When Things Unravel: 2020 Atlas Mountain Race Report
Lian van Leeuwen was one of the 2020 PEdALED Atlas Mountain Race’s official photographers, and she spent a week chasing riders across Morocco. In this report, she shares some of her experiences from the field as the race was underway, plus a massive gallery of photos. See it all here…
Words and photos by Lian van Leeuwen (@saltlake_lian)
Friday, 21 February, 2020 / Agadir, Morocco
The amount of time humans can hold out in the death zone above 8,000m altitude is 16 to 20 hours. After that, things unravel fast. The “death zone time” of the inaugural PEdALED Atlas Mountain Race—an unsupported 1,148km single-stage race through Morocco’s Atlas Mountains—is different for everyone.
But ask any rider who competed and they’ll tell you things did unravel at some point. The bike breaks, the body breaks, the mind breaks. Whichever one gives way first. But pushing through it and coming out the other end–that, and the most stunning views imaginable–is the reason enough to set out on the ascent.
With 20,000 meters of climbing, the Atlas Mountain Race delivers on climbs. The route starts in Marrakesh and follows its way over the High Atlas, turning south into the Anti-Atlas, ending on the coast near Agadir. About 80 percent of the route is off road, tracing anything from old colonial gravel roads to mule trails and dried up riverbeds. Riders had 7 days and 15 hours to navigate the route from Marrakesh to Agadir before the official cutoff.
The first rider to come in on Wednesday after just 3 days, 21 hours, and 50 minutes was Sofiane Sehili. The French bike messenger and ultra-endurance racer kept a steady pace but managed to beat his opponents mostly through sleep deprivation. He clocked a mere 2 hours and 15min of rest in the time he was out. What was most astonishing, however, was his ability to still speak in coherent sentences after that impossibly fast finish time.
Sofiane was followed by James Mark Hayden (4 days, 0 hours, 9 minutes) and Jay Petervary (4 days, 4 hours, 20 minutes). Over the last two days, many more riders have trickled in, including first female Jenny Tough and runner up Andrea Seiermann. So far, 65 riders out of 192 have scratched from the race. There are 123 still on the road, hoping to make the official cutoff and finishers’ party on Saturday night.
Race Director Nelson Trees, who is also behind the Silk Road Mountain Race, is known by now for putting up challenging races. As more riders reach the finish line it becomes clear the Atlas Mountain Race is exactly that. The route is pretty technical at points and includes a considerable amount of sharp gravel climbs, sketchy trails, and loose sand, resulting in about 40km of hike-a-bike, depending on the skills of the rider and choice of bike.
But what a route to ride. A perfect but steep gravel piste took the riders up to 2,600m on the first day, the highest pass in the parcours, and down to Checkpoint 1 at Auberge Telouet via a challenging mule track descent. From there, the striking Moroccan landscape revealed itself in one valley after another. Sedimentary rocks change color on each turn of the road, varying from iron reds to copper greens. Old colonial roads snake along the barren face of the Atlas Mountains, dropping down into lush palmeries and rocky river beds that once formed the impressive canyons and gorges the route cuts through. It’s wild. And it can break you.
While the top three arrived at the finish in Sidi R’abat within the first three days, many mid-pack riders started to feel the strain of the 20-hour days of riding and hiking over rough terrain, enduring the relentless pounding on hands, necks, backs, and butts. That last one turned out to be a recurring issue.
Alex Jacobson (cap#5) suffered through the last three days riding off his saddle until the finish. Laurens van Gucht (cap#75) swore to scratch every 10 km, but then decided against it, only to be taken out of the race after a fever was determined by the medical support. And then there’s the unknown rider who decided to take advantage of the remoteness by taking off his bib shorts to wash and them, continuing butt naked up the moonlit colonial road. You didn’t want to waste any time, did you?
Mechanical issues are cutting down a considerable number of riders as well. The forgiving terrain punctured and slashed countless tires. Spokes failed, handlebars snapped, rims cracked, shifters broke off. RJ Sauer (cap#120) spent the whole of Day 5 pushing and rolling a chainless bike over 1,500m pistes to CP3 in Ait Mansour. This morning he took a taxi to Marrakesh in search of a chain, hoping to transform his bike into a single speed and continue. Although he is officially out of the race for accepting help, he is pushing on to make it to the finishers’ party.
Ride-eat-sleep-repeat sounds easier than it is in remote areas like the Atlas Mountains. While there are many small shops around, some stretches require extremely careful water management. And getting even a few hours of sleep in can be challenging, sometimes for unexpected reasons, though unsettled stomachs were a common theme.
There’s also the unraveling mind—likely the deciding factor between survival and defeat. Meeting riders on the road is as personal as it gets. The few hours of sleep, long straining days, and 30°C Moroccan “winter” temperatures strip people to the bone. Delirious rambling, one-woman raves, withdrawn stares, content babbling, near tears, extreme joy; emotions shift from one moment to the next. I encountered them all while documenting riders in the Atlas Mountains.
Pushing into that emotional death zone is likely one of the main reasons why riders keep returning to events as demanding as these. It’s a tough love, but a hard one to beat once you find it.
About Lian van Leeuwen
Lian van Leeuwen is a Rotterdam-based photographer and writer. She covers endurance bike races like Silk Road Mountain Race and the Transcontinental Race, which usually make her just want to ride her bike herself. She is also the founder of Shift Cycling Culture, which addresses the environmental impact of cycling. Follow along on Instagram @saltlake_lian and @shiftcyclingculture.