With climbs rougher and tougher than Alpe d’Huez, the Marrakech Atlas Etape lies at the more challenging end of the sportive spectrum.
For the second time, the Atlas Etape in Morocco — an event set up to raise funds for the charity Education For All — took place on the final weekend of April.
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The inaugural outing took place in a freezing chill, which meant riders had to be returned from the Oukaïmeden summit in a coach, since the hypothermic risk was too great. This time round, 12 months on, the mercury had risen to a sweltering 35°C.
Unlike most sportives, where participants are actively discouraged from racing, the organisers behind this event actively encouraged a competitive spirit — numbers are pinned on to cyclists’ backs. With a number pinned on, everyone thinks they’re Wiggo!
The climb to the ski resort of Oukaïmeden is 70km and rises to 2,624m above Marrakech, with a route that starts from the motor racing circuit on the outskirts of the dusty city streets.
The summit is over 1,000m higher than Alpee d’Huez, well over twice its length, and the lumpy surface makes the potholed tarmac of Britain feel like a billiard table.
Speeding through the route, I discovered I had a poorly timed case of ‘tagine tummy’ but pushed on regardless, picking my way through the peloton and making it into the front group, which seemed to contain the entire Moroccan national squad.
One of the national team pointed out where he lived as we sped by — at around 2,000m above sea level, which explained why he and his pals were spinning up the mountain while I laboured against the heat and unrelenting gradient.
The next move from the nationals was to ‘take someone out the back’ — a shrewd move designed to remove riders from the bunch. It plays out like this: you’re hanging on at the back of the group when you realise that the rider immediately ahead has allowed a gap to develop between him and the group; he then accelerates and you’re left in no-man’s land, unable to catch up. After having the same tactic inflicted on me for the fourth time, you could’ve stuck a fork in me — I was done.
I relented, and that was for the best, it transpired. Riding at my own pace, I was able to take in some of the most spectacular views I’ve ever seen. At the top, a traditional Moroccan spread consisting of nuts, apricots and pastries and mint tea awaited.
After a minute or two, it was time to press on home, back the way we came. It was a terrifying experience. Grippy roads going up mean rough, gnarled lanes on the descent, and I’d overlooked the concentration needed for 32km of it.
I made it down, but not without some hairy moments — one involved dodging a pothole the size of a child’s sandpit, the others involved motorists driving on my side of the road, horns blaring.
Like most events, the Marrakech Atlas Etape does offer shorter, out-and-back routes — 60km, 84km, 104km plus the full 140km. Would I do it again? No. Once was good, but once was enough!
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There isn’t much that’s comparable, but the ‘Giant of Provence’, Mont Ventoux, provides a similar, leg-bending challenge in terms of vertical gain.