Rising Water: Inside the Atlas Mountain Race 2022
On the heels of the second edition of the Atlas Mountain Race in Morocco last month, organizer Nelson Trees put together a candid and gripping behind-the-scenes look at some of the most dramatic moments and highlights of the race. Find his unique perspective here, paired with a brilliant set of images from photographer Ariel Wojciechowski…
It’s midnight on the first day of Atlas Mountain Race 2022. I’m at Auberge Telouet, the guesthouse that is hosting the first checkpoint of this year’s race. Riders set out from Marrakech this morning at 9 a.m., having covered 126 kilometres to get here. The fastest came through hours ago.
I’m at a table in the entrance hall with Chris, one of our volunteers, waiting for the last few riders to come down off the first big pass and highest point of the race at 2,600 metres. There is a short, rocky technical hike down a mule track on the descent. It can get tricky after sunset. The weather was cool and cloudy all day, with light showers forecast for the evening. With darkness, things deteriorated quickly—first came the wind and then the rain. Riders have been arriving in an increasingly damp and frazzled state.
The same discussion is being had by many of those who have been here for a few hours already. Fed, resupplied and not exceptionally tired, they wonder if they’d better push on into the storm to make some more ground, or call it quits and get some rest out of the rain. Despite all this, spirits are high. It may not be what people expected from a race that takes place in the dry, rocky mountains of the Moroccan Atlas, but in the end, it’s certainly the kind of adventure they’d hoped to find when they signed up for this race.
As the organiser of the race, at this point, everything is calm. Conditions are difficult for everyone, but they’re manageable. I have no new emails or WhatsApp messages about the race. It’s rare that it’s like this. Having only slept a couple of hours the previous nights, I decide I’ll leave Chris to welcome the last rider and stamp his brevet card. I reckon I can put my head down for a few hours of sleep.
As I say goodnight, shut my laptop and walk towards my room, the race phone rings. The line is bad, and it’s hard to make out what exactly is being said. The gist of it is as follows: “I was crossing a river and have now lost my bicycle and all of my equipment. All I have is the clothes I’m wearing and my mobile phone.” The line is so bad that I can’t understand much more. We switch to text, and I work on confirming the rider’s name, cap number and exact location.
I go outside and talk to the regional commander of the Gendarmerie Royale Marocaine, the local police for rural areas in Morocco. The authorities take safety at these kinds of events very seriously and are of great help if anything arises. I explain the situation, and they’re soon organising for nearby local authorities to go and pick up the rider as he walks towards the main road.
As all this is going on, the race phone starts to light up. I get an email with a photo of a raging torrent at KM163 on the race route. Next is WhatsApp, with a message from another rider in front of another swirling brown mass of water, this time at KM166. I scan the race map, looking for riders near rivers on the map. Sure enough, there are five riders on the map, stationary in front of a river at KM163, and again the same at KM166.
The rain has been a lot stronger than predicted. All those usually dry and empty riverbeds you’re bound to cross if you ride off-road in Morocco are now actual rivers. Where there was no water minutes ago, there are now dangerous, impassable barriers.
I scroll across the map, looking for other stranded riders. That’s when I see that Justinas Leveika, the current race leader, has just arrived at a river I can see on the map at KM260. I know this river. In normal times, even without recent rain, it’s anything from a puddle to knee-deep, but there is always at least some water. I know this one will be bad.
His tracker pinged about three minutes ago. The phone rings, and it’s Justinas. He’s standing in front of a torrent that he can’t see across. He’s unsure what to do but is thinking of attempting to cross. A couple of locals are with him, urging him to return to the petrol station a few kilometres back. I tell him not to try, that the race cannot proceed safely and that I’m on my way to make my own assessment.
It’s almost 2 a.m. at this point. I’ve answered the stranded riders I’m aware of, advising them to camp and wait for the waters to recede. I’ve also sent out a warning by email and on social media about weather conditions, urging riders to be cautious. The rider who was somehow caught in the flood and lost all his gear is now safe and sound in a local’s house.
It’s time to go to KM260 and see this river for myself. I’ve asked the police to put someone on the corner of the main road before the turn off to the river and divert everyone away from the river crossing. Nobody is allowed to cross until further notice.
I wake up the team, and we set out, reaching the petrol station a little before 4 a.m. Around 10 riders have caught up with the leader at this point. They’re scattered around the floor of the cafe at the petrol station, bivvying, catching a few hours of unplanned sleep, trying to make the most of the situation. Ariel snaps a few shots to tell the story, and I head outside to talk to the police. I tell them I need to have a look at the river myself but ask for them to keep diverting riders to the petrol station in the meantime.
There’s really only one way to see how bad the river is: have a go at crossing it myself. Living in Kyrgyzstan, travelling in the backcountry often means fording rivers (there’s a distinct lack of bridges). This is something I do relatively often, but it’s never a pleasant experience and is always intimidating. By the time I’m halfway across, it’s about waist-deep. The flow is fast but not unmanageable, but even without a bike, it’s on the very limit of what I would cross if I had no choice. It’s well beyond what I’m willing to let riders take on, especially in the pitch black with muddy waters where they can’t see the bottom.
I consult with the police, and we decide to wait for first light when I’ll try again. A couple of hours later and I’m back in the river. This time, it’s already bright outside, and the water is around my knees. I return to the petrol station to announce the good news: the race is back on!
Twelve riders have been blocked here, the fastest of whom lost six hours. It’s shaken up the front of the race. I have the option of making a time adjustment to account for the losses. In the end, I decide that it would be impossible to fully quantify, and things will remain as they are.
That morning, I finally get the full story from the rider whose bike and gear were washed away. Surrounded by storms, he decided to shelter from the weather in his bivy bag and wait for it to pass. Unfortunately, he did this in a dry riverbed. As he lay there, he heard a loud noise, something that he associated with water. He says that in a matter of 5-10 seconds, as he stood and struggled to get out of his bivy bag, the water level had risen to about a metre and a half. He was submerged but managed to climb out of the river. His bike and backpack were not so lucky, disappearing into the muddy flow. He will be lucky enough to find his bike and gear the next day.
As the day progresses, the race returns to normality. The rains are gone, as are most of the rivers. The impassable torrent of the previous night continues to drop and presents no threat anymore. We return to the more usual challenge of riding in Morocco: the heat. It’s not excessive, but temperatures hover around the mid-30s, and the sun is beating. There are long stretches with little shade or water. One struggle replaces another.
Up front, we continue to follow the leaders in our 4×4 on a regimen of plenty of driving and little sleep. The tight race after the enforced stop keeps the action exciting, with only a handful of kilometres between the top five or so racers.
We soon approach what is known in the race as the Old Colonial Road, an improbable, 70-kilometre causeway that sits atop a dry stone wall draped over the arid, rocky landscape in a series of looping switchbacks. It was built in French colonial times. Today, it’s hard to understand what purpose it served, lost as it is between small villages. Looking out over the landscape is like seeing a diagram in a geology textbook that depicts how the rocky strata of the seabed were gradually pushed up to form a mountain range over millions of years.
However, we’re still chasing riders. As is often the case, the timing to actually get any shots looks tight. We’re around 200 kilometres away from the Old Colonial Road. My best estimate would put the race leader more or less where we want at more or less the last good light of the day. We go for it, pushing hard to make it on time. In this case, the riders were a bit slower than planned. The views are great, as is the light, but it’s not what we hoped for. We’re still able to catch the front two before darkness swiftly falls.
Our drive put us in Tagmout, a town lost in southern Morocco, on the edge of the Anti-Atlas. We stop for a basic meal in one of the shops. It’ll be bread and tins of tuna tonight. We’re in the same boat as the riders at these resupply points. As we spend a few minutes with Phillipe Vullioud, currently second, while he takes a short break, I get a call from Justinas Leveika, who had re-established his lead in the race. He’s had a bad crash on a stretch of dirt road ahead of us and is out of the race. He tells me he thinks he can ride back to Tagmout. We’re not far, so we go and pick him up. It would be far quicker than sending the ambulance we have on call, which is currently placed near Ouarzazate. After having a first quick check of his injuries (Ariel is also part of a mountain search and rescue team back home in his native Poland), we decide to drive him to the nearest hospital in Tata.
I translate at the hospital, while a nurse cleans up Justinas’ injuries before taking him for an X-ray. The hospital is basic but clean, and the staff are attentive and professional. The police turn up to check in on us as well. He’s well looked after. When we’re ready to take him to a hotel, we try to pay the doctor. We’re told that it’s not even possible. This is the emergency service of a public hospital; they don’t have the capacity to charge, not even to issue any receipts. Nobody pays for care here. All I can do is offer my thanks and appreciation for the help the staff provided to each in turn. Rest assured that we have plans on how we can give back to this country in the next edition of the race.
For the last two days of the race, Justinas comes along for the ride. Scratching in the middle of nowhere in Morocco isn’t easy, and we have a spare seat. The bike gets thrown in the back of the pickup. It’s nice to see the welcome each of the riders gives him at the final checkpoint when they meet their former competitor, inquiring after his injuries and offering their condolences for the frustrating end to his race. They’d much rather have seen the race play out to the end.
This year, the race offered little respite to anyone up front—riders and control car staff alike. There was a group of five fighting it out for the top three spots, and any mistake would mean dropping back in the rankings, ensuring that the pace was high and the stopping was minimal, right to the end.
With Sofiane Sehili out of the race this year, we were guaranteed a new winner. In Marin de Saint-Exupéry, we were given a worthy successor. At 25, he already has a wealth of experience, having also raced the Silk Road Mountain Race in Kyrgyzstan and the Transcontinental, amongst others. He also has a tendency to ride from his home in Switzerland to the start line, something he did here in Morocco and also in Kyrgyzstan. He bested last year’s finishing time by several hours, in more difficult conditions, while still managing to get around two hours of sleep a day. That’s something of a luxury in this sport, and I hope it’s a sign of what is to come: a tendency towards faster riding based on better rest, rather than an all-out focus on never stopping. We shall see.
In the pairs category, Geoffrey Langat and Kenneth Mungai, two Kenyan riders from Team Amani, came in first, arriving in the top 10 overall while doing so. It was their first race of this length, and there was a big learning curve for sure. I’d like to see what they’d be capable of with more experience with the myriad of little things that go into a bikepacking race like this one. They rode in memory of their fallen mentor, Sule Kangangi, an inspirational figure in East African cycling, who was taken too early in a crash earlier this year.
Last but most certainly not least is Ashley Carelock, the first female finisher this year, who also completed the course faster than last year’s winner. Most impressively, at least for me, was her being able to do so despite being celiac. Unable to eat any gluten in a country where bread is a staple and pretty much all snacks use wheat flour, her resupply options were limited. She survived on a diet consisting almost exclusively of omelettes and drinking yoghurt. She had her characteristic smile throughout the race, despite all the difficulties, the rain, the heat, the food and even dealing with painful hot spots on her feet. Chapeau, Ashley.
Next year’s edition of the Atlas Mountain Race will take place from February 4-11, 2023, and registration is open now. You can keep up with the event on Instagram @atlasmountainrace and at AtlasMountainRace.cc.
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