When I stumbled upon the website for the Atlas Mountain Race, the image of a stark, red-earth desert scape stretched out in front of me as if I was already leaning over my handlebars. I was immediately hooked. The allure for me was simple: Morocco had long been on my list as a majestic and mysterious realm that I was compelled to explore.
I grew up enamoured with the great cinematic masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia, still one of my favourite films in all of its 70 mm grandeur. Perusing the race imagery, I instantly imagined myself wrapped in fluttering white, merino wool robes galloping across the vast landscape on my Salsa Cutthroat guided only by nostalgia and GPX waypoints.
Not only did the Atlas Mountain Race capture my childhood imagination, it ticked all of the boxes for my adventure criteria and the dates were perfect. I am not a full-time, pro racer, and events of this scale are a real commitment in both physical time away from family and work and cost, hours of training, and the tedious, nightly water cooler conversations my wife Sarah would endure:
“Did you know we’ll climb almost the equivalent of Everest?” “There will probably be snow.” “Should I bring the Imodium?”
The Atlas Mountain Race is a self-supported bikepacking race starting in Marrakesh, Morocco, and finishing in the village of Sidi Rabat on the North Atlantic coast, just south of Agadir. The route climbs more than 20,000 metres and traverses 1,145 kilometres of some of Morocco’s most remote landscapes, following unpaved pistes dating back to colonial times. It climbs over the High Atlas Mountains, winding along old mule and caravan trails, through rocky canyons and gorges lined with palm trees and small villages.
The online registration was a little more rigorous than expected. For many bikepacking events, a simple email or social media post articulating my plan to show up for the grand depart is enough. Sometimes even that is excessive. But the AMR, like its inaugural sister race, The Silk Road Mountain Race, seemed a more social media-savvy endeavour with a little more infrastructure.
Working through the “skill-testing” questions about survival and safety during remote adventures of this magnitude gave me time to reflect on the experiences, adventures, and past events that had led me here. In my modest years as a bikepacker, I had learned a lot about racing, about biking and, of course, about myself. I was excited to take that one pedal stroke further.
As I slogged out hours and hours of training in the rain, sleet, and snow during an especially dark, dank, and waterlogged winter in Vancouver, Canada, I imagined the dry deserts of Morocco and sun-soaked course of the Atlas Mountain Race and reflected on my goals. Like each of my past events, I broke down my aspirations into multiple tiers.
First and foremost, I was looking for a unique experience and to learn about a culture and emerge with a more enlightened perspective of myself. I consider myself an emotional rider and most of my choices are made by feel. The intimate exposure to the dynamic landscape of North Africa felt like the right opportunity for me.
From an athletic perspective, the primary goal is always to finish. I have taken pride in completing every event that I have started (knocking on wood), whether pushing hard at the front or suffering and drifting to the middle of the pack. There are a lot of variables, external influences, and even a little luck involved in starting and finishing a bikepacking race. I have always respected that, respected the challenge I am taking on, and prepared myself physically, emotionally, and logistically to ensure the best chance of success. I have improved my preparation and tactics through my experiences and have learned how to ride my own race. This is important and comes from the acceptance of my personal strengths and weaknesses and balancing those to achieve the best result and make the best decisions for me.
It also comes down to prioritization. Because of my passion to write and photograph, I have struggled at times with how to balance my true motivations in new events.
Am I a storyteller or an athlete? A traveller or a racer? Can I be both?
To answer these questions, I developed a sliding scale for each adventure, shifting between “competition” on one end and “experience” on the other. Knowing where any given event fit on that scale allowed me to assess my strategy, gear, and predicted timelines in a more realistic manner for a more enjoyable and realistic experience. This was by no means a perfect solution, and it failed to completely pacify the internal conflict, but it did provide perspective as I wrestled with whether my plan was to slow down and soak up all of the nuances of a place or put my head down and push all the way through.
With the birth of my son Oliver, now 17 months old, I found further balance. With our new family, bikepacking adventures gave me the perfect, experiential outlet I needed. It provided those purely experiential adventures I needed to fill my creative passions while exploring by bike.
Of course, as a competitive person I am always keen to perform and improve, and the race dynamic is a gentle hand at the back (or sometimes a shove), pushing me out the door, away from the warmth and comfort to challenge the edge of those perceived limits. The camaraderie, competitiveness, and strength of my fellow riders has motivated me to ride faster and longer and forced me, for better or worse, to appreciate my boundaries.
As I unclipped, dismounted, and hosed off the mud and grit from my Cutthroat after my final long training ride, I found myself imagining the boundaries I would soon experience, and I wondered what new frontiers I would face in the Atlas. I could only hope I was ready and open to whatever would come my way.
Instagram: @rjsauer Facebook: @rjsauer
Atlas Mountain Race will be making updates via the following channels:
Facebook page: facebook.com/atlasmountainrace
On the blog section of our website: atlasmountainrace.cc Our YouTube Channel: [url=http:///2YYlHnq]http:///2YYlHnq[/url]
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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.