Ever felt like doing the Paris-Dakar but on a mountain bike? Well the Nissan Titan Desert Challenge is about as close as it gets. In its fourth edition, the Titan is a five day stage race run in the mountains and desert region near Ouarzazate in Morocco. When I entered the event it seemed like a great idea but as departure day neared the enormity of what I had taken on started to hit home. Now I frequently take part in MTB marathon races and ride the bike a lot, but five days in heat and sand with an adventure racing format thrown in was certain to make the experience a tough one!
Meet up point was Barcelona and from there the majority of the 189 competitors flew together in a charter flight to Ouarzazate. Organisation from RPM Outsourcing based in Barcelona was very good and with bikes and bags checked in I soon began to make friends with a few other competitors, many of whom had taken part in previous editions – just about everyone had a story to tell about how hard the race was going to be. Intended distances each day were between 95 and 115km and each evening we were to camp in areas set up by the organisation. To make matters even more interesting one stage was to be run over two days with competitors taking with them all they need for the two sectors (sleeping bag etc).
So after a transfer to Tazzarine we set up the bikes, ate pasta and tried to get some sleep before the riding started the next day. Sleeping arrangements were six riders per traditional haima tent and the first night we all got a taste of just how cold it can be at night in the desert in April! Wake up each day was 5am so, zombie like, I tried to eat a plate of pasta at 5.30 in the morning then packed the bag (something I’d do so many times during the week that I hope I never have to do it again!!) before rushing to the start line for 7am. It seemed like everyone from all the local towns had turned out to see us and we were sent off with much ceremony. Fresh legs felt great and we all blasted away, in fact the fresh legs lasted for most of the first stage, 90km of very rocky terrain, so speeds were high and without much climbing we soon started to cover the ground.
The other “adventure race” element to the event is the navigation. Each evening we were issued with a roadbook (Paris-Dakar motorbike style) and with some waypoints for the GPS, then during each stage it was the responsibility of the rider to navigate. This is all good in theory but on the first stage I fell victim to the inevitable “follow everyone else” scenario, only to find that some of them didn’t know where they were going either. The first half of the stage had gone well, I’d negotiated my first sandy section adequately and benefited from my lovely full sus Epic on a 10km rocky section, only to then follow two riders ahead of me down a rocky singletrack descent. It was a good one and seemed like a great idea at the time but it threw us out into a dried out river bed. Ooops! A few kms of walking followed plus a scramble up a cliff with the bike on the back. It was frustrating I have to say. Thankfully though once we gained some height we could see the next checkpoint on the plain about 10km in the distance so back on the bike we descended down. Lesson learnt, about half hour lost, but at least we were back on track.
Day two saw the first sector of the marathon stage, each rider carrying all that we needed for the two days. I’d slept a bit better and eaten okay so the day started well, I’d also strapped the sleeping bag to the bike to reduce the load on the back (and through the saddle, already the extended rock sections of day one had started to take their toll in that department!) Bad news for day two though was a course amendment. We were supposed to be riding 88km but due to snow in the mountains a river we needed to cross was impassable so distance was increased to 120km, yikes! The first kms were a scramble up over sand dunes, not a great way to start the day but after that things opened up and the big ring came into use. Yet again height changes were at a minimum so the day was spent hammering along sandy tracks through seemingly endless plains with just a few solitary trees scattered here and there and a few camels every now and then. Once more I managed to mess up on the navigation and once more it was due to following others but after yet more pushing through sand dunes we managed to get back on the right track and from then on I made sure that I ignored everyone else and followed the roadbook! I also made sure that I took advantage of the two drink stations during the stage, as the day went on temperatures soared and in the final 20km I thought my world was ending. 34 degrees, a headwind and a long climb all made me feel like I’d taken on way too much!
Camping that night was basic, no showers or toilets and all of us sleeping in open tented areas. It all added to the hardship and next day after about three hours sleep the prospect of yet another 117km was daunting to say the least, as was the painful sensation every time I sat on the saddle. That said, I’d completed two stages already, I’d gone all the way to Morocco to do the ride, there was no pulling out! The third day had more climbing, that helped too, psychologically I just told myself that I needed to get over the first 40km and from then on it would be downhill. Of course that was far from the truth but hey, a bit of self deception can be of use sometime! Plus there was the incentive of getting to the next camp where showers were waiting for us – luxury! The stage turned out to be a great one, the scenery opened up even further and as we passed through tiny mountain villages we were cheered on by the local children. Finally I felt that the body was getting used to the riding, to the conditions and to the camping and that night after a shower I slept well.
Day four was the best, a true mountain stage taking us up to 1700m. After about three hours of climbing the views were incredible and on the descent it was difficult to concentrate on the trail. Ahead of us a beautiful green valley stretched out as far as the eye could see, with more mountains on the horizon. A wonderful tailwind made going easy and arriving at the end of the 90km stage was just the best feeling. All that remained was the final stage, a 65km blast to Ouarzazate. That was great, it felt like a breeze compared to the previous days and the prospect of a hotel ahead was the best. Unfortunately my last day was spoilt a bit by having eaten something that didn’t agree but hey, it is to be expected at some stage and better at the end of the race than in the middle! So with an elaborate closing ceremony the fourth edition of the Nissan Titan Desert came to a close. The pros at the front (including Abraham Olano) had blasted the whole time and seemed to be on a different planet, those of us in the middle of the field had started out racing and soon switched to survival and those towards the back, well they’d done an amazing job just to get to the end and all credit to them.
The Titan is unique, it is very well organised, gives an amazing flavour of Morocco and is a potent mix of tough riding, adventure racing and Paris Dakar style racing format and is one of those experiences that I’ll never forget. Would I recommend it? Yes of course, but only for those who are extremely well prepared. It is a mental battle as well as a physical, it takes its toll when on the bike and then doesn’t end there, then the head has to cope with the lack of sleep, the camps, the dust and sand that gets into everything… The stages are long, the terrain difficult but all of that is offset by a great spirit between the competitors, superb scenery, friendly organisation and memories to last a lifetime. Will I be back? Let me sleep a bit and ask me again in a few weeks.,,
The 2009 edition of the race was run between 26 April and 2 May and full details can be found on www.titandesert.com
Thanks as always to Barnaby from Specialized for the best bike in the world and to Jon from Team Skene for his fantastic support.