Saturday, April 25, 2015

Titan Desert Morocco 2015

The Titan Desert, now in its 10th edition is one of the storied mountainbike stage races in the world. It is held in Morocco and crosses the Atlas Mountains and Sahara Desert. Travelling from Singapore to the race wasn’t so straight forward. The primary meeting point is Barcelona, where I arrived on the festive St Jordi's Day with beautiful weather and friendly folks. I stayed a couple of days at the Le Méridien La Rambla to get through the jet-lag and enjoy the touristy activities, in between some gym work and Bikram Yoga.

Barcelona with the Bike Heroes Crew


From Barcelona, the majority of the riders took the official chartered flight to Ouarzazate, followed by a two hour bus ride to Boumaine Dades. It was 8 pm by the time we arrived. The campsite was a busy place with people, equipment and bikes getting settled in.

The area was adjacent to Hotel Xaluca Dades, a magnet for the fleeting and woefully slow wi-fi hunters like me. The 3 man Haima tent were surprisingly spacious and comfortable.

Antonio & Omar (Argentina)
Hung (Taiwan) & Cory (Canada)

The desert weather was cool at night. But sleep didn't come easily, plus I woke up twice and had to search for a convenient place away from the Haimas to pee, probably from too much soup from dinner.


I took the Ti 29er for a test ride with Hung and it was almost flawless, except for a slight creak on the crank. The daytime weather was hot but dry and the terrain was not unlike a typical rocky-with-loose-stones trail at home.

Official Titan currency (1 Titanito = 0.83 €) for beverages, & the ubiquitous olives

The local kids were friendly and ever eager to reach out for a high five, and the fellow racers were a friendly bunch too, generous with race tips and a smile. I restrained myself to only two beers today, anticipating a hard race tomorrow. So far, so good.

The Haima Bar

MONDAY 27 APRIL - STAGE 1 Doumalne Dades - Aknouin 116 km

The race route is by way of an orientation style navigation. One can either use the official road book, which is impractical on a mountain bike, or input the way points into the GPS, which is time consuming. Most of us just followed the signs, except for Stage 5 which is a sign-less stage. Apart from riding through the compulsory 3 or 4 electronic checkpoints every day, one can chose the shortest route to the destination. Thus, local knowledge is advantageous but a risky proposition as one might easily get lost in the desert.

Stage 1 was tougher than I had expected, probably one of my harder races. I still had not slept well, perhaps it was the jet lag. And it was definitely the terrain - long climbs and mainly rough double tracks with corrugated trails, dry rocky river beds and sandy stretches. Even the long down hills, there was one that went continuously for 4 km, were painful for my feet and hands.

I was feeling very uncomfortable from too much sugar, presumably from the overdose of sweet dates for breakfast. The “natural” bars and chocolate didn't help the cause, but that was all the practical nourishment I had for the race.

Life in the Oasis

A nice surprise is the environment. My description won't do justice to Morocco. The majestic mountains look picture perfect. They are quite green actually and for the first time, I saw an oasis. The deep green trees and plants contrasted beautifully with the light brownish backdrops.

I felt better on the last couple of hours as I settled in, I guess I just got numbed by the pain. Towards the end, I overtook numerous riders who were clearly fatigued. 2,400 metres climb and 8 hours later, I crossed the finish line. And in a credible (based on my standard) 236 place out of 613 participants.

Amazing logistics in moving camp every day for 700 people

TUESDAY 28 APRIL – STAGE 2 Aknouin - Toughach 113 km

Stage 2 much was like a recovery ride compared to yesterday's race. It was downhill 70 % of the time and thus fast and very quick, 113 km completed in 4.5 hours. There was certainly no time to enjoy the views.

Jordi Gayola pulled us for 40 km!

After 2 stages, I now have full confidence with the Maxxis Ikon tubeless tyres, a great all-rounder, light yet tough. A worthy alternative to the legendary but heavy CrossMark LUST. The rest of the day was spent pottering around, soaking in the sights and sounds. A much warmer day.

Post race recovery

I deliberated on tomorrow's Marathon stage where we have to race with all essentials carried on the bike to camp overnight with no support except for meals and water. Originally I had planned to race with a rather large Ergon framed back pack with the sleeping bag. But I decided on using the very light Solomon hydration pack and removed the water bladder to fit my other stuff. I taped the sleeping bag on the handlebar.

My first amateurish bikepacking attempt

WEDNESDAY 29 APRIL – STAGE 3 Toughach - Lamdouare 113 KM

I started ok but was a little tired. Sluggish, I lost concentration and almost crashed a couple of times. But I soldiered on, of course.

Sketchy steering due to the sleeping bag on handle bar

Today was a battle against the head wind most of the day. So it was hopping into a peloton whenever I could. But I got isolated from the final water stop at km 80 and battled the head winds alone, trying to catch up with a 15 man peloton. But not until 20 hard km's later did I manage to join the group. Surprisingly today was not a bad finish, I improved to 207th place. It was a tough but satisfying day.

A special treat - Spanish Jamón Ibérico ham

Once I finished, I rushed to find a good spot in the communal haima and found a corner spot. I found an additional rug to cushion the ground and cleared the ever-present rocks to smoothen the ground. But the heat was uncomfortable all afternoon.

I have never slept with so many men in my life

Arghh! The communal haima was a disaster for me. It wasn't just the sheer number of people in the massive tent of 300 sweaty and snoring people, but the heat and bright bulb right above me that kept me awake. So at midnight I went hunting and found a nice spot outside, next to the water dispensation area to sleep. Given the circumstances, sleep was ok. That was an adventure by itself.

THURSDAY 30 APRIL – STAGE 4 Lamdouare - Erg Znaigui 99km

Today was also windy as we traversed into the Moroccan desert. I started strong with a couple of pelotons, but disaster struck at km 58. My integrated seat post broke! But it didn't occur for a second not to continue. So I rode standing, dancing on the pedals for 40 km, most of the time alone battling the incessant winds but managed to latch on to a peloton for the last 15 km. Luckily, the trails were rolling climbs and sandy, without any major climbs or technical descents.

Broken seat post

I didn't realise how hot the weather was until I noticed the chocolate had become liquid in the bento box. I was almost mentally ready to continue the subsequent stages with the broken seat post but Jordi and the wonderful guys from The Bike Heroes managed to find me a spare bike, a lady called Emma who had pulled out of the race.

This bike saved my race. Thank you Emma!

FRIDAY 1 MAY - STAGE 5 Erg Znaigui - Merzouga 103 km

Start line

Last night was my best sleep so far. Just too tired I guess. Stage 5 is the “Desert Stage”, the only stage without signs. So we had to upload the check points and water station way points, and refer to the compulsory road book which was impossible in a race situation. The first 10 km was spent pushing the bike through the dunes. The fine soft sand was not rideable and it was quite exhausting.

Too sandy to ride

There were a couple of frustrating moments where the water and check points were not where they should be. But I quite enjoyed the stage because of the novelty of the navigation format. I could see more racers slowing down, either because of the heat or 5th day fatigue. The temperature hit 45° C!

The mighty Sahara

I didn't realise at that time but the dry desert climate was really dehydrating. The final 20 km after the last water station was tough, mainly because of the corrugated roads. My extremities and shoulders hurt. By now, I could feel the fatigue setting in. I finished in under 7 hours, tired but very glad I could continue.

A Columbian rider got lost in the desert and was only rescued close to midnight. It must have been a dangerous situation because it would have been very cold, and with no food, water and protection from the elements.

SATURDAY 2 MAY – STAGE 6 Merzouga - Maadid 67 km

Another good sleep. And the final stage! I was in great spirits but the race was fast and furious. We rode back 20 km the same way we rode in yesterday, which was very rough because of the corrugation. I was suffering.

Although relatively short, the race was intense and I was really pushing myself, today being the final stage. It was not unlike a road race on mountainbike. I was between 80 to 90 % threshold throughout. But I'm a lucky man, I completed Stage 6 and finished the Titan Desert!

Thank you Morocco!

Stage 6 was my best performance. I came in at 143rd place to finish overall 220th position out of 613 starters in the General Classification despite the seat post disaster in Stage 4.

Party time!


I slept late last night because of the massive race party and woke up at 5 am to catch the chartered flight back to Barcelona, sleepy but elated to have been able to finish the race relatively well and unscathed. Mission accomplished – I had experienced the race and culture, made friends and completed the race.

I checked into the W Hotel at the lovely Barcelonetta area to relax for a few more days, after roughing it out the past week. More Bikram Yoga, Spanish wine and fresh seafood.

A sincere thank you for making my race and finish possible - Jordi, Massimo and Rubén from the Bike Heroes, Walton from Attitude Bikes, Hung my ever helpful tent mate, Emma for the spare bike and my Singapore riding gangs. And of course it is all only possible with my lovely girls Sophia and May Shann’s unconditional support.

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