The Anatomy of a Scratch; Unfinished Business in the Atlas Mountains

Racing is often discussed purely in terms of performance – the fastest time and your finishing position relative to others. But self-supported racing is so much more than podiums and finishing times. It’s a journey and an opportunity to push yourself and grow. We spoke to Scotti Lechuga about balancing performance and progress when equipment failure ends your race.

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Three bikepackers riding their bikes on the road in the mountains

 

It’s around midnight on February 18th. I’m fishing for my cellphone in my top tube pack, which is covered in Moroccan dust and drops of dried blood from a nosebleed. I turn off airplane mode to see if I have a signal, then search through my WhatsApp contacts to locate Nelson Trees, the director of the Atlas Mountain Race.

I’m having trouble finding words. I type and delete the message about five times while Ernie continues to wrestle with what’s left of our blown-out tires.

“Hey, it’s Scotti…”, I write.

Tears well up in my eyes. My body is tired. My ass is raw with saddle sores, my lips are cracked and blistered, and I’m terribly sunburnt, but none of those things are on my mind.

The message isn’t flowing. I look up into the Moroccan night sky full of stars and sigh. The wind picks up, and the temperature is dropping. I shiver and pause to put on my jacket — a welcome delay.

From day one, our tire trouble had been non-stop. By day three, we’d gone through our four tubes, endless patches, and creative solutions for tire boots involving plastic bottles and all variations of tapes. We’d spent countless hours on the side of the road mending and problem-solving. Ernie and I had even de-stitched string from our apparel for him to sew a splitting sidewall closed, but the sidewall was continuing to decompose in front of our eyes. Despite our best efforts, the tires were no longer rideable, as the tubes were exposed in multiple places along the rim.

A group of people fixing the wheel of a bike

A man sitting in a dirt floor fixing the wheel of his bike

“We’re going to have to scratch.” Message sent.

I’ve faced failure and disappointment on the bike before, but it didn’t come with this much gravity. In road racing, there is always another race in the coming weeks — maybe even the next day. Failure is transient; due to crashing or mechanicals or simply bad days — there’s no use lingering on your defeat when the next race is always on the immediate horizon.

But the Atlas Mountain Race isn’t bike racing. I said the same about the Silk Road Mountain Race… These off-road ultra-endurance events are so much more than bike races. They are tests of the human spirit — of endurance, perseverance, and fortitude.

It’s easy to get caught up in the feeling that “I could have done more”, particularly when it’s equipment failure that ends your race, not your body breaking down.

Was my bike rideable? No. But could I have gone further?

Walking crossed my mind in the moment we chose to scratch. I remember calculating the time it would take to walk 450km to reach the finish. At the time, it sounded completely absurd. I figured we could walk 4km/hr, so that would take 4.5 days if we literally walked every second of every single day, with no rests or sleep.

Right now, with the incessant doubt of that decision weighing on my mind, it no longer sounds completely absurd, and I would give anything to go back and walk as many kilometers as I could before the time cut… Because then I truly would have exhausted every possible option and would have peace that I’d done all I could.

I wish I would have committed to make progress for as long as possible — to think of this challenge as more than “just a bike race”. In hindsight, the greater story in my personal journey would have been to fight to the finish. In the heat of the moment, I prioritized racing over simply finishing. With first place and a fast finish slipping through our fingers, I lost sight of the value of adventure and the struggle itself.

We definitely had enough time to make it to CP3 by foot, and if we could have gotten there, perhaps there would have been other riders with equipment we could’ve used to finish. If we accepted help from another rider, we wouldn’t get a classified finish result, but at least we might have made it to the finish under our own steam and received some closure.

A mountain landscape

Balancing performance and personal progress is something I’ve struggled with throughout my cycling journey. I’ve written about it before in a piece called, “I Climbed the Wrong Mountain” – about how getting fixated on performance can blind you to the progress you’re making in your athletic pursuits and life.

It’s too late to change our decision to scratch at the Atlas Mountain Race, but the lesson has been learnt. It’s easy to talk about making good decisions, about winning, or about a journey that went exactly the way I hoped it would go. But had I been dealt better fortune, the cycle of valuing performance over progress would have continued unchecked.

It’s incredibly difficult to talk about failure, to dissect my performance and decisions, to second guess and humbly accept I could have done more to complete my ride and embrace progress once the race escaped us. But that’s the truth of the matter and I must talk about it because it’s a conversation that has incredible worth but is rarely talked about because of the stigma around failure. In failing, we learn our most valuable lessons, develop our greatest character, and solidify resolve to grow.

Winning feels amazing, but it’s not everything. Performance is great, but it’s also not everything. Sometimes the biggest win is simply knowing you’ve done everything you could possibly do to reach the finish — even if you get there out of time, and unclassified.

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