Morocco is a geographical gem situated on the North western coast of Africa. The predominantly Muslim country is covered by a dry desert, highlighted by the magnificent Sahara but also contains a huge coastline and the grand Atlas mountains. On April 25th, 630 of us racers took charter flights from Spain to the town of Boumalne Dades, the start location of the 10th annual Titan Desert Stage race.
The Morrocan culture is special as the locals still go about there daily lives like they have for centuries, riding horses around, living off the land and fighting for a good life. Riding around the hills and gorges before the race was rad, getting a glimpse of the locals lives and the scenery was astounding with the contrast of the dry dessert backed by the snow capped Atlas mountains in the distance.
The Titan Desert organizations were rock solid from the get go with virtually everything dialed in as they registered all the racers with ease and hosted us in a wicked make shift village complete with traditional Haimas to sleep in, a large restaurant and even a bar with bean bags to lounge around in.
The six day race itself was intense, with Tour De France winners, National Champions, and a lot of the top European marathon racers in line to battle it out for the title of King Titan. Stage 1 started with a bang as riders were attacking all over the place as we tackled a 115 km stage, with 2650 M of vertical through the Atlas mountains. At the summit of the first mountain I was sitting just inside the top 10 before we hit a sketchy descent down a very steep and rugged mountain road. Five riders immediately blew by me, two of them I would pass later as they crashed hard into the ditch and another guy wrecked his wheel. These guys were kamikaze!
Holding my own I was riding near a couple dutch riders, including there national champ Bram Rood. We were taking the switch backs and staying on course like you do in a normal race. This was a bad tactic here as the Spaniards were cutting switchbacks, riding across open terrain and doing whatever they could to find the shortest way down the mountain. This would typically be called cheating, but at the Titan Desert the rules are different as they allow orienteering, all that is required is that the riders pass the four electronic check points everyday. Other than that its a free for all. It took us a while to adapt to this idea, and cost a fair bit of time, but soon we started playing there game. Mid way through the stage I was sitting in the mid twenties, getting demotivated and starting to see the race slip away. Questioning my fitness, the switch finally came on and I started firing on all cylinders as I fought back to the front of the race. Over the last 2 hours of the 5 hour race I cruised through the field, highlighted by dropping Óscar Pereiro who won the 2006 Tour de France. He was riding in the top 10 but was struggling up the final climb as I buzzed by and worked my way into the top 5 before running out of real estate and hitting the finish line.
It was a great ride, as the competition level was deep. Coming off a busy last couple weeks flying between Vietnam, Indonesia, California, Canada and Spain I was unsure of the fitness, but it appeared the legs were on fire and it was going to be a good week! Heading to my Haima for a post race nap I was in a peaceful state of mind, excited for the days to come, mapping out a strategy in my head to find a way to the top. As I leaned on my right arm getting into bed, it suddenly collapsed with a loud “pop!” Ah bugger, there goes the shoulder again. Unable to get it back into place I walked over to the medical tent, where it took 3 doctors a couple minutes of pulling and twisting to get it back in its socket. At one point they gave up, but then tried again, pulling even harder, as the alternative to get it back in place wasn’t ideal. It tickled so much I nearly cried. Putting the arm in a sling, they told me my race was over and that I would have to ride in the support vehicles for the rest of the week.
Waking up the morning of stage 2 after a rough sleep, I really didn’t want to become a race spectator and started to search for a way to keep riding. I understood the doctors didn’t want me riding so they wouldn’t have to deal with my arm again, but in reality they should’ve sent me out of camp if that is what they wanted as the arm is in the biggest danger off the bike doing normal things. In the past year the shoulder has come out three times, once getting out of a kayak, once getting out of a swimming hole in Australia, and once now going to bed in Morocco. As far as I am concerned, being on a bike is a safe place as long as I keep it up right! With this in mind I went to the organizers, got there permission to continue the race, then signed a waiver for the doctors. They were still reluctant so I had my Physio friend Jordi come and help explain the situation and after a lot of convincing was finally given my number plate back so I could keep racing. With just 20 minute till race start it was a race just getting to the start line but I made it with seconds to spare. I was planning to just ride the race at a nice tourist pace, but the riders in the mid pack were riding sketchy so I made my way up to the front were the pros were riding smoothly and much more safely. Here I felt safe and would finish the stage in the lead group, still holding onto a top 5 in the overall GC.
Stage 3 was a gongshow with riders attacking all over the place as we headed over some small mountains with our backpacks on as we had to pack all our gear for the night as it was part of the Marathon stage. Unable to ride the rough sections fast enough to stay up in the front, it turned into a hard day of chasing as we road through some ancient villages and into the outskirts of the Sahara desert. It was a pretty flat day but the surrounding mountains were beautiful. This night was a gongshow too as they had two large tents set up for 600 of us riders.
Sleeping with 300 dirty bike racers, 95% of them being male isn’t what dreams are made of. Ear plugs and night shades can be used to block out some of the noise and light, but there was no solution for the smells. I slept on the edge of the tent with my head sticking out the underside of it, which actually lead to a solid sleep. Waking up in the morning getting ready for the race I found out someone had stolen my bike gloves off my bike over night. Either someone in the top 10 sabotaging my efforts, or some dork stealing my gloves cause he lost his. Getting to the start line I was further surprised when I realized I was pretty much the only guy in the lead pack that was still carrying his own stuff, as everyone else had hired teammates to be mules for them. This lit a fire inside and when the start gun went off I took off at the front of the race with two other riders.
The other guys chased but we all had strong legs and soon had a 30 second gap as we charged into the 98 km flat stage. The problem was that the lead vehicle kept changing course and there was little flagging. We soon started following the lead helicopter, who apparently had no idea where the course went and was just following us to take shots as we raced into no mans land. Hitting a highway a race official car finally caught up and directed us 90 degrees from where we had come from back on course. When the riders at the back saw what was going on they started cutting across the desert and soon we went from leaders to mid packers. From here the day collapsed as three flat tires would kill any more efforts of staying in contention for a top 5. Only having two tubes, this created a problem, and in the end over 1 hour and 15 minutes was lost on the day.
Stage 5 was the Garmin, navigational stage. The 102 km route was unmarked, all we had were the coordinates on our GPS’s of the four mandatory checkpoints and a couple feed stations. The day started off with a 4km stretch across the magnificent sand dunes which have become legendary in the race. My friend Milton Ramos from Honduras has been on the podium five times at Titan Desert but had unfortunately gotten sick on stage 1 and was unable to finish. Now out of the contention, he was still riding the stages for training. He told me to follow him on the start of this day as he is known as the Desert Fox and can manage the sand dunes better than anyone.
All the riders took off in one direction, we hung back so the leaders wouldn’t follow us and then we took 0ff in another direction, climbing over a small sand dune pass, through some bushes and then onto the huge dunes, as the other riders took the long way around. From here Milton took off as he seemed to float across the dunes on his tires with about 8 psi in them. Seeing his tactics I stopped and deflated my tires and was soon riding pretty well on the sand myself. We had a huge lead and were the first ones to the 1st checkpoint, the problem was that riding the dunes properly required a lot of crashing and hopping on and off the bike which I couldn’t manage properly with a shoulder that was suppose to be in a sling.
Having nightmares of having to go back to the angry doctors to have them fix my arm again I knew this wasn’t an option so raced across the dunes like a handicap that I was. Eventually some other riders caught up and soon I drifted back to the high teens as we got off the dunes and onto the final 85 km of the stage across the desert. It was a ridiculous day trying to find all the checkpoints, I wasn’t riding very fast but my navigational skills were working good. Meanwwhile the lead group of ten riders had big troubles and road around in circles trying to find all the checkpoints. It was a giant easter egg hunt, mixed in with some hard riding. This was also one of the most beautiful days of they race as we passed numerous oasis’s backed up against the giant Dunes and could see Algeria far off across the desert. At the end of the day the overall GC as shaken up really good as 7 of the top ten guys lost over an hour, with Colombian Diego Tamayo taking over the race lead. Motivated for a good last stage I went to bed early this night but was soon woken by bed bugs at 11pm, it was a sleepless night as I scratched myself and ran between my Haima and the showers. Eventually I crawled into my bivi sac on the edge of the camp and found a bit of rest before morning light.
Stage 6 was only 65 km long and pancake flat as we raced across a moon like landscape. At the start the Dutch Champ Bram Rood attacked and road the first 10 km of the race off the front in 16 minutes. It was a hard day as we all chased, when we got past the checkpoint it got even more insane as we were told that three riders had already passed it four minutes before us. Huh??, 10 km in 12 minutes on mountain bikes!? How come none of us saw these riders take off? Rumour has it the three riders had signed in for the race and then road off into a town to hide before the race started, giving them a big advantage. In the end the leaders of the real race would catch two of these guys, but one of them would end up winning the stage by seven seconds. I’m not sure what occurred there but it was clearly monkey business. I left it for the other riders to figure it out as my race was well done at that point and I was stoked to finish without having to re-visit my Doctor friends.
The post race party was a grand show as we hung out in the giant courtyards of a nice hotel, watching race videos, awarding the winners, and getting served a five course Morrocan meal highlighted with a lamb Tangine, which is sheep roasted with prunes in a clay pot and a nice broth. It was a long evening as the Spanish really know how to prolong an event as they served up one course every hour starting at 9PM. All in all it was a stellar finish to a crazy week. Morocco is a special country and the race is a gem as it combines stiff competition, orienteering, adventure, and challenging tracks. To win this thing it takes a lot of skill and fitness with some luck mixed in. I have my fingers crossed I’ll get a chance to come back for redemption one day!
Now is recovery time as I figure out the next course of action with my damaged shoulder. Resting up in the Spanish mountains at my friends Willy Mulonias house in Navacerrada just north of Madrid is a great base to make a plan and get recovered from the African adventure.
Huge thanks to the Titan Desert organization for inviting me over to there race and to my title sponsor Kona for getting my bikes and gear ready for this trip!