10 Lessons Learned from the Atlas Mountain Race

There’s no escaping the fact that the Atlas Mountain Race is one of the toughest challenges in the world of endurance racing. Circumnavigating nearly 1,400 kilometres through the High Atlas mountains of Morocco, this year, the racers had to battle with sub-zero conditions and snow in many places, making it harder than ever. Tailfin R&D Division riders Justinas Leveika and Seb Breuer ‘enjoyed’ a fairly successful race, finishing second and third, respectively, in a massively stacked field of racers.

We caught up with both of them after enjoying a day of recovery in the finishing town of Essaouira to find out what their overall impressions were of the race and what they both learnt from the experience.

Atlas Mountain Race

1. Nothing will come easy. You have to earn it. 

All the mountain summits, all those beautiful vistas; they all are hard-earned just getting there, and most certainly not on the easiest road possible! You will sometimes (often!) wonder why did he (Nelson trees, AMR organiser) have to choose this washed-out, terrible road? Where could it possibly lead to? But when you get there – you will understand.

2. Be prepared

This race is not rider friendly. The so-called scratch rate is big. This is why it’s so rewarding to have your name amongst the finishers. You have to do your homework and know what to pack, how much and what to expect. In all honesty, you should probably expect everything. From snow in the mountains to heat in the valleys. Alongside long distances without resupplies and a very low average speed. 

3. Omelettes

I hope you like eggs! It’s probably the only warm food that you can expect on the race route. I like mine with surprises, so I usually ask whoever is cooking it to add something; I got everything from vegetables to sardines and almost everything between.

4. Mint tea is your new Coke. 

Just like omelettes, mint tea is served everywhere and with a lot of sugar. That gives you kinda the same kick as Coke would. And warms you up too.

5. Snickers bars, what are those?

The pastry game is very weak in Morocco. Yes, they have plain bread, which is served with everything, but that’s about it. Don’t expect muffins, croissants or other goodies at shops; sadly, most of the snacks there are very low on calories. The good news is yoghurt, high in protein and fats, can be found everywhere, just like the mint tea. 

6. It’s better to be over-biked than under-biked. 

Full suspension will make you enjoy the route more. This year’s winner, Robin Gemperle, rode a lightweight Scott Spark full-suspension bike.  A hardtail with front suspension is, in my opinion, a racy choice. And if you choose a gravel bike – you really like to put yourself through the pain.

7. Take your time at checkpoints.

The mandatory checkpoints during the Atlas Mountain Race are a very safe bet to get everything you need. Providing plenty of food, a safe place to sleep, and even a shower. The problem with AMR is that the distance between the checkpoints can sometimes be pretty huge – It can be more than one day from one to the next and with no guarantee of resupply stops being open in between (depending on what time of day you ride through).

8. Don’t get fooled by ‘just’ 160 km to the next CP.

The average speed in this race is very low. There is a lot of climbing involved, and the descents are not the type where you can relax. During most descents, you have to keep your concentration and can’t just fly down as you might on a normal trail ride. So when planning the route and resupply locations take a close look at the elevation profile and type of surface you’ll be riding on. 

9. Tyre choice is key

Technically the Atlas Mountain Race is a gravel race… but you can be very fooled by that. Yeah, there is a lot of what most people recognise as ‘gravel’, but there is also a lot of very rocky and rough ‘gravel’ that most people would class as a rocky MTB trail! You want your tyre pressure to be hard enough so you won’t puncture easily but not too hard, so you lose precious comfort. Most of the course is hard-packed gravel, so you want something easy rolling too. On my Trek hardtail, I ran 29×2.2″ mountain bike tyres.

10. Enjoy the views and the route

If you have travelled so far, why not enjoy it? Make it worth it. Meet the locals, take in the sights and smells of the small towns, and eat the omelettes and tagines. Observe the different culture and people. The Moroccan people are good people. I felt really safe out there, but I can only speak for myself, of course. The route provides some fantastic scenery, so take pictures with your eyes, take photos and really create those memories. 

1. Bike Choice is critical

The Atlas Mountains are something special. Rocky and sandy with lots of very rough donkey paths. Weeks before the race, I made the decision to take on Atlas with a hardtail mountain bike. For me, a mountain bike is a perfect choice regarding the terrain ridden and your comfort. For sure, a mountain bike with aerobars is a bit strange looking, but who cares if you are fast and comfortable in your position! This aspect is most important in order to conquer the 1338km long route.

2. Weather Preparation

Being prepared for whatever weather is thrown at you on the race is one of the most important parts of your planning. For me, there was no light-packing like I chose to run for Badlands last year (Ed: Seb won Badlands 2022). For Atlas, you need more than just some arm warmers. This edition of Atlas Mountain Race was even colder and with more snow than the two races before. The extreme weather conditions, temperatures from -7 to + 25°c, made it so extreme I decided to put some long thermal clothes into my AeroPack, along with thermal overshoes and some emergency blankets.

3. Give yourself space

You need to carry more of everything on Atlas; clothes, spares and food. So give yourself more packing space. This isn’t a race to use your smallest bags.

4. Culture

Don’t waste culture. The culture in Morocco is completely different to mainland Europe. The people are so unbelievably hospitable and helpful. Just sink into the way of life, you won’t regret it. Even more so if it’s cold and they serve you a hot omelette…

5. Starting Time

Starting at 6 pm was a hard difference to Badlands because I didn’t find any sleep the whole day before the start. The first long climb to the highest point of this race at 2600 metres is raced during the first night. Be prepared for some climbing when the sun goes down.

6. Re-Supply

Organise everything before you need to do it! There are just a few shops and most of the time they’re closed by night. Never skip a shop, even if your bags are full of food. You never know when your next snack stop will be.

7. Resting

Try to sleep inside because, at night, the Atlas Mountains are brutally cold. There are some nice hotels along the route. During my second night, I had to sleep outside in front of a gas station. I can tell you, this one was not so comfortable. Keep in mind to tell the owner of the hotel when you want to leave. Could be a problem if the door is closed and you can’t go.

8. Avoid Scratching

There are more lows than highs when racing the AMR, that’s for sure. But keep pedalling. Even if you are slow, keep moving and don’t stop for too long. Stopping for too long would finally destroy your rhythm completely, making it far too difficult to start again.

9. Walking

Ok, you signed up for the AMR thinking that it is a bike race. But trust me, you have to walk and run a lot. There are crazy downhills in snowy conditions, sandy sections or really steep mountains. Practice your hiking skills!

10. After-Race Tagine

Arriving at the finish line was a blast. After some sleep, wake up and enjoy the Moroccan kitchen. It’s amazing. As I said, don’t waste culture. Stay for some more days and discover the country.

Atlas Mountain Race