It’s 6pm as around 200 riders set off on the 3rd edition of the Atlas Mountain Race, with a 25km police escort leading us out from Marrakech. Their sirens were blasting and crowds of people were gathering at the roadside to wave and cheer us all on our way.
As we enter the start of the first off-road section, the escort stops. We head off, making our way into the snow-capped High Atlas Mountains with pre-race rumours circulating amongst riders of the sub-zero temperatures expected over the first mountain pass at 2600m. The later start meant we would be riding up and over this pass in the dark. Some riders opted to stop and bivvy but, with temperatures dropping to minus 11, I pushed on into the night.
An endless loose gravel road wound its way up up and up, mostly rideable, but approaching the summit became loser and steeper, so a bit of hike a bike was in order to reach the top some 10 hours later at 4am.
The descent over the other side was described as a goat track down with some hiking, the deep coating of snow hiding the trail meant putting all my trust in my GPS. I set off and followed the virtual line of my GPS down the mountain, walking more than riding due to the rocks and snow, arriving at the first checkpoint for 7am at 126km. That was a pretty brutal start to the race but was also the toughest section, so it can only get easier from here!
Brevet card stamped, the first of many omelettes consumed, half an hour kip on the floor and I was off again pedalling into the cold morning sunshine.
With checkpoint two another 470km away, you soon settle into the rhythm of life on bike, riding from resupply point to resupply point with your focus being on those distances and what or when your next meal is going to be.
Passing through some amazing little villages throughout the day, over remote gravel passes with the temperature dropping. Powered by the day’s omelette and Iooking forward to my next, I arrived at a local restaurant at 9pm. It was super busy with riders all milling around not really too keen set off again as it was really cold! The owner of the restaurant let us sleep anywhere we could lie down inside. Riders were scattered everywhere.
The 4am alarms were ringing as riders began getting themselves ready to set off again. I left around 4.30am in the cold darkness with plenty of water and snacks stuffed into my bags and pockets. We were entering the most remote section of the route riding into the wilderness of the Anti-Atlas with 100km of nothing other than the beautiful wild landscapes and trails to observe.
Approaching the first river crossing, it looked shallow enough to ride through from the head light on my bike… until the last couple of pedal strokes. The water was deeper, leading to wet feet - not ideal in still freezing temperatures. The next couple of hours were spent counting down the minutes until sunrise and the chance to warm my feet up!
Reaching the top of the plateau was one of the many highlights of the race. The old colonial piste built on top of a network of canyons and the following downhill were super-fast and went on forever. I passed through a vast variety of terrain, rocky canyons, deep red rock landscapes and the greenest of rolling gravel hillside at warp speed.
Heading back into another remote stretch of dusty pistes and endless mountain vistas, through hidden valleys and villages, down the cliffs into the most scenic palmery, for the tranquillity of checkpoint two location and to collect the next brevet stamp.