NEW YEAR. NEW CHALLENGE.
By Eoghan McHugh | @storiesfromamanandhisbike
This year I thought I’d give the Atlas Mountain Race a go. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the AMR – I wasn’t either! This was the first edition of the race.
I’m sure there’s someone making a bad, ‘hindsight is 2020’ joke for having signed up to such a tough ride in 2020. The Atlas Mountain Race is a single-stage event. The clock does not stop and there are no prizes. A big pat on one self’s back will have to do.
The race started at 9:00am Saturday, February 15th in Marrakech. From Marrakech, I was to ride onwards through the Anti-Atlas to the finish line. The finish line being near Agadir, in Sidi Rabat – a picturesque village on the Atlantic coast.
In total, the race length is 1,145 kilometres (711 miles) with a total of 25 kilometers of climbing (12+ miles). Ride surfaces are gravel, single- and double-track, and ‘old, hand-built, colonial roads that have long been forgotten and fallen into disrepair’. There’s be very little of that smooth, even tarmac to speak of. And great distances between resupply points at times.
This is a bikepacking event, so another challenge to the Atlas Mountain Race is that it’s unsupported. You’re carrying your home on your bike. Racers can ride solo or as a pair but there’s no reliance on other people. And, there’s certainly no chefs, masseurs or anyone to molly-coddle riders.
The route is fixed with three manned checkpoints, at which riders receive a stamp on their ‘brevet’ card. With three stamps, the next stop is the finish line for a well-deserved post-race beer… if you get there!
NEW CHALLENGE… NEW BIKE
I went to Ribble with an idea of riding the AMR. After discussing the route and in order to tackle the forgotten, potted roads, the goat trails, the desert and sand, I decided I’d be best armoured riding an Adventure Ti Sram Rival. The Adventure is Ribble’s Titanium bikepacking warrior!
I was drawn to the Adventure Ti because of its robustness. I knew the titanium frame would be strong enough to endure the harsh, punishing ride and weight on the bike. It’d definitely get to Sidi Rabat, even if I didn’t! I’d had a look online before visiting the store but was so surprised when I saw it – it’s so light!
After deciding on the frame, it was time to discuss the spec required for this type of adventure. Sram Rival 1 x 11 speed kept gearing simple and smooth with its double-tap shifting. Using BikeBuilder, we made a few more changes to help make the ride easier and a bit more comfortable. We swapped to flared handlebars – plenty of places to grip all over, super comfy and easier to brake while going down some of the hairy rocky and bumpy descents. Finally, we added a 12-speed cassette for a bit more range and swapped to tubeless with 20psi.
Accidents happen and things break, even with the best of equipment, so the guys at Ribble also put together a small package of spares for me, throwing in two spare hangers, an extra chain, extra cables and two tubes. The logic being, ‘you’ve never dealt with tubeless. It is dead simple. But, if things really do go wrong, you’ve got some tubes. Just whack them in and you’ll make it to the end.’
TRAINING: THE METHOD TO MY MADNESS
Preparation is a funny one for events like this. Loads of people had asked if I’d been out on the bike much, smashing out miles on a regular basis. If I’m honest, I really hadn’t. In fact, I’d been doing more running and weights in the month before the race!
Lemme explain the madness that is my method: Riders were simply not going to be smashing out 200+ average watts per ride. It’s not a road race and it’s not that kind of ride. Instead, it’s a bit of balance: who can be efficient enough to keep moving, keeping energy in the tank for a long day and still be set for the next day.
I knew I’d need a base level of strength and stamina in my legs to help me spin and grind out miles. In addition, though, the AMR is long miles over gravel and that requires having a stronger core, shoulders and back to push and pull the bike. I felt pretty confident that my legs would keep spinning. So the focus was then on the broader demands I’d be facing.
WEATHER, LANGUAGE AND ALL THINGS DIFFERENT
I’ve got to say, the AMR was a new one for me. Its format, location and climatic range were always going to pose several challenges, all of which I was looking forward to encountering and learning from.
I’d never done such a long amount of time off-road (I’m a roadie, so my off-roading technical skills are minimal, at best). I’m realising as I write this, just how much I wasn’t exactly letting myself in gently!!
The ride also being in Morocco was also another new challenge for me. Primarily, I ride in the UK and my bikepacking experience is mostly just the UK and Ireland. People speak the same language and share the same ideas. It’s easy to ruck up to someone and ask where the nearest supermarket is. I was researching resupply points in Morocco and I found ‘Souk Hebdomadaire’. I know that ‘souk’ means ‘market’. So, I thought I was going well. Then I googled ‘Souk Hebdomadaire’… it means ‘weekly market’ so only good to me one out of seven days and that’s if I can even get the right day!!
The weather was also a new challenge for me to deal with. The daily average swings between -1 to 25 degrees and there’s only 11 hours daylight! There’s a lot of ground to cover in 11 hours so dressing appropriately was definitely something in which I learned the hard way, but got better each day! You live and you learn!
But, as far as distance cycling, bikepacking and all that entails, I’d certainly done a bit of it. Before I even knew what bikepacking was, I loaded my bike up with an extraordinary amount of kit and trundled over the roads of Ireland. In 2018, I cycled JOGLE, via Northern Ireland, Ireland and Wales! I rode 600 of 1,000 miles of the first edition of the Trans Alba in 2019. All before my second broken hanger in five days let me think it was a good idea to scratch.
So, I didn’t exactly walk into the AMR blind. But, these new challenges we’re the reason I was so keen to ride this race. I wanted this – the challenge and the experience to learn from. I went in with equal parts; excitement and nerves.
OFF WE GO!
So on Saturday morning we checked in for the AMR and receive a race briefing, all set and ready to start on Saturday on the south side of Marrakech. We’re informed we’ll be escorted 7km out the hills by local police, and then that’s it, they leave, the race officially starts and we’re all on our own!
I couldn’t help but notice the mix of emotions of different riders at the race briefing, some excited, some nervous, and surprisingly, not many seemed to have done a race of a similar format before. I and a few others were surprised by the range of bikes there, I expected to see more solid frames and more flat / flared bars. I certainly wasn’t expecting to see as many dropped bar carbon bikes as there was. Anyway, I felt at ease and somewhat more prepared with my Adventure Ti set up.
There’s definitely quite the turnout for this race! I’ve met people from the States, all over the UK, Germany, Italy a real good bunch and mix of people.
We were told, thankfully, that there wasn’t meant to be any snow on the first pass, and luckily we missed it so so far so good! The mech arm took a hit today and has to be replaced but no punctures yet and the frame has performed spectacularly. The bars are a delight and definitely aiding my confidence on the downhill technical pistes.
DAY 5 | TWIGGY – HOW COULD YOU?
Half-way through and it’s certainly been a rollercoaster! The bike has been a dream but unfortunately, the terrain we’re riding on is more of a challenge than I think any of us could have ever anticipated. I had a couple of mechanical issues with the bike starting on Sunday (Day 2). From all of the things we’ve come across here – all the rocks, all the stones, the boulders, everything I’ve ridden over and through – no damage, the bike has thundered through it all. But yet I hit a twig and typical. It hits the mech arm at the wrong angle and causes it to twists out to 90degrees. 3 days later, I still find it unbelievable that it actually happened. A TWIG!?! As unlucky as it sounds, I was incredibly lucky to only have a broken mech, the bike design and configuration saved me from any further damage. Whilst others suffered smashed wheels and broken frames, the Ribble stood up to the test flawlessly – and incredibly, not a single puncture either!
Anyway, I managed to get it fixed, (by fixed, I mean, “looking normal again”) and back to the right position, so I was able to continue riding. However, the metal was still bent so with the units integrity corrupted it wasn’t quite 100%. A couple of hundred kilometres later and a whole lot of grinding, the extra strain caused the jockey wheel to come apart, so I managed to reassemble them easily enough and it seemed to be working fine for the most part, but again, just one thing after another and making do instead of replacing meant additional strain on parts all round.
With the mech arm fully broken and no bike mechanic on hand to replace my crucial parts, I dropped down to a singlespeed which wasn’t ideal for this race whatsoever!! So, I’ve made the decision to scratch from the race.
Some folk might be disappointed with the result but to me, it’s no big deal. I’ve loved every minute of it and unfortunately these things happen. The conditions were just that tough, only the luckiest haven’t had any issues (yet!). Some have crashed, many have injuries – bike and human alike, and many more like me are just left shattered and sore.
Taking nothing away, the sights I have seen and the places we’ve passed have been absolutely incredible. It’s hands down been the most challenging bike ride I’ve ever done. Between the intensity of the ride, the gravel and the off-pistes, blended with the heat of 30 degrees, cloudless skies and just unrelenting sun all day long. So it’s definitely been a tough old challenge but my god it’s been fun!
Maybe next year I’ll be back with the Ribble – providing I can fit a bike mechanic in my bags and an extra kilo or 2 of luck!!
Looking for an adventure a little closer to home? Check out how Joe & Darren got on with their bikepacking trip to the Langdales here
A trip of a lifetime. Best friends Ryan & Ben ride their Adventure 725’s from Nepal to India. Read more