Jamie Caldwell, Starley Primal Pro Cycling Team
Starting in Marrakech the route seems surreal. Once clear and on to the main road you suddenly see the mountain that lies ahead and it’s difficult to believe at that point that you will be somewhere near the top of that in a few hours’ time. Fortunately it’s a nice steady start going up a gradient you would find hard to notice, helping to warm up the legs and give the opportunity to enjoy beautiful scenery and take it all in.
The main climb itself is something else. Feeling excited and ready at the bottom of it makes it very tempting to just sprint off, but you have to remember that there is 25km of climbing to go, that is over an hour of riding and especially when you climbing up to the dizzying heights of 2600 meters. Fortunately the mountain won’t let you forget just how tough it is with markers every km up the climb, reminding just how long this climb is, although I am not sure if this was a good thing or a bad thing as the climb just felt like an eternity it really does live up to its name - the ‘Ouka Monster’!! Once at the top the hard work is over and gives you such a satisfying feeling. Not only have you defeated the ‘Monster’ but now you can enjoy the beautiful view in the gorgeous heat. The decent is not only a fast, long and flowing but some of the most breath taking views I have ever seen. Just make sure to slow up and enjoy them.
Not only do you get one of the best cycling experiences of all time but it all goes towards a fantastic cause - Education For All!
“I struggled to write a testimonial for the Marrakech Atlas Etape as I felt I was in danger of mimicking the sort of travel journalist I dislike, the one who writes gushing articles about this unspoiled corner or that and, thereby, opening it up to the masses for it never to be the same again. That, and the fact I have spent the last week struggling to find adequate words to describe this event.
“I feel that I am extremely privileged to have ridden in the first of, I hope, many of these rides. It is everything you can want as a cyclist, an off the beaten track, adventurous challenge with great people in aid of a great cause. Although it was a tad misty when we did it, the unspoilt—there I said it—scenery and mountain views are awe inspiring.
“The event was extremely well organised in a charmingly understated way, the climb is long, very long, but never too steep as to be a killer, and is punctuated with food and drink stops cunningly placed around 50 yards before you need to get off and walk. The summit was at the edge of my pain barrier and made me question doing this on a Brompton, however, a fine selection of food on arrival soon sorts things out and adds a little extra weight to aid gravity in the descent.
“The descent—well, wow, my word. Unless the Garmin is prone to exaggeration then the Brompton hit 50 mph which is beyond exhilarating to say the least. The landscape screams past leaving you wondering how on earth you managed to climb so much of it. In a flash you are down and level out to a final straight 30k run in with a slight slope in your favour - storming your way triumphantly back to Marrakech riding as a bizarre team of two Bianchi's and a Brompton is a memory that will take some beating.
“Have to thank my riding partner Chris Gurney, Tiffany and Stewart for locking wheels on the run in and Mike and his team for organising everything—fabulous!
“I really can not recommend this event enough—truly exceptional.”
I tracked my progress and it can be seen on the Strava website here:
Jennifer Taylor, Starley Primal Pro Cycling Team
The Marrakech Atlas Etape, aka the Ouka Monster, monstrous it is indeed, but enjoyable and my gosh worth the challenge, you feel on top of the world, quite literally! Do it!…and help contribute to a very worthy cause, Education For All Morocco!
What can I say? My time in Morocco was awesome!! The roads, weather, scenery and lest I forget the people were amazing! Those combined with staying at altitude makes Morocco an amazing winter training ground and I shall definitely return! The Ouka Monster, is a beast if you race it but completed at your own pace, it is enjoyable and a complete must! You really feel like you’re cycling to the top of the world, pretty breathtaking (and that’s not just the view!)! We went to one of the girls’ EFA boarding houses which the event is supporting and I was touched, it is a very worthy cause which the event is supporting. Challenge yourself and attack the monster!
That had to be the toughest but most rewarding bike ride I have ever done. Coming downhill for so long, mile after mile after mile needs a bit more specific training for next year. But what an achievement to get back to base and such a fabulous reception.
Mat Brett - road.cc
Would I go back and ride the Marrakech Atlas Etape again? 100%. A great event, super-friendly and extremely well organized.
“Where shall I begin? Firstly, about Morocco and Marrakech: what an utterly beguiling, crazy, mental, bonkers, wonderful place. Nothing and I mean nothing, can prepare you for the assault on the senses that this city delivers, noise, smell, heat, sights, people, traffic, animals, vegetables, minerals. Everyone must go there, trust me, it’s breathtaking. And the people are the most friendly, interesting and interested of anywhere I've ever been. Sure, most of them want to sell you something but it's easy to get past that and then they just want to chat. A mixture of their scant and sometimes non-existent English and my very poor pigeon French (words - no grammar) was no obstacle to communication at all. Great fun, you get out what you put in.
“Oh yes, and then there was the Atlas Etape itself. Saturday was beautiful. High 20s, blue skies and no wind. A lovely day to register for the event and explore; see the photos for a feel of the place. Breakfast at 06:30 on Sunday (thanks to Martine at Riad Thalge for getting up so early), and off to the start for 07:30. Grey skies and cold but it was early and the forecast was for 24 degrees. Once at the start at the Circuit Moulay El Hassan it was apparent that the day wasn’t going to improve much and there were rumours of low temperatures on the mountain. A brief safety chat and we were off at 08:00. I sat in with the leading group and benefited from the tow being offered by a group of fast locals and quick foreigners as we headed out on the very gradual climb of the first 30km or so to feed station 1. By this time the rain had started and it was a little bleak. Filthy spray obscured my Oakleys but the dried fruits, nuts, bread and water were a welcome change from European feeds.
“I stopped to check my blood sugars so the lead group went off up the road without me (in a big hurry). Through a busy town with police outriders waving us on and it was on to the start of the climb proper. I had a little company from a Frenchman and a local on a big mountain bike but within a couple of kms I’d dropped both of them and I was in my usual situation of being alone with my thoughts. As it was still pretty early in the morning and the weather was worsening there weren’t many people about but as always the kids kicking about in the villages shouted encouragement and waved wildly as I passed. Visibility began to decrease as I climbed the lower slopes and it was getting cold—properly cold. The rain was becoming steadier and I was soon engulfed by low cloud. I had to tuck the camera into my jersey to keep the rain off and I was just digging in as the gradient became more challenging. I rode on for another 10km or so and then suffered the inevitable first puncture. I dismounted at the first safe place and it was only then that I realised I couldn't feel my hands. The gods were with me though, as round the bend came one of the vehicles from AXS—a proper local bike shop. They pulled over and changed the inner tube for me whilst I star-jumped in the mist to try to get some circulation back. That done and I was off again into the gloom. Another few kms solo and I could then make out a couple of riders up ahead. I very slowly reeled them in to discover they were two wire-thin young local riders on quality bikes. Comedy French regarding odd words like ‘cold’ and ‘hard’ ensued as we rode upwards together. A km or so later the second of the two had dropped off the back so it was the just 2 of us now. Then my companion suddenly put in a dig and went up the road without me. Two or three minutes later I rounded a bend to find him at the roadside having seemingly given up. I pressed on and it felt as though the cloud was thinning and there was a touch of brighter sky ahead, real incentive. I began to count down the final 10kms and noticed that my breathing had become shallow as the air was thinning. My cadence was regular and by this stage I was in no doubt that I would reach the top. Cycling can be cruel though and I suddenly had a real dip in power and started to hurt—I downed a gel and pressed on and as can sometimes be the case, just rode through it. 5km and I broke out of the cloud and into glorious sunshine, warmth and the bluest skies you can imagine. Just a matter of a few more minutes to go. My spirits were so lifted by the sun that it became a slow, steady but inevitable push to the finish. Then signs of life ahead; a guard lifted a road barrier to the ski station and I could see the time check on the plateau ahead. Friendly English voices gave me a big cheer, I had my carnet stamped and was gestured down to the feed station where hot soup, vegetable tajine, fruits, nuts and bread waited. Some of the faster locals were eaing in a tent trying to warm up but I was soon joined on the carpets by a few Europeans where tales of the cold and the struggle ensued.
“I spent a leisurely 30 mins or more up there eating, drinking and taking in the sunshine and beautiful scenery before seeing the cloud rise over the edge of the valley. That was my cue to set off. I’d sent a thin waterproof up in one of the vehicles so put that on and was then given a newspaper to stuff down my jersey as extra insulation (an old trick going back to the early days of the Tour de France). I was glad I did, very glad. Into the cloud and the temperature had fallen dramatically. Visibility was down to 20m max and it was raining. Not ordinary rain but rain with stinging ice crystals in it. The roads were in a poor state for the climb but descending in those conditions was treacherous in the extreme. It was a choice between; go as fast as you can to get it over with and suffer the added wind chill, or slow down and take much, much longer. I decided speed was of the essence so gritted my chattering teeth and pushed on. I was on and off the brakes for the next 30km, making fists with alternate hands when I was able to let go, to try to maintain some circulation. Because the descent was fast and technical but strewn with debris it meant 100% concentration. I kept telling myself that if I stopped shivering that was the time to worry. The muscles in my back and shoulders were rigid with the cold and there was no way I could pedal to generate some heat, as I was having trouble slowing the bike to a safe speed anyhow. It was the most awful time I’ve ever spent on a bike. My fears were realised when I came across one of the support vehicles who asked after my condition as they’d already rescued people on the climb who were suffering from hypothermia. I kept thinking about all the support I’d been given and the 3½ days of freezing paddling my friend Kevin Hill had endured in the Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race. There was no way I was going to give in now.
As I got lower down the mountain the temperature began to rise a little and the rain eased. And then I was off the mountain proper and back onto the rolling roads leading back to the city. Fate can be cruel and just when things were looking up I punctured again. No help this time and my back and legs were so stiff and my hands so cold that it took me an age to change my last inner tube and get going again. 20 mins later and I had the feeling back in my hands and the average 1% descent all the way back to the city ticked by at around 30km per hour into a slight headwind. With around 10km to go a minibus drew alongside and in it were several of the people I had eaten with at the summit. They cheered and clapped me on my way and sped off. Suddenly, in the distance, I could see the grandstand of the circuit and felt tears welling up, the culmination of 4 months of training and sacrifice. I told myself to save it for the finish, got my head down and nailed it. I pulled into the compound completely overwhelmed to the cheers and applause of a remarkably small group of people. I unclipped, grabbed a drink, got my carnet stamped and went to see what was happening in front of the tent. It turned out to be the prize giving ceremony for the top 10 finishers, hosted by the dashing British Ambassador to Morocco. The first 8 over the line were local Moroccans and then there were 2 Brits. Once the formalities were over I shamelessly asked for a photo with him and we had a great chat where he asked me to describe just how hard it had been. I’ve tried above folks but unless you were there you’ll never know.
“It turned out that there had been quite a few cases of hypothermia and even hospitalisations for the least fortunate. The guys in the minibus and many others, had been rescued off the mountain. I still don’t know my exact finishing position but of those who set out on the full 140km distance less than 20 finished. I think I was in the top 12 and better still, though don’t quote me on this, thanks to you all, one of the largest individual fundraisers. As another Englishman once said; “It’s been emotional.”