Atlas Mountain Race: Interview With Jenny Tough and Sofiane Sehili
The inaugural Atlas Mountain Race was won last week by our ambassadors Jenny Tough and Sofiane Sehili in 6 days, 3 hours and 13 minutes, and 3 days, 21 hours and 50 minutes respectively. We sat down with Jenny and Sofiane to find out about the impressive rides behind the numbers.
The Atlas Mountain Race is one of the earliest races in the calendar, how did you approach training through winter?
JT: Being race-fit for February turned out to be a lot harder than I thought. I guess the big advantage was that I was accustomed to riding in the dark and in serious discomfort, which is how half of the AMR was, but I didn’t get any long rides in at all. I was really worried at how low my mileage had been leading up to the race, but I rode consistently several times a week, even if they were all shorter rides.
SS: As a bike messenger, I train pretty much year-round and barring any injuries, I’m generally in good shape. I kept active throughout December, trying to mix it up: bikepacking trips at mild intensity and full blast Sunday rides. In January I took advantage of a great weather window to go on a multi-day trip to Switzerland, with the last ride of that trip being 300km stage on somewhat hilly terrain. The goal is to make sure my body is ready to tackle these distances despite the fatigue of the previous days of riding. Then in February, I focused on resting and making sure when race time came, I’d be ready, without being tired.
How do you plan for an inaugural race like this? To what extent do you research the route or just ‘turn up and wing it’?
JT: I don’t like to over-do my research, because I’m motivated by the adventure. That’s why an inaugural race really excites me – we have no idea what’s going to happen. Knowing your resupply strategy was pretty key in this remote race, but outside of that I really didn’t know what was around the next corner. I know the Atlas well from an expedition a couple of years ago, so I guess I had the advantage of knowing what things are like out there anyway, like what to expect in the villages, what the weather is like, and how to find water etc.
SS: Lining up for inaugural races is a challenge. You don’t know what to expect in terms of how long its gonna take because nobody has done it before. It was my main concern for AMR. Anything above 4 days requires a different sleep strategy – and I was not willing to go there.
I did read the manual but that’s pretty much it. I didn’t do additional research, didn’t look at the course on Google earth, didn’t strategize the resupply. I just mentally got ready to suffer because a Nelson Trees race is not gonna be an easy race. Basically the only things I knew were that days could be really warm, nights could be really cold, water was sometimes scarce and a few times you’d have to ride 100km between resupplies.
Before an event, I always tell myself I should do my homework and research the route, but it’s a part of racing that I hate so much that I always end up procrastinating. Until it’s too late and the race starts without me having done any research at all.
But the way I see it, no matter how well you know the course, it doesn’t change the fact that you have to ride it. I don’t think it makes it easier. At least not for me.
There was a really mixed field of bikes – were you happy with your choice of bike and set up?
JT: On a race of this length, you are always going to have sacrifices in some areas. Obviously, on the techie descents I missed my mountain bike, but I chose my gravel bike because I know I can handle long hours in that riding position. She got me around the SRMR and the TAW, so I just felt more confident taking the bike I know so well. I might have liked bigger tyres, but overall I’m delighted with my bike choice.
SS: I can’t say I was 100% happy with my setup. I think a mountain bike was definitely the way to go but a rigid fork was not a good choice. If I were to do it again, I would definitely use a suspension fork and maybe get rid of the aerobars as I hardly used them. The trail is very rough and bumpy and I took beating after beating. I can’t imagine what the guys on gravel bikes went through.
There were so many stories of people having mechanical disasters. Did you have any mechanical – or other – major issues?
JT: I felt really good that I was holding everything together really well, but then I got a surprise period in the middle of nowhere, which was a total disaster as North Africa is one of the worst places in the world to get one (tampons can’t be purchased anywhere for cultural reasons). Basically, there were no pharmacies left on the course, there is hardly any running water or private toilets or any of the things I needed, so I had a few pretty awful days trying to come up with a solution.
I’ll spare you the details, but I think that cost me about half a day through having to stop so often, the cramps, saddle sores, and problems with heat regulation it causes. The hardest part was probably not resenting the male riders who didn’t have this kind of problem, so I never told anyone what was going on until the ride was done – I knew if I spoke up, I would start complaining and feeling negative.
SS: I had four punctures but luckily they all sealed and I managed to keep my tubeless setup. I just had to locate the hole, make sure enough sealant would go through and then reinflate the tire. Christian was not as lucky and lost the seal of his rear tubeless tire. Then it was puncture after puncture, because in this desert, pretty much everything has thorns.
Besides my punctures, I was lucky enough to have no mechanicals at all. I built my bike entirely by myself using tried and true components that I know are reliable. I’ve been using the same 10 sp SLX groupset for 6 years. There is nothing fancy or expensive on my bike but I know these parts will get the job done. Because they always have.
What other races was the route similar to?
JT: I’m pretty sure the AMR was harder riding (more technical), but I know that my SRMR memories are in a Type-2-Fun haze where all I can recall now are the fun parts. SRMR obviously requires a higher level of mountain and backcountry experience, has more challenging weather conditions, and goes to high altitude, but those parts are my main strength (it’s riding a bicycle that I struggle with – the other stuff I’m good at!), but the AMR still does put you in really remote areas. Being a shorter race, you’re also going ride a bit harder as you don’t have to last as long.
SS: The warm days followed by long cold nights were reminiscent of the Inca Divide. I enjoy night riding, but it is incredibly hard to ride through 12 hours of darkness. At some point you feel like the sun is never gonna come up. In terms of resupply, the two races are fairly similar: it’s hard to find the food you are accustomed to in order to fuel your rides. You need to be creative and work with what the trail gives you. Whether it’s laughing cow in Morocco or cold empanadas in Peru.
The sheer brutality of the course reminded me of Italy Divide, where the trail beats you up relentlessly. I think Italy Divide is way underrated as far as difficulty goes. You have this romantic image of the strade bianche in beautiful Tuscany and you think it is a walk in the park. But just like AMR, Italy Divide is full of hike-a-bikes and rocky, bumpy, rough trails that will leave you with numb fingers and dreams of a suspension fork.
What I find AMR and Tour Divide have in common is the solitude, the vastness of big empty spaces. It is what most of us are looking for in such adventures, but it can also crush your spirit. I remember as I was making my way to cp2, looking at yet another landscape of dry rocky desert and hating it. Just wanting to be out of this place, just like in 2016 I hated the solitude and emptiness of the great Wyoming Basin. In the Atlas, just like in the Rocky Mountains, you can go hours and hours without seeing a soul. And you have to be ready for it.