‘All Terrain Exploration’ at the Atlas Mountain Race
Gritty, dirty and dusty gravel rides test the mettle – and a rider’s equipment – like no other type of riding. Self-supported endurance races push that challenge to the extreme, and the experience was cranked up to 11 at this year's inaugural Atlas Mountain Race in Morocco.
On Saturday, 15th February 2020, 190 gravel riders from all around the world lined up for the grand depart in Marrakech. Ahead of them were around 1145km and 20,000m of climbing, unsupported, over some of the toughest terrains on earth, intent on reaching the finish at Sidi Rabat. One of those brave entrants was former professional Christian Meier, aboard his special-edition Mad Max-inspired gravel bike – called the ‘All Terrain Exploration Rig’, or A.T.E.R., which was armed with our premium components, and CeramicSpeed's well-known high-performance.
We worked with Meier – a Grand Tour veteran and who now runs The Service Course – in 2019 in preparation for what organisers call the ‘world’s premier gravel grinder’, Dirty Kanza. Meier finished 97th out of 870, a fine effort and an interesting experience where the former Canadian national champion put his body, mind and our CeramicSpeed components to the test on a hot and dusty 200-mile gravel test in Kansas.
Now in North Africa, Meier needed every ounce of gravel efficiency in his new Marrakech challenge. That’s why his bike was loaded with our products; the challenging conditions of the race were the perfect scenario for the CeramicSpeed signature durability. The A.T.E.R. is a custom-made Belle Cycle gravel bike, built specifically for the demands of the Atlas Mountain Race. Meier and Barcelona-based painter Kilian Ramirez were inspired by The War Rig from the Mad Max film, to paint his customised gravel bike in a beaten-up, rusty ‘rat bike’ finish, topped off by a skull headbadge.
“The A.T.E.R. is something I had been thinking about for a while,” says Meier, “and the Atlas Mountain Race was the perfect excuse to go for it… The concept was to build a truly All Terrain Exploration Rig, to handle an exceptionally wide variety of off-road terrain.”
“It’s a one-of-a-kind beast,” says Belle Cycle’s Enrico ‘Kico’ Bellé, “hungry for scratches and scars.”
A.T.E.R is a lightweight steel frame with carbon-integrated seatpost, including custom seatpost topper, 29in wheels and a rigid MTB fork, turning on a CeramicSpeed Outboard Headset. It provided Meier with the comfort and durability demanded over gravely ascents, rocky valleys and sections that required hiking.
Shimano’s GRX Di2 groupset was enhanced by our new T47 Bottom Bracket with coated bearings, specifically designed for the rigours of gravel racing and a tough, lightweight set of Titanium Pulley Wheels. The new T47 BB range guarantees superior energy efficiency and faster cycling. They’re also resilient to the flying debris, floating dust and occasional impact that comes with the territory. In short, our premium products are perfect for custom builds of this nature.
“At the Service Course, we are lucky to have an amazing group of partners that we work very closely with, many of whom have helped bring this vision to life - including CeramicSpeed,” says Meier.
“It’s humbling and inspiring that everyone was so keen to come on board and support this unique project with their trademark enthusiasm and teamwork.”
Mental and Physical Challenge
As the first one to arrive at the first checkpoint, things were looking good for Meier. Unfortunately, two days into the competition, the adventure ended for Meier due to an issue that made every bump quite painful. For the race, there have been solo and pairs categories. Meier went solo, meaning he had to be entirely self-sufficient. Sleep, navigation, feeding and motivation to continue – it was all down to Meier, A.T.E.R. and CeramicSpeed. While the equipment kept on running, as Meier mentions on his personal social media "Unfortunately my Atlas Mountain Race attempt had come to an end. Suffering from a saddle/chamois/butt connection problem means every bump became painful, not ideal in a gravel race. I hoped a sleep and some plasters from the pharmacy could help but after a couple of hours into the ride today (on the second day) it was pretty evident it wasn’t going to work. I came into the event really not knowing what to expect and with no multi-day ultra experience and damn did I learn a lot in just two days."
Prior to the race Meier knew what that it would be tough. “The Atlas Mountain Race will be a special experience and I expect it to be very demanding,” says Meier.
“Has my preparation been perfect? No... life is busy, and I ain’t pro anymore! But I’m happy to clip in on the day and push myself to the limit.
“To me, this project epitomises what we do, what custom building is all about: bringing our incredibly talented partners together to create something unique and exciting in response to a very particular challenge, making no compromises along the way.”
There were four checkpoints between Marrakech and Sidi Rabat for a degree of mental respite: Marrakech to Telouet, 123km (and 3,500m climbing); Telouet to Aguinane 539km (7,600m); Aguinane to Ait Mansour, 275km (4,000m); and Ait Mansour to Sidi Rabat, 209km (3,000m).
Highlights of the gravel route included the 2,600m-high Telouet Pass, with a gravelly climb and dangerous descent which could have been covered in snow; and then there was potentially the toughest stretch of the race from Issafen to Ait Mansour.
Meier has faced the toughest events in the world. We’re talking gravel races like Dirty Kanza and road behemoths like the Tour de France. The Atlas Mountain Race could have topped the lot, its remoteness, rocky climbs and sub-zero nights concocting a new recipe of hardship. Could have Meier done it? Projected by CeramicSpeed, he had all the odds, but sometimes things don't go as planned. Was it a great experience and project to be part of? For sure.
Imagery Tristan Cardew