The Marrakech Atlas Etape is one of the newer sportives in the world – the first was in 2013 – and I was determined to take part early.
For me there were several pluses to the event, mainly Morocco itself. It was a chance to visit a kingdom that I’d long admired from afar. It also meant that flights were inexpensive (I went from Stansted to Marrakech for less than £50 return) as was the entry fee, a pretty reasonable €80.
The Etape takes place in the Atlas Mountains near Marrakech. It’s a climb up to the ski station at Oukaïmeden, which in itself came as a happy surprise. There are four routes to choose from, ranging from 60km to 140km, and the rise in altitude is a whopping 2129m, more than any climb in the Tour de France.
I’d chosen to take on the 104km route as I was slightly worried about how I’d cope in the heat of Morocco on such a climb – training on wet British winter evenings wasn’t an ideal form of acclimatisation – and as I stood at the start of the race, with the temperature already pushing 20°C, looking up at the mountains under clear blue skies I was glad I’d made that choice. Then we were off.
There were around 200 other riders attempting the Marrakech Atlas Etape: some locals, others like me having flown in specially for the event. We set off and soon the gradient began to separate the riders. I found myself towards the front of the peloton, and the jockeying for position kept me occupied for the first thirty kilometres till we got to the staging point at Ourika.
From there it was literally one long climb to Oukaïmeden; thirty-five kilometres without a level piece of road. This was a thigh and lung burner and soon had the riders strung out. I’d given up all thought of challenging for the lead and was just happy to take it at my own pace. I was within three or four kilometres of the top when I saw the first people whiz past me on the descent, a prospect that at this point looked distinctly appealing. Finally I made it to the top and for the first time really appreciated the views, had my Marrakech Atlas Etape card stamped to say I’d been, picked a few pieces of fruit from the large spread on offer, filled up my water bottles and began the descent.
Going downwards was an exercise in concentration. The unending slope allowed me to reach speeds that meant a constant battle between nerves and brakes – at one point my Garmin showed that I was travelling at 50kph – but it was a fantastic ride, and when I finally rolled across the finish line I was still buzzing with excitement.
The Marrakech Atlas Etape is a fantastic sportive, challenging enough that you’ll feel a sense of satisfaction once you conquer it, and the fun and friendly atmosphere means no-one takes it over-seriously. The organisation is great, the scenery is stunning, and what’s more it’s for charity. This is an event I’m definitely going to be doing again.