Atlas Mountain Cycling Race – Whitewater
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I was coasting downhill when another rider flew past me. My competitive fire was reignited and roaring, as if someone had doused gasoline on a spark. There was no way in hell this rider was going to finish before me.

The sun rose slowly over the martian landscape. Everything was silent — the only sounds to be heard were my tires crunching along the path and my labored breathing as I climbed out of a deep canyon. I had already ridden my fully loaded mountain bike 150 miles through the first night of an 850-mile ultra cycling race.

Just 12 hours earlier, I had lined up with 250 cyclists from all over the world for the Atlas Mountain Race in Morocco. The 850-mile route would traverse through the Atlas Mountains to the coastal town of Essaouira. My goal was to not only be the fastest woman across the line but in the top 10 overall.

The race had set off into busy city traffic, heading straight for the mountains. Due to record-breaking rainfall, the race had been delayed 24 hours, and we were routed away from the famous off-route pass and onto a 7,234 ft tarmac climb, over the pass Tizi n’Tichka.

After hours of climbing, I descended into the first checkpoint sometime in the middle of the night. It was a frenzy with other racers getting their brevet cards stamped to show the time they arrived. While there, I saw a few other women.The women’s race would be tight, but it was still early, with plenty of time to duke it out in the next 100 hours of racing.

Within a few minutes of departing, we encountered the strongest winds I’ve ever experienced – so severe, the wind almost knocked me off my bike several times. A few riders had to walk, unable or afraid to push through the 30-50 mph gusts.

Eventually, we escaped the wind. In the early hours of the morning, aside from the occasional hello when passing each other, riders were quiet. I started to get into a flow, cruising along the type of technical descents that I dream about at night. One by one, I started picking off the riders who started out too hard, each pass sparking my competitive fire.

Shortly after sunrise I pulled out my toothbrush to freshen up. Nothing like some fresh breath in the morning! The heat of the day set in, and soon I was ready for a proper resupply where I could up my fluids, calorie intake, and vibes. Quick-prepared food is hard to come by in Morocco, so omelets are the go-to for time-conscious racers. I spent more time at that first resupply than I should have, ogling at a shelf full of snacks I’d never seen before.

Little did I know that until this point I had actually been in the lead, but I had just been passed by Nathalie Baillon, who chose to skip the resupply. I caught her quickly only to realize there was a knee-deep river crossing between us. Wet shoes are my nightmare, so I took them off and crossed the river barefoot, carrying my bike on my back. We both scurried to put on our socks over wet and muddy feet, each hoping for an advantage over the other. Who knows what we were thinking — with 650 miles of racing left, the race certainly wasn’t going to be won in the time it took us to clean off our feet and don our shoes again.

The battle continued as we went back and forth in the scorching heat of the desert, climbing up mountain ridges into the abyss over and over again. As I approached the base of a sheer mountainside, in a direction that to me looked like a dead end, I kept asking myself, “where the hell am I going, and how am I going to get over the next incline?”

The route took a sharp turn up what looked like a goat trail. Time to hike with my bike! I was sweating bullets and only three quarters of the way up when Nathalie passed me like I was going backwards. We exchanged a short “hello” and she was almost out of sight within a minute. My mind was racing, “WHAT, HOW, I DON’T UNDERSTAND. THAT WAS INSANE.” I managed to limp up the final bit of the climb, enjoying a short descent only to find myself off my bike and hiking again. I was defeated, under fueled, and on the edge of a breakdown. I sat to eat some dry biscuits and sobbed on the side of the trail. After a few minutes I picked myself back up and willed my way forward to get to the next resupply before dark.

The next four hours were a slog. My motivation was low and spirits were even lower. My competitive fire was all but extinguished, and I still had 600 miles to the finish. How would I make it there in the condition I was in?

This was a crucial point in the race for me. I was focusing on the other women instead of myself, and it had taken a toll on me. I needed to race my own race, no one else’s. I spent the next 48 hours on a tear. I took the lead shortly after that point and kept it for the remainder of the race.

I was in my own groove, taking care of myself and resupplying with plenty of time to eat as much as I could take in, occasionally two omelets in one sitting. I’m not a big fan of eggs. Eating the omelets was possibly more of a challenge to me than the race itself.

Another 24 hours later, I had a comfortable lead, with the next woman 40 miles behind me. Now it was time to get to the finish and pick off as many men as I could. After all, I was here to compete against everyone!

The middle of the race became a blur, but one moment that stands out to me is when I started to fall asleep while climbing the Moroccan Stelvio. It was one of the longest climbs, with an endless number of switchbacks. As I ascended I would occasionally nod off. I’ve been here before, experienced this sort of sensation. But this time I started to panic. I had fears of riding off of the edge of the road, down the cliffside. Normally, I would stop and find a safe spot to take a 5 minute nap. There was no “safe” place to stop. My panic started to develop into a full blown attack. I sat on the side of the road and willed myself to meditate. I focused on controlling my breathing and slowing my heart rate so I could continue to a safe place to sleep. After a few minutes, I was up on my bike and found a flat area in the woods where I could take a proper rest. I woke up about an hour later and continued on my way, determined to get to the finish line.

At one of the final resupplies, I was invited by the shopkeeper to have tea. Mint tea is a ceremonial experience that is an honor to be included in. The shopkeeper provided the most wonderful fresh baked bread, and we enjoyed each other’s company, even though we could not communicate. He even asked to take a selfie with me. I grabbed a few items, including an apple.

Shortly after leaving the shop, I came across two donkeys in the road. I stopped and offered one of them my apple, and it ate the entire thing within 30 seconds. I couldn’t believe these donkeys were out and about and that they came up to me to say hi — was I hallucinating? It’s experiences like these that drive me to compete and explore the world around me.

Buoyed by this encounter, I was content on rolling it into the finish. I was coasting downhill when another rider flew past me. My competitive fire was reignited and roaring, as if someone had doused gasoline on a spark. There was no way in hell this rider was going to finish before me. I sped up, and we raced the climb. He looked back a few times, and all I could think was “I will never relent.” I was riding faster than I had the entire race, and eventually he was unable to hold the pace. I powered through and arrived at the finish line just a few minutes before him to a crowd of finishers and race volunteers. What a special moment that was!

I’m proud to have finished in first place for the women’s field and 15th overall, finishing 844 miles in 4 days and 19 hours. While my competitive drive and fire pushes me during the races, it’s the experiences and memories formed along the way that I look back on and keep me coming back for more.

Cynthia is an ultra endurance cyclist & seeker of adventure based in Virginia. Follow along Cynthia’s endeavors on her website or on Instagram @watt_wagon.

Words by Cynthia Carson, Photos by Nils Laengner & Gavin Kaps.