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OPINION

Bring on the Atlas Mountains: a beginner's guide to ultra-distance bike racing

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Richard Stoodley is heading back for a second pop at the notoriously tough Atlas Mountain Race, that departs from Marrakech on 9th February. Read all about what happened last time around and the strategy for attempt 2

As a 62-year-old cyclist who rides mostly for leisure, enjoying café rides with friends and the odd Gran Fondo, it’s usual to be home by mid-afternoon, wash the bike, stick the clothes in the wash, have a quick look at Strava and settle down for tea (or dinner if you're from the south) and watch some TV while your phone beeps with kudos because you did about 48 miles and a thousand feet.

So WHY, I ask myself, am I preparing to set off once more for the Atlas Mountain Race, one of the toughest ultra-distance races over some of the most hostile and demanding terrain that Morocco can throw at you?

Atlas mountain race gravel tracks - Richard Stoodley

The distance and elevation is not actually that crazy: 811 miles and 69,000ft of elevation. But the two things that make it almost impossible for someone like me is the 8 day 6 hour time limit, and the extremely unforgiving terrain.

Oh, you can add in whatever the elements decide to throw at you too...

There is no doubt about it, this race is aimed at the elite of the elite of ultra athletes if you aim to win. Just to secure a finish or a reasonable time, you need to either be at your peak of fitness or just totally determined. Of these three categories, I fall exclusively into the latter...

Let’s be frank about this, this is no café ride, this is no ‘walk in the park’ or a difficult sportive. There is simply nowhere to hide.

There are no food stops, no organiser's broom wagon, no overnight hotel, no finisher’s medal, no support crew, and you are forbidden to ride with anyone else (unless you officially register as a pair). 

You carry or buy your own food and water (if you can find it) and your sleep is not only going to be minimal if you want to finish, but will be in a bivvy bag on the hard rocky ground, often way below freezing at night with the possibility of snow. If you win, you get a £2.00 clay tagine with WINNER painted on it. If you break something, it's down to you to fix it only with the tools and spares that you have with you.

Accepting help to get you to the finish or maybe a town miles away is allowed, but punishable by disqualification from the final results.

And lord help you if you have a serious accident. Yes you are fitted with a GPS spot tracker, but the chances that the organisers will be able to reach you quickly are remote, simply because much of the route is totally inaccessible for vehicles. Not falling off is a really good strategy...

I am no newcomer to long-distance riding, and in 2022 I embarked on a solo trip through France and Germany in tribute to my late father, who was in the very first plane to drop on D-Day before he was eventually captured and taken by POW train to Stalag IVB. I followed his route in an amazing, emotional ride that saw me cover 1,924.45 miles in just 21 days.

So what is the lure of this incredible event?  What makes you actually WANT to enter, and why would you set yourself up for probable failure and ridicule? Well for me, you may be surprised to hear, its unfinished business!

Yes, I’m going back for more punishment. I first attempted it last year on an overgeared gravel bike and threw myself in at the deep end.

I drowned...

Richard Stoodley at uatlas mountain race

I lasted two and a half days, only managed about 160 miles and was broken. Although ‘giving up’ is not in my vocabulary, discretion was the better part of valour, and knowing that I would have become a liability to both myself and the organisers, I took the incredibly difficult, ego-demolishing decision to ‘scratch’ from the race.

Now please allow me some slack here, I call this a race as that is its title, and to some that's what it is. To me and many others it’s a challenge, a personal test of physical and mental endurance, an opportunity to throw yourself to the lions and battle against the elements, the terrain, the hours in the saddle and the solitude.

bivvying at atlas mountain race - credit Richard Stoodley

So for me, this ‘race’ is my own personal battle. I don’t care about the other competitors because I am either not in the same league (they are Premiership and I am Nation League North) or when it comes to the riders more like myself, I just respect so much that they are just trying to achieve the same. 

To give you an idea of how hard the event is, after the first 25km ‘neutralised’ road section you turn, in the dark, in the freezing cold, off-road into the start of an approx. 6–8 hour climb (with a dip in the middle). The highest point of this is 8,700 ft above sea level, and is followed by a hike-a-bike (walking) down the Old Mule Track section, over boulders and rocks. Even an advanced mountain bike rider with no kit and a dropper post would struggle to ride this easily.

Last year after about 10 hours, I had travelled 55 miles. I pitched a bivvy for two hours' sleep at 4.00am, 5,600ft above sea level and at -6 degrees.

Atlas mountain race sleeping - credit Richard Stoodley

I managed about 77 miles in 18 hours total, and was so tired and fatigued that my head thought I had another 148km to the first checkpoint (no idea where that came from). I stopped in a town for food and a couple of hours of rest, thinking I could not even reach checkpoint 1, only to find out the actual checkpoint was just 2km down the road!

I had made it, but was still so slow, fatigued and struggling.

Onwards and upwards and I pushed on into the night, meeting a couple of great blokes on the way who had had a few issues. We ended up riding at the same pace for a few miles, with their amusement at my downhill skills (or lack of them) taking their minds off their own issues just for a while.

Eventually, my fatigue and the cold became to much and as they rode off into the moonlight, their tail lights I was following disappeared over a ridge. I ground to a halt.

I kicked an area next to the track free from the biggest rocks and set up my shelter. I had been told that its best to get out of your cycling kit (for warmth and to air your body’s crevices) but it was so bitterly cold I decided to both strip off and get dressed inside my bivvy. Now, seeing as this Bivvy bag is not much bigger than a sleeping bag itself, I think I used as much energy struggling with my clothes than I had the whole previous day!

Regardless, I was spent. Truly and utterly drained. It was now around midnight and sleep took me. In the morning I could not move. I had no desire, will or energy to get out my bivvy and in the end I had been there about nine hours! Not ideal.

I kept telling myself “another 10 minutes, another 10 minutes”, and eventually daylight was around me. Off I went, tired and on the back foot.

Atlas mountain race snow scenery - Richard Stoodley

The following day actually saw about 10 miles of road section, but the headwind literally had me in tears as I stopped sat by the side of the road and called my family.

Still determined, I pulled myself together and continued riding again into the night, but this time with the carrot of Imassine which I wrongly assumed was a huge town with hotels and restaurants.

Atlas mountain race cafe - credit Richard Stoodley

I met up again with Davide and Patrik, who had previously left me but themselves been delayed trying to fix their brakes in a place I can simply cannot describe. All I know is there was a hot tagine on offer and for 50 Dirhams (about £4.00) I could sleep inside.

I managed to scavenge a piece of foam to keep me off the freezing floor, and the owner bought in two charcoal stone fire urns to keep us warm.  One of the riders went to close the window and realised that there was not even a window frame.

Davide and Patrik said they were setting their alarms to go off at 4.00am to continue, and as I heard their alarm, they woke me and told me it was time to go.

That was the point I decided that I would become a hindrance and liability to myself and the organisers. The next 60 miles were going to be desolate. Literally nothing, zero.  

I did not get out of my sleeping bag. I scratched.

After a very difficult journey itself via riding my bike and on buses, back to Marrakech and then to the finish in Essaouira, still in my cycling clothes for four days until I was reunited with my bags, I went to the finish hotel and watched the riders trickle in.

There was no fanfare, no fireworks, each one just rolled in. They leaned their bikes up against the wall, got their brevet cards for the fourth and final time, and sat. Motionless, staring. No joy at this point. Just relief.

I wanted that.

Since, I've seen the vistas and photos of suffering, the pictures of the route this beautiful has to offer… and I want to see it with my own eyes.

I don’t want to scroll on Instagram, I want that experience. I know I will suffer, I honestly don’t know if I have the ability, fitness or resolve to reach the end. But THAT is why I am doing it again.

I’ve almost become obsessed. The country and the people are warm, friendly and relaxed. They open their arms to you, and I think I’ve fallen in love with that too.

As a means to my end, I recognised very early in February 2023 that I had the wrong bike and invested in a fantastic, able, Scott Scale RC Hardtail.

Atlas mountain race bike 2 - credit Richard Stoodley

But this was just a mountain bike, and over the last few months I’ve adjusted my kit and added modifications to my bike, mainly to save weight but also for ease of riding and ease of operation.  Different bars, a dynamo hub and light, a suspension seat post and 32 spoke wheels. 

I have the good fortune to have the support of three fantastic companies: Tailfin, who supply brilliant, versatile and reliable technical bikepacking equipment, WTB (Wilderness Trail Bikes) for my NANO tyres and tubeless TCS set-up, and Devo saddle. I'll also be personally protected from the elements with amazing Gorewear kit.

I’ve saved weight, I’ve saved on volume and I now have the gift of knowledge, the benefit of some experience and understanding of what is to come.

I am ready, but I know this is not going to be easy. It's going to be horrific, and if I can reach that finish line before midnight on Saturday 17th February this will be the most amazing physical achievement of my life.

Atlas mountain race kit and equipment - credit Richard Stoodley

At this point I must not only say chapeau and good luck to the other 249 riders who have entered, but also show my respect for the real athletes who actually race this event.

Amazingly last year’s men’s winner, Robin Gemperle, came in after just 3 days, 20 hours and 15 minutes, and the women’s winner Luisa Werner completed it in 5 days, 19 hours and 9 minutes. Simply unbelievable efforts.

If you want to follow my progress live on MAProgress - click the link HERE, and it even has the function to message me your support. Believe me, every word of encouragement will take me one wheel revolution nearer to the finish.

The race starts on Friday 9th February at 6.00pm local time.

Thank you for reading and I will update with a review upon my (victorious?) return!

Rapid Rich.

Website: www.rapidrich.co.uk
Instagram: instagram.com/rapid_rich/

'Rapid' Rich Stoodley is a 63 year old 'normal rider'.

Although he's only been riding for 12 years after a very late start and is no athlete, he pushes himself beyond his limits on HillClimbs, long distance rides and ultra races. 

For Rich, encouraging and inspiring other (especially older) riders to push themselves beyond their limits is what drives him. 

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22 comments

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Miller | 5 months ago
0 likes

So... how did this go, any updates to share?

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Miller | 5 months ago
1 like

This is a long way from hill climbing events! I hope your prep pays off and you reach that finish.

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Rapid Rich Stoodley replied to Miller | 5 months ago
0 likes

Cheers 

 

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marianopazdziollo | 5 months ago
1 like

Nice post, but I wish that you (also) used metres and kilometres for us non-Brits!

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Miller replied to marianopazdziollo | 5 months ago
1 like

I'm a Brit. Km are much better for cycling, miles are too big a unit and anyway the cycling world works in km.

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Velophaart_95 replied to Miller | 5 months ago
0 likes

What 'cycling world'? Let me guess, the pro peleton world, and 'The Rules'......

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marianopazdziollo replied to Velophaart_95 | 5 months ago
1 like

Literally every country in the world apart from the US & UK

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Rendel Harris replied to marianopazdziollo | 5 months ago
2 likes

marianopazdziollo wrote:

Literally every country in the world apart from the US & UK

Hey, don't forget Belize, Liberia and Myanmar!

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Rapid Rich Stoodley replied to Miller | 5 months ago
1 like

Sorry... Im 63 in March ... I work in Miles   1  ... but its roughly 1300km and 21,000m elevation.   Cheers. 

But funninly enough ... its the same distance and elevation  1 

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Rapid Rich Stoodley replied to marianopazdziollo | 5 months ago
0 likes

Sorry ... when I wrote it  I nearly added that in ... its roughly 1300km and 21,000 m 

 

Rich.

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Steve K | 5 months ago
3 likes

Good luck.

I'd love to be able (practically and physically!) do something like this!

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Rapid Rich Stoodley replied to Steve K | 5 months ago
1 like

Thank you !! ... its awesome just being part of it .  

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perce | 5 months ago
2 likes

Good luck! Hope you enjoy it. '' Enjoy'' is probably the wrong word but I hope it all goes well for you.

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Rapid Rich Stoodley replied to perce | 5 months ago
1 like

Cheers .... I agree there will be times when I dont feel like Im enjoying it .... but when you look back, you love every minute  1 

 

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Steve K replied to Rapid Rich Stoodley | 5 months ago
1 like

Rich Stoodley wrote:

Cheers .... I agree there will be times when I dont feel like Im enjoying it .... but when you look back, you love every minute  1 

 

Not a bad metaphor for life, really.

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Rendel Harris | 5 months ago
4 likes

Quote:

The distance and elevation is not actually that crazy: 811 miles and 69,000ft of elevation

Yes it is. Good luck!

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andystow replied to Rendel Harris | 5 months ago
3 likes

Rendel Harris wrote:

Quote:

The distance and elevation is not actually that crazy: 811 miles and 69,000ft of elevation

Yes it is. Good luck!

Same. Back-to-back-to-back 100+ mile days are incredibly tough, even on easy terrain.

The race has just over a 50% finish rate, and considering that those entering it are by no means a random subset of the population, even coming close is a major accomplishment.

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Rapid Rich Stoodley replied to andystow | 5 months ago
0 likes

Yeah, I did 21 x 91 mile days back to back (mainly road and limited gravel) on my Dad's Stalag IVB ride in 2022 without a day off and nowhere near as much climbing ... I was OK ... until I finished and then realised how much it had totally drained me.  ... Im aiming for that finish !!!!   1 

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Steve K replied to andystow | 5 months ago
2 likes

andystow wrote:

Rendel Harris wrote:

Quote:

The distance and elevation is not actually that crazy: 811 miles and 69,000ft of elevation

Yes it is. Good luck!

Same. Back-to-back-to-back 100+ mile days are incredibly tough, even on easy terrain.

The race has just over a 50% finish rate, and considering that those entering it are by no means a random subset of the population, even coming close is a major accomplishment.

Biggest I've done was 1170 miles over 13 days - which included one (effectively) rest day; either side of which were two sets of 3 days of 100+ miles.  But the terrain wasn't particularly challenging and I was staying in pre-booked B&Bs.  (On the other hand, I did have to watch two Premier League football matches during it.)

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Rapid Rich Stoodley replied to Rendel Harris | 5 months ago
1 like

Ha !  ... Thank you !!   1 

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Boofus | 5 months ago
2 likes

Good luck Rich - I'll be cheering your dot on. Uptmost respect to anyone taking it on. I hope to one day, like you not to race but to see if I can do it. All the best for your ride! 

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Rapid Rich Stoodley replied to Boofus | 5 months ago
1 like

Really appreciate the support !!   1 Thank you.

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