Ride Report: Morocco’s Titan Desert Stage Race Part 3

Race Coverage Travel

Sonya at Titan Desert Stage Race 2014

Photo by Javier M

The 2014 Titan Desert Stage Race is a 730 km race across the Atlas Mountains and Sahara Desert of Morocco. Stage 4 brought us to the entrance of the famous Saharan sand dunes. That day, the course was long and flat with the introduction of scattered sand pits for extra challenge. For me, the biggest frustration of the sand pits was the people in front of me. People would choke their brakes without trying to plow through the sand. If you got stuck behind one of the more timid riders, you would have to stop and lose contact with the people you were racing. This was sadly in my future for the day. I lost contact with the lead group and was left to ride solo.

Surprisingly, I found good legs for the first time in the race, and powered forward on extremely bumpy terrain into a headwind. My eyes were rattling in their sockets and it was actually hard to see straight! I catapulted myself forward and chased after the finish line some 120km away, surprised at my legs after the very difficult first 3 stages. Some of the Spanish racers complimented me saying I was like a motorcycle! Flats have never been my strength, but for that day, I conquered them.

Titan Desert Stage Race 2014

Photo by Marc Gasch/Titan Desert

I was sitting solidly in second in the female GC. After 80 km of time trialing, I was surprised to catch the first place girl, Claudia, and her entourage of about 8 men who had been working as her team for the race. I was disappointed to see that the rumors people had been telling me during dinner were true. Each night, multiple male racers would approach me telling variations of, “I really appreciate what you are doing. You are racing this by yourself, without a team.” I was confused the first few times because I signed up for the solo category and didn’t realize that you were allowed to have a team. Normally at international stage races, if you can hang with a pack, you’re allowed to draft but I’ve never seen what appeared to be a pre-arranged team. Nonetheless, I appreciated the sentiments.

As I approached her group during the stage, I decided simply to keep riding my pace like I had been doing all day. The pack blew apart and slowly regrouped. There were some frustrating team tactics that followed and I could not drop the group. After trying to ride away multiple times, I gave up on my escape and finished with the pack. I didn’t let the seemingly unfair race happenings ruin my experience. Claudia was a very strong rider, regardless of the group. I knew that I was doing the race solo from a place of integrity and that I earned my finish wherever that would be. I thought it was flattering and kind that different racers would talk to me each night about their thoughts with the road tactics in my category. There was nothing I could do, and my goals were that I was there to have a great experience, conquer an extreme challenge, and do my best. I was achieving my goals.

Titan Desert Stage Race 2014

Photo by Marc Gasch/Titan Desert

Before the finish line of day 4, we had endured 115F temperatures, and heat radiated from the sun and upward from the ground. I brought an extra water bottle to spray my feet to help with my bunions. We ran out of water before we made it to the finish, and the last 20km of the course were hard to follow. The landscape was infertile and beige with flat burnt black rocks littering the wind-crusted ground.

Course markers were hard to find with no vegetation in site and we had to rely on the direction we were heading in order to reconnect with the course. The finish at Erg Chebbi looked like a scene out of Aladdin. The spectacular sand dunes surrounding our camp looked like a painted backdrop. Bedouins and their camels departed at sunset and faded to small dots on the spines of the dunes as the sand turned from reddish orange to grey. We welcomed the night and slightly cooler temperatures. Sand crept through the weave of threads that comprised our haima shelters and a layer of dust settled over everything. I didn’t mind. The stars were mesmerizing in the dark night sky. There was no sign of civilization or life besides our camp.

Titan Desert Stage Race 2014

Photo by Marc Gasch/Titan Desert

The next morning, we prepared to cross the dunes. I was surprised to learn that we only had to traverse the dunes for 4km. The Sahara Desert spans some 3.5 million square miles, 10% of Africa. We wore shoe covers to prevent sand from filling our shoes. The dunes were hilarious. There was a pack of camels next to me with their necks bobbing up and down as they walked and groups of racers scurrying as quickly as they could. I could not help but laugh at the sight. I was not in a hurry and made every effort to enjoy the surroundings; I would probably never see anything like that again. You could ride some of the dunes if you figured out the contour lines in the sand from the wind. The dunes actually had a harder crust in some places, similar to riding on the crust of snow. It was mostly walking, but it went by fast.

Sonya at Titan Desert Stage Race 2014

Photo by Javier M

After our dune hike-a-bike, we had a 40km section that was to be self-navigated. We were given a GPS waypoint and were instructed to pick our own route to get there. I opted for the most direct route instead of the winding sandy road. The direct route wasn’t any faster due to the rocks, but I enjoyed doing it on my own instead of following someone else. The remainder of the day was hot with desolate desert mountains. I made up my mind not to push so hard that I was suffering because it wouldn’t matter anyway, and I found a group that I could keep up with for the last half of the day. We had a great time ripping through the desert together and I appreciated the company. There were three of us leading our small group of six and I was happy to help. When we finally got to the finish line, a guy named Javier started laughing and punching the air screaming “PUTA MADRE TITAN!” I liked Javier, I had seen him on and off during the course of the race. He worked hard, but seemed to enjoy the race. There was another guy with a big toothy grin who told me in his Spanish accent to call him “the Pink Panther.”

At the finish of Stage 5, we were relieved that there was one last day to endure. Stage 6 was the shortest of all stages with a distance of 75 km. Stages 1-5 were all 5-7 hours. We all struggled with sore bums. Some people had huge open sores on their sit bones. I had minimal damage compared to a lot of people, but my behind was raw and it healed into flaky, rough skin. Everything was swollen and painful. Adding to our injuries was the insult of a fierce headwind from every direction. The final kilometers ticked by slowly and not without drama. There were massive packs of riders, crashes, and chaos. The winning mixed duo team and I self-dropped and rode together most of the day. The final stage was the only time that I did not enjoy the landscape. At the finish line, people were cheering, taking photos, crying, and most of all, proud of their accomplishment.

Sonya at Titan Desert Stage Race 2014 Podium

Photos by Marc Gasch/Titan Desert and Javier M

The Titan was more dynamic than I was expecting with changing landscape, difficult terrain, great mountain stages and an eclectic group. The race portrayed different areas of Morocco from the stick carrying whining donkeys, to the remote desert villages, to the surreal sand dunes. There were difficult climbs and ever changing views. I was tired at the finish, but I felt more alive from the extremes of the race, enriched with the new friends I had made, and excited to get home to ride some singletrack! The 2014 edition of the Titan was the hardest event I have ever done, and I would do it again!

Race Report: Morocco’s Titan Desert Stage Race Part 1 »
Race Report: Morocco’s Titan Desert Stage Race Part 2 »

About the author: Sonya Looney

It’s energy and attitude that have propelled World Champion Sonya Looney on a mountain bike across the rugged Himalayas, through sweltering sand dunes of the Sahara Desert, and through the clammy jungles of Sri Lanka. Sonya Looney is an adventure traveler on a bike seeking out the hardest races in the most remote, beautiful, and interesting places in the world. She believes in pushing limits because that’s when you realize you are far more capable than ever imagined. Sonya is also a professional speaker, keynoting at large conferences and has spoken at TEDx. Don't let her accolades fool you though, she loves craft beer and joking around. Follow her on social media!

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