The Road to Marrakech

Words by Marin de St Exupéry. Pictures by Ariel Wojciechowski.

At the start of October, Marin de Saint-Exupéry won the Atlas Mountain Race and set a new course record. One of the most competitive races of the ultra distance calendar, the route crosses the Moroccan Atlas before taking riders through the Anti-Atlas and on to Agadir. Many of the roads have long been forgotten and fallen into disrepair.

Marin has ridden a lot of events in a short space of time. Silk Road Mountain Race, the Trans Pyrenees, the Trans Continental three times. He also set the record on the Hope 1000 course, and won Further Pyrenees in 2021. Spend a little time talking to Marin though, and the conversation moves past racing quickly. He is an unassuming rider, just 25 years old, and it’s hard not to be inspired by the way he lives his life around the bike. He spends his time working as a bicycle messenger for most of the year, and then takes time off to race. For the Silk Road Mountain race, he decided to ride the whole way to Kyrgyzstan to take part. For the Atlas Mountain Race this year, in his own quiet way, he mentioned he would do the same. Preferring to take the ‘no fly route’, he instead rode the 1700 km across the Alps and through Morocco, to take part in the race. It sounded like an inspiring choice, but definitely not the way to win races at this level.

We caught up with Marin, fresh from his win, as he travelled on a bus home from the race.

 

In Marin’s words:

It all started in Switzerland, only one month after I had come back from the Transcontinental race. I had just started to kind of recover, before I was already packing my bags again.

The Atlas Mountain Race had been delayed for two years. From the beginning, the goal was to cycle from home in Switzerland to the start of the race in Morocco. I did this previously in 2019, to take part in the Silk Road Mountain Race in Kyrgyzstan. Back then, the idea was to go for a ‘no fly’ ride to the event and experience an incredible journey, so I took 3 months off. First to cycle 8,000 kilometres through Eurasia, then to race the Silk Road Mountain Race. For Morocco, the timing of the race changed due to covid, so I only had one month this time. Not enough time to cross the whole length of Spain, so I chose to take a boat from Marseille to Tangier.

I left home on the 12th of September. You could feel the first fruits of fall, and it rained in the Alps. I find the easiest way is rarely the best way, so I choose to take the side paths rediscovering parts of those mountains. I am on familiar ground there. Chamonix, Chartreuse, Vercors, Drôme, Alpilles… Once I reached Marseille I jumped on a boat for Tangier, a two day traverse, and a well deserved opportunity to rest after an exhausting first 5 days on the bike.

Landing in the north of Morocco, I didn’t have any idea of what I was going to face. My level of preparation was next to nothing, but that’s the way I like to discover things, by surprise. A GPX track on my computer, going as much as possible through hills, mountains and gravel roads while still heading in the direction of Marrakech. We were far from the tourist path there. The land has suffered from the lack of water. Burnt forest and desert-like fields. I am a stranger here and I appreciate local hospitality, welcoming but not heavy. I got to learn local phrases, to try local food. My stomach became acclimatised, and I drank tap water without any issue. I got used to the heat. I know how all those details matter when racing.

I am pretty exhausted when I make it to Marrakech, having spent more hours on the saddle than I should have before a race like this. I have 3 days to rest and I try to make the most of it. It’s the end of the season and it’s been really short since Transcontinental so I don’t know what to expect. There is a strong plateau of racers here, some well established names along with some strong outsiders and it brings a lot of excitement to the race. The race is 1,164 kilometres long on pretty challenging terrain. Off road, full of rocks, in mountains and through deserts.

From the beginning it started full gaz and I am a bit more conservative knowing the race should be almost 4 days long. I don’t believe I am the strongest here as I miss some fresh legs, so I try to make the most of the experience. I can’t ride as fast as I would like but despite those struggles I manage to focus and get into my zone.

The race is going crazy fast, Justinas Leveika is pushing it, going through deep sleep deprivation. He starts to make mistakes, takes a wrong turn, falls several times and ends up having to scratch. I have the opposite strategy. Sleep at least an hour and half every night, try to avoid mistakes, take it easy on downhills, ride easy under heat. I know I am really far from my best shape and I can’t make a difference while pushing the pedals, but I manage to stay in front of the race. It pays off on the third night as I take the lead, basically being the last man standing in front, after Philippe Vuilloud destroyed his tyre on the infamous colonial road – undoubtedly the crux of the race, about 50 kilometres on an old destroyed piste full of rocks.

But there is no time to rest, I know that right behind me Jochen Böhringer is chasing. He is more or less 2 hours behind, a small gap after such a long race. Right up until the end the race keeps going. I make it by 3am followed two hours later by Jochen. There is a second group of three battling all night. In the morning Rodney Soncco took third, Christophe Dijkmans fourth, and Steven Le Hyaric fifth. Having raced with all of those amazing people has definitely been one of the best parts of the experience.

It has now been just over a month since I left home, the race has been finished for several days, and I am now seated in a bus on my way back. It’s difficult to concentrate because of loud Moroccan rap music, calls to prayer, hawkers and a strong smell of deodorant. But I am getting used to this. I bought my bus ticket at a reasonable price after an efficient negotiation. I should be in Tangier by this evening, on the boat by tomorrow, and at home in three days. It has been a long journey for a 3 day, 18 hours and 14 minutes race. But that’s great, it gives it even more value.

Overall, I am pretty proud to demonstrate how performance can sit alongside respect for the environment. Cycling is an amazing sport, but let’s not forget that a bicycle is a tool first. It’s been a long and incredible journey. I couldn’t have expected it to turn out in a better way.

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