I veröffentliche mein Atlas Mountain Race Journal zweisprachig. Suchst du nach der deutschen Version? Folge diesem Link.
When a man goes on a trip, he has a story to tell.
And boy, have I had a journey.
A racing trip again, of course. A Race Journey – this term was coined in a great video about an earlier Transcontinental Race, which describes so well what participation in self-supported bikepacking races is in essence and figuratively speaking. A race. Sure. But also a journey. A Race Journey.
One of these took me to Morocco and through the Atlas Mountains in February this year. I took part in the inaugural edition of the Atlas Mountain Race. A self-supported bicycle race over 1150 kilometers from Marrakech across the High Atlas and through the stone deserts of the Anti-Atlas to the Atlantic coast south of Agadir.
Unlike the many other bikepacking races I have participated in, in Morocco it was mostly off the beaten track and away from civilization, over mostly rough and sometimes pretty rough bits and through remote areas. Sometimes for a whole day, without a single supply possibility on course of that stint.
In my journal you can await:
- Drama before and during the race
- Berber Hospitality
- Decisions of fate (did I say drama?)
- impassable terrain
- incredible landscapes
and the story of a Lanterne Rouge.
Morocco! North Africa! The High Atlas! My first race outside Europe. Wow! Those were my thoughts and that’s how I described it when I happily announced here in my blog that I got a starting place for the very first edition of the Atlas Mountain Race (this link leads to the German blog post).
A big part of Bikepacking races is the preparation. Talking about anticipation does this aspect a big injustice. The preparation is real joy and it is part of a good race. So it is not just some idle banter but an immediate success factor and already part of the race. An appropriate saying here is the proverb „Fail to prepare is to prepare to fail“.
And to deal with maps, topography, the country to be travelled and also the equipment, brings me a lot of fun in itself. And so I threw myself into the preparation over the winter. I do have collected some bikepacking experience now I can say. But mainly on the road and also through Europe. Now I had to prepare an off-road race. So it was completely different terrain. Not only from the underground, but also from the landscape and its challenges. An arid stony desert area is again something completely different from Central Europe, where the next town, the next supermarket and the next petrol station is perhaps only 10 kilometres away – even if the underground for an off-road race in Europe perhaps in parts just as stony and difficult to ride on.
About tent or bivouac sack (bivy) and choice of bike I have already written in great detail (although the respective articles are available in German only): Here (Tent, Tarp or Bivy – Shelter for the Atlas Mountain Race) and here (My bike for the Atlas Mountain Race or „Everything you always wanted to know about gravel bikes, mountain bikes for bikepacking, gear ratios and equipment statistics of the Tour Divide and the Silkroad Mountain Race, but never dared to ask.) And a few more technical things and discussion of equipment I will give in future articles. For now just so much: Bike and overnight equipment have proved to be extremely fit for the job. Especially with my choice of bike, an XC Full Suspension with 100 mm travel front and rear, the Rose Thrill Hill, I couldn’t have been happier.
Training? That’s also part of the preparation. Well, here I am a typical roadie. As such the cliché goes that you never trained enough and it could have gone much better. But indeed, also quite objectively, it could have been. I could only start training again in the middle of December. Before that, I had been a rather severe cold (and I guess with partly a chest infection going on, I don’t know) for about 2 months from mid-October on. Coming out of a great Trans Pyrenees Race (see my Blog Post here, it’s available in English) I rested for 2 weeks and then slowly wanted to start again when a real flu had paralyzed me completely. I never had anything like that before. Neither so violent nor so long. Well… Be that as it may.
2. A touch of the jitters up to the starting line and alternative plans (which almost had to be put into action)
The application for a starting place was successful, the training is going to plan (although it could have started earlier). What can go wrong now? Oh, my goodness. There’s a lot of things! I’m always aware of that. Among the usual things that make me nervous about summer racing – „Can’t wait for the start. Can we go now already, please?“, „All I want to do is stand at the starting line and start riding.“ – and always, just no infection just before the start, please, please. Including an aversion to social contacts or big meetings just before any race, even in summer time, now came the certain fact: A race in mid-February. In the middle of the flu season. You can’t take anything for granted there. A 50-50 chance of being healthy right for the time of the race. And with me it’s not like maybe some of you who would go to the start of such events with a cough or a cold (think of your heart!) or who just need a couch for 3 days and then are fit again. Nope – if I get a flu-like infection or even a simple cold, I have 14 days to struggle with it from the first symptoms until it subsides completely and with it the possibility of a meaningful resumption of training (not to mention a competition).
Large parts of the world’s population only learned in the past weeks what it means when their own quality of life or health / survival depends on following a few simple things. Wash your hands more often, stay away from potential sources of infection (which in winter means as little contact as possible with larger groups of people, because there are always some idiots dragging themselves sick to work or elsewhere), get enough sleep and eat healthy food. Welcome to my world or the world of professional cyclists. Which I am by no means. But if, as with me, your complete inability to do what you love is gone for 1/24th of the year (half a month), when you catch even a simple cold then you look at people who come into your office sniffing and blowing with a barely concealed displeasure…
To cut a long story short: With all the anticipation, I was only too aware that it could always have happened that I would catch something in the last two weeks before the race. And then? Flight is booked, Morocco has been identified as a great destination of longing and loaded with anticipation. I can’t just possibly stay at home then.
Maybe then I would at least have been able to take short day trips. Or to drive with a rented car to focal points of the race and to tourist attractions. And I would have focused my time on taking pictures. My second great passion.
But I also wanted to take pictures anyway. The landscapes. But also the night sky. Maybe something with a shallow depth of field? With this in mind, I designed my photographic equipment for Morocco to be a little more powerful than my normal compact camera, the Sony RX100, which always accompanies me. So last winter I bought the brand new Olympus OMD E-M5 mkIII. Awaited by me for many years as a worthy successor for my E-M5 mk I (and no, the mk II was not interesting) and much better suited for taking along on the bike especially because of the small lenses than my 35mm full format system, based on the Sony alpha 7 II.
I would enjoy the landscape in Morocco. And taking pictures. Come what may! So here was already the foundation laid for something which would slow me a bit down: the overwhelming landscape of Morocco, which, despite all the anticipation and preparation for the country (and also the race spirit), captivated me so much that I sometimes stopped x times per kilometer and pulled out my camera because I found the surroundings so amazing…
Go Pear-shaped possibility no. 2: No bike at the start.
So, that was reason number one why things could have gone pear-shaped even before the start. What else is there? Of course you have to get to the starting line first. Important tidbit: together with your equipment and your bike.
This is not to be taken for granted either. Especially not when air travel is involved. Generally speaking, I prefer to be able to roll to the start with my bike all set up at home. Never let it out of your sight. No disassembly. So either riding directly with the bike to the start. Or with the bike in the trunk of a car. If that is not possible, then by train (which is often annoying and difficult). And very unwillingly, but unavoidably here, by plane.
Since any change of planes increases the possibility of errors, I try to book a flight without stop-over at the beginning of January. Whether from Düsseldorf, Cologne-Bonn or even Frankfurt is not important to me. The main thing is non-stop. It was difficult. It took a whole day, but then I finally had my non-stop flight which also had a guaranteed spot for bike luggage (that’s always the tricky part). But from Frankfurt. Unfortunately also at a very un-godly time. Start at 7:30am meant check-in at 6am and so I arrived with my car already in the night to be on the safe side and spend the short rest of the night with my sleeping bag on the passenger seat of my car in the airport parking garage.
At 7:30 am on Thursday before the race I am sitting halfway fresh in the plane. What is apparently not fresh are its batteries and engines. Some waiting time and Lufthansa technicians bustle through the passenger compartment later it’s time to get off again. The flight is cancelled. Well – quickly to the service desk and see how Lufthansa can rebook me. I get a replacement flight via Madrid to Marrakesh. Oh great. Now stop-over and no early arrival in Marrakech at noon, but insecurity, stress and after the short night now the whole day is fading away and I will arrive in the evening instead. And this, as I learn about 1 hour after landing in Morocco and after my money exchange, without my bike bag…
As if I knew…
3. Welcome to Marrakesh
Great! Now what? I queue up at the lost luggage counter. First contact with Moroccan bureaucracy. Fill in the appropriate form and then hope for the best. Of course I’ll be assured that I’ll be contacted immediately if my bag turns up. No, there’s no way of knowing where it is in the system. With the form together with the telephone number, which I then use more often the following day, and the web address of the Baggage Claim Service (which I use much more often still) I leave the airport with my backpack. That’s all I can do for now. Now I just want to go to the hotel first.
Mogador Kasbah, is the name, and it is located in the Nouvelle Zone Touristique Agdal, just south of the medina. It is also the starting point of the race and place of registration. I had booked a room there directly when it was announced to the participants by Nelson Trees, the race organizer.
When I arrive there in the evening, I already meet the first familiar faces in the lobby. How nice! This continues the next morning. But now in the evening my first aim is to find a supermarket to get something to eat and to know where I can buy food in preparation for the first day of the race. It’s a very big Carrefour market on the ground floor of a typical European shopping area with a supermarket, an electrical store and several bistros on three floors. About 10 minutes walk from the hotel.
The following day is the day of registration. It begins with a breakfast from the nice buffet and small talk with old and new friends. I have breakfast with Stephane, meet Aleš soon, see Alex, get to know Magnus, then find Martin and Tobias, who arrived from their hotel in the medina. Then I have a relaxed lunch with Martin, Tobias, Markus, Robert and Max in the early afternoon in the shopping area. Externally. Inside I have to think of my bike all the time, of course. On the baggage claim website nothing is happening. There is no hint about any progress or any trace of my bag. No information can be given to me by telephone also.
The race briefing in the afternoon comes, and I still don’t have a bike. If the bike doesn’t arrive in time, what are my alternatives? Start a bit later? Stupid – but I guess I have to. Borrow me a bike? Atlas Sport in Marrakesh seems to be a very good bike shop with modern equipment. Borrow a mountain bike from there? But – of course all my bikepacking bags, all my equipment and also my shoes, pants and helmet are in the bike bag… so that wouldn’t help.
At last! My next call brings good news. Of course I was not called and without my own initiative I wouldn’t have got any further. I find out that my bike would arrive on a night flight from Madrid. Hold on: estimated landing time at 01:30 in the night!
Whew! But now I have a goal. I try rather poorly to get to sleep in the evening already at 8:00 pm. The traffic in front of the hotel is loud and my earplugs are in my bike bag with the rest of my equipment. At 1 am I take a taxi to the airport. As I walk through the whole airport from the departure entrance (passing two security guards) through the baggage arrival hall, I can already see my bike bag at the far end as it is just pushed in. Great – that’s mine, I tell the official, who is standing there arriving from the other side. But of course it is not possible to take it with me just like that. First my baggage claim case has to be officially closed. His superior must come for that. Who finally does so after 10 minutes. That’s more than I could hope for, I guess. It is the middle of the night and he explains to me that he only does this as an exception for his colleagues who are responsible for foreign airlines – but not on site. Another 10 minutes later I can finally leave the airport with my bike bag.
Off with the same taxi which waited for me back to the hotel and immediately start with the setup. Piece by piece assembling the bike, kneeling in the hotel room and fighting with a bent rear brake rotor. Truly not the best night’s work just before the race. In wise foresight I had bought a small combination pliers at noon in the Carrefour. It was now worth its weight in gold. Nevertheless, I just so ever managed to get the rear brake free of grinding. Luckily everything else was undamaged and at 5:30 a.m my bike was ready and waiting in my hotel room fully clad with all the bags!
But now it was only three and a half hours until the start at 9am! I dozed for another hour and a half and then quickly got into my cycling kit, went down to the almost empty breakfast room and then back up again, got the bike, down again and rolled to the starting line. Now a quick first and only bike check after the setup. It rolls. Good. Rear brake. Does not drag. Also good. Seems to work, so it seems I don’t have to pull out of the peloton after 300 meters and go to the bike shop first, I think. And before I can think of anything else, the gun goes off and there’s the start of the race! On time!
4. Stint 1: From the start to the CP 1 – Try Walking in my shoes
About 180 participants roll off behind a police escort. Most of them as solo riders, about 18 as duos in the pairs classification. About the same way you know it from other races. First of all the participants have to be led out of Marrakesh on a neutralized track. Unlike some other races, the AMR has a fixed route. So all participants follow the same route. So even after the neutralization, which at some point outside Marrakesh is only noticeable because Nelson is standing on the side of the road with his Race-Orga car and is calling something towards the already pretty stretched crowd in an indecipherable way. I take it as a mixture of encouragement, good wishes and „from now on, don’t fucking ride in the draft anymore“.
Even before that, the first time I hit the brakes, a shock jolts through my bones! Oh dear, the rear brake handle pulsates like hell. I’ve never had anything like this before (but I’ve never had a hydraulically disc-braked mountain bike before either – road hydraulics, sure, many). Would it be necessary to swerve out of the race nevertheless and to find the bike shop? Would it even be open? How much time would that cost me? But the other alternative would be ride from the very beginning of the race and the the full distance through the desert with a possibly soon failing rear brake! I decide for the risk and I am not really happy.
And I’m not fast either. At least not in the downhills. Although I can benefit from my wide mountain bike tyres (some gravel bikes or monster gravellers have them too) and from my front and rear suspension from the first few metres off the tarmac. At least I can let it run sooner and faster than many others and am even safer on the road. On the one hand. On the other hand, I don’t want to go too fast and am in fact slower than quite a few – the pulsating rear brake is a constant reminder that I might have a severely wounded vehicle under my backside right from the get go.
And, there are enough downhill runs, even very steep ones, right from the start. That is despite the fact that the route is leading us uphill. Nothing less than the highest point of the race and more or less the main ridge of the Atlas mountains is to be overcome today before reaching the CP1 in Telhouet. On really steep paths. Some parts on asphalt, but most of it already on gravel roads.
And even on asphalt I tell myself relatively soon: better get off and push early now, than to mess up your knees already at the beginning. This was partly due to my experience in the Trans Pyrenees Race, where I had problems with my left knee from the middle of the race onwards. And I also had quite a sore back here and there on the first day. Since I didn’t had that anymore in the following days, I have to attribute that to the sleepless night and the bending around while building the bike. One sleepless night, which followed another sleeples night in the airport parking lot interluded with only one normal hotel room night before. So, I pushed. Every now and then. I wasn’t alone in this. But I still would have liked to be faster. But yet I was so glad and happy to be on the track and in the race. Also the brake pulsed less severe already. I guess I might just have straightened the rotor a bit by the constant braking, who knows.
Not that I need them now. A great sunset takes place behind us while we push the last serpentines of the rough gravel road before the pass summit. We, that’s Stu and Markus at the moment, with whom I have changed positions a little bit while riding and pushing and Stefano, who is also there with a race car and who is doing interviews for the podcast of the race (I highly recommend you to listen to the 6 Episodes of the Podcast covering the race. You can find them here).
But by the time I reach the top, darkness has completely fallen. And what I see there is no pass summit. No, what there is to see in the light of my light are big rocks. …and a little notch. The track stops bluntly and turns into a mule track that can hardly be seen nor followed on the ground. Oh swell – you just couldn’t make that out in advance by just researching maps and you could only get a faint idea from yesterday afternoon’s briefing!
All right. At over 2550 meters above sea level and at night it is now very chill. So first I put on leg warmers and take out the down jacket. Then I heave my bike over the crevice and look for the entrance to the path. From now on I have to trust the GPS track on my Wahoo in the dark. On the ground in the light of the bike and helmet light the trail is only visible in parts. And on top of that it is steep and impassable. Already after the first 200 meters I am really fed up! While my ankles don’t twist my feet are constantly being deflected have to adapt. On the one hand not that bad and just natural for such a trail, on the other hand I notice that the entry area of my Lake MTB shoes, as comfortable and good they are for riding and as little you notice the entry area when walking on the plain, here in this terrain is hell. It is no coincidence that I later titled the strava activity of the first stint „Try walking in my shoes“. Which I mean literally. I realize – if I continue that way it’s going to kill me and I will have bruises and sore areas on both ankles when I scramble down the whole trail, about 5 to 6 km in that fashion. I am forced to sit down and change my shoes. Off with the Lake MTB shoes, out an on with my Lizard Kross Ibrido trail sandals. You may know that for summer races (where I ride on the road with road shoes) I have light Kung Fu slippers as part of my off-bike clothing. For the travel to and returning from the race. Or the finisher party, occasional hotel nights and such things. Here for the rougher terrain of Morocco, and for in February also possible snow in the Atlas and for river crossings I looked for more robust options. But nevertheless light and also fast drying. I found them in these Ibridos. Although some of the finer gravel here would get into my sandals while descending, that was better than to torture me even further with the hard MTB shoes.
I spend 1 hour and 17 minutes following the serpentine winding path downhill. 3 kilometres long. Leading the bike by my side. Sometimes the path was clearly defined because the mountain was steep on one side and steep on the other. Sometimes I wondered where it was and just followed the track on the computer. Finally I am at the bottom. Of sorts. But riding is still not possible now. Somehow the trail seems to follow a dried out river bed and the scramble is getting wilder despite a flatter descent. Another 40 minutes pass and 1.6 km are covered. How do I know that? I pushed my bike as much during the whole Atlas Mountain Race as I did the whole decade before or so it felt. That’s why I was very interested in the overall percentage of hike-a-bike sections and of course I analyzed my bike computer recordings in detail. By means of performance and cadence data as well as gradient you can clearly see where you have pushed and where you haven’t. Here and today on the first day of the AMR I pushed my bike for a total of 206 minutes and 9 km on 125 km up and down.
Finally I reach the beginning of a passable gravel road. Sandals off, MTB shoes on and I can roll the last almost 4 km to the intermediate goal of CP1!
Telouet! A prominent place in the history of Morocco with the Kasbah of the El Glaoui family. I read some of it in advance, but I don’t get or see anything from either one or the other during my short stay. I come in the dark and I will leave in the dark early the next morning.
That already gives it away. I don’t ride further for now, but decide that here and now is a good point for a short, well, on the scale of a bikepacking race for an almost extensive sleep break. After all, there is food, supplies to buy and a roofed sleeping place as well as the motivating „hustle and bustle“ of a checkpoint. I, as well as other race participants are happy to have reached the first milestone. Although it is only 125 km after the start, it is 23:00 at night when I arrive in front of the Auberge Restaurant Telouet.
This one is as charming as it is rustic. With a squat toillette inside and brickwork as rough inside as outside. But the owners were very efficient in providing a place for everyone’s sleeping bag (for 50 Dirham which is pretty much 5 Euro) and helping everyone to eat quickly. The lovely Laura and her colleague, who you can see sitting together in the photo, even had to hold back the eager young restaurant-helper a bit, so that I could get my brevet card stamped and get my initial bearings and then put my bike and sleeping bag away. Then I was already ushered to get to the other side of the street and up a staircase to the restaurant area. What followed was a short reassurance that I was ok with what he just spelled out as having to eat for me as a small menu and I just said yes, gladly. Shortly after that, the multi-course menu started. First a salad marrocain, then olives and a few fries. Bread, of course. Then immediately the first of many omelettes of the race and as desert orange slices with cinnamon. Then as a final my first Moroccan mint tea. Very fine!
After I’m satiated, I go down the stairs and into a shop whose sign identifies it as a patisserie, but which is more like a small kiosk with nuts and small nibbles. I look for something with nuts and small chip bags and a flat bread that promises me some first calories for breakfast the next morning as also for on the way. Fortunately I also have a number of gels and nut-butter sachets with me. Because the next possibility to eat will be in Ghassat. 60 kilometres from here. 60… that’s roughly half of what I’ve covered today. Well, this should be something, I think…
But first of all sleep. I walk to my already prepared sleeping bag in a big room, where 20 or 25 other people are probably already dozing or sleeping. Or come in later. Or get up in the night sometime. Me myself I’m feeling somehow sweaty in my sleeping bag. And still, or despite it, rather clammy. I can’t open this ultralight sleeping bag completely anyway. Nor that I want it. Even halfway. Because then it gets too cold. The night’s rest wasn’t that bad, but after 4 hours I’m fed up and decide that trying to squeeze out a few more minutes of good sleep won’t work and won’t do me any good anyway. I better get up and get ready for the next stint. It was certainly not more than 4 hours of sleep, when I quietly collect my things and go to the front entrance room. A few other participants also prepare their start. Markus for example, the only participant with a singlespeed bike. I eat something first (better now than jolting along off-road paths in the dark) and am glad that I can get my sleeping bag and mat back into my front double rolltop bag on the handlebars quite well without having to make great contortions of myself or even remove the bag from the handlebar. Of course I still need my time, including the morning toilet (on the squat toilet), until I am finally ready to go. E.g. a portrait of Govert must still be done.
He is one of the caring souls who volunteered to stand guard during the night for us and await other arriving participants. Drinking hot mint tea I find him huddled in a warm blanket and ask for permission to make a portrait.
It is 06:27 am when I finally start the Wahoo and ride off. And of course it’s still pitch dark – after all it is winter and the nights are still long. The sun will only rise around a quarter past eight. On into the second day!
5. Stint 2 – Morocco, what an incredible country!
This is the headline and the feeling of the whole second day. Yesterday it started quite helter-skelter. The bike finally finished, a short nap, then a few breakfast calories and jump with the bike to the starting line and off we went. The weather was still a bit overcast and later only slightly brighter. And while the landscape was interesting and rough it was also still a bit green. In parts a bit grubby and the contrast of Marrakech towards and into a deserted surrounding area was lingering on quite a while and set part of the tone for me yesterday.
Today however… First it was still dark and the track lead slightly uphill for a short time, then clearly downhill on good asphalt. But not for long and in a small village it went left and away from the asphalt. Onto a flowing path, which required riding skills and some courage in the dark, because it was narrow and was accompanied on the left by a moat and on the right by quite a slope. It went up and down in a slight rolling fashion. Slowly the night sky turns a soft black-blue and canyon edges are silhouetted against the sky. And then a lonely light shines there, while I push my bike through a riverbed. Ah – so there is a small settlement here beside me.
A few bends of the then ascending path later I enjoy the changing colours of the immaculate morning sky and watch how the valley below me gets more and more colours. Redder and redder. And I take several photos. Further uphill meters later the course leads over an undulating plateau, whose shapes and the mountain ranges behind it are modeled piece by piece by the rising sun.
What an atmosphere! I take photo after photo and am simply blown away! As soon as I turn around another curve, I suddenly see Max, who had taken indulgence to the next level and was enjoying a freshly brewed coffee.
For not much further and a downhill stretch I had written in my road book: „170 km: maybe from here a view to the Ouarzazate Solar Power Station?“ And indeed! Down there deep in the plain the Central Receiver Tower is gleaming.
I have to zoom in and do a light cropping for the shot as you see it. Nevertheless, this plant is not to be overlooked. It is the solar power plant Noor, located only 10 km north of Ouarzazate. A complex of several solar thermal and a photovoltaic power plant. The glistening tower is 240 m high and belongs to the Noor III plant, which was only completed in March 2018. With good reason, because this region is ideal for it. With one of the highest levels of solar radiation in the world at around 2,500 kWh per square metre and almost 365 days of sunshine. I can see this for myself here and now. Just one more look at the downhill run in front of me and a few more participants who lie in front of me and are just taking a curve around the mountainside deep below me, and then it goes on.
After the great descent and two dry riverbeds later the track goes up again. The aforementioned sunshine causes me to sit down, take off the leg warmers and change from long-sleeved to short-sleeved jersey. And apply the first sunscreen of the race. And as soon as I have covered the short distance to the next crest, I have to stop again. Wow – what a valley! Everything so reddish brown and completely dry. A winding path and then in the middle of it a few adobe buildings and some bright green! Today is Morocco Wow Day. Every bend brings me completely new views. One more interesting than the other and as such never seen by me before.
When I arrive at the bottom of the tiny village, I see that its centre is a now almost completely ruined Agadir. This is the name for the fortified, old loam-built storage castles. In the Berber language also called Igherm. This is how I learned it before the race scouring all available material about Morocco. But it could also have been a Tighremt. This is what it is called when the granary castle also had an additional living function.
Anyway. As soon as I put the camera or in that case the iPhone away a brilliant descent begins. Not of the type rough and curvy or steep but of the type „Only flying is more beautiful“. A good, even runway, slightly sloping. Into the aerobars and go! How fun!
A good bit later I am back on asphalt for the first time. Now it’s only 7 kilometers to Ghassat. Up to here I have taken turns with Max on his Open UP from time to time. I was faster in the descents, he slightly faster in the easy climbs and we both had completely different some time short some time longer breaks. We only ride together for a short time or in closer range. Otherwise completely alone and apart from each other. But every now and then one passes the other. At a short rest. Or a particularly long descent or an ascent. Here on the slightly sloping good tarmac I have, as expected, no chance to get any closer to Max who is riding far ahead of me. It rolls quite pleasantly, but of course I can’t really make any speed with my 32 chainring. I also don’t have to here and now. Soon the asphalt will be just a memory again anyway. But first I roll into Ghassat. The racetrack turns left just before the village. And there is also a police man waving me to go that way. The police were of course prepared in all prefectures crossed by the race and sometimes you could find a police man stationed in the middle of nowhere. But I personally only noticed them on the first and second day.
So I leave the officials to their own devices. After all, the race manual lists Ghassat as the only place to eat far and wide. And it is time for lunch. I am curious what I will find. It is a tiny hut on a kind of wide hard shoulderwith a shelter and two or three tables beneath it and even a kicker in front of it. In the shop itself, which almost looks more like a garage with shelves on the sides and a counter at the far end, there are various snacks (a few kinds of crisps, but mostly various kinds of snacks and chocolate or cookie bars). I get the last coke (only a 1 I bottle is available so I take that one) and am offered an omelette. Of course – what else! Omelette seems to be everywhere in Morocco, I learn. And it will be confirmed in the coming days.
I spend 36 minutes there, eat omelette with flat bread, drink from the Coke, pour the rest into a small bottle, fill up my water bottles and put the snacks I bought in my food pouch and in my bagpack. Then I get back on the track. I can enjoy a short stretch of asphalt. And again a new kind of the always similar but then again so varied landscape to enjoy. Here now the seemingly endless plain that spreads out left and right in front of me and the road that leads far towards a chain of hills. This is where I actually drop off the first instagram of the race from my side. Not as a panorama as you can see below, but as a portrait photo:
Only to discover shortly thereafter: Oops, didn’t last long. Because there it was again a gravel road:
There follows a bit of a washboard piste, but I think it’s harmless on a global scale (I don’t have any washboard experience at all and I can’t say anything about it with authority) and after this the somewhat bigger town of Toundoute, which can only be reached if you would turn left off the race course. I am still well supplied, so I don’t need that. The route takes me further south. Of course not without crossing one of the numerous dry river valleys again. Up to now the biggest one of the only 1.5 days young race. It goes down steep and deep and then over extra rough gravel and bigger stones across. Some bits are rideable, some not. On the way back up on the other side my view falls on silvery green shimmering trees and a village. A typical Wadi oasis, a typical settlement there. Fascinating.
A moment later I want to process all this and eat something in peace instead of trying to do that while constantly bumping in the saddle. I take the opportunity for a first self-portrait in the race. Up to this place I have been on the road for 10 hours now. It was never boring, not for a second. And for the fact that there are only stones and rocks, the landscape and the views are amazingly diverse. For a moment I reflect how crazy slow my progress seems to be. But more about that later.
The next small village is not long in coming. An even more impressive Agadir than this morning lies before me. And flowering trees to the left of the path. And yes, I smell the blossoms.
A sweaty ascent leads through the village and takes me to a new seemingly endless stone desert plain, through which only a lonely double track leads. Meanwhile it is already 18:30 and the light is phenomenal! But that makes it abundantly clear that it is not long before dusk falls. And I’m still far from the point that is now beginning to emerge as the only sensible goal for the day. This is Imassine. In about 21 kilometers. And I’ve only covered 110 kilometers to the point where I am right now today. Actually, I want to go further than Imassine. I’d like to get further. But I don’t know what’s coming now yet.
But what I do know is that of the numerous riverbed crossings of the race course one very prominent would come shortly after Imassine. And that one would indeed carry running water. So was the information given in the official race manual, which gives a brief description of the track sections: „For SRMR veterans, there is even a river crossing!“ In my preparation, I scoured every meter of the track by air or satellite image display available and in the map view of Komoot, Openstreetmap and Google. And at some point I stopped counting how many crossings or paths along a river bed there were. Often you could see or at least take it that they were mostly all dry. With many of them you couldn’t tell and only with very few of them you could expect that the river would carry water. But how much? How does a river crossing look like that Silkroad Mountain Race veterans can look forward to? A puddle? Knee-deep? Hip-deep? What is the current speed? The weather was good, no snow, no clouds, nothing to see. Seems to be all dry here in the whole region. So I don’t think we can expect a strong current. But what exactly? I have never waded a river in the wilderness before. If that’s wading and nothing more serious, that is. To cut a long story short: I’m not eager to make my first river crossing in remote wilderness in the dark, when due to the width of the river there (200 m I determined in advance) I won’t even be able to see the other bank in the light of my lamps and it will be more difficult for me to assess possible dangers. And it will be late at night when I will arrive there, because the river crossing is another 8 km behind Imassine.
I consider having dinner in Imassine, and then at least drive up to the river, or to a gas station 3 km before it. And then to spend the night directly in front of the river. Or not? Morocco is not a malaria high risk area. You don’t have to worry about mosquitoes and malaria, I check in advance in the recommendations of the German Foreign Office. But there you will also find information on how to prevent exposure to insect bites and the information that, with a few exceptions, malaria-transmitting mosquitoes only bite between sunset and sunrise and that 90% of infections are transmitted between 10 pm and 2 am. Do I want to cycle through the desert all the time and at this time of all times spend the night in a place with water, where there are mosquitoes even in February? Who knows? Yep – amongst other things such are the ponderings when having time to ride and think in such areas. But only briefly and in weighing the options. Otherwise the enjoyment of the landscape and the simple joy of pedalling and physical exertion outweighs. So Imassine it is? As I said, there are „only“ 21 kilometres to go.
So here and now, use the great location, the light and the motivation and take some nice self-portraits of me? Seems like a great idea to me and so I do it. Who knows what is still to come. And what you have, you have. As a non-race leader I can’t hope that any of the race photographers will find their way to me. So, do it yourself. ;-)
I fix my camera on my little Gorillapod tripod and ride back and forth several times until I am satisfied. With the iPhone prominently mounted in the cockpit via quadlock mount anyways using the remote release app for my Olympus camera works great.
Afterwards I ride on satisfied. Yes, the progress is really bad in terms of kilometers and in absolute terms. But I’m so fascinated by Morocco and couldn’t be more happy. But soon I’m going to cast the first curses towards Nelson into the twilight and then the night sky of Morocco. What follows now is the ride over a kind of widely spread alluvial cone. Nearly a badlands area. Again and again the gravel road, which is not very prominent compared to the rest of the stone field, is interrupted by deeply cut gullies, i.e. dry creeks. Such crossings can be found again and again in the Atlas and Anti-Atlas. Often they are not very deep. One can easily approach them and without dismounting, either ride all the way through and out on the other side (which is still a bit technical most of the times) or at least go down to the loose and completely stony part. Before you have to dismount and push the bike through. Sometimes 5, sometimes 10 and sometimes 100 meters and further. They all have in common that you have to choose your line carefully and think how you can approach it.
Here on this plain this is not possible at all! Really every crossing creek is cut in really deep and abruptly. Sometimes 2, sometimes 3, sometimes even more metres. Approach. Stop. Get off. Find a way to descent towards the bottom that is sometimes more, sometimes less obvious. Look to the other side: where does the trail lead up and out again. And how? Where does the track continue? It’s still possible with daylight. But it is still annoying and exhausting, because there are so many of them. But the daylight dwindles more and more. And finding the way is getting harder and harder. Jesus! Is that finally the end of it? How many more of this crap are there? Can’t we at least ride just one kilometer uninterrupted, please? As long as the path is recognizable and I’m on the bike, I’m getting faster and faster to use as much of the daylight as possible. Suddenly two riders are running beside me. It is the Moroccan duo who were recruited shortly before the start of the race. One of them is Mohammed el Bohgdali. He will later continue the race as soloist and finish while his partner will scratch. He is sitting on a fancy new Cannondale Full Suspension. So equality of arms in terms of cycling ability is given. I can see that the two are also trying to use as much of the daylight as possible to cross this particularly bad track all the way to Imassine. Ruthlessly they break through some bushes, jump off the bike and push up an embankment, as we realize that the fast ride has led us into a river bed and away from the route on our bike computers. I hurry after them and actually find the vague track up there. But let them leave before me. I will see them once or twice again later this night.
But soon it is completely dark. Now I don’t have to rush anymore. Now I have to follow the vague track in the light of my lamps anyway. And for the first time I see the starry sky in Morocco for real! Last night my eyes were mainly directed downwards. I had to follow the mule track down to Telouet and not allow myself any missteps. Probably it was also slightly overcast and the mountainsides did the rest. So here I was on the second night of the race. And no longer directly at the Atlas main ridge, but in the plains between Atlas and Anti-Atlas. And the sky was so starry. Wow! I had dreamed of that, too. And of course I wanted to see what was possible with my modest means and into the time constraints of a race.
So I began to experiment a little. I put my camera with its back on the ground and roughly aimed at an area with bright stars. Much to my joy I discovered at home that I hit both the constellations Perseus and Auriga, as well as the open star cluster of the Pleiades (M45) in the picture above left. And even two shooting stars! Unfortunately the Milky Way is rather dark in this area of all places, because there are many dark dust clouds there.
But I am positively surprised by the result and for the fact that I basically only made an unguided 8-second shot. So much potential for night sky photography in Morocco!
Then I continue. Now the gullies have also stopped and I’m coming across halfway passable gravel tracks near the N10 national road that crosses the race there. If I want to have something to eat, I now have a choice. 2 kilometres to the left to look for one of the two restaurants or shops mentioned in the race manual in Imassine or instead follow the route for another 5 kilometres and then 500 m further on to find a 24-hour petrol station. I decide to look in Imassine first. Then I can still ride to the gas station.
6. Berber hospitality in Imassine
I roll into Imassine. The road is well developed, but I can’t make out anything which could resemble a closed village area. The fact that it is of course already dark does not help with that. On the Wahoo my position approaches the POI I marked as the first restaurant. This looks a bit different than I expected, but it must be it. There are already two bikepacking bikes there. A seemingly unrecognisable bare brickwork carcass in the dark is standing there with a somewhat rough veranda. On the left a kind of wall counter, on which different Tajines are standing. The typical Moroccan braising dishes, in which almost everything gets cooked. From omelette to meat stew. Tajine or also Tagine means both the dish and the pot. Tajine can therefore be anything. There is probably a small kitchen behind the counter. Next to it is a larger, but empty room with large window recesses to the veranda – just without any window or frame. I lean my bike against one of the columns and take a seat at the table next to the two other racers.
Greetings. „Hey, hello, how are you, how do you feel? What’s going on here?“. Tajine, I guess. Only one kind. „What are you going to do now?“. They’ve been trying to get a hotel room or some place to stay all this time. Their story is getting a little weird. Apparently they have already gone through several hurdles of communication with the locals, with the landlord and with two different types of accommodation on the phone. Right now they are trying to find out if they can find a room some 5 kilometres away. While I order my Tajine and another race participant arrives, they try to call that place. As the situation progresses it turns out that they hope that someone will come with a pickup truck or quad and show them the way while they can follow.
I already know how this will end. If someone will be coming at all, it will turn out that it is not 5 but at least 10 kilometers. Or even longer still. And it will take longer as promised to get there. All in all, it’s not advisable at all. I’ll meet them again at the oasis in Tizgui in two days from now before they then will scratch or decide to follow a completely different plan they seemingly had all along? Weird. Well, In Tizgui they will tell me that it was indeed 10 kilometers or more…
But who has also arrived in the meantime, when my Tajine was put on my table, is Marco from Germany. He is a technician at the magazine Rennrad, I find out later, and it is his first ever bikepacking race.
While he orders the same Tajine dish and gets it quickly – a very tasty and spicy meat dish with potatoes, tomatoes and chillies including flat bread, which is placed in a plastic basket next to it as so often in the next few days, the conversation with the two neighbours continues. Marco and I gratefully decline the offer to follow them to somewhere out there, hoping for a hotel room. As I said, it was foreseeable what this would mean and it was absolutely not necessary.
I would have ridden on now – at least the 5 kilometers to the gas station. But as already laid out, the river crossing would then follow in the dark. In daylight there wouldn’t have been any second thought and I would have continued on. It was now only a quarter past nine in the evening. There was still plenty of time for further progress. But like this? Why not rest here for the night and leave early in the morning? Realy early will not be possible, because – then it would still be dark for my river crossing. But at least so early that I would be on the spot at daybreak.
Therefore I am not averse to do what Marco is thinking about doing. Sitting on the veranda we both looked at this rather bare space behind us, which was half open and separated from the veranda. I wonder if we could lie down there for the night with our sleeping bags? We asked the owner, who first thought about it and then showed us an even more closed room with a door next to it. As bare and dusty as it was, it would have been perfect. But then he changed his mind again and asked us to walk around his house, then into an interior corridor which finally led across this courtyard and then into a room with carpets on the floor and benches on the wall where there were more carpets and cushions. Perfect!
Marco and I get our bikes, put them in the room and spread out our sleeping bags for the night. However, we have completely different views about the time of getting up in the morning. I would like to get out quite early, but Marco will be happy to sleep late the next morning and the following days. With this he is following the „tactics“ I also used in my first bikepacking race, the TCRNo5. Which has some merits, at least at first glance. Sleep well, eat a good breakfast – that way you can ride faster. And Marco can ride really fast. That will become apparent in the following days. But the tactic is only good in principle. And when used in moderation. You should use the daylight and you won’t get faster endlessly by sleeping for another hour… But that’s not the issue here and now. Soon we will sleep. Very restful. Only at half past six I step outside the door into the courtyard of our accommodation. It’s not very early, I must confess. But still… It’s still dark. And the starry sky above the square opening of the bare courtyard is fascinating. Immediately I get my camera with mini tripod and take some long time exposures.
Then let’s move forward to the toilets (a squat toilet, what else) and back again, everything gets packed up again and the bike pushed forward in front of the house and on the veranda. There I not only meet the old man again, who is probably the father of the restaurant owner, but also Jule and Nick! Both have just arrived and are sitting directly in the small but warm kitchen. Outside it is still very cold from the night. I gladly sit down with them. And of course, as I am already asked whether I want an omelette for breakfast, I gladly oblige.
I see in the face of Jule in particular, that the gullies on the alluvial cone must have gotten to her as well. Whether it is possibly also something else, I do not know. But I try to radiate a good mood. And I really am in a good mood. Another new day is dawning. The third of the race. And I’m barely in Imassine. Yesterday I „only“ added another 132 kilometres to the 125 kilometres to the CP1 on the first day. But that is insignificant in the great adventure and surroundings we are just having!
Yes, indeed a very arduous progress! Will I even make it to the finish in the foreseeable future with this mileage? 130 kilometers per day on average, which would mean that I would need 9 days for the stated 1150 kilometers of the race! Whoa! Well, if it would pan out that way – so be it. I knew that this race was a first time event and that nobody could really assess it in advance. I also knew that I personally had never been to Africa, that I’d never been to an off-road bikepacking race and I knew what can happen in general at such a race. That’s why I had planned enough time. My return flight would not be scheduled until Wednesday, February 26th. The finisher party was planned for the evening of Saturday. So a lot of buffer. I wouldn’t be forced to stop somewhere just because an overly ambitious planned holiday period would end.
But 9 days… phew, I figured a little bit faster progress. Sure – thats somehow expectable. Off-Road Bikepacking can not be compared with road bikepacking like a Transcontinental Race. Logically the average speed is way lower. Off-road means: the gradients are steeper than on normal roads, the ground offers more rolling resistance even when somewhat smooth and is often technically demanding. In addition there are various pushing or carrying passages. That’s what I expected and planned for. I estimated about 15 km/h average net speed, i.e. in motion, and 12 km/h average overall (without sleep breaks, from morning to evening). That was still too optimistic. In the end my evaluation resulted in a net 13 km/h average and 10 km/h overall average (in riding between night stops). Also the race was very „frontloaded“ in difficulty. That means that the thickest chunks of the race, concerning the prevention of progress, were found right at the beginning of the race. That was exactly the first day with its 2860 meters of altitude difference, which may not be a lot if you consider normal gradients of an tarmac alpine pass. But what an enormous effort when the surface is rough and stony, the climbs are steep and above all even the descents have to be pushed! Then on yesterday’s second day especially in the evening this alluvial debris field with its countless transverse gullies. Not to be sneezed at.
And what was on the menu today was nothing less than the longest stage without any supply opportunity in between. 98 kilometres. 98 wild and remote, but breathtakingly beautiful kilometres, that’s what the race manual promised in a nutshell. 98 kilometres without water and without settlement or shop. And: „There is likely to be some pushing to make it up to the summit of the plateau“ is the succinct understatement there. Oh yes, we will push our bikes. Also on the third day.
I have to think about all this as I say goodbye to Jule, Nick and the grandfather in the restaurant and set off for the petrol station. But soon I realize how apt Nelson must have planned it all! Just before the race we got new and updated GPS tracks. Only slightly updated from the previous initial track with 1150 kilometres but now separated in another fashion. Just numerically flat separated every 200 kilometres (as a service, so that some Garmins won’t have any problems with the tracks provided). But the original tracks, which were available on Komoot throughout the winter, were divided according to the race course and its special features. The first stage from the start to Telouet. The second from Telouet to Imassine. The third from Imassine to Afra. That was my plan for today! It occurs to me that the original stages were divided up according to effort and progress! After Afra there would follow a stage Afra to Tazenakht. And so on until an eighth stage from Tafraoute to Sidi Rabat at the finish. Hmm, actually I wanted to be a bit quicker than full 8 days. But on the other hand – as it turned out here in the morning of the third day, it would be a great thing if I even could keep up with this initial stage planning of Nelson. So, despite all the pushing on the first day with a sore back, the resulting slow progress by tackling the hiking down the mule track in the dark for the descent to the checkpoint 1 and further loss of time compared to really fast people who could still do it in daylight, and despite my constant photo stops yesterday, I was actually still inside a very sound progress plan!
Well then – off into the third day! The sun is shining, the mood is good – Yeah!
7. A whole day for 100 kilometers
The sun shines as it will on each of the following days. But it is still very chill when I leave Imassine on the well developed national road. Not even really warmed up, I already arrive at the mentioned gas station. Morocco has an excellent infrastructure. It’s just that the race takes us through the most remote areas and as far away from it. And that’s great. But here and now I find a European-style highway gas station and rest stop. Most welcome – I have to stock up on provisions for the next 98 kilometres here. 98 kilometres through wild and romantic desert areas and canyon-crossed plateaus of the Anti-Atlas. But without finding a single settlement or opportunity for water intake. And with the warning that at least part of it has to be covered by hiking my bike.
Here I could have had an omelette for breakfast also. And a cappuccino instead of mint tea. I won’t have the omelette, but I’ll order a nice cappuccino to drink at the bar. They have real Pringles here too. Not that that’s particularly desirable. I only mention it because the brand names on all the sweets in the small shops in the Anti-Atlas are somehow modelled after the international brands. And because I’m actually buying a can of Pringles. A little salty and savoury variety is needed in addition to all the other sweets you can buy. I think I buy all the last stock of the Snickers bars (there are only 5 left) and put together some other stuff that looks like halfway tasty and nutrient-dense calories without being completely dry. Ready-packed, with fruit jam or marmalade filled kind of apple turnovers I find e.g. sometimes in the coming days and I think also here. Otherwise 4 litres of water in 1 litre bottles and another 0.5 litre bottle of cola and a 0.5 litre bottle of water, which go into the side pockets of the backpack. I drank the cappuccino during the further order and march outside with my food haul to fill my water bottles at the bike. Four litres I can’t quite get onboard – I have capacity for 3.1 litres on the bike. On top of that I have the capacity for more bottles e.g. in my rucksack. With the coke and the small 0.5 l mineral water bottle I have 4.1 litres with me now. That must be enough. It will. By far.
Fully stocked it goes away again from the asphalt and off to the south. Now another three kilometres, then comes the Dades, one of the big rivers of Morocco. I’m already curious how it will present itself to me. Once more up and then I roll down to the river. Oh – that looks very feasible. Luckily I see two riders in front of me who are just crossing the river. So I can estimate very well what to expect. The ford seems to be quite shallow and if you don’t mess it up, you can even ride through. The water goes something like up to the hubs. I could have managed that at night. But – afterwards you are always smarter. I don’t think I would have found it so easily manageable in the night and with bad visibility.
Whatever. The water is deep enough to get your shoes wet in any case. It’s morning, the sun is shining – nothing that would make soaked shoes and socks look terribly problematic. Quite in contrast to crossing the river at night, where you could risk to cool off in ice-cold air with your shoes not drying. Still – the race is young, I’m not fighting for seconds and a place in front of a pursuer and if there is one thing that is most important in such races, it is keeping your body together. In other words, not to get creeping problems from misunderstood hurry and lack of hygiene in the crotch or lack of care of the other contact points, here the feet. Which in the worst case could lead to the race abandonment. Some people reading this might think that this is far-fetched for a little water splashing in the desert, but here there was nothing for me to lose, only to win. And dry feet are happy feet. So I stop briefly, take off my MTB shoes and socks and put on my Lizardskin Ibrido sandals. My bike is specially equipped with the Shimano PD-EH500 Explorer SPD pedals. On one side I can click in, the other side is shaped like a flat pedal. Ideal for clicked out balancing or pedalling with normal shoes. As for example now for this river crossing.
I am pedalling through the river and out of the river bed on the other side and a good bit upwards out of the immediate river valley. Stop, take a look back, take a picture and change the shoes again. The sandals can now dry in the sun on the saddlebag (and will need at least until noon) and I slip into dry socks and dry MTB shoes.
I am now out of the immediate river valley, but the climb continues much further. But some time later, when looking back, this great view of the ridge of the High Atlas opens up:
Can you already see the individual driver in the picture? While I continue to take photos for this panorama and others, he approaches bit by bit. It is Juerg from Switzerland.
I am now on a kind of slightly undulating plateau. Riding is fun and the main ridge of the atlas comes into sight a few more times. As well as another driver who overtakes me during the brief photo stops. But I’m not angry about that, he provides a good subject before the curve for me. Unfortunately I don’t know who that was.
But soon I am alone in the stone plain. The views to the atlas main ridge are now behind me. A rest stop seems appropriate and a rock pile promises the possibility to sit and lean my bike against it at the same time. First of all I put a bite into my mouth and while chewing I make a bike portrait.
I wrote this under the corresponding instagram on this day: „Can’t complain until now. So happy that I chose the Fully. Excellent riding. And pushing, also, a lot. 🙈😅 My Rose Thrill Hill“
A short stretch next to this cairn a Berber family had built a small tent shelter with tarpaulins and stones. Maybe for herding goats? There was also a tiny stone kraal from which funny mowing sounds emerged. Curious I cross the few meters up there and look into: How sweet! :)
Let’s move on. To ever more great views. While I am taking pictures, a rider is approaching. Ah, it’s Nick. I met him this morning in Imassine. We exchange a few words and then he rides on. Now follows a great curved descent. Into the next big riverbed. Dry, like almost everyone else. But difficult to pass. And then it goes steep and sweaty out again. To the next plain. Soon this main ascent mentioned in the race manual must come. I prepare a concise roadbook for each bikepacking race I partake in the iOS app „Things“ and can access it at any time via my iPhone, which is mounted safely and directly accessible in my cockpit. There I see a short preview of the following section:
103 km : Start ascent to the plateau (9-10 %, then short 15 – 23%), 411 m
109 km : Plateau and summit reached (2.011 m), Tizi n‘ Tiferguine
115 km : 3-4 houses (sat pic)
124 km : Beautiful Canyon, Tough section. Rough piste, slow progress on the way up with some HAB. Stunning.
Okay. I’m still a little bit on a flat stretch before that. Suddenly Marco approaches fast from behind. He is beating his very lightly loaded and lightly tired Canyon Grail ruthlessly over the rough piste as if it was not his. Indeed, it is not, but a loan from Canyon. Fast he is, this Marco. I think he didn’t leave until about 9 or 10 o’clock – after an extensive breakfast. Two parts, though. The café, where we both enjoyed the night hospitality, ran out of eggs until he was ready with his breakfast, he tells me.
Well, ride on! I’ll let him pull ahead and pedal a little easier. Until my next photo stop he stays in range, then he is gone – but the climb has already started. And with it after only the first three curves also already the requirement to hike my bike. Phew. Very steep it goes up. I push my bike accordingly. I have to bend my feet and angle them at times sharply to clear the rocky surface. Sometimes you stand on a stone at an angle, sometimes you slide a bit. Nothing too wild. But the progress is very slow and I notice the beating the area around my ankles takes. Very uncomfortable and firm the entry area of my mountain bike shoes seems to hardly give any way. The tongue is ok, but the side parts push relentlessly into the skin and flesh of my feet around the transition from instep to lower leg. I find myself in eternal conflict: do I continue to try to keep my feet straight more or less to push uphill with strained calves like with crampons and ski boots? Do I try to walk particularly slowly and consciously to reduce sudden, unintentionally stronger bending and the pain caused by it? Or do I give up and put on the Ibrido sandals again? So do I stop, change, put MTB shoes on the saddlebag, then maybe only walk 100 m and find out that I can ride again? Yes, I could even do that with the platform sides of my pedals. But especially in ascents there is a lot more advantage if you are clipped in. More pull, more power, more control. And stopping costs time. And maybe the surface is smoother after just the next bend and I can ride again anyways? So it goes meter by meter. In those MTB shoes. Maybe I can ride a bit after that bend now? Yes, sometimes I can ride short pieces. In the end I leave the MTB shoes on and endure the pain for the whole 6 km uphill stretch. Not good.
The view compensates!
This panorama was taken at about the first third of the climb. Amazing – back there in the blue haze of the distance lies the ridge of the High Atlas, which we crossed just two days ago.
And I have more diversion. While I take the photos for the panorama, another rider comes pushing from behind. We talk, of course in English, about this and that while pushing up. Suddenly I say something in German and there it comes from Rizki, that’s his name, „oh, we can continue talking in German“. It turns out that he works as an Indonesian journalist in Germany. It’s a small world! As we keep pushing, I notice how one of my cleats comes loose. Phew, lucky that I noticed that immediately. Because the screws are still in place. I would have had a spare cleat and two spare screws with me, but it’s better not to need them. Especially not during the first 300 kilometres of a 1000 kilometre race. Tightened properly now, everything will hold until the end of the race.
Soon we arrive at the plateau and each of us resumes his ride. In riding I am clearly faster. But I just can’t help it – there are so many great views that I just want to photograph… And so Rizki comes back every time. Some of the rock formations remind me of Monument Valley and old Western movies. I don’t think I’m wrong about the latter. In Morocco and especially in the area around the bigger city of Ouarzazate many international movies were shot. From Lawrence of Arabia until today.
Soon the piste leads alongside a steep slope. The view opens wide over impressive canyon formations. Gigantic! Rizki comes up again and we enjoy the view together for a short while.
The highest point is more or less reached. Which is good. Because the sun has already sunken a good bit towards the horizon. Which only makes the light all the more special. And it makes it all the more difficult for me to move forward. How the mountain flanks are bathed in the warm light! And the stone-settled slope becomes more pronounced and visible as a curved line against the rocky slopes. Fantastic! I simply have to take pictures again and again.
Also Rizki gives a very welcome motive when he of course passes by again.
Almost at the end of the descent, the surface becomes finer. Brrr – I don’t like that stuff at all. Very fine gravel, where the front wheel can always wash out easily if you’re not careful or you get into a rut or ditch. Rizki doesn’t seem to mind that so much. For me, it’s more of an uncomfortable stretch. Of course you can hope for the best and surf through it or let it roll through it. My bike is very stable – that’s not the problem. But if something happens, then find yourself lying on your face quicker than you can imagine, and unfortunately you don’t have that under much control. And I do not like that. A short time later Rizki shouts „Stop, you have to take a picture here!“. Yes, indeed! The light is not the best anymore, but we are exactly at the place where the photo of the start page of the Atlas Mountain Race website was taken:
On the ground you can still see some of the fine gravel that the path consisted of, which is not quite as deep here. That was now about 12 kilometers of great downhill. Now are following about 10 kilometers also on piste but rather flat now. Darkness falls and first signs of civilization become visible:
Afra, or rather a small village before that, which was mentioned as a supply point in the Race manual, is now only 3 kilometres away over tarmac. Now for that last stretch together again with Rizki but ahead and us riding not in drafting distance we roll the last meters in. The view falls also immediately on a small shop, which is still open. Unmistakably there are some bikepacking bikes leaning against the wall. It must have been a busy day here and the shop owner probably made the deal of his life. One of the first question points after „Hey“ and „Hello“, when you meet other race participants at such places, is always: „What’s going on here?“. Especially when you are in foreign countries. Apparently there’s nothing warm to eat here, but the shop owner is happy to prepare us some cream cheese in flat breads. That shop is like so often found alongside the course of the race a single room, about the size of a garage. Only higher. In the front a counter, at the sides high shelves. In the middle a few tables with baskets and two refrigerators besides them. There’s everything to buy here it seems. Even a gas cooker, should you want one. They want us to come in and see what we need. Several things are pointed out that we might need especially well right now. The refrigerator gets opened: Wow – yoghurt and Co! Give it to me! And canned fish. Ah yes, I’ve already read about that. One of the core components of a typical bike packer diet here in Morocco and elsewhere in North Africa. Sure, why not. Durable and protein and with all the oil, lots of calories. I pack two cans of sardines and a small can of tuna. With that, with drinks and the cream cheese stuffed bread (how many cheese packs should there be, I’m asked), I sit down with Rizki at a small plastic table.
8. Peace! Corps.
The participants who arrived before us are already on the move again. Someone is joining us who does not look like a local. Tyler, is his name. Turns out that he works for the American Peace Corps, which sends small groups of members down to individuals all over the world to do youth work, support schools, etc. For him, the race is a welcome change and an opportunity to talk in English with mostly Western foreigners. What he has also done more or less all day long. It is now just 8:15 pm. It’s already dark, but clearly it is no time for a night break yet. My plan is actually to ride on right now and then bivy somewhere along the piste in the desert. It would be my first bivy here in Morocco. Things look a bit different for Rizki. He is happy to have reached this milestone. His knee worries him in no small part. Not far into our conversation with Tyler he offers to spend the night at his place. He would have ample space and by the way, another rider would be staying with him already anyway. In fact, he would be at his house right now. Following an intuition I ask: Is his name perhaps Marco? Yes, indeed. Ha-ha, I guessed right. I’ve only known Marco for a short time, but that sounds just like him. :)
Now I suddenly have the choice between setting off into the unknown night and bivouacking somewhere for the first time but also make some further progress or accepting Tyler’s invitation for a nice tea and a roofed accommodation and exchanging more exciting stories and getting more insight into the country. I decide for the latter. Once again I try to convince myself by secretly promising myself that I will leave super early the next morning to make up for the way too early rest stop. You know how that will turn out… If I were in the front third of the race right now here, things would look different and my weighting would be completely different. I would be way more motivated to press on. So I’m curious to see what a house looks like that a Moroccan host family is building for a young US Peace Corps participant. As he tells us it’s almost finished right now. Parts of it are still under construction. But there’s already a bed in it. In the living room also couches and benches and a table. There is also a kind of shower. At least the shower head… And a toilet to sit. When it’s finished, it will be very pretty, I’m certain.
The four of us spend the evening with our own snacks and several rounds of Tyler’s mint tea while listening to and sharing interesting stories about Berber language and Arabic, the work of the Peace Corps and what we do in the race. Sometimes the chatting gets a bit too much for me – after all we are in a race here. I let the three of them continue to talk and devote myself to my bike parked in the next room. I prepare everything for the night’s rest and take care of the drive train. Then I clean myself a bit and finally we get ready for the night’s rest. Marco suggests that I should move into the bedroom on Tyler’s bed. Supposedly I am prone to snore, he thinks. Where did he get that from? ;-) Tyler himself has not yet moved in completely. That’s why he doesn’t sleep in this house anyway and leaves us alone for the night.
In the morning he shows up again for a fresh mint tea. We enjoy it together, then I get ready first and go on my way. Schukran! Thanks a lot, Tyler! For the invitation and the insights into Morocco and a few chunks of Arabic. Marco keeps his rhythm. Not up too early and then have a good breakfast first. Rizki’s knee doesn’t look too good. He will unfortunately still scratch today. I don’t know that yet. I roll by the store from yesterday. It’s open again already. If „already“ is the right word. Unfortunately it’s already a little after 8 am. The sun has just risen. A little girl is being sent away. She comes back five minutes later with fresh flat bread. I’m paying a dirham for it. Converted 10 cents. I put half of it in my backpack. I eat the rest on the spot. With cream cheese.
Then I leave the suburbs of Afra and head north again. Nearly 2 km on asphalt, then I turn left again onto the race track and the dirt road. Yesterday it was only 101 kilometres. Shoot! Partly it was because of the uphill push, partly of course because of the many wow moments and photo stops, which, although sometimes super-short, just add up. And of course to a large extent it was because of the early stop before Afra. But: everything was great! I wouldn’t do it any different for another first time in Morocco.
9. Stint 4: Piste flying and visiting Omar
A typical tourist to Morocco would probably follow the Wadi Draa upstream from Afra. Via well developed roads or even the National Road 9 past Talamzit and then into the larger town of Agdz. The route of the race, on the other hand, also leads westwards, but across the middle of nowhere, north of a prominent ridge of the Djebel Kissane.
The piste is wonderful at first. Already right at the beginning someone approaches me on a bikepacking bike. What? Wrong way? I think it’s William, the oldest starter, who decided that he would give up the race and wanted to go back to Afra, as I gathered from our short exchange of words. For the most following part the progress here is great. How amazing it is to ride my Full Suspension MTB across the track. The long wheelbase and the suspension give me enough control to ride in the aerobars without any problems and I can really get to speed. Wonderful! Then there are also smaller riverbed passages. Also sometimes along and not across a dried up river. This is always an interplay of very coarse stones, where riding is hardly or guaranteed not possible and sections of fine sand. Sometimes really deep. Rarely, however, they are taking up so much space as just here. This is exhausting. When I lose traction for a moment and have to get off the pedals anyways, I take the opportunity to document that a bit:
But soon thereafter I’m back on a great track. That is really cool. I wouldn’t want to swap my bike with any other. I have a Gravelbike at home and know how to propel it over rough terrain. I know how it feels barebones for a Gravelfondo or a leisurly ride at the end of an office day or laden for a Bikepacking Race. I know how to move it over asphalt, over flowing trails and also underbiking it quite a bit over rooted or otherwise technical single trails. That’s why I know that what I have here under my tires all the time is real and proper mountain bike terrain. And I can well imagine how mercilessly I would be shaken here right now if I tried to reach similar speeds without any mercy for myself and my tyres. And I also know that this wouldn’t work for long despite the use of tubeless tires. Or needed an even much more active and at the same time more careful riding style I’m displaying all the time nevertheless.
One of many confirmations of this circumstance I receive a little later, when I cross a particularly wide riverbed and take a rest in the shade of a tree. A can of sardines doesn’t really lend itself to being eaten while riding. Especially when the ground is anything but even. Yummy – Moroccan flat bread from the rucksack with oil sardines. And every drop of oil. Everything is sucked up. Would be a bit disgusting at any other time. And the sardines are a bit too crispy for me too. In other words, there’s all the bones left in the fish. Ugh. But – everything gives energy. Give it to me!
Meanwhile I watch another rider approaching and trying to find the right way through the impassable riverbed, zigzaggingly hiking across. As he comes even closer, I see that it is Juerg again. He doesn’t look very happy and shows me the Cushcore he has fricasseed from his back wheel. Or couldn’t get back in after he was forced to switch the rear tire…
A short time later I arrive back at the Wadi Draa. It has to be crossed again. Interestingly with dry feet. At least here. The route runs alongside the Wadi upriver on the right side of it.
But only for a short time, and then I have to go back to the other side again. A bit downstream of a weir that appears dry in the aerial photograph. But it will be no dry crossing this time. But I dare the passage without changing into the sandals. It does not seem to be very deep. But first I let the soundscape sink in. The air is filled with endless croaking frogs and bird calls. Great.
On the other side of the river a small village is waiting. And I have to wait a little also, because on the small path in front of me there is a woman with a donkey.
This is followed by the village of Afella N’Dra, which again has a small shop listed in the race manual as a supply possibility. To reach it, you have to leave the race route for about 2 kilometres to the south. Here I get some snacks, eat 4 small yoghurts and get some new water. Then I go on. Even a little bit over asphalt, but only about 3 kilometres. Our route shortens the course of the Wadi Draa. Which only means that I have to climb again for a while. Then it goes down again on dirt road. I have seen sheep on the way many times, but here I think it would be a good idea to take a photo to document it. While I am doing this, Lexi and Chris, Cap 206a and b, who I had met shortly before in Afella N’Dra, pass me. So much the better, so I can include them into the picture.
On the further descent I quickly pass them again. Then it goes down from the piste and down into the bed of the Wadi Draa which is rather wide here.
I still expect to have to cross the river another time, but it turns out that the path is just so ever running between the open water of the river here and the cliff. I approach Tizgui. And with it a distinctive point of the race just behind it. The Cascade de Tizgui. Here the race manual promises a waterfall and a small oasis with its permanent inhabitant Omar, who would surely invite everyone to tea… But whoever thinks now that there is an easy way in – far from it. Or rather, there is a way. Around the outside and then via an escape from many stairs down into the canyon. But the race route leads me mercilessly through the river bed instead. Which seem to have particularly thick stones and apparently no visible and passable path just here.
I laboriously push and drag my bike through the bottom of the waterless gorge, surrounded on both sides by high rock faces. A few palm trees clearly indicate that there is water here. And yes! On the left side of the gorge, on closer inspection, there is a small, cut-off ditch leading water to the village.
Finally I am at the end of the gorge. This must be it. A few coloured cloths indicate a dwelling. And there’s a Canyon Grail. Oh look – Marco! As soon as I see the bike I see him waving from the other side. Omar sits there and prepares tea, coffee and omelette for everyone who passes by, whether tourist or racer.
I put my bike down, balance over the end of a small pond in which a small waterfall is splashing and squat down on the ground with the two of them. Omar asks where I come from. Germany? Why yes, Germany! Tea? Coffee? Do you want omelette? Yes, I do. And after 4 days on the road over rough and smooth terrain and through the desert I don’t care that Omar only has a single Tajine, where one omelette after the other is made without washing. With only one spoon and with a slightly different flat bread than I get everywhere else, but which, if left over, is passed on to the next visitor later…
Omar smokes like a chimney, keeps a guest book and seems to sit there day in, day out.
In the course of my stay, a French-looking hiker comes into the gorge with his daughter. Three young, supposed adventure tourists also use the place to cool down briefly in the water of the pond. Marco follows them alike. I let them be. After all, bikepacking is not a triathlon ;-) Just before I say goodbye, the Portuguese duo from Imassine arrives.
I leave the canyon on the course of the race track. So now it’s time for that stairs. A last look back, a few more fascinated glances into the gorge and I am alone again and on the track. Not without first fending of a Moroccan on the last few metres of the stairs, politely but certainly who absolutely wants to carry my bike up for me. Of course for an unknown amount of Dirham. No thanks. This is my bike and I carry it personally.
Now it’s about to get steep. But also smooth. In front of me there is a good stretch of asphalt ahead. Tizi means mountain crossing in the Berber language Tamazight. In front of me is the ascent to Tizi-n-Tinififft. On excellent asphalt it follows the national road N9, which leads from Agdz to Marrakech.
At first murderously steep, then actually quite pleasantly the road wents uphill for almost 16 kilometres. An average of 4 % has to be overcome. After that, it goes slightly wavy uphill and a bit rolling for another 5 kilometres until the pass height is reached at barely 1700 m over the sea. It is almost a disappointment, as the view to the other side is not so great and also shows a longer queue of cars on a construction site. But the ascent… I am almost the whole time alone. Only very few cars pass by. Some of them obviously belonging to some kind of long-distance rally. Otherwise I can enjoy the view all the time. And it’s really something! Sure, rocky, kind of reddish-brown-ochre. Business as usual. Business as usual!? Yes, but no. The road stretches endlessly up a rocky slope. Only a few curves. Being curvy is politely left for the many layers of rock by the road in which it is cut in. A tiny line across a vast slope and thus showing the dimensions of the wide canyon. What a fascinating sight!
Finally arriving at the top of the pass, the view is wide, but still only so so, I think. At least compared to what I have just seen before. I can already see the next village. Ait Saoun. There are supposed to be two cafés or restaurants directly on the route, according to the race manual. Shortly after that there is another café. What I find there and can get must be enough for another 75 kilometres. There is nothing in between.
What I can already see from here is my only traffic jam in Morocco. But it leads uphill. Because in the downhill section the road is being rebuilt. But I get through it quickly. In the downhill direction it is no problem. And it’s only about 4 kilometers anyway. I stop at the first café. I do not stay long. Basically I had enough omelette, bread, mint tea and coffee at Omar just recently. I search together what could give me energy for the following kilometres and the rest of the day and seems edible. As always some packed sweet cake bars and stuff like that. Water of course. Also a coke. Maybe a flat bread, too? I can’t remember exactly, for once I didn’t take any pictures either. It’s already a bit after 4 pm in the afternoon and my goal for today is clear: Taznakht! But until then it’s still 75 kilometres to go. Not with great climbs, but through the stone desert. How long will it take me? I have no idea. But the confidence that I will succeed. When I get there today, I’ll have ticked off another of Nelson’s original stages. Day 4, Stage 4 – Afra to Taznakht.
And Taznakht is supposedly a little paradise as far as my initial views on Google Maps showed in my preparation. At least as far as the supply possibilities were concerned. I had written „RP deluxe“ in my road book. Cafe Tislitte, Café Shell, Café Zafran (7d 24h), Tanke/Café Station Afriquia, Tanke Total, Pharmacy, Banks, Hotels … Allright! Regardless the time in the night – I wanted to reach it today.
Only three kilometers after Ait Saoun the race track turns left off the national road. Bye bye asphalt, hello dirt road. At first in very good and interesting quality. Like being pushed with a grader. And in an interesting deep brown color. It was almost really warm down there behind in the Wadi Draa and not very windy either. But here the wind became a noticeable factor again. Anyway, the climate was very interesting. If I look at the temperature recording, between 31 and 34 degrees warm. Also in motion. But it never felt quite so warm. It was somehow never really „hot“. Even in times where I didn’t feel the wind as very strong it would provide quite a good cooling. It was not muggy either, far from it. So it was probably the very dry air and the constant, sometimes more, sometimes less noticeable wind that kept the felt temperatures very much within limits. I rode many days completely with my light long sleeve jersey. But even when I was wearing the short sleeve jersey, I often wore a tubular cloth around my neck.
Here and now with the low sun I suddenly felt all alone again. The desert impression was especially strong here, I thought. Hamadah, such stone deserts are called. All this auburn. Even more intensified by the warming evening light… I used a short snack break for some photos. „Endless rock plains. Mars rover 147 roving… “ I write on Instagram. I may be on Mars right now, but they have Internet available there.
Soon the sun dips behind the ridges on the horizon.
It’s half past seven and the double track in front of me is still vaguely visible at first, then no longer recognizable. As long as it goes, I always try to ride without light. You can see more, see further and can better estimate how the surface really is and how you will be able to ride over it. Every lamp, no matter how strong it is, no matter how wide and spread its field of light and no matter how evenly it is illuminated, always means a certain restriction. But now the time has come again to switch my lights on. It is February and the days are short. I’m glad that I have a combination of a hub dynamo operated lamp and a rechargeable battery lamp with me on this race. For the first time I have a kLite lamp in use with my SON dynamo. The first test at home was very promising. But I knew that there would be many places in Morocco where the true benefit of a dynamo-powered lamp would be greatly reduced to non-existent. You don’t get much power when you ride up a mountain at little more than walking speed. Or even have to push it. Then the battery-powered lamp (and if necessary additionally or instead of it my helmet-lamp) comes into operation. Here it works out with just the dynamo lamp. Just barely. I’m quick enough. Nevertheless helpful – it saves valuable battery power with the battery light, which I still switch on from time to time. And of course the hub dynamo gives enough juice during the day to refill the buffer battery of my forum charger. To charge my iPhone and my Wahoo directly or via the buffer battery. I will write something about the kLite separately at a later time. On the one hand I liked it. On the other hand, I would have liked it to be even better.
Like every night, thousands of stars sparkle and glitter above me. They cannot be missed, despite the attention the path in front of me demands. I still have quite a long way to go to Taznakht, but I have to use this opportunity again for a photo. I put my bike on the ground, position my camera with a mini tripod so that the sky hunter Orion is also in the picture and illuminate my bike and the ground around it with the red light of my head lamp.
Now onwards. Further and further. My watt values are wildly mixed throughout the course of the race anyway, and everywhere and nowhere it seems. Well, maybe not everywhere. Certainly not above the threshold or above a particularly high point. And by nature of things also much, much more uneven than on the road. Not just because of the surface. Also because of various downhill sections where I let it roll. I often have to let it go. And because of many small microstops. When a dry creek ditch crossing the road cannot be ridden through, but has to be crossed after dismounting. And now at night because sometimes I can’t assess the underground so well, but also because I don’t want to just shoot over it in faith in God. What I do sometimes anyway. Whereby – „shoot over“ gives the completely wrong impression. That is what I am getting at. I do not shoot, on the contrary, the long day and the darkness take their toll. I’m in auto mode. Just keep moving forward. No matter how bad the watts are. And once again they are very bad – but not unusual for such a long race. Where a few hours ago in daylight I can see a the band of my ride recording in the 160 watt range (the true average value is much lower still, with including all the little stops and times without pedalling), here and there I am now perhaps pedalling around120 watts.
Two smaller villages are here as can be seen by their names on the map. According to the Racemanual there is no food supply. And the route also avoids Tisslit. I see some lights here and there. And there, actually someone is walking along the road on the other side, but remains silent. Okay, me too then. Now asphalt starts again. It is still a little over 12 kilometres to Taznakht. I’m going to finish those also now as well. Three kilometres before the village I reach a bigger road. Somehow unreal after such a day to find a multi-lane road, closely surrounded with lamp posts and illuminated. On it I roll into Taznakht. A somewhat bigger place. Maybe not quite a real town, but not a simple village anymore. Three-storey flat-roofed houses with arcades line the street, the sidewalks neatly furnitured with nice railings. A large roundabout. Various shops and cafés. Still open, despite the fact that it is already half past eleven.
As I slowly roll along the road, I switch back and forth between Google Maps and the trackleader page of the satellite positions of the other racers on my iPhone. Hmm, which hotel do I take, what did the others seem to have choosen, or where are they? On the one hand out of pure curiosity: who is around me right now, who have I caught up with now. And on the other hand as additional information. Where there is smoke, there is fire. In other words, where there are Racer-Dots, there is food or shelter. Or both. Marco, for example, is also in Taznakht I see on the tracker. A few other racers too. The tracker page also differentiates by status. So whether a dot belongs to a participant who has already given up the race, i.e. scratched, or whether he is still in the race. Here are also a few dots of participants who have already scratched. Taznakht seems to be well placed. As the crow flies from Agdz to Agadir and along well developed roads. Roads, which are very good to shorten the race route and still reach the finish. Apparently, most everybody is planning to do that somehow. No matter if one give up or not: Agadir is the finish. I guess many just don’t want to miss the finisher party. And also many seem to see little choice – except, of course, to take a relatively expensive taxi or the adventure of a bus trip. From Agadir or from the destination Sidi Rabat, which is located a bit south of Agadir, there will be return transports to Marrakech organized by the race. Almost all participants made use of this and booked a place for themselves and their bike and paid a small extra charge. This is another circumstance that may have lead to the decision of many a scratcher to make their way to Agadir somehow nevertheless. Be it with a taxi, with a bus or by bike – but shorten the course alongside good roads. So little by little a „party bus“ had formed. A loose, small group, which takes on another rider from time to time, and which rides together in touring mode towards Sidi Rabat. The „nucleus“ is probably Mike. I got to know him last year at the Three Peaks Bike Race 2019.
What I can do, others can do as well, of course. Mike saw in the tracker that I was now in Taznakht. Or he saw it the next morning, where we actually met before I left. It was a nice chat over a coffee, while I had breakfast in a tiny kiosk or café right next to my hotel.
Hold on, hotel? Right, not so fast. So it’s still 11:30 at night, and I don’t see any racers. It’s still pretty busy alongside the roads, though. There are quite a few Moroccans out there. What I see on the left and right side of the track does not create any enthusiasm or confidence. For example, where the tracker shows Marco, Google Maps also shows a hotel. But I don’t see such or a way to really get to it right now here on the ground and I am also sceptical. I think I rather take the hotel which is directly to my left. There is also someone standing in front of it and asking if I need a room as I approach the entrance. Yes, I do – so I get in there, including my bike. I am in a guest room. It’s empty. There’s a flat screen behind the counter and there’s a soccer game running. Do I want something to eat? Oh, damn right I do. I’m getting a real menu card, or rather more like a typical takeout menu brochure, handed to me. Oh, chicken and chips… that’d be nice. No problem at all, they say, and the person disappears outside. Ah, it immediately come to my minde – he orders the stuff now at the snack bar next door… The food is soon in front of me, of course there is bread and a very good mint tea with lots of fresh mint in the glass. The young innkeeper is very obliging. A crazy contrast of hospitality and chosen politeness towards me and then the typical clichéd Arab cursing around with a young colleague, relative or whatever, which sometimes happens next door or behind me. In my head I fantasize and translate: „No you son of a mangy bitch! Did you fall off the camel at new moon? They couldn’t even use you in Agadir with the cobblers! Look at you, too stupid to fetch water from the river. What have you done here again, you brother of a limp mule!?“ And the next moment I’m politely asked if I’d like some more tea … I think I’m the only guest in this lodging that night. Cash in advance, ah yes, gladly. When would I like to leave? Ah, ok – hmm, I say 6:30 a.m. Or show it on the clock of my phone rather, because the communication in a little bit of French and a little bit of English mixed and not that fluent. His face shines – that doesn’t seem to be too early for him. Everything is ok.
So now he wants to lead me up to my room. I’m happy to follow. Short moment of shock: Whoa – that’s a damn narrow staircase. Honestly, my handlebars almost scratch the wall on both sides. My goodness, it’s a good thing that I had already cut that handle bar a little shorter at home. The trend towards wider and wider handlebars on mountain bikes may have a certain basis, but it’s way overshooting a sensible measurement. At least for cross country and touring purposes. And in any case for people who haven’t have the span of a pro basket ball player or world record swimmer. This could have gone terribly wrong. Or at least could have made it proportionally more difficult to take my bike with me in my room.
Finally I can close the door behind me. The Moroccan is visibly proud of his hotel. In absolute categories I would give the room just half a star. But it’s enough. There is cold running water, a shower, a sink and a normal toilet. Two beds with sheets and blankets and covers. That’s good, because there are no towels or toilet paper. I replace the latter with my wet wipes. The sheets have to serve as towels. Because I use the shower for my first and only shower in the race. I keep my mouth shut. I only brush my teeth with water from my drinking bottles. Such bath rooms bring up memories of southern Romania, where I suspect that I got quite a bit of diarrhoea at a similar occasion. I leave the clothes unwashed. Day 4. New record of not washing my kit. Good night.
10. Stint 5: Full throttle towards checkpoint 2
The night was restful. Not too long but for ultra races of course both mega long and comfortable. Doing the morning toilet, slip into my kit (there are nicer things), pack up all the stuff again and let it disappear in the bags on the bike. The ziplock bag with chamois cream, toothpaste and toothbrush. The cables and the charger for mobile phone and Wahoo. And the t-shirt and the underpants, which are my combined sleeping and travel clothes. As I manoeuvre my bike awkwardly down the narrow stairs I pull a muscle in my back. Great – you don’t get any younger… Finally, I’m standing in the dining room. Fuck, where are coming the bars before the doors from? No door that I can open from the inside. And thick bars in front. I shake them. Hard. Makes a lot of noise. Once more, and again. I hope someone hears me. Actually, I do hear someone rushing down the stairs. It’s that fellow from the innkeeper’s yesterday. He points to the clock and I realize that yesterday must have happened a time zone misunderstanding. Normally the iPhone always adjusts to the local time… I was never so certain it really did in Morocco. Man, that was close! I could have been stuck there for at least another hour, before someone might have come out of his apartment… Relieved, I push my bike outside into the street.
Interesting – this was now the fourth night of the race and I hadn’t bivied outside even once yet. Another first for me. Usually I at least take a little nap outside in the first night, or I stay outside every second night or more. At least in summer races. Here it had not yet happened. Not even because I deliberately wanted to avoid bivouacking. Just like that.
But now I was looking for something to eat for breakfast and to buy food. I don’t have to go far. There is a small shop right there, which somehow turns out to be a café. There are refrigerators on the side with yoghurt and drinks, snacks and bread are for sale. While I’m still choosing my first things, Mike comes by and as already described we talk a little while I have a coffee and eat something.
Then I start. Just in time for dawn. A last look back and a look ahead. Then I start the day with a cheerful heart. Today I want to reach CP2. I need to reach CP2. It will close tonight at 9:00 p.m.! It is located in the Aguinane Oasis Gorge. A valley full of palm trees and according to the race manual one of the highlights of the race. One of many, I must say. But there are still 171 kilometres to go until then! Yesterday it was 143 kilometres. Judging from a road bike point of view absolutely not worth mentioning. But for a mountain bike course it was at least respectful, but also nothing outrageous. In the desert wind of Morocco over stick and stone, fully loaded and partly pushing – a completely different matter. Whether you will have covered 150 or only 75 kilometres in 10 hours, you will only know afterwards. Very well – I continue to trust in Nelson’s accurate estimation of the effort I suspect. His original stage plan according to the race track segmentation means for today: Tasznakht to Aguinane, CP2. Well – then it will probably be possible. But it will not be a walk in the park.
Will that stop me from admiring the views along the route? Of course not. It’s not even an hour on the road as I roll through a small village. In the middle of it I found this beautiful and being in great condition little Agadir (or is it a Tighremt?). The light still clearly has early morning qualities. If there is any Berber BATW (i.e. Bike against the Wall), then hardly none more than that. So I just had to position my faithful bike there for a photo. And I am also very glad that I did that.
Later on, the piste gently slopes down into a valley. Fresh green and bright blossoming white in the middle and from the back light a Ksar, a typical fortified Berber fortified village, peels out behind it. What an interesting sight once again. I stop for some photos. There I see a three-wheeled moped platform scooter approaching. As if ordered by me. Of course I wait until it is in the ideal position. I have time. Err, right.
As I ride on, I see in the sunlight how decayed the original Ksar is. A little further and I’ll be in the village that belongs to it. Here I see all the typical architectural styles in the Anti Atlas, as they are so often united. Here a cleanly plastered mosque and school, there many houses with typical hollow concrete blocks and in between or behind them clay buildings in different states of preservation. The doors are mostly made of steel or sheet iron with simple curved iron adornments.
From Taznakht the route leads into a vast desert plain. First to the south, then after 30 kilometres to the north-northwest. Here I also noted from my preliminary research that the asphalt would start again. I even reach it a bit before my marking. So the road construction is going ahead in Morocco, too. Very good, that promises faster progress for me. I can really use that. Unfortunately the wind is against me. And despite my motivation the watts aren’t terribly high. On the contrary. Nevertheless I make good progress in the aerobars. Until I hit the main road, the RN10, and turn left. Straight ahead it is now only 4 kilometres to a supply point. A small place at a crossing with gas station, school and rest houses. Café Ateman, I wrote down as additional information to the race manual. But these 4 kilometers are stretching dearly. It doesn’t look like it, but despite the best asphalt, a tiny incline and a strong headwind robs me of any speed. With just 13 km/h on average, I cover this last part of the way to the rest stop.
Phew, I made it. I will spend almost an hour here. A not so small café offers welcome fresh energy and a good selection of food and snacks. The long bar is filled with various chocolate bars, packed cake snacks like muffins or a kind of apple turnovers etc. Of course I order an omelette first. Here are already three more race participants. Already the whole morning I had seen on the tracking page how the impacts came closer and closer to me. I mean, slowly I was pushed further and further back in the field of participants. Not because I was getting slower compared to the others. And I wasn’t terribly fast with all my photography and the early stops in Imassine and especially Afra to begin with. But no – for the simple fact alone that already in the days before, but especially today, many of the people who were still behind me (and also quite a few who were in front of me) dropped out of the race. It slowly became lonely around me. Not only in the desert, but also virtually as seen on the tracker. So here too the scratching was in full swing. When I finished my omelette, the „Party-Train“ just came along. They slept in comfortably and left Taznakht late, but followed the asphalt road directly to the west. So once again a happy reunion with Mike. But also with Jule and some others. We talked a little bit more while I bought provisions after the omelette and then I took off the long sleeve jersey and the leg warmers outside and put on the short sleeve jersey. And that’s why I put on sunscreen also. Meanwhile, I think at least one, if not two of the racers still in the race there decided: Oh, come on, what the hell, I’ll scratch and leisurely cycle the Party Train to the Finisher Party on time… Two less again. And I had just passed them…
No big deal. I’ll keep going. Giving up is no option. And I still am in good spirits to save myself with some effort shortly before the cut-off to CP2. From here on it goes immediately away from the national road and from the tarmac and onto piste. The race route will now make a wide arc to the north before it will go southeast again towards Aguinane. I can already fear when the road will leading west again. There the now very stiff wind will come directly from the front again. But first to the north. My legs don’t want to know anything about me wanting to urgently be at CP2 at nine o’clock this evening. Not really presentable 100 to 120 watts propel myself slowly forward. Once again a small dry riverbed wants to be crossed and then a path along a slope be followed. But there is actually some visible water in a puddle. Probably just to show very vividly just how strong the wind is today. Tight successive and high ripples it blows over the water.
Again I come through small villages and a little later I see a small cube-shaped building with a dome above. That must be a Marabout or Zaouïa. Tombs of marabouts, Islamic scholars, spiritual leaders and generally venerable men and women. But it is a bit offside and so I leave it at that and continue. Finally I have finished the northern arc and am once again on asphalt and the RN10. For a very short distance. A small group of road bikes comes towards me. Shortly behind it a small Mercedes Sprinter with black and red team print. They honk and wave friendly. Some bike tour operator? Why not – you can certainly ride a road bike here. The asphalt is great and such passes as yesterday’s Tizi-n-Tinififft a worthwhile destination. Tinfat is the name of the village through which I come and here there is not only one resupply point like the race manual is readying but also many more cafés than the map shows. And here I seem to be right in the heart of the saffron cultivation. In any case, there are signs or inscriptions on houses everywhere that refer to saffron cooperatives. I am now in a hurry and only make a very short stop at a café to get some fresh water, eat two yoghurts and buy some snacks.
Still in the village the route takes a sharp turn to go straight back south and down from the asphalt. For about 13 kilometres, then I am again back on a short piece of tarmac. But not long. I look longingly after the asphalt band that curves to the right. My route now bends to the left back onto piste. I have been riding in the shadow of the mountain range southwest of the road, behind which the sun has already disappeared. Now I look to the northeast following my track and once again Morocco takes my breath away as so often before. And not because of the effort, although I would have had every reason to do so. No, it was simply the landscape. The enormous extension and width of the views and horizons. At least since Tinfat I was riding hard on the road to reach the CP2 before it closed. And interestingly enough, the watts were there right now. It’s always all in the head somehow.
Here and now the already low sun is shining on the ridge of hills bordering the valley, while the track in front of me is already in the shade. Unusually for the week of the race, there were a quite a few clouds in the sky, which showed me a new aspect of Morocco. The valley of Taglist (that’s what I call it because of the next place I can identify on the map later on) will now slowly but steadily rise for another 20 kilometers before the route at its end would get rather steep before reaching the very end of the valley and marking the ridge into the oasis valley of Aguinane. And there was not much time left.
But I just could not stop here to admire and photograph this fabulous view!
But now fire in the hole! Later on at home, I’ll set up a segment in Strava. „Taglist High Valley“ I’m calling it. I define it from the tarmac road out to the ridge before the Aguinane Valley. And get, despite the fact that my panorama photo break is included in it and also a later further stop, the top time of 88 participants who had uploaded their activity at Strava. The second short stop is already much further up the valley to quickly rip open a chocolate bar and to take out my rain jacket, when in fact some (the only) drops of rain start to fall. Not bad. Just shows that I was really in a hurry. Without the two stops I ride an average power of 171 watts, which is a good zone 2 power so deep in the race after all. But this only shows half the truth. In order to achieve this average power, I had to take on quite a lot of load peaks until far into zone 3, i.e. tempo. It was a real endurance time trial with a lot of effort up there. But it was also fun. But I kept looking at the wahoo and thinking ahead: when will I be finally at the top? When does the downhill start? Meanwhile it was threatening to rain and the wind wasn’t playing nice. Despite the effort it was too fresh for the jersey now. That’s another reason why I stopped. Not because of the few drops, but because there might have been more all of a sudden and because I wanted to have protection against cooling down. My rain jacket was ideal.
Onwards! In my head I constantly calculate the remaining kilometres against the remaining time. What average speed will I need? Is that still possible? Could work. If the descent begins soon. If the descent is halfway rideable. A lot of ifs… Never mind. Keep going uphill. Curve after curve. Am I up there now? No, still not up. Now? Steeper and steeper. Finally, after what felt like an eternity, the top was really there. But around me the darkness had already fallen long ago. Another look at the Wahoo. 8:26 pm. Still 34 minutes to the cut-off. 34 minutes for 18 kilometers. 32 kilometers per hour purely mathematically. Now there was a really steep and long downhill in front of me. No problem at all in a road race. But this wasn’t a road race. Hell – here you couldn’t even be sure if you could even ride downhill at all. See the first day with the long passage down the complete mule track to Telouet which had to be hiked completely. This was not to be expected here. But also not a smooth descent. Not even by far.
In spite of all the hustle and bustle and the racing spirit that I’m feeling right now, I’m very sorry that I won’t be able to enjoy the now following descent and the magnificent views down into the Palm Valley in daylight. Probably this would have cost me four times as much time as I would have needed now at night. Just from enjoying the views. And of course from taking pictures. The views are terrific – you may have seen some samples in the Instagram stream of the Atlas Mountain Race account. And it would have been worth four times as much to me! But – that’s the nature of the short winter days. You can’t ride every kilometer and therefore not see every highlight of the race in daylight.
But now I just want to get down and fervently hope that the surface of the trail is halfway suitable for controlled fast descents. Of course he does not do me the favor. Quite the contrary. To the disadvantage that it is already dark and the surface is generally more difficult to estimate than during the day, the surface gladly adds his part. Blocked and stony – that’s normal. Washed out curves, also to be expected. That’s not very problematic. But also my Nemesis – extremely high percentage of deep, soft, fine gravel. The kind that is already difficult to ride on during the day and which can be a nuisance if you recognize such areas too late or cannot assess them properly. Relieve the front wheel from pressure and „surf through“? Use a rut or dip or hold the handlebars against it or let them take off in anticipation of a jolt? Every mistake, every going over the front wheel can lead to a sudden fall into dark unknown depths. There are no railings or small ramparts alongside the path down. And the riding line often has to run very close to the edge of the path due to stones that have fallen off, particularly rough blocks or holes in the track. And yet, the adrenalin flowing through my veins, my brakes remain open as far as possible. Much, much more open than if I didn’t still have hope to arrive on time. Later on at the checkpoint I’ll curse only half-jokingly about all this crap gravel and suggest that it’s really about time to vacuum the complete fu… descent!
Somewhere halfway down, where the gradient gets less steep and some first houses are appearing, I overtake a racer with a lot of excess speed. I do not only want to go fast, I also have the advantage of my full suspension bike. For the speed, for the control, but also from the much less fatigue and stress, which the front suspension demands from the rider and especially from the fingers, hands and arms. Here, on the places which are not so precariously gravel-sandy, it is even really fun! Nevertheless – there are still about 10 kilometers to the CP. The altitude profile shows clearly downwards. But there are still enough small up hill waves, tight turns, a little up and down. The lights down there diagonally. Do they belong to the hostel that is the checkpoint? No, I guess not. I have to realize that unfortunately it was not enough to reach the edge of the valley and then roll down and be directly at the checkpoint. The valley stretches, the route winds accordingly. 9pm is reached and on the Wahoo there is still a short piece of track left… oh well – it wasn’t meant to be.
A pity, but not the end of the world and certainly not the end of my race. At least now I don’t have to push hard up any short counter climbs with high wattage. Instead, I can imagine in my head what kind of houses might be hidden behind the palm trees and what this colourful red-blue light, which I often see to my left side further down behind palm trees, is supposed to indicate. Another hostel? Indeed, there is still a tiny ridge to overcome before the road drops steeply one last time and with narrow serpentines in the upper part. The last kilometer I roll through an apparently very interesting village, as far as I can make out in the light of the street lamps. Because of the steep slope it is quite different from the other villages the route has taken us through so far. I would also like to see this during the day. Like the whole valley. But now I slowly follow the steep concrete path downwards through the village. Where is the way to the checkpoint? The Auberge le Paradis d’Aguinane? Ah! There, lights and there, sitting at three tables in front of a building, are the familiar faces. And there are bikepacking bikes leaning against the opposite wall. This is the checkpoint. That’s it. It’s 9:48 pm. Only 48 minutes after checkpoint closing time at CP2. How annoying! And yet I’m only annoyed for a short time – far to amazing what I have experienced here in Morocco up to this point and far to great to finally be here and meet so many fellow riders and the volunteers! Of course I am welcomed with a big hello and applause. This is how we bikepacking racers do it at checkpoints – everyone who arrives has done great things and has fought for his own success – more or less. For this we always pay family respect to each other. I love it.
I also love finally sitting down at a table right now. Of course there are recommendations as to what I should do first, order, get. What to eat here. At the same time as sharing the remorse that I arrived just after the cut-off. But which I wipe off the plate and instead rave about the great experiences until here. What an evening – right now it’s time to eat, talk, listen and exchange experiences!
Did you like my descriptions up to here? Were you able to get a little insight into how the race, but also Morocco, presented itself to me? I am very much looking forward to your comments or questions. Now I’m starting to work on the second part, which will describe my further experiences from here to the finish line in Sidi Rabat.
Have fun dreaming up and planning your own next adventure!