Bringing the Atlas Mountain Race to life: How to plan (for) an ultra-endurance cycling event

We chat with the Race organizer, Nelson Trees, race entrant Jenny Tough, and komoot’s event partnership manager, Betty Achrainer, about how an ultra-distance cycling race goes from idea to reality.

The Atlas Mountain Race follows a spectacular route linking Marrakech with Agadir via 715-mile (1150 kilometers) mostly off-road route with over 65,000 feet (20,000 meters) of climbing. It is the route itself, which includes forgotten colonial gravel roads or ‘pistes,’ as well its unique location in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, which sets this race apart.

Riders will line up at the start line on Saturday 15 February, when all the preparation and planning ahead of the race will be put to the test. But what kind of planning and preparation actually happen to bring an event like this to life?

The race organizer, Nelson Trees

Nelson is the brains behind the Silk Road Mountain Race in Kyrgyzstan, and now the Atlas Mountain Race too. After chatting to a pair of SRMR finishers, the seed for the AMR was born. 

Sowing the seed for a new ultra-endurance race

“I got talking to two participants who really enjoyed the [Silk Road Mountain Race] and insisted that I should organize another one in Morocco. They then sent me brochures and guide books on 4×4 tracks as inspiration. After doing some research I came to agree with them that it would be a great location. They’re actually racing the first edition of AMR now – not that they have much choice given that the idea came from them!”

“Nothing is left to chance, everything is from on-the-ground GPS recordings.”

So with the location earmarked, how do you bring an event like the Atlas Mountain Race to life? Nelson says he always begins with the route, “We spent a long time researching old forgotten colonial gravel roads or ‘pistes,’ as well as some that have been built more recently. We then came out to scout the route over several trips. Nothing is left to chance, everything is from on-the-ground GPS recordings. Having spent time on the ground we also updated what we had originally planned, switching out some sections for hidden gems that we only found when we got here. The entire section through CP2 was actually found when we were trying to reach somewhere else!”

A checklist for planning a successful and safe event

From there it’s about looking at what’s required to make it happen: “Are there authorizations required? What do we need to put in place in case of emergency? Can we rely on local emergency services? Are there any logistics we could put in place to make riders’ lives a little easier? Being able to pick up a small bag of belongings at the finish line and get a change of clothes is a big plus. The most important part in getting all this done though is having the right people involved. I’m lucky to have people close to me that help out a lot, be it my family or partners like PedalED and komoot who get much more involved than simply signing a cheque or posting some pictures.” 

At the end of the day, Nelson’s goal is to create an experience that riders will remember for a long time. An experience that provides them with abilities and confidence that they can apply to their life beyond cycling. 

The “Why?”

He admits he’s focused on the midpack riders who are pushing past what they thought were their limits, doing something they had never done before, be that bivying in a ditch, having their biggest ever day on the bike, or maybe just not washing for a week straight. 

Nelson says it’s because the race is tough that participants come out to race in the first place, and it’s making it through to the end that stays with them. So what will make the inaugural Atlas Mountain Race a success in Nelson Trees’ eyes? It’s the riders’ commentary at the end as they ride over the finish line dusty, sweaty and exhausted: “I’ll be happy with something along the lines of, ‘Damn that was tough, thanks.’” 

The race participant, Jenny Tough

Jenny Tough is an ultra-endurance runner and rider with a lot of experience to her name. She’s ridden the Transcontinental Race, the Silk Road Mountain Race, and run self-supported west to east across the Atlas Mountains. So what appealed to her about the Atlas Mountain Race? 

“To be honest, I mostly just wanted to ride my bike somewhere amazing with some cool people. The ultra bikepacking scene is a fairly niche tribe, and I’ve made some amazing friends at the events I’ve participated in.”

Training…or not?

In terms of her preparation for the race, you could argue that her years of solo adventures have set her up well for the start line of the Atlas Mountain Race 2020: “I’m pretty dialed in with packing the bike, having done it a few times by now. I have an old checklist for bivvying and bikepacking that I’ll pull out and make sure I’ve got everything, and if I find the time I’ll even do a test pack on the bike before I fly to make sure it all fits!” 

Planning for the unknown

Despite her experience riding in ultra-endurance bikepacking events, and having her set-up dialed in, the Atlas Mountain Race still represents plenty of unknowns, “…I really don’t know what to expect on the AMR! One thing that is weighing on my mind is that there are still many corners of Morocco where it’s fairly difficult to be a solo woman, and I’m a little wary of how that will be in a race where I’ll inevitably be riding and camping late at night. I had some troubles with that on my solo run two years ago, and I’m not sure how it will go in the race (at least there are nearly 200 other cyclists around this time!).

“My approach will be all about making good choices and keeping myself moving.”

While her experience riding and running in other events can’t prepare her for everything, it does mean that she’s had plenty of opportunities to get her head in the game, and for Jenny it’s not about winning:

“I just want to put in a clean run and get to Agadir before the cutoff. My approach will be all about making good choices and keeping myself moving. Maintain the bike, listen to my body, stay positive. I’m not here to win, but putting in the best ride I’m capable of and finishing is very important to me.”

The komoot product team, Betty Achrainer

Komoot is the official routing partner for the Atlas Mountain Race 2020, so how do we work with Nelson Trees to get the route up to date on komoot? 

Of the route planning process, Betty says, “At the heart of everything is getting the route planned accurately on komoot, checking every meter to ensure it follows the exact roads and trails Nelson had in mind. Some roads were missing on the komoot map, and surface details were displayed inaccurately in some places so we went into OpenStreetMap, our map source, to update it. 

For Nelson – like for all race directors – the safety of his riders is key.

To make the route easier to sync with GPS devices most riders will be using, we broke the AMR route into stages using komoot Premium’s multi-day planner feature. We added each Tour to a Collection, with route descriptions of the route, and heads up as to where riders may be able to stock up on food and where to find the checkpoints.

When the route is ready and uploaded to komoot, we send it out to riders so they can familiarise themselves with the route and sync it with their Wahoo or GPS. The Collection also acts as a clear overview of the race route which can be shared with friends and family and even used by other adventurous riders who want to plan their own bikepacking adventure through the Atlas Mountains.”

For Nelson – like for all race directors – the safety of his riders is key. Betty works closely with Nelson to ensure the routing and road conditions are as accurate as they can be, so participants don’t have to worry about finding the way, instead focusing their energy on riding. 

Check out the official route Collection on komoot. You might even get inspired to ride the route yourself like these friends did.