Carl and I started riding together one winter when, as the weather turned wetter and colder, less and less of our friends were keen for weekend miles. Soon it was just the two of us, and we realised we shared a liking for long distances, technical off road and pushing ourselves. Since then we have ridden thousands of miles together, mostly off road and mostly in bad weather. Living in Yorkshire we are used to riding in the rain and cold, and happy to do so. When the opportunity arose for us to take part in the Atlas Mountain Race as a pair we knew that it would be a real challenge, because Morocco in October would be hot, very hot. Possibly too hot for a Yorkshire lad and lass! It would also be the first time either of us had raced as a pair. I was keen to give it a go, even though I am a much slower rider than Carl. I usually spend a lot of time while racing berating myself about being too slow compared to everyone else in the field, so I would have the additional mental challenge of trying to not be too hard on myself for slowing us down.
Lining up on the start line on Saturday morning was nerve-wracking. We had been in Marrakesh for a few days - sightseeing, acclimatising and tagine tasting, and we were ready to get started. The first 15km of the race was supposed to be a neutralised start, but the pace soon picked up as we sped towards the mountains. We dropped to the back of the pack after a few stops to rearrange kit and to get an ice cream, but were soon climbing up to the highest point in the race. The sun set at about 8pm as we were making our way towards the top of the pass, and soon after the wind picked up and the thunder and lightning started. I had not been expecting a proper thunderstorm on this trip! We pressed on hoping to quickly get over the top, as the howling winds pelted us with sand and the rain got worse. Every so often the mountain would be lit up by a huge bolt of lightning, it was exhilarating! We hurried over the top and picked our way down the mule track towards Telouet and Checkpoint 1, and as we descended the weather returned to warm and dry. We could still see the lightning in the distance. At Checkpoint 1 we had a quick Tagine and snack restock before heading off into the night for a couple more hours riding.
Just before 6am on the second day I woke with a start. I could see some bright lights coming towards us and couldn't work out if it was a car or people on foot. As I scrambled out of my bivvy bag I realised that the lights were not the problem. I could hear a pack of dogs barking as they ran towards us, we had accidently camped out on their territory and they were not happy! Luckily for us they seemed content to surround us and just bark as we quickly packed up and continued on our way. Not an ideal wake up call but at least it had been at about the time we planned to get up.
The route took us on some incredible gravel tracks through the foothills of the Atlas Mountains and towards the Anti-Atlas. The mountains were magnificent and the views were definitely worth all the climbing. We rode up river beds and climbed for hours in the hottest part of the day. Resupply was scarce so anytime we rode past a shop or a cafe we stopped for a cool drink and an omelette. By the third day I was so sick of omelette that each bite made me gag, and I swapped to just eating bread. The hardest part of the race for me was the lack of food. The shops only seemed to sell drinks and biscuits, and the cafes only had omelette. I was soon fantasising about what I would eat once we'd finished. This race is not one for people who don't like eggs.
Another challenge on route was the gangs of children. We would spot them up ahead on approach to a village, and they would spot us and congregate on a steep uphill. We would slowly weave our way through the village to cries of 'Bonjour, Hello' and 'Chocolate! Chocolate!' and they would run along side us effortlessly as we struggled along. I lost a lot of races to children on foot or on barely ridable old bikes without brakes on this trip! Mostly they were just interested and keen for a chat, but sometimes they would try and grab at the bikes and our bags or throw rocks. I'm sure someone at the pointy end of the race had been handing out sweets as a race tactic! In one village one of the children stole Carl's back light off his bike and I had to pull out my best 'strict teacher' impression which astoundingly worked and the light was returned.
Past Imassine we headed out into the wilderness of the Anti-Atlas and climbed for hours. This was a long stretch of remoteness with no resupply but we were rewarded for all the climbing with an incredible track across the plateau. The views were stunning as we rode along the piste above steep canyons and descended towards Afra. This ended up being the favourite section of the route for both of us. We followed sandy tracks and rocky trails south, often stopping in the shade for a cool down. Every so often we would stumble upon a palmery in a valley, and find ourselves riding under tall palm trees and around spikey looking bushes, but every river and stream we passed was dry. We often found bivvy spots halfway up a long climb and were rewarded for climbing in the dark with sunrise just as we reached the top. We also had some really tough afternoons where we rode long, straight, flat-ish roads into a headwind, in the hottest part of the day, before collapsing in front of a cafe and downing litres of water and cola. The easiest sections of riding were often turning out to be the hardest sections for us, made challenging by the weather and the lack of resupply.
We arrived at Checkpoint 2 in time for breakfast and a much needed shower. Every time we reached somewhere with shade and cool drinks it was a real challenge to not stay there for hours. Afternoon temperatures were exceeding 35 degrees and our water was getting disgustingly warm, but we were not going fast enough to avoid riding through the hottest part of the day. Luckily as soon as the sun set the temperature dropped, and the night time riding was exceptionally good. Due to the lack of resupply we often had lunch and dinner with other riders at the only possible cafe/shop and really enjoyed the comradery. At the back of the pack the competition was with the route itself rather than with each other, and we were happily seeing the same faces every day.
Riding as a pair was making the route feel more like fun weekend riding than racing. It was lovely to have the company although we couldn't manage to sync up, so most of the time one of us was feeling great and the other was having a bonk, which did not make for a speedy ride. It was interesting how different it was to racing solo, where you spend most of the time alone. I wasn't terribly successful with being kind to myself about being the slower one, but I did feel I made up for it slightly with my extra water carrying capacity and my well practised ability to talk to locals despite not having a shared language.
We tackled the old colonial road climb at night, navigating the two broken sections of road in the dark, before sleeping just off the track. I was happy to not be able to see the sheer drop into the valley, and had been trying to cycle as far from the edge as possible, although annoyingly the smoothest path was often nearest the edge. The sun rose as we crested the climb, and we stopped for breakfast with an incredible view before enjoying a long and bumpy descent. I was treated to the best tomato and onion salad at a cafe in Issafen, after explaining to the cafe owner that I was vegetarian and doing my best to look very sad and very hungry. It was absolutely delicious and I raved about it all day.
By day 5 Checkpoint 3 was in sight, and we decided to press on to get there rather than stopping at our normal sleeping time. The elevation looked like it was all downhill, so we were hoping it wouldn't take too long, however there ended up being some tough riverbed singletrack which was quite slow going. When we arrived we ate some well needed pancakes and I had a quick shower and a 25 min nap. It was probably not the best decision we made, but we decided to push on and ride to the finish rather than stop for a proper sleep. We were hoping to get as many miles as possible done while it was cooler, with the plan of a potential afternoon nap while it was hot. At the time this seemed very sensible. We headed out into the night and started a long road climb, luckily there was no traffic as we were both wobbling all over the road and kept alternating between walking and riding in a desperate bid to stay awake. Pepsi for breakfast as the sun rose banished the sleepiness and we were soon perked up and heading towards the last big offroad climb.
Unfortunately our ingenious plan did not work out. By 11am it was far hotter than on previous days, and we had just started hikeabiking up the switchbacks on the last proper climb. As the temperature ramped up Carl started to really struggle with the heat, and we spent an increasing amount of time sitting in the shade trying to cool down. It was taking us much longer than planned and we were beginning to run out of water. We struggled along, rationing what we had in little sips, and finally made it down to the road. A few km later and we were gulping down water and cola while lying in the shade. The end was firmly in sight now, but first Carl had to be rehydrated. We spent a long time in Sidi Abdallah El Bouchouari drinking and eating, and seeing all the riders who had stopped to sleep at Checkpoint 3 catch up with us. But by late afternoon Carl was feeling recovered and we decided it was time to finish. We started riding again and soon found ourselves on a fun rocky descent, surrounded by beautiful goats in trees!
The less said about the final 30 miles the better. It was a tough finish with some very sandy lanes, a dangerous night time A-road crossing and a seemingly never ending main road into Agadir. But we rolled into the finishers hotel at about 11:30pm to be greeted by friends who had finished earlier and a cold beer. Hot, tired, disgustingly sweaty and slightly delirious we got our brevet cards stamped for the last time before heading off to find pizza, a shower and bed. 6 days, 13 hours and 37 minutes of adventure, with some of the best tracks and trails I've ever ridden, through the beautiful but inhospitable Atlas and Anti-Atlas mountain ranges. Excellent.
Words by Jade Saskia Field (@jade_saskia)
Carl Hopps - @carlhopps
images by Jade, Carl and Nils Laengner
To learn about Jade and Carl's setups you can view their bike check video here: