Luboš Seidl: Atlas Mountain Race 2022
26. 10. 2022
My plans for this season were altered a little by a minor injury I had to deal with during the summer, and it so happened that on October 1, 2022 I showed up a little unexpectedly at the start of the 2022 Atlas Mountain Race from Marrakech to Agadir in Morocco.
This race is organised by the same organiser as the Silk Road Mountain Race inKyrgyzstan - Nelson Trees. Which is both a guarantee of the quality of the race, but also a somewhat stressful experience before the start.
Itis only the second year (the first was 2020 but...Covid hit) The first year wasa great success in the bike packing community and there was great competition.It is no different this year.
Race length 1170km
Total elevation is about 19,000+ metres
It's the shortest bikepacking race I've ever done and it's dry in Morocco, so I keep my gear to a minimum. My sleeping bag and down jacket are a must, I have to take them... Also clothes - I wear a Merino jersey ( it also serves well for sleeping), cycling shorts with pockets, socks and gloves. For the cool nights where long sleeves are required, a combination of the lightweight Tiranowindbreaker and Rainar rain jacket and leg covers serve well. One spare pair of socks over the top. Hopefully I won't need more, I'd like to be on target in under five days.
The problem can be water I take four bidons and I have two handy handlebar bags on my bike for food. I feed my light from the dynamos in the front hub, and additional helmet light from a Fenix with one spare battery. The tracker on the new batteries will give ten days. Two power banks will feed my mobile phone andthe navigation system Hammerhead Karoo2. I'm not taking any more batteries. A few bike parts and tools for basic maintenance. A pack of wet wipes, butt cream and sun tan lotion will take care of my comfort. So, packed and sorted.
I won't go into thedetails of the transfer and logistics, let's get straight to the point.
1.10. 2022 I stood at the start and with another six Czechs. Five of us started in the solo category and one mixed pair. At 0900 hours local time, approximately180 participants set off from Marrakech under police escort. The exit from the town was neutralised and the whole pack followed the police cars. After leaving the town and hitting the smaller roads, it was on. At first I tried to obey the no drafting order, but after a while I was reliably swallowed up by awell-cooperating group. The ride was a real scramble straight off the line. In the first hour we covered 32km (on mountain bikes with difficulty) which was really too much, so I got out of the pack and rode my pace. Even so, after the second hour I had covered 57km. Then there were two major hills of 1900m and2600m to go over, and that’s when the pace stabilised and everyone did their own thing. It was a beautiful sunny day, and a little windy which made the Moroccan sun more bearable.
After crossing the second pass, there was an extremely technical, sometime sun rideable, descent of about 15km to the first checkpoint (CP1) in Teluet, which I reached during daylight. Here was the opportunity to have a good meal, replenish supplies and continue on the course. After dark, I rode into the mountains again. A clear and starry night full of stars did not evolve. Instead, it became overcast and a gale blew up, knocking me off my bike. Fortunately, there was another rider not far from me, and thanks to his light in the darkness, I know I'm not fighting this element alone. At the 175km mark, late at night, we pass through a village where not a single light is on. I see what looks like an open barn or some similar agricultural structure that would be ideal for a bivouac. But it's still early, I plan to ride at least to the 200km mark, which would correspond to my time of my second goal in 2020.However, I am somewhere between 20th and 30th place (how exactly I have no idea) and this means that the competition for this race is mega strong.
I'm going to cross one more mountain ridge, from which you can see from a distance that there are thunderstorms raging all around. On the downhill I hit a road that is wet from the rain that has already passed through. I pass through a village where the villagers are obviously waiting for the racers and offering accommodation. I have only covered 185km so I keep going. Although I wonder if it would be better to take advantage of some of the offerings and spend the night under a roof. My plan, however, is to minimise sleep and ideally not sleep at all the first night, and if I do, I'll sleep for 1.5 hours at most and then continue. But a storm is fast approaching and I'm thinking about how and where to hide. Not a tree, not a rock, not even a shelter in sight.
I'm thinking of using a bridge or a culvert under the road where the lightning won't hit me for certain. At about 190km I'm crossing over a culvert under the road. I go see what it looks like. The surrounding terrain and the inside of the culvert is completely dry, although the road is wet. This means that the arid landscape above the culvert had no problem absorbing the previous rain. At 2400 hours I turn off my navigation and retire for a short sleep.
Unfortunately, within half an hour, I am drawn out of my sleeping bag by a stream that slowly begins to push through the culvert. I get out just in time to save my sleeping bag from getting wet. I grab my backpack, my sleeping bag, my camping mat and I am already standing up to my mid-calves in water that is rushing through the culvert. I just catch a glimpse of it carrying my boots, Rainarka (rain jacket) and Tirano windbreaker away. I quickly climb out of the culvert and wrap my sleeping bag in my camping mat, and put my backpack in a safe place to look for what I can salvage. At the other end of the culvert, several things have got caught, so I have my boots, Rainarka, my windbreaker and my navigation device, as well as my power bank, which is no longer working. I do not see my phone or drink bottle anywhere. When I go back to my bike, the storm is over and the sky is full of stars without a single cloud. Although, it's still very windy and I see that as an advantage. I tie both jackets to my bike to dry in the wind. I don't have any other long sleeved clothing, except for the obligatory down jacket, which I can't really ride in. I lie down on the wall so that my sleeping bag is exposed to the wind, and hopefully the wind will help to dry everything out so that I have something to wear when I ride out. I lie down in my sleeping bag and wait, hoping that the stream will dry up as quickly as it appeared. Sleep is out of the question. Sometime after three in the morning I get out of my sleeping bag, which is perfectly dry. Both jackets are also dry so I put on my windbreaker and headlamp and head out to explore. The first thing I find is my phone stuck in the mud in the area of the largest current just beyond the culvert. Oddly enough, it works. I continue on and, about half a kilometre from the pass, I gradually find all my lost equipment, except for my sleeping bag cover and knife. The sleeping bag cover will be replaced by my down jacket cover and I have one more knife... I pack everything up and at 4:00 I'm on the course again.
I go out without food and I'm sleep deprived, and my performance corresponds to that. In the morning I am not doing so well, until I reach a cafe/bistro where the local owner catches passing racers around 8am and offers breakfast and snacks. So I charge my electronics (phone+navigation), refuel and rest a bit. When I leave, I meet up briefly with Peter and Martin, we exchange a few words and I set off on the course again. We pass through a sector with stunning scenery and bizarre formations, where the course constantly crosses dry riverbeds. Then a stretch of road where you just fly in the wind. There's a café at the end, so I'll fill up on water and ask for food. But they had nothing but egg omelette (and it was like that until the finish :-) but it was great and I rode on into the mountains. First, I had to cross a river, which had risen more than usual due to the overnight rain, and then there was the endless climb up to 2000m above sea level. At the crossing I was with Julian from France, but he easily passed me in the climb. Just before the summit I sighted another racer behind me. I knew I would have a faster pace on the downhill thanks to my full suspension bike, so I hunkered down so he wouldn't catch me and we covered twenty kilometres during which we dropped about a thousand metres. First a plateau with occasional shorter descents and then long descents.. At the end of the plateau I catch up with another rider who is struggling a bit. We just exchange a few words and I let it go. What follows is an awesome sector along the edge of a 600m deep canyon which I ride at golden hour and then I just fly down the hill, enjoying the awesome descent and trying to get down while it's still light. I ride down into a valley where the road between the villages is a dry riverbed, which means the road is winding, full of rocks and sometimes deep sand.
Sometime around 2100 hours I pass a shop where I meet Claus from Germany, who has arranged to have dinner with the locals at a place somewhere about a kilometre from the course. I reject the offer, because in our itinerary we have that in another twenty to twenty-five kilometres some guy Omar will cook. I set off in the dark and enjoy the night ride on relatively flat and smooth gravel roads. I'm hovering somewhere around 30th position, and this means that the sweeping trail of riders ahead of me makes navigating the night terrain much easier. I hardly have to look at my display. All I need to do is follow the road and pound the pedals. At 392km into the race, I reach a closed and dark restaurant. Two more riders are already bivouacking nearby. I recognise Julian's bike. I ride a little further and at exactly midnight I turn off the navigation and lie down somewhere behind a wall (probably in a cemetery) under Allah's protection.
I had a great sleep during the night, ate some food in the morning, lubricated the bike chain and at exactly 0400hours I set off again. It starts with a fairly long but smooth climb to about 1900m. It takes a while for my legs to adjust. There is a new road built at the top, but the course follows the original old road. Which means I have to backtrack at least three times, because the old road ends on some cliff above the new road corridor. When I let it down the hill, I am really cold, so for the first time I add leg covers, which I managed to dry yesterday (until now I have been riding only in shorts). I arrive at the first village pretty cold and stop in front of what might be a cafe or shop. Behind the bars the light is already on and the landlord is kind enough to make me an omelette and tea. I buy bread, refill my water and set off for another eighty-kilometre stretch through the wasteland. The road continues through a stone plateau desert, with low, gentle hills and a relatively rideable course. There's a morning haze and the sun is peeking through the clouds. I'm having a great ride. Not a soul in sight, occasionally a palm oasis pops out of the stony desert and you just can't believe where the plants get their moisture from. On the way I bump into Claus, who didn't expect this sector to be so long and so is cutting it fine with water and especially with his motivation. I keep riding and enjoying the journey through this fascinating landscape. When I hit the road after about seventy kilometres, I immediately stop at a local vendor who offers fruit at the roadside and buy two apples. Their juicy taste gives me a kick and I ride on to the larger town of Taznakht. It's high noon. I already have 100km under my belt and I am so pleased. In the shop, a girl between the sixth and eighth grade helps me with my translating from English to Arabic. She's happy to put her English into practice. I'm having an omelette and Claus is just arriving. He sits with me and says it's day three and he'd like to have half of the race behind him... My goal is to start to the halfway point on day four and squeeze in under five days. Well, I guess I have a problem...
Ipay and get back out there. I'm riding through a rocky desert full of bigrocks. The sun's beating down and the pace is slowing. As I ride out of thedesert, the road starts to blow in a brutal headwind. Completely cooked, Ireach a town where there is a boarding school for children from the surroundingvillages. While refilling water and supplies, many curious eyes are on me. Irefresh myself, wave to the children and continue on my way. The sun is not sostrong anymore and I am riding through another rocky desert between beautifulrock formations. It's a really beautiful sector, but the road is slow, full ofrocks, and it's not an easy ride. Suddenly, a stream appears leading to anoasis. I use the first creek after 370km since the flood (except for the cloudyswollen river) to finally wash my socks that the water originally took away.Otherwise there is simply no running water in this landscape. After leaving thedesert, there is a series of ascents and descents of about 200-300 metres upand down. According to the tracker there are quite a lot of people ahead of me,so I try to pull ahead as much as I can and move up the order a bit. In the eveningI stop in front of a bar, where I immediately meet a local guy with perfectEnglish. He orders me food (omelette and sardines) and tea and arrangeseverything. He knows the Czech Republic, he used to work in Europe and hisperfect English is due to his university studies in English literature. It's abeautiful clear night full of stars, so I'm going to push on over two morehills. At exactly midnight, I turn off my navigation and lie down at a bus stopnear a road outside the village.
The night was perfectly still, windless, calm and warm. After waking up I eat something and shortly after 0400 hours I quickly head for the next hill after which there is another checkpoint. I'm still commuting to CP2 in the dark. There are three riders against me from CP2 and at least two or three more riders at the CP. I take the opportunity to restock my supplies, wash my socks, and finally get talked into a shower. At dawn I hit the course again, with two more riders just ahead of me, with whom I ride down the next valley together and take pictures of the sunrise and the incredible landscape with the deep valley interwoven with the ribbon of the route of our next descent. I descend and pass through a palm grove. Beyond it, a road emerges, which I follow with one of the riders. He's a Moroccan racer named Mohamed. We talk a little bit, but then I get away from him. We enter a beautiful rocky desert with a rideable track along our route. By the time we reach the end of the trail, the sun is beating down on us. What follows is fifty kilometres of flat asphalt with a headwind. I lie down on the handlebars and set a constant power that I try to ride continuously and that I know I can keep up. It's really effective. It doesn't matter if it blows more or less. With holding a constant tempo I don't get exhausted. Only in one stretch do I speed up a few watts to pass a guy who was just getting on his bike after a stop in the shade of a rare tree. Even so, at the end of this sector I'm thoroughly cooked and at the first roundabout I pour into myself a two-litre bottle of lemonade, top up with water and continue on into the mountains. As I exit the village I am stopped by a man taking out the garbage. Am I hungry and do I want to join them for lunch? I accept with thanks. They take me to their home and welcome me as a very special visitor. I order coffee, tea and an omelette and the man of the house asks me if I would like some Tahini (Morocco's national dish). I nod, stretch out on the ground and try to rest in the shade. It will be on the table soon. First, the Tahini that the man of the house is having with me. The rest (about 8 people) are just looking at us. I eat with the man of the house from one plate and drink it down with tea. Then they bring an omelette. After the previous two litres of lemonade and Tahini I do not have much space, I kind of disrespectfully eat at least half of the omelette and start preparing to leave. When I wanted to pay, I was strongly refused, saying that it would be an insult and that I was their guest. I thank them very much and get back on my way.
It's hell out there. The sun is beating down with a terrible force. At the top, I'm going to ride down with Irish Michael. The second of the riders who rode out together from CP2. After a while, I get away from him. We cross the mountains and go through a river with terribly large rocks. I look at the skin on my arms and it's on fire. The last time I wore sunscreen was before the start. I quickly cover myself with sunscreen and pray that my hands will not burn over night (thankfully not). After another twenty to thirty kilometres of this hell I ride into the town which is the next chance to replenish water after eighty kilometres. Of course it will be an intense night. Before us are three passes each for seventy to eighty kilometres before I get to the next valley. And behind them is CP3. Every hill is good, so I head to the first pass for the evening.
The road runs along an old colonial road cut into the side of the Anti Atlas Mountains. The hill is not dramatically steep, but the terrain is totally loose rocks and only passable with great difficulty. In places you have to push the bike. Occasionally a piece of road is missing and it is necessary to climb down the ruins of the colonial road with the bike and climb back up the trail. From about halfway up the climb I ride in the dark. In the distance I can see the light of Michael, who is following me, and I can only judge how far we have moved in the meantime. When I get to the top, the road is still very broken and there is no comfortable or smooth descent down either. I struggle with how long I can hold on, but then sleep starts to overwhelm me, so I prefer to bivouac about five kilometres before the end of the descent so I don't risk falling out of sight somewhere in the valley. As usual, I turn off the navigation at exactly midnight and promptly go to bed. When I get into my sleeping bag, Michael passes by and Mohamed a while later. I'm somewhere in sixteenth place. It's a beautiful warm summer night. The sky is clear and I've never seen so many stars.
I wake up in the morning and I don't feel like getting out of my comfortable sleeping bag. At about 0400 hours I finally hit the road again. It's about 160km to CP3 and from there it's the final 175km to the finish. If everything works out and I could manage to ride through the night, I could try to finish within five days. Fresh and rested, I ride the rest of the descent in a few minutes. It would have taken me at least another ¾ of an hour at night under fatigue, so I'm glad I bivouacked in time. I have hit the road and know I have to deal with water. In the first and only village there is still complete darkness. There is a bus at the bus stop and drivers are unloading the luggage of the disembarked passengers. I stop and ask for water. He says there is none around, but does offer me his open bottle of drink. I refill my bottle at least with the water and continue towards the next pass. Before I start up the hill, at least three bivouac racers. Everyone's still asleep. At the end of the village, a water tap suddenly appears in front of me and a sink directly on the street. I test that the water is running, drink all the water I have, refill all four bidons and drop disinfectant drops in each one just to be sure.
The hill is long, irregular and very steep in places. I don't want to push too hard, so I try to ride even the steepest parts. Looking at my cycling computer, I'm amused by the incredible numbers it's showing me. Even in the very steep stretches, my heart rate doesn't rise above 110, and I'm breaking 400W. At the top, I promise myself a snack - bread and sardines. The only non-sweet food you can get in the countryside in Morocco. After a few peak waves, a cattle watering hole suddenly appears with a tap for running water. I indulge in a well-deserved meal, drink my water from the bidons and refill and disinfect again just in case. Before I move on, two more racers, Italian Marco and Mohamed, arrive. They refill their water, chat briefly and move on. I try to follow them, but I don't catch up at all, and soon the guys disappear. We hit a mountain road. There's so much compacted dirt and a lot of dust from the trucks that regularly come through here, dragging a big dust cloud behind them. Just like the Dakar, I want to say, the original Dakar Rally was actually led by a Moroccan, so that's actually pretty accurate. That's the way it should be!!! For some time, I'm overtaking a moped, which always passes me uphill, but on the downhill and on the flats, I pass it again. Then the long downhill descent into the valley finally begins. On several occasions, I'm stuck in deep dust in the corners. Therefore, I am not at all surprised that the lead rider withdrew after getting cut and injured.
I ride down into a valley full of palm trees. Quite a change from what I've seen in recent days. There's no shortage of water in this valley. I top up my water, drink the yoghurt milk that caught my eye in the shop and keep moving. At the end of the village, Marco is sitting in a garden with Mohamed. I stop there and ask Mohammed to organise some food for me. I get the obligatory omelette and tea. By the time I'm finished, the boys head up the last pass before CP3. This climb is largely on asphalt and after eating I ride magnificently. Just before the top I catch up with Mohamed and together we continue on. In a friendly conversation the course is going great as we cross a series of climbs relatively "freely" before we start descending to CP3.
At CP3 is Marco, who has already showered and eaten. My top priority is to shower and wash my shorts. After the first night, when I went to bed dirty and soaked from the stream and did not pay any attention to hygiene, I dirtied the liner of my shorts and every night after 8p.m. I was suffering from pain in my crotch and buttocks. I take a shower, wash my shorts and socks, wrap myself in a big towel and dry my clothes in the sun. After eating I take a quick twenty-minute nap. Partly to rest before my planned night finish and partly to dry my shorts.
Mohamed has to recharge his batteries before light, so he stays on CP3 and I set off at 1900 hours about a half hour after Marc for the final 175km. From home they tell me that it took the race leader about twelve hours from here to the finish. I need fourteen hours to finish by 0900 hours and get under five days total time. It could work out. Suddenly, a flurry of messages on my phone. There are seven people at the finish and only Marco ahead of me on the course.
We have about ten kilometres on the road from the hills and then ninety kilometres in the mountains awaiting us. The last seventy kilometres should be flat. Thirteen minutes behind me, Julian starts, followed shortly by Alex from Holland. This is gonna be tight. And it's gonna hurt!
My legs ride fantastically, the shorts and saddle work great too. So, show yourself... On the first hill I look back and see Julian. I measure the distance at one corner and he's ten minutes behind me. I ride down the next descent hard. I measure a gap of eleven minutes on the uphill. I repeat the hard descent. On the climb, I turn off the light so he can't see me and keep riding. The course is one hill after another. The landscape is changing, finally there are some trees along the course. But I can't see much of the landscape as we ride in the dark. Suddenly, the hills completely change to short, steep uphills on firm ground. In the horizon ahead, I see a descent down to sea level and then the last big hill with a long sector at the top. I see a light down in the valley. That'll be Marco, I'm riding down and heading into a navigationally tricky section through some riverbeds and bushes. Only a few guys have passed me, so there is no beaten track and navigation is much harder than two days ago when I was twenty places further up. I reach the bottom of the hill and run into Marco, who has just stopped for a snack. I also have to eat before I get to the last hill. I pull out the lasagna I packed in my pack at CP3 and shovel down half of it. By then Marco is climbing the steep slope above me. The road is very steep, practically impossible to navigate. Sharp serpentines up the side of the mountain with loose rocks. Navigation is simple, but progress is minimal. Soon I see Julian's light below the hill and Alex a little further on. I try to keep up Marco's pace, sweat is pouring off me, but I'm doing the best I can. After all, it's the last major hill of this race and we've all got something to ride for. I'm starting up and I can still see Marc's light up ahead. There are no lights to my rear.
Uphill stretch is long, smooth climbs interspersed with gentle descents. Visibility is high. When I get to the asphalt a local fan on a motorbike is waiting for me and tells me that Marco passed through five minutes ago. I'm trying to set a steady pace, but I'm starting to get tired of it. I'm sleep deprived and it's clear I'll have to take a powernap for a few minutes. When my watts drop and I can't keep the bike on the road anymore, I stop at a tree and take a nap.
After six minutes, Julian passes by me. Once I get going it doesn't go so well, but I am definitely able to continue safely. I hit a long asphalt descent and I can't see any light in the distance. Neither Julian nor Marco can be seen. Down at the bottom of the hill, I think I see Alex's light behind me on the downhill. It's only seventy kilometres to the finish on the flat. I can do it!!!
I am riding at a steady regular pace; I have food and water so I am relatively comfortable. About fifty kilometres before the finish we go off the road between some farms. The surface is gravel at first, with some sand here and there. Then just sand and suddenly deep sand that you can't even walk on. I struggle for a while before stopping and dropping both tyres to minimum pressure. After that, it's easy to ride over the softest sand. The situation is complicated by some dogs that follow me with gusto. Just as I have not had a single problem with dogs during my 1100 km trip through Morocco, here the dogs are obviously satiated and full of energy, trying to guard and attack passers-by... Until now, the dogs were just happy to lie somewhere in the shade and conserve their energy in the terrible heat.
With thirty-three kilometres to go I can't do it anymore and I have to rest for a while. I lie down in the sand and fall asleep. My alarm beeps, but I just dismiss it and sleep on. Suddenly I wake up and I don't know how long I've been asleep and if and how many people have passed through in the meantime. I get on my bike and I can't ride anymore. I'm playing a game with myself, " you can't hear a sound" and I'm just trying to move my legs. When I finally get on the road about twenty kilometres before the finish line, my bike doesn't go at all. The flat tyres have turned my bike into a fatbike that won't move forward at all. In the distance I can see the lights of my destination Agadir. Slowly but surely the kilometres are coming down. When I get to the city, I'm dazzled by the flashing traffic signs. One more little lap through the town and then I finally reach the hotel where Vaclav and Peggy with Pavel, who unfortunately did not finish the race, and race director Nelson Trees are waiting for me. We have our first beer in Agadir.
Finishing time four days twenty-one hours and sixteen minutes and the final 12th place (in the end there were two guys ahead of me as per the tracker with a dead flashlight :-)
For me a wonderful race, amazing country, great people and a huge adventure! The biggest lesson I take away from Morocco is that the presence of water in the country (streams, lakes or rivers) is not a given for much of the world.