1, our pace remained calm and consistent, getting a feel for each other’s pace and how we were each feeling overall, but as we started to notice, our needs were never quite in sync! Stops for toileting or bag adjustments halted momentum, having to forgo any sense of wanting to not stop at a personal level which didn’t come naturally!
The newly created gravel road to the top of the Telouet pass made it sound like a straightforward ride, but there was nothing gentle about its gradient, becoming a hike-a-bike for some or a grind for those of us too stubborn to walk.
image by Lian van Leeuwen
It was a pass in the loosest sense as the ‘groad’ came to an abrupt end at the top, the only way down was via a rocky hiking trail and devoid too of expected snow and cold winds as Morocco had experienced the same, warm winter as Europe. The big tyres gave descending confidence over other riders’ narrower tyres, but this was enduro bike territory and Nelson’s (AMR organiser) account of going head first into rocks resonating in my mind. Besides, we were riding duo and Mitch was walking down – a sound excuse.
With dusk chasing us, we received a hearty welcome into CP1 by the checkpoint crew. Barely 123km in, it was way tougher than expected, but that 1st stamp in the brevet card felt like a small triumph. A sit down meal of tajine and soup filled hungry bellies, chat flowing with fellow riders across the tables. Being mindful of each other’s needs before heading off into the night took patience, especially when heading into longer stretches without refuel options, as we were about to. At this early stage we were both still feeling strong in body and mind, having barely put a dent in the overall distance, ready for this next long stretch to CP2.
In this terrain, that feeling for distance and how long it would take became quite skewed. That 60km to next resupply equated to nothing more than a quick Sunday ride, but our perceptions of ride time vs distance had to quickly adapt, planning well to not getting caught out without food and water. I carried a filtration water bottle (courtesy of Stu Taylor), which was of course only useful where there was a water source!
The route stayed high, rolling between 1600 and 2000m, passing through large canyons, no doubt stunning in the daylight, but all we could see was the limited track ahead, lit up by our Exposure Lights Revo dynamos. With no light pollution here too, the star filled night sky was spectacular. Rivers appeared deep under the night sky, but were thankfully shallow, although I was a little cavalier across one, falling sideways into the water and dropping my phone into its flow. My first fervent words with myself, but at least I managed to locate the phone, although all I could do was rescue the sim card. Mitch managed to put a positive spin on the situation, saying I was lucky to find it in the dark – which I was. We are so locked in to social media that losing the ability to connect felt like a (stupid) blow, but it actually afforded me a positive experience, allowing disconnecting from its pull and connecting more with where I was and what I was doing. Those 4 days without the phone were quite emotive.
Having a metal Bahookie gave me full confidence in the bike, that I could have crashed like this and simply pick up the bike and carry on without the worry of having to check the frame for potential, ride ending damage. It is heavier of course than comparative carbon, but the Shand will accompany me on many more adventures and no doubt pick up many more scars along the way.
For those at the sharp end the dark hours simply meant an opportunity to get ahead of those requiring sleep. Nearing 1am, after some discussion as our legs still felt relatively robust, the decision was made to find a spot to get our heads down for a few hours. We had planned on a rather luxurious 3-4 hours sleep a night; after all, this was supposed to be an enjoyable race with a more casual focus!
Flat terrain, out of the wind, around the back of what we assumed was an abandoned building, looked ideal. Turned out it wasn’t abandoned and its residents were still up. Contrary to what we would have expected, the guy offered us lodgings in the lounge area in the main outbuilding. We politely refused the kind offer settling down on the dirt outside. Which he just didn’t understand!
It was cold at 430am, but lacked the expected frost. The morning’s 60km felt like 100, arriving into Tondoute at dawn, having ravaged our water and food supplies. With 2 shops, we wrongly assumed that we’d have a good chance of getting supplies. Mitch was out of water and I was limited. Solo, I would have probably risked the next 30km to Immassine with its greater options, but it had to be a combined decision.
Both shops indicated on the POI were closed, a limited ‘bakery’ was open, but the issue was water. The dry pastries only exacerbating a need for water! Off track, we locating a few bottles in a local café in the heart of the village and indicated the location to other riders seeking the same.
Personal confidence in how far you can ride on minimal supplies became irrelevant. There was no pushing each other to go faster, further or suck it up like in mtb stage races. Looking out for each other became critical to keep moving forward at a good pace, even if that meant a few more or longer stops then we would have liked as individuals, but that was always outweighed by mutual, moral boosting grit to keep pedaling at times.
Even the most basic of cooked foods tasted exceptionally good as a change from the base sugary diet. Omelettes became the staple food, or a tajine if we were lucky, looking forward to one (or 2!) at every major pitstop. The omelette in Immassine was just what we needed before the first long section with no resupply; 98km of open, remote backcountry. With no water here we stopped at another café on the outskirts of town, joining numerous other riders. We took advantage of the available toilet facilities, but never being quite sure if it was just more hygienic to toilet (responsibly of course) in the wild!
Sometimes we rode side by side, sometimes we didn’t, spaced out along the trail. Unlike mtb stage racing where you can put aside life’s tribulations to simply concentrate on the few hours of intensive daily racing, bikepack racing is different. Mitch is a husband and dad to 3 young children and was missing them of course, and vice versa. None of us are devoid of life’s challenges and we had to be respectful that each of us would need some time for personal reflection and space on the trail. An aspect that I think made us stronger as a duo.
Rarely coming across another soul, despite over 180 riders, we revelled in the open remoteness and being off grid with the sun making its presence felt. Some hearty climbing up a technical track offered increasingly stunning views of the valley below. Riders were hiking it, but a mixture of bloody mindedness and wanting to test out what I could climb on the Shand Bahookie with the WTB tyres got me up most of it; a little rest at the top taking in the view whilst I waited for Mitch.
Flatter terrain ensued, rolling along at a decent pace, stopping for a late afternoon peanut butter snack, a hearty, calorific food we both devoured. Despite appearances of this empty landscape, each pass revealed an almost different landscape the other side, sometimes accompanied by a change in temperature. From arid and seemingly lifeless backcountry to pockets of oasis’, small villages with life giving underground waterways. Far from being drab, many villages were awash with colourful houses, alongside green palm trees, giving a striking contrast to the surrounding hues of brown.
I seem to cope well with the heat, where Mitch found it more imposing, consuming his water fairly rapidly compared to my supply, often ending up sharing to get us safely to the next water point. Another stunning sunset plunged us into the pitch black, our Exposure Revos managing to give us a glimpse of our surrounding landscape, shadows disappearing into gorges off track only metres away from our wheels. Sharing water and momentary stops to grab stashed food in the main bags, we edged steadily closer to our next resupply. A stream picked up our confidence for the final km to Afra, quenching a thirst using the filtration bottle for the first time.
Installing the topo map for Morocco was definitely a good plan, helping with numerous off route POI points. Lucky as Mitch almost missed Afra due to fatigue and focusing on the track ahead! A U-turn brought us back to the dirt track into the village. The shop was small with limited supplies, but we struck lucky with local knowledge leading us to a larger store in the village centre. It’s interesting what foods you begin to crave during ultra-events. Crisp sandwiches were a childhood favourite and again now, relishing in their salty goodness. A lucky find, stocking up to head into the night, just in time too as the store was closing as we sat to engulf a significant amount of calories.
We were again surprised by the generosity offered to 2 smelly travellers. The shop’s owner offered us a bed for the night in the neighbouring accommodation block he owned, at no cost too. He seemed at a loss as to why we would want to continue riding into the night though, with no brick and mortar accommodation options. A soft bed appealed to us both of course, but a knowing glance at each other and we kindly declined. Our bed for some brief shut eye was a couple of hours later just off the track, the plan to sleep during the coldest hours of 12 and