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Big Ride: Atlas Mountains, Morrocco

Stu Bowers
10 Jun 2016

There’s more to Morocco than tagines and camels. The roads and mountains south of Marrakesh make for an epic cycling venue.

I’m riding in a cloud of white exhaust smoke. The pungent (and strangely pleasant) aroma of burning two-stroke fuel seeps into my lungs, my mouth gulping the fume-filled air as I work hard to maintain the back wheel of the moped I’ve just latched onto after swinging left out of Tahnaout, the last big town on our 177km loop. 

Several things are going through my mind. First, I hope the enormous, precariously attached hay bale that’s weighing the moped down considerably doesn’t fall off. A trip to a Moroccan hospital this late in the day is not an appealing thought. It would also be cruel to hit the deck now, having already completed the majority of this epic route. I examine the thin twine holding the bale on, and decide that it looks safe enough. 

I could back off a bit, but this tow is too good a slipstream to pass up. Besides, the possibility of the moped making a sudden stop, given the size and weight of its load, not to mention the likely state of disrepair of its brakes, would be like trying to stop a runaway freight train. So I conclude that the chances of being crushed are minimal enough for me to stick a few inches from the spluttering exhaust of the moped and get pulled along the endless Moroccan highway.

In any case, I’ve got full faith in the brand new Dura-Ace brakes adorning my Cannondale Evo. They have, together, already proved themselves worthy so far today. Never more so than when we were losing altitude faster than you can lose money in Vegas on the 40km descent out of the mountains, which are now over my left shoulder, their white caps tinted pink and falling away from view.

Second in my mind is the hope that my aged Moroccan moped rider – who I’m certain is unaware that he has become an impromptu derny pacer – is not turning off the road any time soon. Despite the potential lung damage and carbon monoxide poisoning from having my head practically up his exhaust pipe, there’s a strong headwind blowing across the rolling plains where I now find myself, and his flat-out 45kmh pace is perfect for me. It’s just the ticket to knock off a few fast kilometres, as the sun has been creeping ever closer to the horizon, reminding me I’ve been riding all day long, as well as treating me to the most amazing orange evening sky I’ve ever seen. 

Also, I have no idea where the support vehicle is right now, but I wish they were here to witness this. It must look comical. In the melee of the last town I kind of lost track of the minivan that’s carrying Paul, our photographer, but then I glance over my shoulder and almost laugh out loud as I see them tailing right behind me with Paul hanging out of the passenger window, laughing hysterically behind his lens. I’d not noticed them creep up on me. Probably because I can’t hear anything above the din of the struggling moped like a giant bumble bee trapped inside a biscuit tin. 

When the moped finally swings off to the right and takes to a dirt road, I catch a glimpse of the hay bale detaching itself and exploding onto the floor as the suspension on the moped can no longer cope, and the bumpy ground proves too much for the flimsy bit of twine. I feel bad for the moped driver, but can’t help cracking a smile, mainly from relief. I’ve managed a quick 10km and now I don’t have far to go to complete the ride, and I’ve avoided being flattened by a fast-moving hay bale. 

In Morocco, it seems, the moped is the equivalent of a family saloon. As I ride I see another moped heading in the opposite direction loaded with three adults, two children and a pair of chickens. I smile again, but their looks suggest that they think I’m the weirder sight to see out on these roads.  

Back to the start

It’s morning in Oumnass, a town on the outskirts of Marrakesh, and it will be another seven hours before I find myself slipstreaming a heavily-laden moped. I meet up with Saaid Naanaa and Simo Hadji, a couple of local riders who have been enticed into sharing my ride by Charlie Shepherd, owner of specialist tour company Epic Morocco, and chaperone for our cycling trip today. 

I’m not sure what Charlie has told my ride companions about the route, but I can’t help feeling they’ve been a bit stitched-up, as neither is particularly accustomed to riding over 150 kilometres with in excess of 3,000 metres of climbing. When we all meet at breakfast, both are beaming with enthusiasm before we bundle into the minivan for a short drive, just to get us out of the main part of the town, which is starting to buzz with activity. 

We’ve selected the route in the customary Cyclist fashion. Editor Pete pores over maps of the chosen region on Google, looking for the smallest, wiggliest roads and the biggest, steepest climbs. It follows that these will provide the most challenging riding and the best opportunities for photography. On this occasion we did know a bit about the region in advance, thanks to Henry Catchpole, one of Cyclist’s Big Ride regulars, having been to the same area to test a McLaren sportscar for Evo magazine (lucky git), so we know we are in for a treat. 

Google Maps can only tell you so much – Street View hasn’t made it this far – so a bit of local knowledge goes a long way, and as we make our way through the villages in the foothills of the looming Atlas mountains and the beautiful Kik Plateau, the guiding experience of my companions pays dividends. When we reach the market town of Asni, after almost 50km of riding, we decide to stock up on food and water, and I can sense the local stall owners wondering how much they should fleece the pale Brit for, while I desperately try to work out the exchange rate for dirhams in my head. I’m happy to hand the shopping duties over to Saaid and Simo, while I take a moment to view the sights. 

The market town is a hive of activity. People and animals fill the streets, with brightly coloured stalls lining the main square and roadsides. Saaid tugs at my arm and we head for a fresh fruit stall, where he proceeds to fill a plastic bucket with oranges, soon to be weighed on antique scales to work out their value. I understand nothing of the conversation going on between Saaid and the stall holder, but I can clearly see the weighing process works in the favour of the seller. Meanwhile Simo is doing the water run in the local store. On returning, he insists on cleaning my oranges with the bottled water before I begin to peel. This is without doubt the sweetest, most delicious orange I have ever eaten. I’m concerned that it’s indicative of early stages of dehydration, where anything vaguely juicy tastes like the best thing in the world, so I have another. This one is equally gorgeous. These are just amazingly fresh oranges. I eat a third, and now I have a huge pile of peel that I’m unsure how to dispose of. Simo scoops it from my hands and throws it in the gutter. ‘It’s a treat for the goats,’ he insists.

Brimming with vitamin C, we clip back in and make a left turn out of Asni onto a road that, according to our printed Google map, doesn’t exist. Once again the knowledge of my local riding companions proves invaluable, saving us an unnecessary dog leg, and also providing, Saaid assures me, a much more scenic route. 

One thing has struck me so far. That is just how luscious and green the landscape has been up to this point. We’re here in spring, which means it’s a little cooler and damper than the height of summer, but I was still expecting it to be more parched and desert-like. After all, we’re only a stone’s throw from the Sahara. But if the greenery comes as a surprise, then our scheduled lunch stop is genuinely bizarre – it’s at a ski resort called Oukaimeden. We’ve got a lot of kilometres to go, and about 3,000 metres of climbing to get there, but I’m spurred on by the sheer curiosity of seeing what a ski resort in an African desert looks like. 

This is a big part of the reason why we’re here in the first place. Morocco has an incredible variety of landscapes, and it’s a genuinely beautiful place to ride a bike. Springtime will provide you the most welcoming climate, according to Charlie, who’s lived in Morocco for over a decade now. In summer it’s simply too hot. Now, in late March, I’m looking at a clear, bright blue sky, with the valley temperature around 25°C. Perfect cycling conditions. Of course, at the moment we are cruising through foothills, but in the distance I can see snow on the higher mountains, and that is where we are heading. 

Aiming upwards 

I’m beginning to see why this road was not on the map. It’s fun to ride, with more twists and turns than a ride on a waltzer at a fairground, but it’s littered with fallen rock debris where the road has been cut into the hillside. I find myself trying to pick the path of least resistance (and least likely to cause a puncture) through gravel and occasionally larger rocks. 

At this point, with the road steepening, Saaid and Simo decide to call it a day and climb into the minivan, leaving me to negotiate the climb on my own. One particularly boulder-strewn corner looks like during the wet season a river would simply torrent across it. My momentarily boastful claim of having good cyclocross skills, and that I can ride it ‘no problem’, is Paul’s cue to be poised with the camera. I wait as he scales the rocks at the side of the road to find his perfect vantage point, ready to capture any potential comedy crashes. I disappoint him by making it across without incident – bike and rider unscathed. As if to taunt me, Paul claims he hasn’t got the shot and needs me to do it again. 

Remaining crash-free, I continue on to the start of the climb to Oukaimeden. It’s a brute in length at around 20km, but not so tough in gradient. It’s never more than 7% and only infrequently ever reaches that gradient. It’s more of a grind. As I make my way up its winding route I’m already beginning to look forward to the descent. This road ends at the ski resort, so whatever goes up it, must come back down it again afterwards. By about two thirds distance up the climb I realise that I haven’t eaten enough and I can sense that clammy, sweaty feeling that can arrive just before you blow up. Fortunately, around one corner I discover the minivan parked up in a lay-by like an oasis in the desert. I grab a gel from the van and squeeze its sticky contents into my mouth before returning to the road and continuing my climb. The scenery has become more rugged and dramatic than before, but my mind is preoccupied by the thought of coffee and cake at the summit.

When I finally arrive at the top, the scene is slightly strange. I knew I was heading for a ski resort, but it’s still somewhat surreal, given the country we’re in, to be sitting eating lunch surrounded by people wearing salopettes and ski goggles. It’s the off-season at the moment, so the resort is reasonably empty save for a few groups of skiers milling around. Only a single chair lift is in operation and I get the impression there’s not going to be much of an après ski scene in Oukaimeden, either. 

Over lunch we refuel and discuss some of the highlights of the route so far. I mention how refreshing it is to see sights out on the road that are so different to the rides I’ve done in Britain and Europe. Once again, the look I get from Saaid and Simo suggests that the strangest sight on Morocco’s roads at the moment is the skinny Lycra-clad guy on the road bike. 

One thing that has tickled me during the ride is the way children in all the villages rush to the roadside when they see me coming, holding their hands out for a high-five (I can’t help thinking of Borat every time I hear those words). They seem to appear from nowhere, but at every village, without fail, they arrive right on cue. They absolutely love it, laughing and shrieking with joy as I blitz past with my hand out. 

At one point a whole gaggle of kids lines up and I ride along the entire line (having slowed my pace a bit) high-fiving them all. Paul, who is as usual hanging out of the window of the minivan, chuckles. ‘You almost took that poor kid’s arm off,’ he exclaims. I make a mental note to ease up a bit on the high-fives when it inevitably happens again at the next village. 

Into the valley

Feeling much recovered after lunch I have the sudden happy realisation that it’s practically all downhill from here on in. It’s a reassuring feeling with already over four hours of ride time in the bank. Funnily enough, Saaid also discovers his second wind, safe in the knowledge that the next 40 or so kilometres should whizz by in the blink of an eye. Which they do. 

The curves are perfect for fast but safe descending, with sweeping apexes and good lines of sight for the majority of the time, although a few sections of poor road surface ensure that we keep our wits in check. We arrive at the bottom of the 20km descent grinning from ear to ear, and with no more damage to report than a bit of neck ache from having assumed the aero tuck for such a prolonged period. 

By the time we reach the Ourika Valley floor the temperature has risen again and the chill of the mountain descent is long gone. Saaid calls it a day for a second time and re-assumes his position in the minivan. This stretch towards
the town of Tahnaout is the only vaguely busy stretch of road we’ve ridden so far, with traffic heightened simply by it being the end of the day. Several trucks pass me with dozens of people clinging to their sides – getting a free ride home from work. What would cause uproar in the UK is business as usual in Morocco. 

Just as the weariness from a long ride starts to creep into my legs, a moped appears with a hay bale attached precariously to its rear… and, well, you know the rest of that story.

As I wind towards the end of the loop, I reflect on what has just passed. Previously I had felt jealous of Henry’s job at Evo and his chance to thrash supercars in glamorous locations, but now I’m the one feeling privileged. It’s been the most epic of days, in the most epic of locations, with memories that will stay with me forever. 

Morocco is a magical place. Marrakesh, where we are staying, is an extravaganza of colour, noise and activity in its many souks and street markets. It’s a bit like how I would imagine a waterless Venice: tiny streets twist between the walls of buildings like a rabbit warren. More than two million tourists visit the city each year to revel in its richness and diversity. African in the geographic sense, Arab in culture, Islamic in religion, predominantly French speaking and openly willing to accept English currency, it’s a fantastic experience with or without a bike.

I’m certainly all smiles as I pull up alongside the minivan at the agreed finish point and press stop on the Garmin. It’s still warm, despite the sun having set, and I’m already reminding myself not to gloat too much when I report back to the office, especially as I know that the boys on the team will have spent the past few days commuting through rain and freezing temperatures in full winter gear.

I’ll just tell them the same thing that I will tell all my cycling friends from now on: if you’re perusing the world atlas for potential riding destinations, and you can see beyond the Alps, the Dolomites, Mallorca, Lanzarote and the
rest, then I’d urge you to consider Morocco. You won’t be disappointed.

The rider's ride

Cannondale Super Six EVO Di2 

£7,000, cyclingsportsgroup.com


I admit it. I pulled a few strings to get this bike for this Big Ride, and it didn’t disappoint. Shimano’s 9070 Dura-Ace Di2 is so light that there’s no longer any weight penalty to having electronic shifting (if nothing else, it makes bike bag packing a breeze) and combined with this frameset (sub 700g) you’re really not going to get much lighter. It’s plenty stiff where it needs to be, descends brilliantly and took the Moroccan roads in its stride without dishing me out a beating. 

How we got there

Travel

We flew Royal Air Maroc (royalairmaroc.com) to Marrakesh via Casablanca. A more direct option is EasyJet, which flies direct to Marrakesh from Gatwick.

Accommodation

Our hotel, Riad Kaiss, was nestled in the narrow back streets close to the main square in central Marrakesh. It was luxurious and tranquil, hidden behind its tiny door from the street. The rose petals sprinkled over the bed would have been a romantic touch – had I not been sharing the room with photographer Paul.

Thanks

Thanks to Faical Alaoui Medarhri of the Moroccan National Tourist Office (visitmorocco.com) for all his help organising the trip, and Charlie Shepherd of Epic Morocco (epicmorocco.co.uk) for being a valuable contact in Marrakesh.

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