Salsa Cutthroat on the Atlas Mountain Race

My Atlas Mountain Race

If you’re an ultra-endurance fan, you’ll be aware of the Silk Road Mountain Race. After only it’s second edition the SRMC has gained near legendary status. So on hearing that Race Director Nelson Trees had a new event up his sleeve, my interest was piqued. When it was revealed to be to be a race across the Atlas Mountains in Morocco I knew I had to sign up. Morocco has long been in my sights as it offers so much to the aspiring adventure cyclist. The terrain and weather would be a complete change from what was already a long, dull and damp winter.

Signing up for the Atlas Mountain Race is a bit different to an event like the Tour Divide. As with the Transcontinental, the AMR has a comprehensive race manual and application form to make sure that entrants are up to the job in hand. I was confident that I had what it would take to compete, but there’s nothing like a bit of exam anxiety to have you wondering if you’ve written the right answers! Luckily my entry was accepted, and so began a furious regime on Trainerroad as the continual rain made any outdoor ride 50% riding and 50% cleaning up afterwards!

Atlas Mountain Race: The Day Before

Getting to the startline was refreshingly easy. Marrakech has an international airport with regular flights scheduled by the likes of Easyjet and Ryanair. Race HQ was held at the Mogador Kasbah Hotel, a short ride from the airport and big enough to house all the riders and admin. With plenty of like minded riders, meals in the hotel restaurant were very friendly, informal affairs!

AMR Rider Caps all lined up

Seeing the Atlas Mountain Race caps lined up made the build up the race feel very real!

The day before the Atlas Mountain Race was pretty hectic. The race organisers were checking all the riders insurance and medical permissions as well as collecting up bike boxes and spare clothes ready to transport to the finish line. By 7pm all I had in my possession was the kit I was wearing and planned to carry on my bike.

I set an alarm for race day but as ever it was unnecessary as I was wide awake, if not exactly raring to go. Taking on the Tour Divide I knew the route from having read umpteen books and countless ride reports in the Cordillera series. While Morocco wasn’t exactly uncharted territory, it was certainly a grey area!

The Mogador Kasbah was “bike central” for two days!

The Mogador Kasbah was “bike central” for two days!

Day One

The short cab-ride from the airport to the hotel was enough to understand why the first part of the Atlas Mountain Race would be neutralised and with a police escort. Organised Chaos is probably the best way to describe the roads in Marrakech. Hesitation at junctions was promptly punished with a blast from the horn and roundabouts seemed devoid of any protocols, if your vehicle fitted into a gap then it was fair game!

Time was running out for last minute faffing on the start line…

Time was running out for last minute faffing on the start line…

With the race underway, having the formerly busy streets to ourselves was bliss. Every roundabout and major junction was blocked by the police to allow us through unhindered. I chuckled to myself knowing this near 30kph average wasn’t going to last…

At this pace we should be in Agadir in two and a half days…

At this pace we should be in Agadir in two and a half days…

Welcome to Morocco

It didn’t take long for the peloton to leave the confines of the city and arrive in the real Morocco. Those big hills on the horizon soon loomed over me and the gradients steepened. Seeing snow on the summits and slopes certainly told me I’d arrived in the Atlas. As we moved further away from the city and out into the countryside, the traffic just seemed to melt away. Fellow Atlas Mountain Race riders were the prevalent road user.

After a couple of hours we passed through a town and I decided to grab a drink and try and assimilate. This was my first experience of the typical shop that I’d encounter for the remainder of the race. They all seemed to follow the same design. A drinks chiller set to just a couple of degrees below ambient temperature and a bewildering stack of packaged food. Food that on closer inspection, wasn’t as familiar as it first seemed. Still, Pepsi is Pepsi and I was working up a thirst.

Arkwright’s shop. Atlas Mountain Race style.

Arkwright’s shop. Atlas Mountain Race style.

No gentle introduction

From this point on until Checkpoint 1, the land got progressively more remote. The tarmac gradually crumbled away to dirt roads and what seemed like an infinite climb began. The first day didn’t break you in gently. Crossing the Telouet Pass at 2600m means you’ve gained 2200m from Marrakech. Any descent was bittersweet as you knew it just meant that there would be more climbing to recover the height gain!

The GPX track says the path is just over there…

The GPX track says the path is just over there…

While the weather was comfortably better than the UK, Morocco still had Winter’s short days. With the sun only making an appearance at 8am and long gone 12 hours later, there was going to be a lot of night riding. Crawling up the Telouet pass in the failing light wasn’t so bad as the pace was inevitably slow, but picking my way through the rubble-field hike-a-bike on the other side was something else!

There was a Python-esque quality to seeing various riders lights bobbing about as they all tried to pick their way through the rocks. Just when you thought you were out and smooth trails lie ahead…nope. Off you get and push a bit more! When the trail eventually spat me out into a village and I knew that Checkpoint 1 was in striking distance it was a great relief.

Moroccan dinner

With food like this on offer I’ll eat like a king in Morocco…

Tuck In!

At Checkpoint 1, I was almost dragged from the card signing to a dinner table by a keen restaurateur. With a tagine, fresh salad, warm bread, olives, water and Coca Cola rapidly delivered I was upbeat about my future feeds. How naive a view that would turn out to be! While it was late, I knew I couldn’t afford to become ensnared in the comforts of the auberge. I hit the road aiming to find a quiet spot to bivi before I reached the next settlement. A small wood looked promising so I rolled into a clearing an began to unpack. Turns out that I wasn’t that far from the road as a car pulled up and a concerned voice asked “Monsieur, ça va?”, “Oui, ça va bien merci”. As the car drove off I scooped up my bivi kit and went deeper into the wood…

Day Two

As my alarm sounded, I felt well rested and a dim light told me that a fellow racer had also chosen to camp in the wood and was packing to leave. Quite by accident I’d stopped at the head of a long tarmac descent which made for an easy start but soon chilled me to the bone. Reaching the next village coincided with the morning call to prayer to soundtrack some tricky suburban singletrack. It would the first, but certainly not the last time that I had to push on to stay ahead of a donkey rider.

Salsa Cutthroat on the Atlas Mountain Race

Time for a well earned breather having just beaten a donkey for the KOM

As the sun rose it was clear that the scenery would be a stark contrast to day one. Gone were the snow capped peaks replaced by the ochre red I was expecting. Day two was also characterised by pushing. Lots of pushing. I’m happy to admit I’m not the fittest or fastest rider, but progress was hard fought every pedal-stroke of the way. It was also the day where I learnt the reality of Morocco. There might be a re-supply point every 60km or so but you couldn’t guarantee it would be open. Nor that it would offer anything you fancied eating. I feel a large factor in my slow progress for the first couple of days lie in simply not being able to fuel my body adequately.

Salsa Cutthroat in the desert

One of day two’s rare moments of riding bliss!

The nauseous diner

I made it into Immasine as the light began to fade but felt relaxed as there was a roadside cafe promised. I arrived to find a number of fellow racers eating and ordered myself a chicken tagine. Having gone most of the day eating only junk, I relished a meal but as it arrived it’s all I could do to pick away at it. My fatigue making me nauseous as I ate. Hating myself for leaving most of the best meal I’d seen all day.

I headed off into the night and promptly experienced a severe sense of humour failure when presented with a river crossing. Knowing that the temperature would plummet overnight I opted to cross barefoot. It would be many hours before the sun rose to dry off my shoes. I rode on for another hour or two before settling down in a hollow scooped out by a digger. Without the tree cover of the previous night I was finally able to fully appreciate the night sky. Outside of the larger towns none of the houses had lights on, let alone streetlights or neon signage. It took a while to find the obvious constellations as the sheer number of visible stars was disorientating!

Standing in water looking at a bike

Tired, hungry and not in the mood for paddling

In the grasp of the desert

The effects of the dust can’t be exaggerated, after just two days everything had a distinct orange hue. My pedals seemed particularly susceptible and became increasingly hard to unclip from. On more than one occasion I took a tumble while unable to unclip. My knees, hip and the Salsa Cutthroat’s paint being the main victims.

Another morale sapping event occurred a few kilometres past Afra. Having restocked after a 100km stint, I decided to clear my nose, the dust was also playing havoc with my breathing. I was unprepared for the the resulting bloodbath that was worthy of any 80’s video nasty! Thankfully it was only another 30km until the next village where I could wave farewell and bin my snot and blood soaked Fox Sidewinder gloves! My bivi spot that night was behind some large heaps of road chippings outside Afella N’Dra. While not the most inspirational sounding location, I was treated again to the most amazing night sky and zero disturbance!

Day Three

After a very hard couple of days, the sun rising to reveal palm trees and the Cascade de Tizgui was a real morale-booster. Even the beast of a tarmac climb was a relief as it meant steady progress! 25km flew by and out of the desert emerged what I feared was a mirage, half a dozen cafes in quick succession! By now I knew the drill, if there was food, EAT!

I joined a fellow racer who was musing on their progress and deciding how their load could be lightened. Whoever cleared the table would find themselves a tip that included an iPod, earbuds and various other superfluous luxuries. Marginal gains, right? For the first time since the start, I felt fit and ready for whatever lay ahead. It was serendipitous that my elation coincided with what must have been the finest stage of the event.

In an oasis

I’ll just stay here. Someone pick me up.

The Thousand Yard Stare

Soon after leaving Ait Saoun, you wave goodbye to the tarmac and say hello to 75km of prime flowing gravel. With a slight gradient and a tailwind propelling me, the only thing missing was a drone shot as I blazed through the desert. After about an hour, I saw a rider heading towards me, I slowed and called “Hello!” only to receive a thousand yard stare in response.

As we drew alongside each other I asked “Are you ok?”, no response.

“Mate, are you alright?”

“How far is the road, is it this way?” was the reply.

“Yeah, about an hour’s ride, are you sure you’re…” and off he rode.

I’ve never seen anyone so broken by a bike ride with my own eyes! For the next 50km the only other person I saw waved me down to sell me dates from their farm. A few dirhams changed hands and a welcome change to processed snacks was purchased. The great riding continued all the way to Taznakht where the petrol station provided another boost, orange juice!

Desert riding

75km of the finest gravel trails between Ait Saoun and Taznakht, you’d never tire of it!

The half-way point

As I headed out of Taznakht I knew that the next big milestone was Checkpoint 2 and the knowledge that I’d be over the half-way line. While there were three potential resupply points in 110km, none were open as I passed through. The checkpoint at Paradis d’Aguinane wasn’t going to have to offer much to live up to its name! The desert road gradually morphed into tarmac and a series of serpentine hairpins dropped me into the valley rapidly. It was clear where the Paradis title was earned, it seemed an age since I saw such lush vegetation!

The tremendous descent into Aguinane

The tremendous descent into Aguinane

While the checkpoint was a welcome source of nourishment, for many it was the end of their race. In the time it took me to eat, drink and arrange some sarnies to go, three fellow riders had scratched with either their bodies or bikes crying “Enough!” Knowing how hard it was to source palatable food, when I saw the shop was selling kilo bags of Smarties, I had to buy some!

I decided to push on rather than sleep at the checkpoint. Knowing that a sizable chunk of tarmac riding lie ahead and that it could be covered as quickly at night as it could during the day. Eventually I stopped at the roadside about 35km later, not just from fatigue but from the failure of all bar one of my lights! I decided that I’d have an early night and set an earlier alarm to compensate. Using my remaining light sparingly to unpack my bivi, I once again had an amazing night sky to fall asleep to.

Day Four

I awoke at 4.30 to the sound of my alarm and broke camp hoping my remaining light would survive the packing process and last until sunrise. My long term goal for the day was to find a cafe with a mains socket that would hopefully breathe life back into my other lights. If I couldn’t ride at night then that would be the end of my race.

Benny Simpson riding the AMR

Benny Simpson, with whom I switched places as trails went from rough to smooth

Tagmout, the Mos Eisley of the Atlas Mountain Race

As the day went on I met up with a face I recognised from a couple of cafe stops. It was Benny, a rider from Haifa. It was good to have a chat and see how others were faring. Over the course of 60km Benny and I traded position. On the tarmac and smoother trails the Cutthroat took the lead while Benny’s MTB hardtail ate up the rougher trails and descents.

About 10km from Tagmout, Benny once again took the lead as we descended through another baby-head rock filled dry river bed. As the trail flattened out I saw him stop and leap from his bike. As I caught up I asked if he’d got a flat, he pointed at his rear mech. It had split in two at the clutch! “Maybe I’ll catch you at the Cafe in Tagmout” he said as I rode off. Abandoning him felt wrong but that’s the nature of a self-supported race.

With all due respect to Tagmout, it looked grander from a distance. As I got closer I could see my hopes for fine dining were going to be dashed. Still, any port in a storm, right? An omelette was again the only cooked option so I plumped for a can of tuna and some flatbread. This caught the attention of a  friendly local who despite only having one eye, could see I was a soft touch. Another can of tuna was purchased in due course and we both settled down to lunch. As I finished up I could see another racer across the square. Another victim of the river-bed rocks. He was sat waiting for a taxi to evacuate him and his broken bike. Taking one last look back in the direction I came from, I wondered if I might see Benny on his repaired bike, but alas not.

Not a swift departure

My departure from Tagmout was held up with derailleur issues of my own. As I rode away from the town, a dust-devil whipped up and after I uncovered my eyes I found my cranks wouldn’t turn. I looked down to see that a plastic bag had been blown into my rear mech and jammed the jockey wheels. Luckily nothing had broken and the SRAM cage-lock meant that taking it apart wasn’t too difficult. The only worry it would ping off and fire the jockey wheel into orbit.

Plain Sailing?

It was around 60km to the next resupply at Issafen. No time could be wasted, not only did I need to catch the cafe open for food, but also try and charge my lights! The next stage of the race was probably the most iconic. If you’ve seen the teaser video, you’ll know the trail. A couple of cues on the official Atlas Mountain Race GPX prepared me for what lay ahead, road collapsed was alarming enough, road totally destroyed didn’t fill me with confidence. It hadn’t exactly been plain sailing so far!

Epic views in Morocco

Iconic views in the Atlas

Total Destruction

Thankfully, although the trail was rough, the astonishing backdrop more than compensated for the effort put in. While the colonial past certainly carries baggage with it, the feat of engineering putting these roads in place was impressive. Credit to those individuals who must have put in back-breaking labour during their construction. With this in mind, I told myself that I shouldn’t complain about the route being hard going!

What goes up, must come down, so the saying goes and eventually I crossed the pass as the sun set. The condition of the track set the pace of descent so my sub-standard lighting wasn’t an issue. Joining a main road with dubious lighting would normally be cause for concern, but once again a nighttime tarmac session was completed in isolation.

As I approached Issafen and saw its size and street lighting, I felt hopeful I’d find somewhere to eat. Seeing a couple of bikes propped by a cafe I pulled over and was delighted to see they were still serving. A further bonus, the owner had become an AMR fan and offered his storeroom as a bivi spot! Both myself and Markus Stitz (of Bikepacking Scotland fame) took him up on this kind offer. Not having to unpack all my bivi kit and being able to charge my lights was too good an opportunity to miss.

However, things don’t always work out the way you expect. The staff stayed behind chatting and joking until nearly 2.00 am. Once they’d finally gone home, our peace was further shattered by a cross-town barking competition by Issafen’s many feral dogs! While precious little sleep was had, the extra oomph of a mains socket was enough to coax my Exposure Diablo back into life. Sadly the same couldn’t be said of my Lezyne Macro Duo. It was still as dead as a doornail.

After the rocky riverbed followed gravel heaven!

After the rocky riverbed followed gravel heaven!

Day Five

With the race manual proclaiming the stage from Issafen was probably one of the toughest sections of the race, I was apprehensive of tackling it in my sleep-deprived state. Luckily the sun rose before I hit the rough stuff and in reality it wasn’t so bad.

If you expect the worst you’ll never be disappointed…

With the rough stuff dispensed with, there were fabulous trails still to ride en route to Checkpoint 3. Aside from the dust clouds thrown up by the occasional aggregate truck, the hard-packed gravel to Ait Mansour was a delight. The checkpoint itself was reminiscent of Aguinane. The approach was along a narrow snaking valley of densely packed trees and one of the few places where I saw regular tourists.

Brevet stamped, a swift bowl of pasta wolfed down and I was on the road again. With only 40km to Tafraoute, the largest settlement since Marrakech, I was looking forward to another good feed!

Bright lights, big city thattaway!

Bright lights, big city thattaway!

The Bright Lights

The descent into the town centre felt like reaching the finish line, multi-coloured streetlights lined the boulevard reminiscent of the final metres of a grand tour stage! In the final few kilometres of the ride I’d decided that I’d search out a hotel room in town. A good meal and rest would set me up for the final 160km. And I could again make sure my lights were fully charged for an early start.

I also had a more immediate concern. I’d picked up a couple of painful saddle sores. Having heard at the last two checkpoints of riders scratching because of similar ailments, I was keen not to fall at the final hurdle! As luck should have it there was a late-night pharmacy opposite the Hotel Tifawine. Filled with a turkey taco and fries, I retired to my £12 a night en-suite double to shower, patch myself up with Urgoderm tape and grab some well earned shut-eye.

The early morning commute

I crept out of the hotel at 5am, regretting that I couldn’t stay for breakfast. I had a spare turkey taco from the night before as I knew that the shop 10km down the road was unlikely to be open this early. It would be another 40km before the next marked resupply point. I had a good feeling about the day, I knew this would be the final push to the end and that the route would be gravel rather than MTB terrain.

The race manual warned of one last hike-a-bike section, I encountered this in the heat of the midday sun and I’ll confess to having been passed by a donkey on the way up! With 60km to go, I rolled into Sidi Abbdallah El Bouchouari. It was here that the pidgin French that had got me over a 1,000km through the Atlas Mountains failed me. Luckily a young lad in the cafe exclaimed “Rashid!” in a Eureka! moment and disappeared out of the door. He returned with the eponymous Rashid, a young man keen to practice his English, talk about the Atlas Mountain Race and exchange Instagram follows (@rashidraiss9– hit up his account!).

With Rashid’s assistance, a large bottle of Coca-Cola arrived which really hit the spot. Bidding farewell, I rolled out of town and down the last significant gradient of the event. I feel a little guilty typing this but after the grandeur of the Atlas Mountains, the last 40km was a bit of an anti-climax. Naturally, as the terrain levelled out, urban developments are more prevalent along with more intensive agriculture. I’m sure my general fatigue didn’t help, but there was an awful lot of pushing along field boundaries in deep sand during the last 20km.

Looking into the desert

I can coast the way to finish, yeah?

Atlas Mountain Race: The Finish

I reached the tarmac that signalled I was only minutes from completing the Atlas Mountain Race. Rolling into the finish at La Dune, my first concern was to make sure that my Brevet was stamped, but Nelson and his team had other ideas. I had arrived at the finish line just as the riders had assembled for the end of race party! The welcome I received from my fellow racers meant any negativity disappeared just as fast as the beer that was thrust into my hand!

While it would have been nice to collapse at the bar, there was unfortunately no rest for me. The shuttle taking the bikes back to Marrakech would be loaded at 7.30am the following morning. So my first job was to break the Salsa Cutthroat down and pack it for transit.

Well, once I’d bought another couple of beers to the help the process along….

Avid bike rider and obsessed about kit. Nigel has been mountain biking, fat biking and gravel biking around the world: Rov66 Winner, 24hr racer, Tour Divide, LEL & Atlas Mountain Race finisher.

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