Bikepacking Races

How to not only survive but thrive in the Atlas Mountain Race – an unsupported offroad bikepacking race in Morocco

I just returned from Morocco where I took part in, or rather started, this years Atlas Mountain Race. An unsupported, fixed route offroad bikepacking race in Morocco. Now in its 3rd edition it runs with slight route alterations and a different finish over 1300 km from Marrakech in nearly a closed loop over the Atlas and Anti-Atlas to the coast at Essaouira (with only 178 km distance from there back to Marrakech again).

In doing so, it crests one of the highest Passes over the Atlas, the Tizi n’Telouet, at 2500 m. Which is not a road at all, but a steep off road piste at the approaching side and from the summit on just a narrow mule path on the other side down. So you basically push your bike because of the steepness up the last kilometers or so and then continue to push or carry your bike down again on the other side. Basically, pushing or hiking your bike is a thing you do a lot in this race. It’s something the organizer, Nelson Trees, is known for to feature in his races but also as a means to take the participants to breathtakingly beautiful places.

So it’s a really hard race, but also a very rewarding one!

I was fortunate for being able to already take part in and finish the inaugural edtion of the Atlas Mountain Race which took place in February 2020. You can find my detailed two part journal with many insights and photos of the awesome route here: The Atlas Mountain Race 2020 – My journal of the inaugural edition, Part 1 and Part 2. Both parts are available in German and in English.

I volunteered as an official dotwatcher for the second edition which because of the pandemic could only be held in last years October of 2022. And there then I got the itch to return again to those beautiful landscapes for the third edition this February.

So I have a bit of an insight and experience and because my second race didn’t go so well (to say the least) I started a short note on what I want to improve and what needs to change – for which sadly the main culprit is quite a bit outside of my (and your) control. But nevertheless I wanted to expand on that note and make a helpful article out of it which should be applicable by anyone. So I now present you with a short list on how not only to survive (i.e. finish) the Atlas Mountain Race but really also to thrive in it – i.e.: being able to really enjoy your surroundings and the experience rather than being miserable and just clinging on to the goal of somehow reaching the finish line no matter what. And then miss this aim anyways or having to recuperate even more than usual for weeks afterwards.

With this article being a concise list format (nevertheless with added background reasoning) I would like to also point to my aforementioned two-part Journal where you can glean tons of specific race information from but also to two other articles I wrote beforehand of the first AMR, both only available in German, though. One on my considerations which kind of shelter I wanted to bring to the Atlas and one where I write about different possible bike setups and gearing options. For being able to derive such things, you need to have a basic understanding on the terrain, the altitude, the climate and the surfaces of the route.

With that put, let’s right dive into a short characterization of these things and then onto the checklist of things you want to have considered to go into the race prepared.

Yours truly surfing a sweet piste on the second day of the race.

Race Conditions and Character

Out of three editions, the participants now have seen three different overarching weather conditions. In the first one in 2020 we had a weather which could be considered quite normal for the region. It was dry, sunny, with day temperatures between 20 to 30 degrees Celsius at the highest but often cold wind and dry air. Night temperatures typically drop down towards single digit positive or even zero degrees Celsius.

The second edition was „the wet one“. Whith quite a bit of rain setting on already in the first night leading to dry riverbeds being suddenly not dry anymore (even catching one unsuspecting person bivying by surprise) and the only single main river crossing to be unpassable for anyone because of too high water and too strong of a current until the morning of the second day. It afterwards was a quite ok and pleasant conditions again, though.

And now in the third edition we had an what is referred to by the locals as a very unsusually cold February with snow up in the Atlas and a snow covered top of the Tizi n’Telouet, the pass which is required to be crested by the riders right in the first day (or night). While snow is to be expected as a possibility for every year the deep temperatures we had this time around in Morocco are hopefully not so. Night temperatures went down to and below zero degrees Celsius and even the daytime temperatures in the sun were only around 5 degrees at CP1 which is in Telouet at around 1800 m above sea level. And even in the second day in lower altitudes of around 1200 masl at around 11 to 14 degrees. But you then go up to the Anti-Atlas again and it would get colder again, too.

You can’t rule any of these conditions out for future editions so you have to prepare accordingly and keep in mind that most of the race takes place over altitudes of 1000 to 1800 masl and reaches 2500 masl in the highest point.

Which, with the new finish line being in Essaouira and the race now 1300 km long would have to be tackled in the night or the early hours of the new day as Nelson had acommodated for the added length with bringing forward the starting time from a 9 o’clock at Saturday morning to a 6 o’clock at Friday evening time. It remains to be seen if it will stay this way for the next edition or if Nelson will fine tune things further.

The Terrain is remote and rough with quite a lot of climbing: around 20.730 vertical meters (depending on the routing platform of your choice) over the 1338 km. Thus making it a climbing factor of 15.5 which isn’t too high but with the surface and gradient of the track is quite challenging. And it might deceit you when you are eyeballing the track in Komoot, Ride with GPS, Strava or what not. You might think: „Huh, 9 % on average on this stretch, I can easily ride this with my mtb gearing.“ But you will be quite mistaken because even without intersparsed steeper bits not being resolved in the resolution of the gradient the often rocky tracks and sometimes downright mule paths will have you dismount and hike your bike quite often, leading to very low average speeds. Which you have to take into consideration for the amount of food and water you carry over those stretches and the toll it will take on your body. Out of the race manual: „The trails also have a tendency to be rocky and there are loose rocks in many places. It is very easy to crash out.“

The manual every participant will get access to once successfully applied provides a list of quite reliable resupply points and notes the distance between them. The longest of those being nearly 100 km. That isn’t a long stretch for any road conditions in Europe but off-road and in the Atlas, it can and will take you up to 10 hours or even the whole day. So you have to be prepared to be out there, maybe even needing to camp out there for the night. Without resupply, in freezing conditions. But – you also hopefully can enjoy one of the most wondrous starry nights out there on this planet.

Nights is another important key word. It’s February which means the sun will set around 19:30 and only rise at around 08:00 again. It’s dark at 20:00 at the latest and the first (hopefully) warming rays of the sun won’t reach you before 9:00 in the morning really. That makes 11 to 12 hours of complete darkness (depending on the moon phase and cloud situation) and cold. So you need to be prepared for that also. I.e. good and redundant lighting as well as clothing to continue riding and also to be able to camp out if need be.

Checklist / Top Tips

So now finally for my list of things to consider if you want to not only survive but thrive in the Atlas Mountain Race. It’s by no means meant as a complete Kit-List nor a complete List of things you have to go over for preparing for such an endeavor. But it should get you started or give you an idea of key aspects you will have to be aware off or want to read the opionion about from someone who has done this race already.

I have the following points categorized by the following: Bike, Kit, Training and Health and finally Mental approach.

A bikepacking full suspension mountainbike, a Rose Thrill Hill XC Race bike.
My Rose Thrill Hill full suspension mountain bike just before the start of this years Atlas Mountain Race.


  • Top choice: A full suspension race MTB. Here I have nothing to improve. I choose my full suspension mtb already for the first edition and also brought it for this year. In my opionion it’s the perfect type of bike for the Atlas Mountain Race.
  • So, if you don’t have a bike for the race yet and are willing to buy or build one for this and future events, my recommendation would be a full suspension. But at least in any case take a hardtail mtb as this year the majority of participants had.
  • Sure, some hardy people may survive on a rigid bike but even more hardy and fast people would consider choosing a full suspension if going for another edition (like e.g. this years 2nd placed Justinas – and he was on a hardtail mtb already).
  • I get it: many people eyeballing this and similar races came into the sport via the current trend of gravel bikes or purposefully purchased one for doing bikepacking events. Now gravel bikes span a wide spectrum of cababilities and setups and continue to evolve in even more sub-categories (see the last of several articles on this topic on my site here – in German: Höher, Schneller, Breiter? Ein Blick auf aktuelle Graveltrends, Gravelbikes und Federungssysteme). So if you already have a gravel bike and don’t want to waste the planet’s ressources just for yet another bike that’s a noble cause (and saves your purse). But then try to put on the widest tires (even go 650B) it permits. I would say at least 50 mm wide. And try to get down to around 18.3 gear inches or a gear ratio of 0.64, respectively. Which you will have e.g. with a 32 tooth chain ring in front and a 50 tooth biggest sprocket in the rear. So, typically you would like something around the typical 1x MTB gearing. I use 32T in the front and 10-51 in the back. If fully rigid, try to at least have something like a redshift Shockstop Stem or similar.
  • In the end, if you have the choice – get a full sus and your contact points, joints and muscles will thank you. You will be able to downright enjoy parts of the race others will just endure and you will be even able to recuperate on bits where others on a rigid bike will just suffer or on only a hardtail will have to be out of the saddle and continue to strain their legs.
  • Tires: anything around 2.25 inches, 29er prefered, fast rolling tread for hardpack and loose over hard and reinforced sidewalls.
  • Handlebar configuration to your preference but I would recommend flat bars. So much better for technical descents and so much easier to brake and control your bike when forced to hike downhill (like down Telhouet Pass to CP1)

Kit, Shoes:

  • Very important! Even more than on road riding. Even more than on typical off-road riding, since you hike many parts for considerable time, too.
  • I improved on my shoes from my first participation but I would like to get even more hiking focused and warmer ones I had this time. They were the biggest concern of my kit!
  • Don’t bring the race shoes with the stiffest of carbon soles. It will ruin them but that’s not the problem. They will ruin your ankles, achilles and/or instep while scrambling down scree or hiking your bike up and down rocky mule paths or down, across and up out again of gullies and dry river beds with loose rocks galore.
  • I learned from the first edition and opted for shoes with a bit less stiff of a sole. Synthetic glass fiber mix instead of carbon and full rubberized with ample tread. Still a sleek silhouette, though. In case you are wondering: the Specialized Recon 1.0 which I didn’t buy because they were the cheapest of Specializeds Line-up in general or of their Recon model line for that matter but precisely because of their features which makes them better for the task at hand than the higher model numbers or even the S-Works version. Less stiff of a sole, wider last, nicely adaptable with the velcro closure. So there you have a sub-tip inside this tip: consider the lower or perceived lesser model ranges of shoes. They might not only save you money but they very much could be the absolutely better shoe for you.
  • Still, these are essentially summer shoes. Or spring, summer, autumn shoes like every not decidedly winter shoe is. Which includes definitely every race shoe there is. And that was not enough for the substancial freezing degrees there were in the 2023 edition during the nights. And it even wouldn’t warm up considerably during the day. I had overshoes. But even with them it was barely warm enough for my feet and of course these get destroyed so rapidly when forced to hike.
  • So: a) your shoes must be warm enough and b) you must be able to walk with them real comfortably. And optional c) I guess it wouldn’t hurt if they’d feature some kind of ankle protection as long as that in itself doesn’t make them less comfortable or more prone to irritate your ankles (finding the right shoes is hard!).
  • Really wear them in and try them out. Not just by a walk in the park and on flat terrain! Push your bike or at least hike steep and preferably rocky paths up and down! You will discover that what might seem very ok on the flat rears it’s ugly head when going up steep gradients. E.g. my new Specialized Recon 1.0 (which performed way better than my former Lake I used in the first AMR) still gave me grief already in the first long night. After some hiking I developed sore heels in them, forcing me to make evasive movements to avoid further pain and thus reducing my comfort and slowing my progress. Then again: after applying blister protection pads I was quite comfortable in them and also could hike the complete Telouet mule path down in them without problems. A thing I could not in my Lake shoes in 2020 (but I thankfully could slip into my trail sandals for this purpose, then).

Kit, Clothing:

  • Apart from the shoes my clothing was rather fine and tested. The one thing I do would change is having a slightly more substantial long sleeve jersey or light jacket with windstopper qualities. Maybe like a Castelli Gabba or a light additional jacket.
  • So I had a short sleeve jersey (never worn in 2023 but in 2020), I had my Craft Sportswear soft long-sleeve bike jersey, I had a thin Castelli wind gilet, a Patagonia Puffy Jacket (their lightest, least puffy one) and an Endura rain jacket with a hood (and a no arms base layer). That was ok for riding and even for staying warm when stopped to be warm. But it wasn’t necessarily optimal in any combination I would have wanted to. That was just based around the fact that while layering is a very good principle it get’s annoying quick if you don’t want to sweat but gradient and speed and thus wind chill are changing so often. Yes – the Patagonia Puffy Jackets are excellent and better than a real down jacket because their insulation isn’t harmed by getting moist or even wet. But it’s still not optimal for you and also it’s not optimal if all the layers below are getting wet, too. Even more so when you are heading into a freezing night.
  • The one thing which could have made such a layered system perfect would have been the already mentioned more substantial long sleeve jersey, I’d reckon.
  • So my Craft Long sleeve jersey is already a bit warmish with a brushed inside but ultimate too cold when the air is too cold since it blows right through it. In the 2020 edition it was all I needed when paired with a thin wind gilet but for 2023 it was too cold and breezy. Even in the sun – as soon as the trail tilted downwards, it was too cold. But add anything on the top of it – either my rain jacket or my puffy jacket and I quickly would start to build up sweat.
  • I’m hesitant to add yet another layer and clothing piece but I guess it is warranted. Either that in form of a very lightweight but also breathable jacket or replacing the long sleeve jersey with a warmer one also protecting from wind. I will be wary of the outright windblocker stuff brands like Craft and others do – these are sweat traps, at least if included in their base layers as I found. But fabrics like Castelli uses in their Gabba or RoS garments are great in that regard.
Bivyspot in Morocco
My bivy for my second sleep in the race.

Kit, Sleep system:

  • Even if you are a front runner, this is important. Yes, if you are a very fast and experienced guy or girl you could try to sleep only at the check points and do so maybe for 3 times 2 to 3 hours for a total of 6 to 9 hours sleep in the whole race. But you will have to be basically top 5 class to pull this off and also then will fail it or can’t guarantee to have it work. The occasional 20 minute powernap like e.g. Jochen Böhringer pulled of in the 2nd edition (October 2022) and consisting of curling fully dressed into a space blanket (or a miniscule bivy-bag out of such material) as long as it retains the body heat and before the transpiration will soak your clothes – which is 30-40 mins max until this occurs and would leave you shivering with wet clothes – will probably fail dramatically in conditions like in 2023 where you might be already too cold to be comfortable moving on and precisely want to stop because of that.
  • Yes, with sensible planing you could find shelter inside of houses – but the inside or those was often colder than the outside this year! Most probably you would have rugs and blankets there, thankfully at least. But if there weren’t you were as reliant on your sleep system as if you would have found no shelter at all.
  • So be prepared!
  • I prefer a modular approach with my sleeping kit. Meaning I like to bring a lighter and a less voluminous sleeping bag and make up for the not covered lower temperatures by using warm pants and my warm jacket among maybe even a seperate spare merino base layer. So you can save weight and packing space with the sleeping bag and invest those savings into kit which will also help you when you are not sleeping. Like having a warm Pants for riding in the freezing night or down freezing decends or when forced to stop in cold places because of a mechanical (in my case I used the Patagonia Nano Pants for this purpose which served me well in cold Morocco even after scratching this years race).
  • But even while the modular approach is great, I will definitely need to adjust my sleeping bag to a warmer one. Even with Nano Pants, my Puffy Jacket and every piece of riding kit still left on (and a pyjama I just took from my normal travel luggage with me because of the cold temperatures) it was just ok for my second sleeping break where I found a place where the temperatures were just going to maybe zero degrees but not below. I had the Sea to Summit Spark 1 which is essentially just a summer sleeping bag with a comfort temperature of +9 degrees Celsius.
  • I would definitely recommend a sleeping bag with a comfort temperature of 0° Celsius when used as a modular system combined with sleeping with warm pants and a jacket. And I would recommend a sleeping bag with a comfort temperature of around – 4° Celsius when used as stand alone system.
  • Regardless of which sleeping bag you use, pair it with a sleep pad or air mat which has some kind of insulation to reach an R-Value of around 3. As a reference: uninsulated ultra light air mats typically have R-Values of around just 1.

Training and health:

  • Here we are at my main failing reason for this year. Well – obviously you should have trained at least decently (I’ll expand on that) and you should be healthy going into such a race, doh!
  • Covering Training first: I learned from some other participants that by reading my journals, especially also those about my first Atlas Mountain Race in 2020, one could be a bit mislead that you can somehow easily complete the Atlas Mountain Race, even if you are taking your time in being blown away by the landscape, photographing lots and with a real camera and later also develop problems with your left foot as a consequence of an earlier surgery forcing you to basically limp the rest of the race after the old colonial road. That is of course all relative! I tend to focus on the great experience and I also don’t have the habit to exaggerate and praise effort and suffering. Quite a lot of the first and a relative bit of the latter are of course part and parcel of selfsupported ultracycling. But it shouldn’t be your main focus. Nevertheless make no mistake: Such races and especially if they are organized by Nelson Trees are hard! You need a decent fitness just to be able to complete them!
  • So do train! Whether you prefer to do this for a good part via other endurance activities like running, nordic skiing or ski mountaineering doesn’t matter so much. In fact, mixing these activities with biking could even be beneficial because they work your whole body and you will need your whole body when pushing and lugging your bike up and around obstacles. And also riding offroad is asking more from your whole body (especially also upper body) than is riding on road or even on normal „gravel“.
  • So a nice consistent training program over at least the preceding 3 months should prepare you nicely for the Atlas Mountain Race, provided you have a decent base to build upon.
  • Even the occasional interruption because of catching a bug or getting a cold shouldn’t be too detrimental. If – and that is a big if – it isn’t immediately before and right up to the race as it happened to me this time unfortunately.
  • There isn’t also much you can do to prevent this in the northern hemisphere with people acting (or sometines forced to act) stupidly and running around and attending important work appointments sick etc. Yes, eating well and healthy, heeding basic hygiene considerations and maybe even being over-attentive to those as we cyclists tend to be anyways is a given but not a guarantee to have an uninterupted preparation phase to the race. As I said – it’s not that much of a problem if it doesn’t hit you immediately before the race (or even as a double whammy like in my case rendering the whole of January a no show).
  • Train also your core and upper body! As I said, riding off-road as well as pushing or even carrying your bike is taxing the body more and in other ways than simple riding on tarmac or even on smooth and flat gravelly terrain does. Also, quite a bit of participants developed neck problems in this years edition again. Some also downright got „Shermer’s Neck“, a condition where your neck muscles are unable to hold you head upright anymore. This can be prevented by specific training within your cycling workouts. So ride your mountain bike over actual off-road terrain instead of just your road bike over tarmac or even the turbo inside at least a good part of the amount of your total cycling training volume. Which can be tricky in the northern hemisphere Winter, I know. So pair it either with the aforementioned other outdoor endurance activities like nordic skiing or SkiMo. And with strength training!
  • Yes, core training might be a bit worn out as a recommendation and buzz word and also not every core training is created equal. Really do train the deep abdominal muscles instead of e.g. mindlessly doing crunches only.
  • Also train your upper back. Especially the rhomboid muscle and the trapezius muscle. E.g. via rowing and reverse butterflys. Also include some sensible shoulder routines and you are fortifying your whole neck area and be in the best position to prevent any problems there.
  • I would include also push-ups etc. for the frontal upper body to get a well rounded package and also because of the type of strain you get when riding off-road downhill with your bike.
  • In any case, try to be consistent and having an upwards trajectory with your cycling training leading up to the race. You might be at a lower absolute fitness like for a sommer race, but that is still fine if you manage to stay healthy for the last weeks before the race. Which is unfortunately hard to control in northern hemisphere January even for the most solitudinarian of life-styles.
  • What to do if you get sick during or right at the start of the race like many did in this year? Well – listen to your body and be sensible! Health first! There were a few who could continue and finish. There were others who tried and couldn’t. Maybe precisely because they tried and tried too hard! E.g. Mattia de Marchi, who finally managed to get to the first position and then had to abandon the race because he couldn’t breathe anymore. While immediate check-ups in a Morrocan hospital showed no grave condition it was later discovered back in Italy that he had developed acute pulmonary oedema, as you can read on his Instagram. That is quite severe! Another quite accomplished participant tried to soldier on admirably (or dare I say stupidly but it’s not in my nor any others person position to judge other than the indivudual him or herself) describing her ordeal quite drastically in her instragram stories until it really, really wasn’t justifyable anymore – or rather, the wheezing finally made even hiking the bike simple gradients impossible… Yeah… try to take on an impartial view on your overall condition, even if it might be hard when in a race or in an event you put your heart and soul into reaching it in the first place and you know you won’t be so quick to return to it if at all.

Mental Approach

  • We could engage in a debate on how important the mind or the mindset is compared to the body, especially in ultra-endurance events. People tend to over-emphasize the importance of the mind. But even the most stubborn and focused on the task person in the world can’t complete an event like the Atlas Mountain Race in time if their body isn’t capable of doing so. You can’t think (or wish) your way to an olympic medal – your body must be in shape and fit for it. Similar it is for the maybe more mundane task of reaching the finish line of the Atlas Mountain Race in time for the finisher party. But also the opposite is true: you could be the fittest participant of all – if you aren’t feeling it and just think on the second day, „Sod it, why am I doing this – I want to fly home!“ and follow up on this an do fly home, you are not reaching your goal either. So yeah – is that now 80 % mind and 20 % body or the other way around? My take: that is absolutely not a metric you could apply here, you have to describe it in the way I did in the first sentences and expand from there.
  • Be curious and be optimistic. Think positive!
  • Yes, this might be a cliché but it is also proven helpful. I already wrote about that aspect as point 8 in the 10 key points of successful ultra-pacing in an article on pacing strategies for long distance riding ranging from short one day events over 24 hour races up to multiday ultracycling events. You can find the article (in German) here: Pacing Strategien für die Langstrecke – Von Granfondos und Gravel-Rennen bis zu 24h- und Ultracycling-Rennen.
  • I repeat and translate that section from this article here. It reads: Have fun with it! We are not paid for it, but pursue our passion out of… well, passion. So some suffering is part of it, but it’s not the main driver. Various research papers prove that „positive thinking“ actually has a positive impact on performance as well. Yes, that alone and in fact a consciously forced smile (even if you don’t feel like it) can easily reduce perceived effort. People with a positive mood and intrinsic motivation (that is, who do the activity for themselves because they enjoy it or because the landscape through which the race passes means something to them) are much more likely to remain calm and successfully complete the race, even in the face of minor to major problems. Much more likely than people who are extrinsically motivated. That is, who do something only because they want to prove something to someone else, because they are pursuing a certain result or things like that. As soon as there is even the smallest crack in their race or the hoped-for placement no longer seems possible, the entire motivation can completely dissolve into thin air even by seemingly the smallest ailments. If you yourself also become stroppy and erratic while struggling with various ailments or perceived disadvantages „What a disadvantageous weather today of all days and here just for me!“ you also get into a negative spiral more easily, make more mistakes, perceive more perceived disadvantages, and so on.
  • It is therefore not unexpected that, for example, Beedie et al. in their paper „The profile of mood states and athletic performance: two meta-analyses.“ in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology from the year 2000 find evidence that emotions play a major role in overall performance and that winners of respective competitions display an appropriate emotional attitude which seems to positively influence their overall economy in performance development and minimize the risk of injury.
  • So, my top and final tip is: Do it because you like it. Because you like to explore and discover places by bike. If so, you won’t be dissapointed by Morocco and especially by the Atlas Mountain Race course. It’s a masterpiece which will leave you breathless. Both because of the effort you have to put in but also the heaps of rewards you’ll reap by discovering this amazing landscapes and people of Morocco and the pure elation when you do in fact are able to finish the race! Thank you Nelson for providing this opportunity!

4 Kommentare

  1. Hallo Torsten,
    ich möchte mal Danke sagen, für deine Arbeit und deine Zeit, die du hier aufwendest. Deine Beiträge sind allesamt unglaublich detailreich, sehr unterhaltsam und hilfreich. Deine Seite erinnert mich an die Anfänge des Internets (bzw. an die Zeit, an der für mich das Internet „angefangen“ hat) und zwar im positiven Sinne.
    Das Teilen von Informationen aus Spaß an der Freude ohne kommerziellen Hintergrund.
    Chapeau und alles Gute für die nächsten Abenteuer

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