Whilst riders in the UK were busy spending the weekend wondering when the rain would ever end, hosing the mud off their bikes, hoping the roof wouldn’t blow away and trying to keep their houses from flooding (delete as applicable) some cyclists were dealing with exactly the opposite conditions of heat, dust and wondering where they could get some water from at the inaugural Atlas Mountain Race.
Saturday the 15th of January saw the start of the inaugural edition of the Atlas Mountain Race, a 1145km fixed route race with 20,000m of climbing in it. A gravel race in name, it covers an awful lot of that surface but also a fair amount of singletrack, rocky doubletrack and old forgotten ways that have fallen into disrepair and require some decent off-road skills and hike-a-bike.
The unsupported single-stage race started in Marrakesh and crosses the Moroccan Atlas before heading through the Anti-Atlas to the finish in Agadir. As the event was organised by the same people that brought us the Silk Road Mountain Race you could expect it to be hard. While there were three staffed checkpoints the racers have to pass through desolate and empty mountainous terrain where resupply opportunities of both water and food are incredibly scarce.
The race attracted some of the great and the good of endurance racing, James Hayden (TransContinental race winner, Silk Road Mountain Race), Jay Petervary (Iditarod, Tour Divide, Dirty Kanza), Sofiane Sehili (Tour Divide, Trans Am Bike Race, IncaDivide, Italy Divide) and Jenny Tough (Silk Road Mountain Race, TransContinental, TransAtlantic Way) to name just a few of the hitters ensured there was going to be quite the tussle, and like most ultra-endurance races everyone does it for the physical and mental challenge - there are no prizes for finishing first.
For a bit of insider info about the race and the course, we spoke to Claire Frecknall who rode a large portion of the Atlas Mountain Race route with some friends earlier this year: “The route is very much all-terrain, we encountered smooth tarmac, washboard gravel highways, boulder strewn riverbeds, deep sand and a collapsed colonial road where large sections had fallen away, victim of the landslides that left huge piles of rubble to scramble over in other places.
"Water was scarce, most streams and rivers were dry, we had to rely on water bought in the occasional villages and towns we passed. The kindness of the Berber people made this easier, they were always keen to share food and mint tea with the tired and dusty cyclists passing by their homes.
"I rode a gravel bike, my Reilly Gradient, with a Hunt 650b adventure dynamo wheelset and tubeless WTB venture 47 tyres, a set up I was really happy with. If I’d been racing the Atlas Mountain Race my bike of choice may have been a lightweight hardtail mountain bike with a fast-rolling tyre.
"We were only riding a maximum of 140km a day and mainly during daylight hours, we were able to take our time and carefully pick lines on the more rocky and technical sections. Racers will be riding tired and during the night, bigger wheels, higher volume tyres and maybe a suspension fork would allow for a lot more speed, safety comfort and saved energy over the rough terrain.”
You can read about her experience here and even though they were just riding rather than racing they had their fair share of mishap and mechanicals so you can expect more adversity with the extra strains that a race situation and riding through darkness can put upon a bike and its rider. Riders are into day three now and the leaders are running on no sleep still, the race has already claimed a few scalps though. Saddle sores and mechanicals are plaguing many while Chris Herbert, an experienced ultra-rider, has come down with food poisoning and can hardly turn a pedal.
Liam Yates (that surname might be familiar to some) has scratched due to multiple punctures (why he didn’t go tubeless we don’t know) and Nico Deportago-Cabrera has cracked the fork on his bike.
Like many ultra races the Atlas Mountain Race relies on its coverage via all the social media feeds and is available to watch unfold in real time via dotwatcher, with the top ten now safely home.
Atlas Mountain Race Top 10
- Sofiane Sehili
- James Hayden
- Jay Petervary
- Klaus Thiel
- Adrien Liechti
- Manu Cattrysse
- Carlos Mazón
- Joeri Wannijn
- Jonathan Rankin
- Christian Dietrich
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