A Makeshift Pilgrimage: Part Two

We continue with RJ Sauer's series of posts from the inaugural Atlas Mountain Race bikepacking race in Morocco. Click here to read Part One.

Photo courtesy of Kenton Gilchrest

The warm morning sun found me once again on the dawn of the third day. I had reeled in multiple riders and kept them within sight as we quietly climbed up and over the endless hills and mountains of the High Atlas. The landscape was eternally morphing and unravelling in front of me, with each crest an endless carpet of rock, gravel, and stone rolling out to a distant horizon. The scope and scale of Morocco seemed infinite.

The sun climbed higher and higher, its sharp, scalding rays a fiery searchlight, fixated and tracking me as I pedaled across the open desert landscape. My pale skin seared, too arid to sweat, slowly staining from white to a blotchy red to a smooth burnt umber. I searched for any possible reprieve from the midday heat but all the shadows had long been banished from this place, flushed out from under rocks and sporadic stands of flowering argan trees, only to re-form and stretch out over the hours of dusk until finally swallowing the landscape with night.

My technical issues persisted, a loose and dangling thread on the sleeve of a sweater. It nagged and annoyed me but I was hesitant to pull too hard too early in fear of it all suddenly coming undone. I was still making time on the trail, mesmerized and distracted by the sheer beauty and spectacle of this place. The views were an emotional salve for any defeatist thoughts. This country never ceased to amaze in its rugged and spectacular simplicity and I was driven by a curiosity to peek around every corner.

Suddenly, there was a grinding and crunching of metal as my pedals jammed. I jumped off the bike and assessed. My chain was a tangled mess, the derailleur sideways. I unraveled things and set them back in place but nothing was working. It was only in this moment that I fully realized the source of my problems. A small nut that secured my thru-axle to the derailleur hanger had come off the bike—clearly this was what had been nagging me all along. I hadn’t realized the part was missing, as the nut was a new feature on what was a very new bike. This piece wasn’t on the older iteration of the Cutthroat that I had been riding and accustomed to for years.

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It was 1 a.m. and my mind and body were preoccupied with the sudden drop in temperature, a massive swing from the heat of the day. I had covered more than 550 of the 1,150 kilometres thus far, nearly half the race distance. I wasn’t tired, but frustration, distraction, and dread regarding the realization of the loss of the irreplaceable cap drained my reason and will. Was this finally the end of my race? I had been holding for so long now, my technical difficulties almost felt like the norm. Distracted, cold, and wallowing in the darkness, I decided not to make any more decisions in my state and instead bivvy out and regroup in the optimism of first light.

I quickly assessed my surroundings in the shroud of night. A cluster of buildings and tiered rows of unplanted gardens suggested another small village. A building adorned with plaques, symbols, and a cluster of Arabic writing seemed communal and thus its surroundings seemed unoffensive as a campsite. I pulled out my sleeping bag and nestled under a small tree, leaning the bike within reach so I could still tinker if inspiration were to strike.

As I tucked inside my sleeping bag, a restless dog in a nearby building caught wind of my presence and initiated its biological alarm protocol. I assumed it had an owner and I suddenly felt exposed and self-conscious of the incessant barking my presence inspired.

Sure enough, a shadowy figure emerged, pulled by the tether of the barking dog. The beam of a flashlight scoured the landscape for the source of the dog’s ire—me. With the overreacting instincts of a penitentiary escapee, I jumped to my feet, clumsily scooped up my sleep system, gathered loose clothing in one arm and awkwardly pushed my bike with my other arm. I stumbled down an embankment and took refuge behind a pile of boulders stacked on the edge of the local soccer field. Out of range of the tiny searchlight, I quietly reset my campsite and burrowed inside my sleeping bag, grateful for this day to come to an end.

In the warm light and sanity of morning, I managed to find the patience and calm I needed to reset my derailleur such that I could continue riding. I tried to remain hopeful and upbeat as I turned the handful of high gears that kept me moving, albeit at a monotonous pace. The healing powers of the rising sun didn’t fail to amaze and invigorate me as warmth poured over the landscape.

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Photo courtesy of Kenton Gilchrest

After hours of grinding over the punchy landscape, I emerged in Ait Saoun, another tiny community and refueling stop peppered with fellow racers. At this point each new destination was a blessing.

I took a seat at the local cafe, run out of the front of a family home. I hung my head and stared deep into the fried eggy amber of my omelette as if it were an oracle, offering some insightful vision into my future. It was not.

I hobbled along the road out of town, shrouded with doubt, frustrated with my limitations, doubtful of just how far I could get on my ever-deteriorating drivetrain. I felt like I was hanging by a thread.

I glanced over my shoulder and through my fog of self-pity I saw a cement structure draped with dangling bike carcasses, cannibalized for parts. The glint of oily tools flashed in the sun as a local man furiously danced from one overturned motorcycle to the next. Local patrons, wax statues impervious to the hot sun, watched as the maestro conducted himself vigorously on their instruments of transportation.

I stopped to watch and something compelled me to approach. I reenacted my struggles to the shop owner with elaborate hand gestures. He assessed my wounds and it appeared I immediately jumped the cue. There seemed to be an appreciation for the severity of my predicament compared to the other lesser casualties and tune ups strewn about. None of the other patrons seemed to care, no else seemed to be in a hurry.

My new potential ally in finishing the race was a young Berber man named Abdell. He disappeared into the shadows of his cinder block shop and I followed, still unsure if he was taking on my cause. He immediately tossed around old boxes, buckets and crates, pouring decades of greasy metal bits onto the ground. He feverishly picked through parts, the mad wizard in search of a critical ingredient that would complete his spell and magically reawaken the full potential of my bike. I knew exactly what he was looking for, so, like a good apprentice, I dropped to my knees and joined in the search.

Before long we both realized our efforts were futile. There was just nothing that matched the unique size and threading. I was almost ready to quit and limp back onto the trail, but Abdell would not rest. He stood and turned to me, his eyes ablaze:

‘Three hours,’ he urged in broken English.

I wasn’t totally sure on the specifics of this timeline but I understood he was asking me for another three hours to provide a solution.

Three hours. 100%’

The other patrons seemed to relish in the drama and hung on every word, sometimes yelling out as if unhappy with the narrative. As a Canadian, passionate foreigners yelling at each always suggested anger and conflict, so I wasn’t really sure of the status of things.

With more pantomime and desperation-induced telepathy, I understood that Abdell was asking me to wait three hours while he drove his motorcycle to another town to fabricate the missing link in my drivetrain, essentially refashioning the metal cap I had lost on day one.

He repeated ‘100%’. He was 100% sure that he could make this work for me. 100% was a dangerous number. Anything 100% was doomed to fail. But right now I had zero options and anther 600 kilometres to ride, so 100% was as good a bet as any.

I knew this was a turning point. Three hours of waiting was an eternity, even after so much time already spent stopping, starting, pushing, and fumbling along the route. But Abdell’s eyes were sharp and determined. He wanted this chance and wanted to prove he could do it. I wasn’t sure that was the right motivation but I had to trust him and take a chance.

I took a seat at the small village cafe and watched as Abdell drove off on his motorbike. I never considered where he was actually going but at this point it didn’t really matter. I had relinquished control.

Three hours. 100%.

As I waited, other riders filed into the restaurant to order from the one-line menu. At first I felt an anxiety with each passing athlete, continuing to watch as I slid down the list of racers. But with time I stopped thinking about myself and started to listen. As I shared tales, motivations, trials and tribulations, camaraderie, and humility with every new racer, it eased my tensions. Each of my fellow riders had their own personal struggles, physical or mechanical, emotional or digestive, each penning their own stories, all with a unique experience and perspective on the trail. Like a long line of mountaineers seeking the same summit of Morocco, we were intrinsically connected. In time, my delay transformed my situation from a curse to a gift. I stopped thinking about this journey in terms of winning and losing, placement or success. In slowing down, I was given this time to appreciate and befriend so many of my fellow riders, our shared stories elevating the mosaic of our experience.

Roughly three hours later, Abdell suddenly appeared through the flickering heat waves radiating from the tarmac. I rushed to join him and the other patrons, patiently waiting in the shadows. Abdell grinned as he extracted a shiny, silver ring from his pocket and held it in the air. Despite his obvious confidence, I was admittedly thinking more 50/50 than 100%. It seemed a little too good to be true.

With greasy, blackened fingers he slipped the metal spindle onto the frame as though it were a marriage proposal and with a final, less-romantic crank of the wrench, I welcomed the newest component to my bike.

We lifted the rear wheel off the ground and gave the pedal a series of rotations, clicking away at the shifter. Sure enough, the chain moved smoothly from one cog to the next like a ballet dancer, leaping across the cassette with ease.

Three hours. 100%.

There was an explosion of joy and pride from the other patrons. They patted Abdell on the shoulders. I wanted to hug this man but instead opted for an awkward high five. I suddenly allowed myself to believe I was functional again. With a final tune, the gears buzzed and whined with perfection. I hopped on for a test spin and confirmed— everything was as good as new.

I would have thrown all the remaining cash I had into Abdell’s palm but I knew I had plenty of cooked egg, bottled water, and caky-chocolate to buy so we settled on 200 dirham—a small price to pay for hope, faith, and a smooth-shifting drivetrain.

I was invigorated and immediately went on the hunt. I was motivated to catch riders, not out of callous competition but because I was liberated and free. I was born again and I would relish in this new lease on life.

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Photo courtesy of Kenton Gilchrest

The sun melted into the horizon, casting a purple glow over the desert landscape. My tires hugged a narrow road and the cliff edge of a steep canyon leading to race Checkpoint 2. Below, the deep, natural gorge exploded with clusters of lush green palm trees and flowering blossoms. It was the living embodiment of the desert oasis, sprung from the earth and enveloping the old Moroccan village of Ait Mansour. It hung, framed on the tall cliff walls like a giant fresco.

At the centre of the town, an ornate mosque tower rose up into the sky. Reverberating from the steeple were the words of the mu’azzin and the chant of the Adhan, the Islamic Call To Prayer. The enchanting voice echoed along the valley, through the warm air and into my bones, lifting the small hairs and tattooing themselves to my skin.

The road dropped suddenly, down a steep pitch, zig-zagging back across itself, deep into the soul of the canyon, onto narrow, cobbled streets, winding through the village into Checkpoint 2. Another stamp and another goal realized.

I devoured a warm tagine of stewed potatoes and chicken, served up quickly by our local hosts. It was the first non-egg-based hot meal I had had in days and my body appreciated it. I settled in for a short nap amidst a cluster of other racers before quickly packing up and setting off into the night.

Since leaving Abdell’s shop, my bike had sailed smoothly over the terrain. My hope and optimism were rising. But even with a working drivetrain, it was no time to get complacent as there were still plenty of kilometres to go.

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Photo courtesy of Bradey Lawrence

A soft blue hue slowly melted into the black night sky and the gleaming stars and constellations faded. The first hint of morning and a new day.

For the rest of the morning I remained alone, climbing up through remote villages, unsure whether they were deserted or occupied; across barren landscapes, bouncing over rough, dried-up riverbeds; and the occasional, drought-resistant tropical oasis of palms, grass, and flowers.

I passed a duo of riders who almost seemed to materialize from the piled boulders within the alluvial stream bed, a pair with whom I comically yo-yoed with throughout the race. I never actually saw them riding bikes, always on the side of the trail swapping out a tube, patching and pumping their thin gravel tires. I never could determine when they passed me each day, which led me to believe they were a desert mirage born from a smug, self-satisfaction of riding my robust, 2.2" tires. Yes, my internal gloating tempted fate, but I never suffered a single flat. Clearly, the Bike Gods had different plans for me.

TO BE CONTINUED...

Click here to read Part One of A Makeshift Pilgrimage

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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