Gravel riding has grown fast. From humble origins as a niche part of the cycling community, it has now become a huge cultural phenomenon spawning a renewed love affair with cycling for many a rider suffering from road fatigue.
Though originally founded in the US, gravel today is not only an American thing. Like the Americans, cyclists around the world have discovered that their journey does not have to end just because the tarmac does. So, whether you’re a Weekend Warrior chasing trails in the nearby woods, or you throw yourself in at the deep end with gravel races like the Trans Continental Race, the Silk Road Race or the Atlas Mountain Race, there is certainly plenty of adventure ahead.
Participating in the Atlas Mountain Race is perhaps not the first thing you do as a newcomer to gravel riding. Photographer Nils Laengner and former pro cyclist Nico Keinath are certainly not newbies on the gravel scene, and together they are a fine example of how a race like the Atlas Mountains Race can be enjoyed on different levels. Nico Keinath came to Morocco to participate in the race while Nils Laengner captured the event as an official photographer.
Their journey started in Lisbon and ended in Marrakech, a trip of 1800km. For their journey, GripGrab supported Nils and Nico with the essential accessories needed for an adventure of this kind, where temperatures ranged from very hot to super cold over only a few hours in the desert landscape of the Atlas Mountains.
We hooked up with Nils and Nico to hear how their adventure to Marrakech went.
GRIPGRAB (GG): HOW DID THE IDEA COME ABOUT THAT YOU WOULD RIDE TO THE ATLAS MOUNTAIN RACE?
NILS LAENGNER & NICO KEINATH (NL & NK):
NK: To be honest, it was rather coincidental. I was planning a bike trip in winter and didn’t want to fly halfway around the world. Portugal, southern Spain and Morocco were all places I hadn’t seen before, but they are very enjoyable in winter, so it seemed like a good call. I had booked my flights before I even knew about the race.
I then heard about it and, since I had wanted to try out something like that for quite some time, I thought it’s destiny that I am in the right area at the right time – I decided to register.
Nils and I met at the Redhook Crit in New York two years ago and got along well immediately. We met regularly at races afterwards, but there is never much spare time, so it was on our mind to do a trip together. Right at the time I had decided to register for the race, Nils had a job in Berlin and stayed at my place for some days. One thing led to another and we decided to do the trip together. I got a spot in the race and Nils was booked as photographer, so 3 months later we met again – this time in Lisbon.
GG: FOR AN ADVENTURE OF THIS KIND HOW DID YOU PREPARE YOURSELF BOTH MENTALLY AND PHYSICALLY?
NK: I didn’t spend too much time on my bike last year until I decided to race, so I simply tried to ride as much as possible. However, with a full-time job it’s difficult to get a lot of kilometres done in winter– especially if you don’t like to ride inside on a trainer, which I don’t. Training indoors for an adventure in nature seems wrong to me, even if it probably makes sense from a physical point of view. I tried to get some longer rides done at the weekends, and during the week I did my everyday sports: CrossFit- and gymnastics. Over Christmas I did some bigger rides, but the main preparation was the trip itself. I had done tours like that before and knew if you start ‘kind of’ fit you will get stronger over time, and so I did. The same goes for mental preparation. Knowing that I would be on a tour for 3 weeks before the race took away almost all my worries. It turned to be great preparation. I got used to riding my bike every day again, and to riding through different countries – physically as well as mentally.
I tried to stay positive and told myself that it was my own choice, and if I wasn’t enjoying myself, I should probably not waste my holidays on it. It turned out that I did enjoy it. Of course, not every minute on a trip like this, especially during the race, is enjoyable, but a few hours after a difficult period everything seems better again. Knowing this helped me through those mental and physical lows.
NL: Over the last months before the tour I did a lot of trail running and half marathons, but, as soon as I booked the flights, I started riding my bike. My focus was on building up to long distances and my ability to sit on the saddle.
Mentally, it helped me a lot that Nico and I talked about what to expect from each other and the ride. It also helped that we work well together in terms of humour, diet, sleep, and fitness level.
GG: PLEASE TELL US ABOUT SOME OF THE DIFFICULTIES YOU EXPERIENCED.
NL & NK: There weren’t any major difficulties. Of course, there were challenges when it came to roads we chose, or terrain we climbed, but not when it came to travel. Like on every bike trip, traffic is one of the main annoyances and dangers. Mostly we rode on smaller roads and paths, but there were also sections and situations which were quite bad. There were some minor issues with kids who didn’t welcome us to their villages but yelled at us instead. Since we were mostly amazed by the kindness of the people in Morocco, we want to emphasize that those situations were rare.
GG: WHAT WHERE THE HIGH POINTS OF THE ADVENTURE AND WHAT WERE THE LOW POINTS?
NL: This is a difficult question for me. Each day was spectacular in its way. But two moments stand out for me – in the first one, Nico and I decided to ride a 30km section on the beach. It started pretty rough with deep and loose sand but after a while we could enjoy this route and were thankful to be there. The second one was when we got into the High Atlas. We had spent quite some time on the bike already that day and it got dark and cold. I got really tired, but Nico motivated me to climb the last pass and on the final descent we saw our shelter at the very bottom. As soon as we arrived, we started a fire right next to a beautiful lake. This moment was everything. I was happy to have made it and to do what I love.
NK: I agree on the beach, that was a great part of the trip. I also really enjoyed the remoteness of Morocco. When we cycled into the higher mountains there were fewer and fewer people and the landscape stayed impressive for several days. Many great situations are hard to describe but they have stayed in my mind. After we had passed the highest mountain, at almost 3000m, we descended into the darkness and suddenly a small Auberge popped up at the side of the road which we didn’t expect to be there, with a very hospitable family. I also really liked our many stops at local restaurants.
I guess my low is that it seems like there is never enough time on a bike trip. We had an ambitious schedule to reach Marrakech in time. It would have been nice to occasionally spend more time in one place. But then we would have had to shorten the route and miss certain places. Vicious circle.
GG: WOULD YOU CONSIDER PARTICIPATING AGAIN OR HAVE YOU GOT OTHER PLANS FOR SIMILAR ADVENTURES?
NK: Absolutely. I planned to do the Silk Road Mountain Race this summer in Kyrgyzstan, although it seems like I have to postpone it to 2021 due to Corona. Currently it’s difficult to plan anything but I guess there will be some shorter trips this summer. There are some other races I would like to do in the future too, but I think for me it won’t be only racing, but rather a mix of touring and racing like we did this winter.
NL: I won’t race those events, but I would consider riding those routes with Nico, by myself, or with another person. I am not the biggest fan of competing as it keeps me from enjoying the landscape and people.
GG: WHAT WOULD YOUR BEST ADVICE BE TO SOMEONE WHO DECIDED TO TRY AND PARTICIPATE IN A RACE LIKE THE ATLAS MOUNTAIN RACE?
NK: For the Atlas Mountain Race I would say: don’t underestimate how difficult it is. It’s an off-road race – you can call it gravel, MTB, or whatever but you should know that you’ll travel very slowly, often over rough terrain. At least from the perspective of a roadie like me, it’s not the smooth gravel roads you might be used to.
NK: But at the same time, if you are interested, do try it out! I think the most important thing is to focus on the basics. You need a bike, you need to be fit and you need to get along with the environment around you. There is a lot of talk about the equipment you need and the money you need to spend to be able to participate. You need a solid bike and solid equipment but nothing more. Most of the mechanical problems I saw were with rather expensive and lightweight parts. I had a heavy setup because I wasn’t sure what I needed, and I was really happy with it. 5kg on your bike will not be the reason you finish or not. I think the best thing to do, if you have the time, is to get to the race location early and figure out how everything works. How is the food, what are the people like, are there any cultural issues you should consider, etc. In the end, you can’t plan everything, so it is important to me to be comfortable with where you are.
Long story short: don’t take it too easy but don’t drive yourself too crazy either!
GG: CYCLING AND PHOTOGRAPHY HAVE ALWAYS BEEN CLOSE AFFILIATES, AND IT’S SOMETHING WE VALUE HIGHLY AT GRIPGRAB. YOUR PHOTOES INCLUDE SOME REMOTE, LONG-DISTANCE SHOTS IN THE DESERT OF ATLAS. HOW DID YOU MANAGE TO KEEP UP WITH NICO, WHO PARTICIPATED IN THE RACE, WHILE ALSO TRYING TO GET THE BEST SHOTS?
NL: Before starting out we had a conversation about how we wanted the trip to be. Since we had sponsors like GripGrab it was clear that we needed photos. We both agreed that if we saw something beautiful we would stop to appreciate the moment, not necessarily together and not always for taking a photo, but we always had our cameras on our backs ready to shoot. For example, we reached this nice looking serpentine – I told Nico to pass me and ride down the road and slow down. Once I had taken a photo of him we caught up again at an obvious point further on.
Another time I went a bit faster as I knew I wanted to take a photo of Nico. I hiked up a hill, waited for him, and took the photo.
Most of the time I just told him to continue riding as I didn’t want to interrupt his rhythm. As we didn’t have a plan to ride super-fast it was easy to talk about the next spot for a photo and how we wanted it shot. During the race I was able to ride in a car, so I was way more flexible. Each rider had a GPS tracker and that helped me to check where Nico was once in a while.
GG: GRIPGRAB SUPPLIED A VARIETY OF PRODUCTS FOR VARYING TEMPERATURES, HOW DID YOU DECIDE WHAT TO BRING AND WHICH WERE YOUR FAVOURITES?
We expected temperatures from 0°C to 25°C but had limited space in our bags, so there were some hard choices about what to take. We wanted to travel light but be warm enough, so we decided to take the Ride Windproof Hi-Vis Winter Glove and the RaceAqua X shoe covers for the colder hours. The GripGrab Arm and Legwarmers and Merino Baselayers kept us warm as well. Since we managed to ride quite a bit in the dark we appreciated the Hi-Vis gloves and the Hi-Vis Lightweight SL Socks a lot.
Luckily the weather was really good the entire month and we mostly used our Supergel Padded Short Finger Gloves.
Besides the gloves, the Merino Neck Warmer and the Merino lightweight Beanie became our favourite accessories. With the changing temperatures these were probably the items we used the most. It’s just amazing how a neck warmer and a beanie can make life more comfortable when you’re outside most of the time.
Nico also started using the short-sleeve Merino Baselayer instead of a Jersey as soon as it was warm enough.
In preparation for the trip and the race, during the German winter, we were really happy with all the deep winter equipment we got: the Winter Socks, and the Racethermo X Winter Shoe Covers made those long rides in bad weather a lot more enjoyable.