The Marrakech Atlas Etape Sportive April 2015

bike handlebars

By Colin Dennis

What an event!

In only its third year of running, the Marrakech Atlas Etape Sportive is getting a bit of a reputation. Why? Well, for a start, it’s known affectionately by another name too - the Ouka Monster! From the wide-open,green plains of Marrakech in late April, riders start off by heading south towards the snow-capped Atlas Mountains to cut through the impossibly-blue Moroccan sky for an early start and a thirty Kilometre warm-up to the first feed station. This feed station is also the first turn around point for those who know better. What comes next is still playing havoc with my senses, joints and muscles.

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This ‘warm-up’ is hardly noticeable as far as climbs go, but the road rises constantly at an average of around 1.5% for thirty kilometres. Although those numbers may hardly register on anyone’s climb-ometer, but you are still working
continually against gravity. Having been firmly seduced by the exotic location, friendly atmosphere and gentle tail wind, we all speed along at a pace that would look good at any club Time-Trial back home.

The royal ‘we’ from the above sentence includes a couple of fellow riders that I’d teamed up with from the previous day’s registration at the Moulay el Hassan racing circuit. The circuit lies just 2km south of the old, walled Medina and other than, Monaco, I don’t remember a racing car circuit that included so many public roads.

By one o’clock on the Saturday afternoon, the large, rug-clad Berber marquee plays host to ton of bottled water and a well-informed but laid back registration group that greets everyone with wide, welcoming smiles and a sense of pride and
purpose to their task.

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The Atlas Etape Sportive is the brainchild of Mike McHugo of Discover Ltd, and in conjunction with Saif Kovach, of Argan Extreme Sports; the Marrakech Atlas Etape was born. It’s difficult to believe it’s only in its third year. The event is put together in support of the ‘Education for All’ programme which exists to help young Moroccan Women continue with their education after primary school. The whole event is extremely well organised. With a dedicated camera crew, a number of safety vehicles running up and down the length of the route and backed-up by the friendliest feed stations you are ever likely to come across; you never feel alone and nothing less than welcome on the Atlas Etape.

This charity-based sportive clearly appeals to many levels of riders. There are some local riders who look and ride like they mean it, and I only see them at the start line and again as a red, white and green blur as they speed back down the steepest sections of the return leg.

While we’re on this subject, it’s worth noting that essentially, the Marrakech Atlas Etape Sportive is a 44 mile hill climb followed by 44 mile descent back to the start/finish line down the same route. Sounds easy? Think again!
Get training for the hills is all I can say, then train some more, then some more, and if you live in Cambridgeshire, move to Cumbria or Yorkshire for six months. Or, be like one competitor that has completed all three Atlas Etape events – on his Brompton!

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It’s not particularly steep by Alpine standards, it probably tops out at six or seven percent, but the length of the sustained climbing will severely punish unprepared riders; as will the strength of the late April sunshine. The local Marrakech bike shop is out in force at the start too as a small village of easy-up tents appear and tables are laid out with spare tubes, energy gels and the like for any last minute necessitates. A large field of sparkly-new Giant road bikes have been laid out like a herd of camels patiently waiting in the shimmering heat for a group of tourists.

While we sit around in the shade of the Berber tent discussing tomorrow’s route, I’m passed a welcoming glass of mint tea by the nearby tea seller who’s sitting close by. The Peppermint aroma is as strong as the taste itself, but it’s refreshing, it feels a little like cleaning your teeth without the brush.

By 4pm I’m beginning to lag from the 2am start and I bid adieu to the welcome committee as I cycle back to my Riad in the old city. The Medina in Marrakech is the big draw here, as is the tourist magnet of the main ‘Jemaa el Fna’ Square; Cobra dancing et al!

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Aside from the stall holders who become instant best friends the moment you even look at their wares, the Medina is still a fascinating place. The smells alone are enough to send you into sensory overload: leather goods hang from every stall like dead chickens and exotic spice dishes of varying sizes clash with the sweat of the water sellers, snake charmers and fire eaters. It’s great fun, especially for the first time visitor. As the sun sets, Jemaa el Fna becomes a well-rehearsed show and everyone plays their part to the full.

My accommodation is on the Rue de la Kasbah and the room in my Riad is as cosy and welcoming as the ‘Airbnb’ site promised. You can stay at a nice comfy hotel as part of the Atlas Etape package; and it is an excellent deal, but I wanted to be a little more adventurous. I’m a big fan of Airbnb and have used it all over the UK and Europe. My hosts were lovely, incredibly helpful and they explained at length the best places to eat within a short walk. They offered me a wide spectrum of eateries, but I played it safe and ate at the Kasbah Cafe a few hundred metres from my Riad. I played it even safer by ordering a large Pizza and a Coke; adventurous to the last!

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I was also glad of the fact that I had put my bike back together earlier in the day, rather than leaving it for the evening. Ryanair took great care of my bike during the flight and I had no issues at all regarding the oversized bike box; which was pre booked well in advance, of course.

Other than Luton Airport being my only choice of departure due to my time constrains (I flew out early Saturday morning with, rode on the Sunday and returned early on the Monday) the whole travelling thing was pretty straight forward, thankfully. Even the local Taxi driver that my Moroccan hosts had pre booked for me turned up on time.

I laid out my kit for the next day, drank about a gallon of bottled water, head hit the pillow at 10pm sharp (same time as the UK) and drifted off, bug-eyed and mesmerised by hissing, dancing, scaly reptiles. Breakfast was already laid out for me by the time I clad myself in Lycra and I ate every last morsel of the meal. It was just after 7am as I made my way along the Rue de la Kasbah to the city walls and on to the start at the Circuit International Automobile Moulay El Hassan. The start area is alive with the bustle of last minute preparations as riders of various languages check bikes and gear. A small Berber band strikes up and with only a few minutes to the start time everyone gathers around for a last-minute prep talk.

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The usual concertina effect of riders clipping in and pedalling off signals the event has finally got underway at 8am. We all swing out wide across the first roundabout and head towards the Atlas Mountains that seem ominously larger than normal in the morning sunlight. The route to the first feed station is as straight as the preverbal arrow and the rise in the road is barely perceptible. We a group of camels standing idly on the side of the road and heralds’ the first photo stop. The feed station is a sight to behold, thirty km’s may not be far but the stop is welcoming like no other feed station that I’ve ever encountered. Someone rushes up and takes my card; it’s stamped within seconds and after checking my number matches the card, is returned to my sweaty mitt. I pull out my water bottle; it’s politely taken from my hand and filled by a smiling young woman. I haven’t even got off my bike yet!

I stuff my face full of nuts and bananas that fill the huge dishes laid out on the long tables. We meet several more smiling young women who will benefit from the charity that the Atlas Etape is built upon. The feed station is in constant
flow as riders arrive or leave. I find myself lingering longer than I should and I search for the faces of my two compatriots. We saddle up and I feel a little tug in my heart as we reluctantly wave good bye. I feel like I’m leaving old friends behind. I don’t remember any other ride, let alone a feed station, that has had such an impact on me and we’ve only done 30km!

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Shortly after we re-start, the tempo and terrain changes for the lumpier. There’s a small descent then a climb to the road junction that signals the start real test of the Atlas Etape, the Ouka Monster. Our legs are still fresh and the climbing feels good after the flat of the plains and the next water stop is reached in no time at all. A glass of mint tea is thrust cheerily into my hand just as I bring my bike to a halt. The warm mint clears my mouth and I’m on such a high I decide to call my wife from my mobile – sod the cost!

The oasis of the drink station is halfway up what looks like a pretty steep section, we decide it’s a little strange to have a water stop at such a steep location on the road, but out here you have to make the most of every opportunity.
We eye the road ahead thinking it's only a short climb.

Wrong-again! Welcome to the Atlas Etape for real. The road surface also deteriorates the further we climb into the thinning air. In places the road resembles nothing more than a track and in other areas there’s obvious signs of recent rock-fall; but who cares? The 360 degree views are simply awesome. This is like no other Alpine climbing that I’ve done, and I guess that’s part of the attraction. The Atlas Etape attracts a field of around three hundred adventurous riders who are as determined as I am to reach the top of the climb.

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I dare not look up, it’s almost vertical ahead and there is a faint glimpse of what looks like a ski tow far off and high on the summit of the mountains ahead. I know that’s where we’re headed, but I try not to think too hard. After what
feels like forever but in reality is (only?) two hours the three of us, somewhat strung out and feeling the pain worm our way through a rocky gulley and onto the plateau of the ski station. This is not a ski resort as you know it, forget Bormio or St Moritz, this is skiing Morocco style and there’s not a lick of paint to be seen on any of the sparse buildings, but the scenery of the plateau is stunning.

I’m too much in need of food and water to worry about superficial things like ski resort comparisons. I lay down beside my bike on the lush grass for a few moments to savour the ache of achievement that runs through my tired body. That is quite possibly the hardest 70km that I have ever ridden, but isn’t that the point? Why would you come all the way to North Africa to go for a quick spin? The Atlas Mountains provide riding on a grand scale; these are moments to remember.

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With a belly full of rice, bread and more dried apricots, I only notice how cool the wind is as I watch the numbers on my bike computer quickly climb as I retrace the road back down the bumpy road. I don’t possess the nerve to go as quickly as some riders, but my fingers go white all the same as I try to ease off on the straighter sections of road. I stop to take a photo of what looks like an impossibly perfect tear drop loop in the road ahead of me; that’s one for the scrapbook. The temperature rises almost as swiftly as I descend too, but reaching down for a water bottle on these roads takes a great deal of, well, bottle. I pull over to play safe and empty the contents down my crusty throat. After letting the blood course back into my fingers I set off again in pursuit of my two compatriots.

The gentle tailwind that pushed us towards the first feed station several hours before has turned into a blow that Mr Beaufort would be proud of. I tuck in behind my two friends and I hope they forget I’m there as they swap places to take the brunt of the wind. I man-up and pull out. The wind is like hitting a wall, but I push past and take up station. The next 5 km’s are murder and what seems unfairly like an age, I’m overtaken. As the Minarets of Marrakech rise slowly up out of the plains, I sense a kick in the pace and I struggle to keep up. But after all that has gone before, I’m determined not to give up, and sportives aren’t races, are they?

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Surely the inherent competitive edge is in everyone who rode today, but the sound of appreciative applause as we cross the finish line signals something inside of me to keep it together and act like I’ve just been for a quick spin. No chance! I lay the bike on the hot concrete and find a space in the cool of the carpeted reception tent on which to spread myself out. Someone hangs a medal around my neck just as the same smiling face from yesterday reaches over and hands me another glass of mint tea. I moan a quick thank you to both and lay my head back down. I don’t want to move, I can’t believe I’ve done it. I grin like a fool. I’m lying on a magic carpet in Marrakech.

A very big thank you goes out to Mike McHugo and his team of helpers for letting me loose in the Atlas Mountains and for putting on what is simply a first class event, it’s no wonder the Telegraph put the Atlas Etape as one of their top five sportives to ride in 2015. Get training now! Registration is already open for 2016.