Pretty much exactly one year ago I had the honor to ride the inaugural Atlas Mountain Race. The last “free” race before our daily lifes were affected by the ever present global pandemic we are dealing with at the moment.
The question I get asked most? How is the Atlas Mountain Race compared to the Silkroad Mountain Race? Well, let’s skip that. Instead I will tell you about the incredible journey through amazing landscapes and a country full of culture and history that will blow your mind. Not to forget the hospitality of the moroccan people, who will treat you like family.
Last day of the race, and finally no rocks! Picture by the amazing Niels Laengner
Having the possibility to participate in an inaugural edition of a race is always something special and the Atlas Mountain Race (AMR) was no different. We strive to escape our daily live. If your are into ultra unsupported racing and off the grid bikepacking adventures, chances are high you are less attrected by perfectly organised stage races. You will be looking for something different. A real challenge, something keeps you up at night the weeks before the race goes off.
Rest assured: the AMR is all that and more. For an inaugural edition the level of organisation and planning was exceptional. Once you had the honour to race one of Nelson Trees’ races, you will forever compare other races against the “comfort” you discover as a participant riding one of his events. Of course nothing is ever perfect, but the organisation was flawless as always. From roadbook, to hotels up to baggage transport and checkpoints everything was well organised and well documented.
The only thing I was worried about was the timing. A race in february meant training in the grim Austrian winter. Which lead to me spending less time on the bike, but instead going skimountaineering. In fact as the race came closer I had more and more doubts if I was able to even finish the race. I guess we all have this phase in preparation, feeling like an imposter. Feeling that you have no place in this event and you doubt if you are good and prepared enough to enter the race.
All the doubts left me as I reached Marrakesh. It was so good meeting the “family” again. The ultra racing and bikepacking community is just that. A small family of like minded people. And of course a lot of the athletes I met during the SRMR came to the start line of the AMR, too. I felt relieved just enjoyed the atmosphere and some relaxation at the start hotel. Still I had a nervous night rolling around, checking twice or even 3 times if I really packed everything and all gadgets were charged and ready.
Off the gun
Fast forward to the start. Pow! The start gun went and so did the riders. The “neutralised start” turned into a race for position and there was a front group racing off at world tour pace. Playing it safe, I let them go. No reason to get a penalty for drafting right after the start. After the flat tarmac road out of Marrakesh we went off-road towards the first climb. Suddenly, I passed a lot of riders that dropped out of the front group due to the high pace. It was hot and the red dust didn’t help breathing. On top of the climb I had the honor to speak into Calamaro’s fluffy pet microphone for the first time. I had no problem stopping for a quick chat, as I already knew I was not in the shape to race here.
The winding road up the highest pass of the race.
Even more I focused on this surreal experience. The rugged mountains,** the small, red gravel roads**, tiny villages with even tinier alleys and people cheering us. It was a stunning atmosphere and slowly i kept overtaking people while going up the second and highest climb of the race. Endlessly winding up, steeper and steeper, with more rocks in the way as the road progressed we struggled up. More and more people got off their bikes and pushed. Silence filled the scene, only the soles scratching over rocks, trying to find hold and the noice of hard breathing remained. Right before the top I encountered Ernie and Scotti Lechuga. They had a few problems but soldiered on relentlessly. This wasn’t the only time during the race I should meet them.
One of the most memorable scenes of the race — Ernie and Scottie are the most incredible Team I have ever seen.
We were already warned but it dawned on me as I went over the pass: The real challenge was the downhill. A rugged trail, with baby head sized rocks forced us to carry our bikes down for some kilometers. You could sense the disillusionment around the riders nearby. I had to smile.
“Yep. It’s a Nelson Trees route.” If you participated in the Silkroad Mountain Race you’ve had your fair bit of experience with hike-a-bikes and this was in no way more or less hard. In fact I enjoyed running down this sometimes difficult to follow trail until the next village.
I could “smell” the first checkpoint and arrived there shortly before sunset. Proud having my first stemp (OMG they were beautiful!) I gladly accepted some vegetable Tajine. A dish I learned to love riding throuch Morocco. It turned out the food around Morocco is great. Regardless where you are and even friendly for vegetarians. Moroccans love to steam veggies and make Omelettes. Oh and don’t forget about all the sweets. Cyclists heaven.
The moment the rideable trail ended and the hike-a-bike down to CP1 exposed itself.
I rolled off into the night. Hoping to get close to the big highway crossing. I failed, badly. What seemed hilly terrain on the map, were steep technical climbs and downhills with an incredible amount of rocks and sand. In fact in the pitch black night it became more and more difficult to find my way through all the small dried out river beds. I decided to call it a day and get a good 4h of sleep. The fundament of a house that was supposed to be built in the middle of nowhere proofed perfect. Level ground, small walls around for shelter.
The longest stretch
Well that was my first day and while I didn’t have any major struggles I didn’t really feel being “in” the race. Something in my mindset was missing. Regardless, I went up and rode the last bit to the highway. What awaited me was a beautiful Omelette for breakfast and the last restock for over a hundred kilometres.
I guess you only learn what a rocky desert means when you ride through it.
The longest stretch without resupply during the race. Not even a stream to filter water and the sun was torching down. The heat was peaking around lunch and I started to cover my skin and ration my water reserves. The big climb of the section to a plateau seamingly took forever. I only went over the plateau until sunset and I was desperately hoping to fill up water soon, as I nearly ran out. Of course it wasn’t smooth sailing on the way down to the next village!
Riding a rigid bike my body was shaken so much by rocks and rough surface, I feared my muscles would collapse trying to stay on the bike. As I progressed further, I realised the surface got smoother. At the edge of the light produced by my K-Lite dynamo light I could spot majestic shapes of palm trees. Picking up speed I gained confidence in maybe getting some resupply before shops closed. Before I could further refresh my throat from the thought of resupply and food, I nearly fell over my bars. At full speed I smashed into deep sand, the wheels moving sideways, fighting to gain traction. Well there you go again. (Yep, it’s a Nelson route.) Nearly reduced to walking speed I was wondering if it would be more effective walking instead of pushing the pedals hard and trying to balance the traction to not fall over or waste energy.
Can you show me a more epic scenery for a sunset? I’ll wait.
Now I was nervous. What if everything is closed? It’s nearly 10pm. The village appeared to be much smaller and no map offered any POIs for me. Wait: Google Maps shows a shop. Just 600m off the track. Downhill… Well what can you do. I didn’t want to spend a night without water.
To my surprise I found a rather large gathering of riders and media crew around the small shop that was operating at full speed to accomodate all the unexpected, well paying customers. “No close shop until tomorrow!” The owner tells me, excited about having such thirsty and hungry customers.
In the official documentary you will find a scene of a rider emptying a large bottle of water in one go only to order a second one. It was a symbolic scene that described how we all felt.
Le Paradis d’Aguinane
Well refreshed and restocked I went back into the sandy trails riding through the night. I decided to take 3h rest again and get up before sunrise to get the most out of the cooler temperatures. But this day was different. I felt better, stronger, faster. (Pun intended) My body slowly got into the rhythm of riding bikes again. I even felt more confident on climbs. I went through the whole day smiling and enjoying the day. Of course scenery was breathtaking once again.
The sunrise on day 3 — what a beauty!
However, still not at CP2 I still had some doubts. I knew I wasn’t performing at my best. Your body is working, the bike is working, there is nothing wrong, but you just don’t quite feel in the race. Well there was a distinct moment that changed.
The moment I passed the long stretch of rocky deserted mountains and looked down into the gorge of CP2, I nearly burst in tears. I am not sure if I ever looked at anything comparable. A long windy road that made its way through sharp rock towards an Oasis like we know from fairytales. The contrast of the seemingly dead red desert and rocks to the green Island of life in the valley was breathtaking. The majestic Palm trees, the small stream running through it and the houses in between seemed out of this world.
The view towards CP2 — The name says it all. “Le Paradis d’Aguinane”
It was hot, dusty and I was happy getting some shade from the palm trees next to the road. Kids were cheering and running next to me. It felt so good. It felt like in a dream. At the checkpoint I met some familiar faces. Lian and the media crew were there to take pictures and some other riders like the Lechugas and the “Italian Peloton” were enjoying food and resupply as well as some rest. I quickly restocked and ate. I drank ridiculus amounts of water and coke and then got on my way. I was euphoric. The next checkpoint was close in terms of ultra distances and I felt great.
The draught and the insanity
Back on the road I suddenly felt incredibly happy. There was no pain, no doubt, just the joy of riding the bike in an incredible landscape. Up ahead was another crazy long stretch without resupply. However, there was a fair amount of tarmac and even in the relentless moroccan heat I made good progress. Headwinds incredibly warm and strong couldn’t stop me. I caught up with french rider Stephane here for the first time.
He struggled finding water and complained about the heat. I accompanied him for a bit until we reached a small abandoned house. To our surprise we found the Lechugas there. They were battling with tons mechanicals and their tires were ripped apart by the relentless terrain of the Atlas Mountains. There was no way we could help them especially it being an unsupported race. I wished them the best of luck and pushed on. Ernie is a true Mc Giver when it comes to fixing bikes. In the end he used some pieces from his Jersey to sew the tire. Unfortunately they had to scratch later as their tires further desintegrated.
Riders used this abandoned house for shelter and fixing their bikes. Ernie working his magic.
I remember the next climb for a certain reason: The small village we passed on the way up was struck bad by the drought with no infrastructure and a high rate of poverties. People looked exhausted and skinny. Houses were falling apart and the kids ran after us begging for money and food. It put my life into perspective. It’s easy to forget about the luxury we live in. It is not so easy to see people so poor and desperate. There is nothing you can do in this moment, but seeing poverty and hunger with your own eyes will change the way you think and talk about those topics for the rest of your life. (Hello EU, this is your topic.)
Speaking of people that have way less then we do: That night a few riders arrived at the same shop in a small town. The owner was ecstatic. He already knew we were coming as he used his smartphone to dotwatch the race. With joy he invited us to stay at his house. 5 riders were looking at each other. The thought of a roof over our heads was more then tempting, but it being a race, you know you are going to loose a lot of time. He insisted and finally all 5 riders agreed to follow this stranger to his house.
His father greeted us and invited us into their home. The whole house seemed unfinished, bare concrete. The living room was the only room with carpets to cover the concrete with pillows and a small table. However, before entering the living room, we had to wash our feet, as they were Muslims. The ritual is holy for them and they insisted. It was a unique experience, I will never forget! We had to eat all the food they came up with, drink tea and talked (hands and feet) for I guess 1,5h.
Exhausted from the day, we were happy to finally get to sleep. Way before sunrise we sneaked out of the house and left some money and a note as a thank you for their hospitality.
It is a repeating pattern I have encountered travelling the world: the less people have, the more poor they are, the more generous they will be, willing to share and offer everything they own. To help wherever they possibly can, without asking for anything in return. You are most likely to discover this hospitality in Muslim countries. While there are other problems like gender equality in those cultures, I personally experienced them as the most inviting cultures.
Old colonial road — a forgotten pass built in the colonial times
Old Colonial Road
I remember having a leaking tubeless tire this morning. I quickly pumped it up again and let the sealant do it’s magic, turning the wheel. Well, I was about to experience what all the fuss about the “old colonial road” was all about. Deep in the Anti Atlas Mountains we had to cross a pass long forgotten. Once built during the colonial times, this road used to be a valuable connection for trade and infrastructure, but it’s current state was challenging, to say the least. The rocks on the road were huge and loose, the bike slipping over one stone to another. All contact points to the bike scream in pain and my back wasn’t too happy about the bumpy ride either. Damn, I should have gone for suspension. I tell this to myself every time before turning up with a rigid bike to the next race, again. I guess we like the suffering.
It wasn’t only the rocks, the road was also steep and long, and after every corner you could spot another endless stretch of road winding up the mountain. No problem, that’s the stuff we’re here for, I told myself, having to laugh the same moment. I knew that there were 3 spots on this road that collapsed and were not rideable. I reached the first one and had to smile. The roadbook informed us about those 3 collapsed stretches of road, but in typical Nelson fashion it described the procedure of getting around as “quickly getting off the bike and walk around to get back on the road”.
The road “put on top” of the sharp rocks by hand — This surface was hard to ride.
Let me say it like this: If you are afraid of heights, you are running into problems at this point. The rocks were put there by hand, forming high banks on top of the sharp, steep, rocky landscape. Shouldering your bike and walking down 2–3m on loose rocks wasn’t the walk in the park we were promised in the roadbook. However, I loved it! The landscape, the incredible shape of this road, the history behind it I can only imagine, it all just made me feel to be in the right place. This was it, that was exactly what i came for!
The rugged landscape with seemingly fake lines and patterns in the rock looked astonishing. The pictures don’t even do justice to how beautiful this road was.
French rider Stephane descending towards the long awaited next town
On top of the pass I spotted a rider lying on the side of the road, he was bleeding out of his nose. I stopped and asked if he needed help. It was Stephane a french veteran rider. His nose started bleeding because of the dust he breathed in, the heat, the dehydration and the exhaustion. I decided to accompany him down to the next village and gave him some of my water. I was very happy to hear later that he was fine and waiting for us at the finish. Hope to see you soon my friend!
I on the other hand pushed on to the next pass. I discovered happiness and feeling good for some time now, but going into the next pass I suddenly felt effortless. I was filled with joy and my body and mind worked together in perfect harmony. Time passed by fast and I was smiling and happy all the way to CP3. The last checkpoint! Going through the night I caught up with friend and dutch bikepacking legend Bas Rotgans.
Together we rode through what we thought must be an incredible landscape. Our lights unveiled palm trees and steep rock walls on the side. It felt like we were crossing a jungle with dried out river beds. I later saw some pictures of riders who rode this during the day and was astonished!
Moroccan sunsets — can’t wait to be back!
The home stretch — CP3 to the finish
CP3 was in the middle of this jungle. A guest house with a well overwhelmed host, not prepared for all the riders arriving at CP3 in the middle of the night. I was lucky to get the last Omelette. The food was good. And the moment I stopped I realised how exhausted my body was. I decided to nap on the couch for 3 hours and then go for the finish. Bas had the same plan. We got up at the same time and shared the incredibly dark roads together for a bit.
In fact it was crazy dark. Sometimes I was unsure if the moon was some kind of illuminated sign of a mosque in the distance. It was so small and so low, even with a perfectly clear sky and an ocean of stars above it was pitch black. Only the light of our headlamps led the way into the void. The sandy, rocky surface was reflecting the light, nearly blinding us at times. Bas sometimes pushed up front, then I overtook him again. It was exhausting and we both felt very tired. After some time we gave up and rode together for a while. It is crazy how deep the subjects of your conversations get while you race an ultra distance. It was like we knew each other for decades and it was fun to find out how much hobbies we shared. Bas saved me in this moment.
The sun went up and we got to a small village. On the left there was a sign. “Patisserie”! A sign from heaven. What a feast. 3 rounds of pastries, 3 espressos and some well deserved rest. After spending way too much time, I went off, splitting ways with Bas.
One last day in the Atlas Mountains — roads to fall in love with
Here I went again. I was riding like I was in a meditational state. I was fast, efficient, going seemingly effortless up the hills. I was happy. I was doing what I love doing and I was fast. Ultra high. This state is so difficult to describe, but your body is releasing all the Adrenalin and Serotonin it has. It feels like being on drugs and it’s highly addictive. There is a reason people fall in love with ultra. Once you experienced this kind of high, you will never want to stop anymore.
No pictures anymore, only one goal, one thought over the last 200km:
reaching the finish line for a beer at the beach at sunset.
At some point I overtook Alex Jacobson. He told me he had problems with saddle sores, hence riding standing all day. I passed some encouraging words and told him we would meet at the finish for beer. I later learned he cycled over 500km standing. An incredible performance, that I can’t even imagine. Kudos to not scratching.
Rumor spread across riders that there was a nasty stretch of sand right before the finish. In fact a lot of riders were furious about this and insisted they would never ride something like this again. It was hard. Sometimes it felt like someone was pulling you back. Even walking was hard sinking into the sand. Focus. That’s what brings you through this. You can complain and argue about why not choose this, or that route instead. You can stop for a moment to think about your misery, it is not getting you closer to your only goal: The finish!
It’s those moments where your mind is the greatest tool. You are focused, you know what to do, so do that. Walk the sand, ride where possible and you will get there.
Nothing worth achieving was ever easy. — Mike Hall
And so I went, happy, determined. (Craving the beer at the finish line.)
I arrived at the finish before sunrise. Happy. Of course I was a bit said that this experience was already over, however having a beer with fellow riders at the beach at sunset was all I needed at this moment. I was able to still my thirst for this moment.
Exhausted but happy. What a race, what a country.
Max Riese finished the Atlas Mountain Race in 30th position.Little did he know that this was the last “normal” race in a long time. Thank you to Nelson Trees for organising such a beautiful event and to all the volunteers to make it the great experience it was.