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Atlas Mountain Love

"The Atlas Mountain Race is a serious undertaking that should not be underestimated. It takes place in an environment that can be as tough as it is beautiful."

This is the opening sentence of the inaugural Atlas Mountain Race manual, as written by Nelson Trees, the race’s creator. Each racer must carry everything they will need over the 1,148 kilometers (713 miles) of its course. They can, of course, stock up at the shops along the route, but no outside help – from race organizers, other riders or locals – is allowed. In short: the same GPX file for everyone; three checkpoints, with cutoff times; and a finish line that closes eight days after the start. The rules are set: all that’s left for me to do are to choose the equipment I need and the sort of bike I want to take for this journey through Morocco.


Autonomy and freedom need preparation

I’ve plenty of experience of bikepacking, both solo and with friends, both on- and off-road, but I’ve never stood on the start line of a race like this. I’m excited to find out what mental challenges this will bring, but for the moment I am focused on the things I can control. Bikepacking is a matter of balance and compromise: the choice between a mattress that protects you from the cold ground, or carrying 400g (0.9lbs) less . . . taking a thicker duvet and essentially sleeping outside or taking only a bivvy bag and sleeping in hostels. Or not sleeping . . . these are my questions!

‘With increased freedom comes increased responsibility,’ wrote Victor Hugo, which is an apt description of the ethos of the Atlas Mountain Race. Yes, you’re free to leave with the bare minimum, but you will have to deal with the consequences. I decide therefore to research the region and the weather as much as possible. At this time of year, depending on altitude, temperatures of over 30ºC (86F) are expected during the days, but in the mountains they can fall to 0ºC (32F) at night. I’ll need a wide range of layers to put on while trying to weigh the bike down as little as possible.

Finding my way

I know the country a little, especially its rocky singletracks and dusty trails, but I spend my evenings studying in minute detail the paths that Nelson has chosen for us. Maps and topography remotely via Strava are my main tools for checking out the terrain. I trust my Garmin, which I’ll be able to recharge thanks to an external battery pack. Most of the racers, and especially those with an eye on the leaderboard, leave with an emergency GPS device. I can’t afford another one, and I choose to rely instead on my mobile phone – with the GPX route loaded into the app – if my GPS fails. (As it turns out I don’t need it – beginner’s luck perhaps.) Given I’ll often be riding at night on unmarked paths, I decide on two front lighting systems, a main one and a back-up, both rechargeable via USB from the same battery. And given that we’ll rarely be on roads, a little red LED will do the job at the rear.

About the bike

I opt for a simple, tough hardtail MTB, with a suspension fork with 100mm of travel, for long days in the saddle, and Jones handlebars – more comfortable than classic flat bars – to save my back. Plus the most durable tires possible, to withstand Moroccan trails – set-up tubeless, of course, for protection from the region’s thorny plants. It’s a bike I’ve already ridden in a stage race through similar terrain: I know it will be versatile and comfortable.

Sleep matters

I’m a novice at this type of racing, so I decide I prefer to be safe rather than sorry. My plan: I want to be able to sleep anywhere. I opt for an ultralight tent (700g / 1.55lb) that’s easy to put up (five poles and a groundsheet). It will protect me from the wind at altitude if ever I’m too tired to descend to sleep in a valley. I also leave with a lightweight duvet that’s good to 6ºC (43F) and weighs 660g (1.45lb), and a liner (400g / 0.88lb) that will in theory give me 5ºC (9ºF) more. I complete my night set-up with a lightweight air mattress (400g / 0.88lb) to protect myself from the stony ground. That’s already more than 2kg (4.5lb) to strap to my bike just for the sleep system! Talking with riders after the race, I understand how difficult it is to rest and recover if you’re not warm and comfortable, so I think that I made a good choice for my first race – but I know that I can optimise it next time around.


I decide not to take a change of clothes, just a thermal top for sleeping in the dry, a mini quilted sleeveless gilet for getting going in the middle of the night, and I find a waterproof jacket that’s lined for warmth but very light (270g / 0.6lbs), breathable and compact. Since the organizers have provided an obligatory kit list, I complete my load with legwarmers and two pairs of waterproof insulating gloves. At the last minute I add an ultralight long-sleeved top to protect myself from the sun – I won’t regret it.

Food and spares

I take two freeze-dried meals and two portions of muesli, so to be self sufficient and be able to eat and warm up in critical moments I have to also take a mess tin and a spirit burner to heat water. If I were setting off for this race again tomorrow I’d know that this isn’t essential kit, but it reassured me. Now I know the region better, and my nutritional needs when long-distance riding, I know that I can meet these needs in local shops. I’m learning from my mistakes, and these ones weigh 1.3kg (2.9lbs). A first aid kit and a comprehensive toolkit (tubeless repair, puncture kit, chainbreaker, gear cables – no concessions here, as I will certainly not see a bike shop on the course) complete my equipment.

Physical preparation

I do quite a few long all-terrain rides, road and gravel, when the weather allows, along with specific home-trainer sessions indoors. And because the race is made up of long, repeated efforts, I try to do blocks of several days in a row, a few weeks before, stringing efforts back to back despite the fatigue – sometimes on the bike, running at other times. I know that for ultras physical training is essential, but if it’s not accompanied by mental strength it is useless. I know I’ll have tricky moments, pain, low morale, be questioning why I’m there, and that it’ll be in these moments of doubt that the desire to abandon will be sharpest. I’ll need clear answers, and to be able to react quickly, ignoring physical and mental anguish to keep going. Always keep going.

Passing the test

Then I embark on several weeks of testing. I test everything! How things are arranged and balanced on the bike on long rides in the mud of the Seine-et-Marne region. I get used to riding a bike that weighs around 24kg (53lb). On top of the equipment, I have to count on carrying several litres of water, in order to be autonomous on several sections where it won’t be possible to restock – I might have to ride 98km (60 mi) without going through a village. So I decide I’ll take up to 4 litres (1 gallon) of water: two containers on the fork and two big bottles fixed to the saddle, which will also stop the saddlebag from swinging when standing on the pedals.


This type of race is a new adventure for me, so the goals I set myself are: finish the course, have as much fun as possible and bring back images and videos to share that will make other people want to try this sort of thing.

I don’t have any idea how I deal with sleep deprivation over such a long period, with multiple long days in the saddle on dodgy roads, and, even if I’m used to ultra-endurance trail running, I’m setting off with a multitude of questions and a lot of unknowns. I know I can’t force the pace and put myself in the red in the first few days if I am to continue making progress and arrive before the cut-off.

It’s a competition against myself, more than against others, and at no point should I be comparing myself to another competitor, or following their rhythm. I made myself a roadbook gathering together all the info from the organizers about the distances between restock points, difficult sections, major climbs, and I came to the conclusion that I’ll have to do an average of 170km (105 mi) a day to finish in six days. I’ve made an ideal itinerary that will give me 24 hours advance on the checkpoint cut-offs, to guard against any problems with my equipment or a deterioration in my physical condition that might stop me or slow me down.

Thanks to the prep work I did with maps and the app, I’ve been able to visualise the principal difficulties and to mentally prepare myself for them – to know where I might sleep, the big climbs, the long stretches without a shop – and to portion out the kilometers and climbing for each day. This lets me know how many hours a day I’ll be riding, according to the difficulty of the terrain. All of this gives me a goal that I’ll try to stick to, give or take a few hours, without putting pressure on myself. During ultras, the mental is just as important as the physical, something this race will prove to me once more.

"Without wanting to control everything, I need to be clear about what is waiting for me so that I’m not caught out."

Kilometer 0

Saturday 15 March, 9 A.M.: it’s 15ºC (59F) in Marrakech, but I’ve been boiling over with impatience for several weeks already. There are around 180 of us riders starting this first edition of the race – lots of Germans, some Americans, some Europeans, eight of which are French, the majority British. An international peloton, and high class: Sofiane Sehili, James Hayden, Jay Petervary, Jenny Tough, Klaus Thiel, Adrien Liechtli among many others, less known but equally experienced, who have already taken part in the biggest races of this sort – the TCR, French Divide, Italy Divide, Inca Divide, Silk Road Mountain Race . . .

The peloton is hungry, and we take off at speed, on a closed road with Moroccan police outriders leading the way. After 50km (32 mi) we arrive on the first trails taking us to the Col de Telouet, the highest point on the course, whose steep (20%) gradients oblige us to get off and push our heavily laden bikes.

The descent to Checkpoint 1 is a mule track scattered with rocks as big as babies, as another rider next to me says. It’s impossible to ride in this mess, and I push for 2km (1.25 mi), as the first night falls and the heat fades with it. I arrive at CP1 at 8 P.M., where I bump into a few French friends. We eat tagine for dinner, accompanied by the first of many mint teas. Some riders are already fixing punctures, or a recalcitrant saddle, or filling up water and food supplies; and for an unlucky few it’s time to abandon, because of a mechanical failure or a fall. I get going again after an hour, happy to take advantage of a starry sky on the trails, despite the dark, cool night. Unlike those leading the race, I know I need to sleep right from this first night so as not to eat into my strength, so toward midnight I plant my tent next to the path for three hours' sleep that’s broken by the lights of the racers passing close by. Note for later: don’t set yourself up too close to the trail, so you’re not disturbed.

On this first night I waste a fair bit of time putting up and taking down my tent, packing my things, charging my devices and getting going again, but after a couple of days this becomes unthinking, and after 15 minutes my bike is loaded and I’m ready to roll. I begin to make a list of things to do before I stop, in a precise order, so I don’t forget and can be as efficient as possible, because losing time organising is losing sleep. Looking back on it, I’d take a bivvy to this race, to save time sorting out the tent and also to lose weight.

Days pass differently

After the second day I’ve seen a lot of the same riders: we don’t ride at the same rhythm, but we find ourselves in the same places to eat and buy water. Some ride quicker than I do but stop for longer; others do the opposite. Each finds their cruising rhythm. I find that personally I need a good hour’s break in the middle of the day, to have lunch, and the rest of the day take several 15-minute breaks, just to fill my water containers, drink a cold soda and fill my bag with cakes, bread and chocolate.

Between these moments I am alone most of the time, which I’m perfectly happy with, and meetings with others are all the more powerful because we are all suffering the same physical pain, all crossing the same extraordinary landscapes, and all getting slowly cooked in the sun. Nothing gets in its way – no clouds, no trees, nothing to give us any relief.

As the second night falls I begin to climb a trail too tricky to ride, and I see a light descending towards me. It’s an English rider, burnt scarlet from head to toe, pushing his bike. I ask him if he’s OK; he replies that he’s had headaches and been vomiting for hours, but he’s lucid enough to know that staying at the foot of the mountain, sheltered in a little ruined shack, will help him regain his health. Good decision! But not everyone will be so wise, and many rapidly reach the limit. I encounter more and more haggard riders, who didn’t sleep – or barely slept – the first night, and find themselves losing energy, motivation and, for some, scratching. This is the case for a friend of mine, Stéphane, a rider with five TCRs under his belt, including one on a fixed gear(!), who, thanks to a lack of sleep and severe dehydration, completely short circuits and has to go to the local village hospital for care and a check-up. As I leave, we chat, and I sense that he already regrets throwing in the towel, rather than waiting and seeing if he could continue in the morning. In those moments making the right choice is always hard, and particularly frustrating for a competitor of his level who doesn’t feel right and can’t perform as he usually does.

The days and the kilometers pass. My legs keep powering through, but my back hurts a little more each day. I stretch as much as I can during each break, but in vain – the lumber pain gets worse and worse. It’s one reason why I decide to sleep in a hotel the third night, on a real bed, and also to take the week’s first shower.

"The cold water soothes my aching muscles and I slip straight into a deep sleep. I’m not yet halfway: I’ll have to look after myself to get to the end."

Kilometer 1148

If I was asked which moments will stay with me from the week, I’d start at the end of the race, when, with my head in the wind and tires stuck in the sand, I finally saw the sea at the end of the last, long 40km (25 mi) straight – the culmination of a long, very difficult effort, the realization of weeks of training, the satisfaction of succeeding in finishing before the cutoff. I’d add next the warm welcome of my friends waiting for me on the finish line. After all those long, solitary hours, we could finally share our anecdotes, and aches and pains, over a beer. We all understood – we’d all been through them.

Next would come the long, lone hours under the sun in those lunar landscapes where, sometimes, a silhouette would appear – a shepherd in a rocky field gathering in his goats. And, on the fifth morning, as I got out of my tent with only the stars to light me, the chant of a muezzin echoing in the canyon – I had to put down my belongings and listen, a surreal moment. Though it was only six days on the trails, it felt as if I’ve been away for three weeks!

What I went looking for, and what I found?

Everyone has their own motivations – I think there are as many answers to these questions as there are riders. My answer would be those exalted moments of being, which I love. What I mean is that everything you live in an event of this kind stands alone, your senses are heightened by the hours of effort you’ve been through. Distance brings us together – like when I bumped into Pierre at CP2 and, over dinner, we talked about the day we’d had as if we’d known each other for years, though in fact it had only been three days. Those moments when you find a nameless rider with their head in the fridge of the only shop in the village, taking out cold drinks, and you don’t even have to speak – because you know you’ve both spent the preceding hours on a broken track in the full force of the sun. Translating for riders who don’t speak French and are having trouble making themselves understood by the Moroccans, talking with Moroccans and being invited into their house or their back-room boutique . . .

"I lived more in one week, and met more people, than in a year of my normal urban life."

That’s what I went looking for: those simple moments that nevertheless stand apart. This kind of self-supported challenge imposes rules that strip everything back to an elemental minimalism, rules which force you to live each moment with more generosity. Escaping the superfluous to find the essential, that’s what I found on the trails of the Atlas Mountain Race.

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