A Makeshift Pilgrimage: Part Three

We conclude RJ Sauer's story from the inaugural Atlas Mountain Race bikepacking race in Morocco.

Click here to read Part One.

Click here to read Part Two.

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I climbed the long, steep, winding road out of Tagmout to Issafen; it was a mesmerizing piste, hand-built by French Colonials. With this almost pretentious feat of engineering I couldn’t help but think of them as some industrious generational group, pre-dating both the hard-working Boomers and ambitious Millennials.

Photo courtesy of Bradey Lawrence

Upon slowly cresting the high point, as if ratcheted to an old, stone rollercoaster, I gripped tight and let gravity take hold. My bike and body rattled downward, hugging the rough and rocky surface, ever-searching for a perfect line that didn’t exist, acutely aware of the cliff’s edge to my right that dropped into a bottomless abyss.

I stopped on a flat section to briefly shake out the arthritic atrophy in my hands, fingers ,and shoulders, then did a routine check of my bike and attachments. I suddenly felt my heart in my throat.

Abdell’s handcrafted, race-saving metal cap, which had been holding my drivetrain together, was gone. It was clear that hours of sustained bashing had reverberated the ring right off the bike, lost somewhere along the miles and miles of ancient gravel and stone behind me. For a brief moment I considered dropping to my knees and crawling back up the road, picking through pebbles in search of the lost bolt.

I was back to square one and devastated. The loss was especially bitter after such an unexpected triumph. I wanted to curl up and wallow in the injustice but there was no time for that. The sun was setting fast behind the mountains and I didn’t want to descend in the dark.

I pushed my speed, hopping off and on the bike with each incline, pushing up and over each crest. Just as the final rays of light pierced through the low clouds, I spilled out onto smooth tarmac and let the wounded bike drift down into the village of Issafen.

I joined a large group of riders strewn outside a busy cafe where robed locals flipped between an international football match and subtitled American action movies.

It was deja vu all over again: my head hung over another omelette, reflecting on just how long my derailleur could hold together. Surely my luck had finally run out.

The other riders rallied around me. They were supportive and upbeat and I fed off of their hope. The next 100-kilometre section of the route was always rumoured to be difficult, slow, and often unrideable. These were trail characteristics that, in my current state, actually suited me. Despite the drivetrain issues, I felt I might be at less of a disadvantage. Sure, with minimal gearing, things might deteriorate for me and I would be forced to push the bike, but so would everyone else. We would be on even terms—or so I thought.

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I set off before midnight with fellow Canadian, Jenny Tough, the lead female racer. She certainly didn’t project a need for support of any kind, especially not from the likes of me as I was more of a liability than a peer at this point. But issues and rumours of uncomfortable confrontations along the route between certain female racers and the “unwanted attention” of a small minority of local men meant that, despite race rules, Jenny and all the other female racers could ride with fellow competitors, something normally against the rules.

I wasn’t naive, but it was disheartening that a select group of fellow riders would be subject to scrutiny and fear that we as privileged, white men would never endure. But at the same time I appreciated the situation was complex. Our presence here, sudden and short-lived, created a unique dynamic. We were thrusting our own, foreign beliefs and perspective on a place as visitors. We may not agree on all things but we were still guests here and I felt it was important to thoroughly respect that.

Just half an hour out of Issafen, my derailleur unceremoniously exploded and entangled in my rear wheel. I was forced to pull over so quickly that Jenny didn’t see what had happened and she disappeared ahead of me. I wouldn’t see her again on the trail.

In the darkness of night, aside another unknown road, I was under the hood of my drivetrain again. The screw securing the derailleur to the hanger had completely come off, another casualty in the continuing demise of my drivetrain and mechanics being unconventionally pushed beyond their limits.

I sat on the side of the road and considered my options. I felt in complete limbo, one foot in my pedals and one foot out; half in the race and half out. I recognized that from a pragmatic standpoint, my circumstances dictated that I scratch. But I couldn’t accept that. So what do you do when you should be scratched? Where do you go from nowhere? A dilemma.

For the next half hour I found myself on the road, gliding my bike back and forth at least five times while my instincts waged an emotional tug-of-war. Do I return to Issafen and wait there until morning and try to find a solution or do I keep moving forward? Thankfully, I never actually considered the option of scratching. I knew if I allowed my mind to slip and cave in, then before long there would be a slippery slope of excuses and rationalization.

For better or worse, something compelled me to move forward. I just didn’t want to go backwards. So I started to walk. The walking part was easy. It was something I had been doing for some 42 years now, for as long as I could remember, longer than I had ever ridden a bike. I could walk in my sleep, and at this rate I might just have to. The hard part wasn’t the physicality of it all, it was setting my mind to the task.

I tapped into my experience twice racing the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational in Alaska. Along the snowy course there was an expectation of walking and pushing the bike, and I had actually trained too many hours for it. For me, there was no stigma to walking—it was just another tool in the toolbox of bikepacking, part of what it took to get to the finish line.

So at midnight, 100 kilometres from checkpoint 3 and our next supply point, I started walking.

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Look, I am by no means a master mechanic. But I felt good about my choices and adaptations. This was affirmed by each rider who passed me by. Each failed to conceal the pitied gaze of ‘damn, you’re fucked dude,’ before repeating the same list of possible options. All had been attempted, none were still viable.

At this stage, my drivetrain was set to a rudimentary single speed that was too limp to function on the bumpy terrain. But I thought I would give it another try up a long, steep grade. I gingerly turned the pedals, finally pushing down forcefully enough to power a complete revolution in the highest gears. I was wincing with every pedal stroke. After only a few revolutions, inching me up a hair of the steep grade, the chain suddenly cinched taut and the pedals locked.

I didn’t really think I could sink to a new low. Somehow I had managed to torque the chain hard enough to wedge it permanently between the middle cogs of the rear cassette, bending the sprockets outwards. The chain was now completely fused. It was the final blow.

I snapped the chain off, leaving only a few dangling links embedded in the cassette. At this point I gave up any illusions of riding my bike again and set to pushing.

The long, dusty roads seemed to roll on forever but I kept my head down and marched on. Behind me, a runty dog had taken to following me. It was built like a teenager, young and awkward, unsure in its own body. It was coy, maintaining its distance. I wasn’t sure if it feared me or simply saw me as one of the weak herd lagging behind the cycling pack, waiting with a scavenger’s patience and hungry belly for me to falter, lie down in the dirt and offer myself to nature’s custodians. I preferred to believe he was empathetic, encouraging me to move forward. We became friends.

As I continued my long pilgrimage through the desert, one of the shiny race media cars rolled down the road towards me. Their presence was a sudden and jarring reminder of the civilized world. They stopped to snap some photographic proof of the ‘rider walking his bike through the Atlas Mountains,’ as I would come to be known.

Photo courtesy of Lian Van Leeuwen

I think my visitors half-expected to find a gaunt, Quixotesque madman dragging his bike across the desert, citing religious jargon. I am sure, after a quick, psychiatric examination, they expected my capitulation and they would lower me inside the car to be whisked away to some colonial asylum.

Instead, they found me. I was calm, hydrated, and at peace with my decision. In fact, I was as tranquil as I had ever been during the “race.” At this point, I was still well within the cutoff times and although my optimism at finding a solution at Checkpoint 3 was met with silent, dubious glares, I remained steadfast in my resolve: keep moving forward and solutions would present themselves. And so once again, I was left on my own. Me and my dog.

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My arrival at Checkpoint 3, tucked within the lush and beautiful valley of Ait Mansour was a complete disappointment. Not just in the lack of solutions to my drivetrain problems, but in its dour mood. I’m not sure what I was hoping for after walking seventeen hours. It wasn’t like I expected blaring trumpets and fanfare but I had hoped to see some familiar faces and, if not cheers, at least some cheery, good humour. Instead, a palpable angst wafted through the air.

The Moroccan host, a lovely man, was overwhelmed and I’m not sure he had come to terms with the excessive calorie demands required by the racers. Regardless, he certainly didn’t have the supplies to fulfill it, running out of food and water almost as soon as I walked through the door. It was demoralizing and a stark reminder that no place should ever be a presumptive safe haven.

I knew I couldn’t stay here, so I turned my attention back to my drivetrain. Our location was remote and without resolution. I navigated a labyrinth of social media threads to connect with Hassan at Atlas Sports, a bike shop in Marrakech. From my pre-race homework, I knew they did tours across Morocco and he might have some wisdom and tangible intel. The option of hiring a car to Marrakech had been suggested to me and was within race rules, but that idea felt weird and wrong to me. Traveling eight hours from the trail, fixing the drivetrain and then shuttling eight hours back felt like it would be a crushing, final blow to my experience here. At this stage, those were the terms to which all of this had been reduced. This had long ceased to be a race, it was an experience. My new goal was to reach the finish line under my own human power, whether that be on foot or bike.

Hassan...

With a drive to Marrakech scratched off the list, Hassan recommended an alternative. He suggested I walk roughly 55 kilometres to the next town of Tafraout, a much bigger hub where there were more options available to me. Sure, easy for you to say. But, if I walked there, he was convinced he could facilitate the availability of some of the parts required for me to fix my bike— namely a new rear cassette and chain, not things readily available in every shop and town. This plan inspired me in some weird way and I knew I just needed to be moving again before the rigor mortis of indecision took hold.

I once again set off on foot.

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I dialed my brain down to “numb” as I pushed my bike 25 kilometres up a series of winding roads, through several villages and towns. The excitement of finally reaching the high point scooped me into the saddle, and with a few hard Flintstones slaps on the tarmac I picked up momentum and drifted downhill. I tucked in tight to minimize my resistance and gain speed. The road weaved and I carefully adhered to the best line to maintain every precious mph. I was efficient. I was focused. I was…FUCK.

I glanced down at the screen of my Garmin eTrex. My little location arrow was plummeting forward in a navigational abyss. There was no purple race route to follow. The GPS had been buggy all morning so I continued to descend and maintain my speed while I zoomed out to give the digital map a refresh. Nothing changed. There was no purple route track. I immediately stopped and pulled over to mitigate the damage. I zoomed out further and further. My stomach dropped. There it was: clearly the track had suddenly diverted at the top of the hill where, in my childish walk-to-bike transitional jubilation, I had completely missed a turn and was off-track.

I wanted to cry but the hot, midday sun had sucked all of the moisture from my body. It was too arid for even a whimper. I painfully swallowed my pride, dry and dusty in the throat, turned my bike around and trudged back up the hill to undo my error.

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Time and distance is always a Rubik’s cube of the mind in a long distance race. I constantly related the distances and elevations across Morocco to known quantities in my civilian life back home, converting the terrain into familiar, palpable elements: 5.2 kilometres to next high point with 700 feet of elevation. That is the same as half of my local mountain. But flatter. Yeah, flatter. So this should be easier and quicker than that. No problem. I distilled the foreign stretch of landscape into something familiar and rational. While my legs trudged along, my mind was far more restless and needed to be tricked, fooled, and placated.

This game continued for hours. I passed several local kids and random villagers with whom I couldn’t communicate. I desperately wanted to explain to them I knew how the mechanics of a bicycle worked as they stared quizzically at me walking the bike over flat, rideable terrain. ‘Bikepushing. What a strange and inefficient sport.’

I arrived in the bustling town of Tafraout before dark. There I met with Hassan’s recommended mechanic and, as promised, Atlas Sports bike shop in Marrakech had expedited a cassette and chain to town so I could actually replace my broken parts. My derailleur and hangar went unscathed through it all and I had kept them safely on-ice, packed away in my frame bag with aspirations of a future transplant.

At this point I just wanted to ride. I had invested a lot of time and energy to be here and I wanted a lasting memory of riding my bike, not pushing. There was a reason  people rode into the sunset rather than walking.

I indulged in a three-course meal at the Restaurant Marrakech: beef skewers, chicken and couscous, olives, hummus, and a fruit smoothie. I assumed this would be my last real meal on the trail. It was 8:30pm and the sun was setting on the day and on my race. With my bike now fixed and rideable, I would not stop until I reached the finish line.

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I was thoroughly grateful to be riding, and I pedaled hard through the night, stopping only for an unexpected confrontation with a camel. I had a new and deep appreciation for my bike. We relished in the speed, renewing our vows up every steep climb, hugging the turns and tucking in on the descents. I felt invigorated, never taking any of it for granted. Those final 150 kilometres were my favourite of the entire race.

The low, morning light washed over my face as I closed in on the finish in Sidi Rabat. I could almost taste the salt on my lips and feel the ocean air on my skin as I covered the last few kilometres to the hotel compound of Auberge La Dune—emphasis on the dune. My speed suddenly ground to a halt as the trail turned into a beach suited more for sunbathing or volleyball than cycling. I dismounted and started to walk. What the Hell, what was another few kilometres of pushing my bike?

My early morning arrival was anti-climactic. Passport stamped. Formalities relayed. Another tip of the Atlas Mountain cap: Cap 120. Just another number in a long line before me.

Don’t get me wrong, there was a deep-seated gratitude and pride at arriving here but I was still processing it all, trying to balance the scales of success and failure. Winning and losing was often a formality and was different for everyone. Lessons were learned, memories were had and only with time would I fully quantify the full breadth of this experience. 

As more racers continued to cross the finish line, other racers awoke, emerged and mingled, having completed the course hours or even days before. In their presence, I finally started to release my tight, emotional grip on personal reflection and let go. Surrounded by this community of riders sharing their journeys, both finishers and those forced to scratch, I was reminded that it was the collective whole of our accomplishments that would define the inaugural, 2020 Atlas Mountain Race. I was just one, flawed, bent, broken, dusty cog in that wheel.

For my part, I would be a finisher but not receive an official placement due to the outside assistance I received. I knew that would be the circumstances as I was always open and honest with the race officials about my choices. That wasn’t something I ever struggled with.

In the end, I was immobile for more than 30 hours along the Atlas Mountain course while resolving my mechanical issues, and I ended up pushing the bike some 150 kilometres over 25 hours. I finished the 1,188 kilometres in 6 days and 23 hours.

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If you missed the earlier chapters of this story:

Click here to read Part One.

Click here to read Part Two.

This post filed under topics: Bikepacking Cutthroat Gravel Mountain Biking RJ Sauer Sponsored Riders Ultra Racing

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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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