A Makeshift Pilgrimage: Part One

There are winners and there are losers. Certainly, these are blunt terms we are all familiar with and have faced on some level, on one side of the coin or the other. It is difficult not to think in this context during a race because isn’t that what racing is? Winning and losing? Not so fast.

For six days, traversing the dramatic peaks and valleys of the High Atlas and Anti-Atlas Mountains, I would toil with this win-or-lose designation, through the lens of my ever-shifting emotions. You see, shifting was just my problem. Almost from the outset, I hobbled along the Atlas Mountain Race route; sometimes pedaling, sometimes on foot, overcoming a series of nagging drivetrain issues, sliding further and further back through the ranks of my fellow AMR riders.

Photo courtesy of Kenton Gilchrest

As I relinquished one placement after another, news from the front of the race wafted back through the remote Moroccan villages and into the conversations of fellow competitors resting and commiserating over dry omelets, khboz and mint tea. Race updates quickly manifested from fact into mythology as the lead riders, excelling through insomnia, barreled towards the finish line, sliding their way to the opposite side of the win-lose spectrum.

But defining any race or adventure in terms of winning and losing is an unfair simplification. Success and failure are far more nuanced than three-tiered podiums, ranks, numbers and time. Victory and defeat are not black and white, more a nebulous shade of grey.

As my technical problems persisted, compounded, and inevitably dictated my race, I discovered an elevated appreciation for the nuanced layers of winning and losing. Perhaps I conveniently manufactured these sympathetic resolutions to coddle my own pride and numb the sting of defeat, but I learned to appreciate the scope of that nebulous grey, somewhere between winning and losing. I came to recognize it is an area defined by personal expectation and perseverance. And I don’t mean just my own - it was universal. Everyone who made up the long line of racers, grinding their way across Morocco were tethered to the same global positioning system that was the Atlas Mountain Race. Each rider was engaged in a very personal, win-or-lose battle with the trail and more importantly, within themselves.

Photo courtesy of Kenton Gilchrest

Photo courtesy of Bradey Lawrence

The inaugural, 2020 Atlas Mountain Race (https://atlasmountainrace.cc/) rolled out of Marrakesh, Morocco under a controlled start on relatively smooth tarmac. Numbering 184 competitors, the self-supported bikepacking race was a relatively large field of international riders representing over 18 countries from around the world. I was one of those riders, traveling across the globe from Vancouver, Canada to join a predominately European contingent.

The race route, which promised between 20,000 to 25,000 metres of climbing over 1200 kilometres, depending on the accuracy of our navigation and the differing interpretations of our digital devices, quickly and ruthlessly tested the field. The first 100 kilometres of the route immediately climbed over 3,500 metres into the High Atlas Mountains, over the summit and immediately tumbling down a rocky, narrow mule track into the first race checkpoint of Telouet. The steep descent had most of the racers pushing their bike. For me, this was just a bitter taste of what was to come.

Welcome to Morocco.

Photo courtesy of Bradey Lawrence

I have had my literal and figurative ups and downs in bikepacking races, learning new lessons about my bike, my gear, my physical capabilities, emotional foibles and strategy. Each time out I’ve tried to evolve and progress in some way and draw from past experience. Growth can be difficult to quantify from race to race and is certainly muddied with setbacks and digressions. Sometimes the learning curve spins full circle, skips, jams and derails. Sometimes we are at the mercy of fate and the unexpected hurdles presented by new and unfamiliar landscapes and cultures. Maybe there is a glitch of complacency, when we inexplicably shun wisdom and naively take for granted those choices that served us so well in the past. Either way, I had come to recognize I couldn’t expand my boundaries and grow without stumbling along the way. This is precisely the internal, philosophical diatribe I mulled, monologued and rationalized as my race through Morocco unraveled.

I am a self-described “emotional rider”. That isn’t to say I am on the verge of tears with every pedal stroke, but many of my choices are governed emotionally, from the heart, with a healthy balance of humility, pragmatism and ever-expanding wisdom gleaned through a lengthening list of events and experiences. At the root of it all I am a storyteller. Or at least, that is the lens through which I see the world. Much of what I do is inspired by the inherent joy that comes from creative expression and I discovered immediately that bikepacking was the ideal muse for that expression. Turning pedals was like cranking the reel of a super-8 film camera, immortalizing trails with imagery and words. Poetry in motion.

I was realistic about my goals coming into the Atlas Mountain Race. I knew the roster; a motley crew of daunting misfits and insomniacs. I say this with the utmost respect, like many of the other riders at the start line, I too possessed some basic level of these useful mutations, but not freakishly so. You might say I was a modest circus performer, just not headlining at the Big Top.

As in previous races, my basic strategy was to break the race down into 6-hour time slots to monitor and evaluate my overall pace and condition. 3 slots, 6 hours a day, would compute my typical riding pace into a daily yield, with the remaining 6 hours for contingency, such as sleep and intangibles. If I was feeling good this would be bonus riding time.

On day one, my first 6 hours were on the mark, yielding 100 kilometres and roughly 2,500 metres of climbing, my typical bikepacking pace. I was content, especially considering the early elevation gain and my penchant for starting slow. Everything seemed on track.

But from there, things faltered and it wasn’t long before my average pace dropped. I was achieving my goals but I wasn’t feeling in the groove yet. I wasn’t convinced whether this stemmed from my physical condition or the finicky derailleur shifting I was experiencing that left me with only the bottom of my cassette and without my coveted low gears.  This made the punchy gravel climbs harder work than necessary, needlessly putting me in the red.

I remained calm. There were still plenty of miles ahead and I knew that the first day was always the most anxious. I just needed to be patient, work through my problems and things would get better.

Photo courtesy of Kenton Gilchrest

From the first checkpoint I kept a decent pace, hopping on and off the bike on the steeper pitches, unable to spin them out. Riders continued to jockey with each other through the night and before long little pools of light could be seen off the trail making camp. I pushed on, frustrated but determined to continue making ground. Before long I was off the gravel roads and enjoying some smooth tarmac when I was struck with an emotional malaise. It didn’t feel like conventional fatigue, but a sudden, deflated will. Perhaps a physical reaction to my ongoing frustrations.

In every direction there was nothing but flat desolate landscape. But in the darkness, I managed to spot a storm drain running beneath the paved road I was on. With all the drought and crystal-clear skies I confidently took refuge in the narrow, cement tunnel and drifted off. I wouldn’t call it sleep. (Whether due to a restless mind, spasming muscles or environmental challenges, I don’t think I ever really sleep on the trail. I think of it more as a time out.)

The earthy tones of the adobe riad blurred into the surrounding desert sand, dipped in a single unified tone of honey and gold as the sun rose over the sprawling desert landscape. An elder man wearing a light-coloured djellaba (long, loose-fitting robes) emerged from the dwelling via a wide archway and positioned some chairs at the entrance.

I rolled up with a Canadian politeness. ’Esque-vous etres ouvert?’ I asked the man, dusting off my Junior High French Immersion linguistics. I was quickly beckoned inside a labyrinth of warm, textured walls and passageways and ushered into a room draped in ornate, yet humble blankets and pillows surrounding a communal table. A young man with gentle, kind eyes and his wife welcomed me with soft, sincere smiles and immediately made me feel at home. I caught a glimpse of nearby beds for hire, the ruffled sheets still unmade from the race leaders who had napped here only several hours earlier. So early in the race those hours already felt like days.

I had promised myself prior to the race to use the first 24 hours as a gauge of progress. It was a chance to reevaluate my goals. As the hint of first light streaked into the central courtyard, it was clear to me I was underachieving and it was whittling away at my pride. I needed a hot meal and a mental regroup.

‘An omelet monsieur? Un cafe ou tea?’ My Moroccan host asked me. Delightful. Yes, I nodded. A civilized option considering the emotional unrest I was working to quell in my mind. I needed to tread carefully. This was a mental place the downcast could disappear into for some time.

It was still early days and the option of an omelet sounded novel, chic and even extravagant in the midst of a bikepacking race. Little did I know how much the egg would become the bane of the racer's existence and our digestive tracts.

My ceramic tagine arrived and my breakfast was unveiled: cooked eggs, a basket of fresh khobz, a staple Moroccan bread, small ceramic dishes with mixed spices and olives and pepper and salt. “Homemade”, I was proudly informed, with a grin and gesture to the spices. I indulged in it all and ordered a second round as my mind hadn't yet quelled the unrest. Like I said, I needed to tread carefully.

Other racers ducked inside and the dining process was repeated. Their dusty, tired faces seemed to mirror my own swirling introspection. But in this safe haven, there was a unified truce that washed over the room. There was already a consensus between us that the trail was rougher and the pace much slower than expected. It wasn’t a complaint, but a stark realization and time goals needed to be adjusted.

I left my breakfast and the brief camaraderie with other riders feeling refreshed and energized. It was the interaction I needed to feel connected and ingratiated to this place. I had barged through the door of Morocco, without warning or pleasantries, only now taking the time to sit at the table and offer a proper greeting.

‘Hello. Peace be with you.’

My mood lifted continued to lift with the rising sun and despite my ongoing gearing issues I relished in the landscape which offered a good, fast trail. I was moving. I just needed to keep moving. It was that simple. If I kept moving, by any means, then everything would work itself out.

Some 125 kilometres later I was barreling downhill through the dark abyss of night, existing within the small bubble of light projected from my bike. I planed and skidded through shallow drifts of unseen sand, carving at times like a surfboard; I bounced and rattled over sharp boulders and rocks, ever conscious of puncturing. The gravel and stone crunched like a pepper grinder beneath my tires.

I pushed my speed, only feathering the brakes in moments of sudden panic when hallucinatory, shadow puppets reared up at me. An anxiety creeped through my body. With the hours clicking by, I was convinced our next resupply point, a small shop in the village of Afra, would be closed. Coming into the race, the minimal resupply points were one of my concerns, especially when traveling through the night. I had no experience in Morocco, and despite research, I didn’t realistically know what to expect in terms of operating hour. But despite the anxiety, there was also a strange exhilaration working within the confines of a limited supply chain. In many ways that is the lure of bikepacking, stripping away some of the opulence of assumption offered by 24-7 commercialism.

I rolled into the village of Afra, relieved to see a congregation of other riders. Under a low-lit candescent bulb, several local vendors peddled sugary and savoury goods to the silhouetted shapes of unmounted bikepackers, hunched, shuffling, cradling snacks and bottled water in their arms as if rocking newborn babies. Other racers sat in the darkness under a strange, yet respectful hush, picnicking on a makeshift outdoor patio draped on the sidewalk with a large, woven mat and pillows.

I leaned my bike against a stone wall and went to work tightening bolts and straps, cleaning out the derailleur and chain, lathering it with lube hoping I might find some new clue to my bizarre gear-shifting issues. I still hadn’t fully identified the problem, despite it staring me in the face, and wouldn’t for hundreds more miles.

I purchased a random supply of chocolate, crackers, bottled water, tiny packets of saffron crisps and laid down on the cement to stretch out. From the shadows, a local man generously produced another ground mat and large pillow, laying it out for me and some of the other late arriving riders milling about.

The temperature was surprisingly cool at night, a sharp contrast to the dry midday heat, so I pulled out my sleeping bag and embraced the opportunity. The white noise and murmurs of other racers had a tranquillizing affect and despite promising myself before the race to embrace any potential jet lag while on the course, I struggled with the realization that I was letting my competitive edge slip.

I woke from my resting state at 3am, alone, on the sidewalk. All the other racers had slipped away. The bustling market was now silent and closed. It was a quick reminder of the strange dynamics of a bikepacking race. Here I was, thrust into this new world and culture, all at once trusting my own safety, yet cloaked in an armour of perceived invincibility as though my participation in a race made somehow immune to any external threat in Morocco.

I picked myself up, packed the bike and set off into the night in search of other riders bivvied out ahead of me. I delicately stroked the pedals as I navigated the rough trail to avoid aggravating my moody drivetrain. Seeking out slumbering racers, huddled on the side of the trail was one of my odd, childish indulgences of riding in the night. It was a motivational distraction for my weary mind to help stay awake, tallying as many sleeping racers I passed before first light, a sort of reverse engineering of counting sheep.


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RJ Sauer

RJ Sauer

As a bikepacker and cyclist I am always learning. Riding my bike takes me to new places, teaches me new things and introduces me to an incredible community of wonderful people. My passion is to combine my love of creative storytelling, with the physical challenges of exploring new and wondrous environments and cultures.


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