Cycling in Morocco: The High Atlas Loop

More and more of us are packing our bikes and heading to sunny climes each spring in search of sunshine to get in those early season miles. Mallorca is bursting at the seams, the Canary Islands are packed and every spot of the long Spanish coast is home to a pro training camp. We crave somewhere easy to get to, a variety of terrain including long climbs & of course sunshine and warmth. And so we find ourselves in Morocco in November to ride the Atlas loop, a stunning early / late season offering with an added dose of adventure.

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Over 800,000 Brits visit Morocco each year in part to an abundance of cheap flights (thanks Easyjet & Ryanair). This inbound air traffic has afforded the local government to build a state of the art airport in Marrakech so your first view of the country is delightful, slightly soured by the tedious queues to get through passport control. The airport is right by the town so in no time you are at your hotel. After a first night exploring Marrakech and getting the bikes ready, I am ready to ride into the Atlas.

Ride One: Tahnaout to Tizi n Test (103km, 1390m)

The first of our four rides is the Queen Stage. It is an option to add 35km to this ride and start from our hotel but I chose the main ride option on our 5 night Morocco break  and jump in the van to get out of Marrakech. The ride can't start until we have a quick mint tea and then we are off. 

The first 30km from Tahnaout to Ouirgane is fun - rolling all the way on decent road surfaces and good views all around. This first section sets you up well for the trip, generally long climbs with low gradients (lots of 3-6%, very little of the steep stuff so perfect for early season) and changeable road surfaces - at points better than at home, sometimes rutty with potholes and mostly with a rough hard shoulder (as below).

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After Ouirgane we hit the river and follow this for almost 50km. This section is beautiful & rolling / uphill the whole way. After the market village of Ijoukak the road narrows from a wide single track to pretty tight. Traffic goes from quiet to desolate after this and for long periods we have the roads all to ourselves - one of the great features of Morocco. The few vehicles we did see were minibuses packed with locals (on the roof, hanging out doors etc) on their way to or from the market. 

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The climb proper (this is a very different mountain range from the Alps / Pyrenees / Dolomites and the difference between the drags to the climbs and the climbs themselves is not great) starts just after Tinmel, the sight of one of rare Mosques open to the public in Morocco. The Strava Section is 30km averaging just 3%. There are some sections of 5-7% and is not to be underestimated, the total elevation of the climb is more than Puig Major - the longest climb in Mallorca. 

There are long sweeping hairpins and some sections when the view back to what you've climbed is breathtaking. This is amazing mountain road building considering how few vehicles come up here. As a result, the surface gets more inconsistent and there are a number of potholes or areas with very rutty tarmac. With the lack of cars it is pretty easy to ride a comfortable line avoiding these but I would recommend 28mm tyres or at least 25s.

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The top of Tizi n Test is a full 2,100m and we spend the night here. The stars are incredible and down the valley you can see the light of the villages miles below. It does get cold so bring some warm clothing. Unlike most hotels / restaurants, they have an alcohol licence so a nice post ride beer went down very nicely! Dinner was a tasty tagine and then off to bed at 2,100m with unbelievable views all around us.

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Ride Two: Tizi n Test to Tassousfi (114km, 1169m)

Starting above 2,000m the only way is down. Breakfast (similar every day) consisted of pancakes, bread & jam, tasty orange juice and the choice of coffee or mint tea. The top section of the Tizi n Test is being repaired & the worst of the trip - we went in very slow convoy with our support cars at the front and back for the first 6km. 

Then, all of a sudden the road surface is good and we start the descent proper. This is a quick, sweeping descent with long views down the valley. Towards the bottom the road is wide and modern and we are absolutely gunning it and the first 30km fly by. The descent ends with a long straight section to the main road which is pretty flat but we are pushing 40km/h here and get to our first tea stop buzzing.

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As we turn off the Tizi n Test we are into the Anti Atlas - the foothills of the mountains and the road here is wide with an excellent surface. This is a quick day all around and a really social ride as we can stay close to each other and chat while taking in the views. There are some long, flat and very quiet sections perfect for a bit of chainganging before we stop for a packed lunch by a dried river bed. Lunch consists of pasta salad, fresh bread, an omelette and local fruits. 

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The last 30km to our stop for the night in Talouine is much lumpier than what has gone before today - mostly uphill with a few rolling sections. We zip through a couple of small towns including a lively market and by early afternoon we are at our hotel. The final kick (optional) is a climb out of town. This is one of the harder climbs of the trip - 10km at 4.5% and a good place to smash it if you want to push yourself (check out the Strava section HERE.) From the top, we roll back down to our hotel and have a dip in the pool before dinner.

Ride Three: Tazenakht to Ouarzazete (104km, 707m)

To make sure we can do the Southern Atlas loop in 4 rides, we drive the first hour of the day with bikes on the van. Arriving in Tazenakht, we get on the bikes and head north. The day before is quick with long straight sections, today is more rolling with low gradient up and downs all day. This is one of the main roads in this region so the quality is good all day (main roads is relative, we did see some lorries but again there were stretches where we were alone on the road). 

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This part of the country has been used in lots of films including Gladiator, James Bond, Game of Thrones & more. We ride by a petrol station promising cold beer until we realise it is a prop used in the Hills Have Eyes 2! The road continues to wind around until we hit the turn to Ouarzazate. Here the terrain gets greener as we follow the river into town on a wide, modern road. 

On the way into Ouarzazete we take a short detour to the famous Kasbah (castle) in Ait Benhaddou before descending to our hotel. Ouarzazete is called the doorway to the desert and is situated in between the Sahara & the Atlas.

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Ride Four: Ouarzazete to Tizi n Tichka (102km, 1328m)

Today we ride to the highest point of our trip - 2,260m to the summit of Tizi n Tichka. Like most climbs on the trip, the gradients are low pretty much the whole way up so you can climb in your big ring for most of the way if you are pushing it or spin comfortably all the way. 

Out of Ouarzazete the road drags back up to the junction we turned yesterday. We are now back into the high Atlas with snow on the peaks (expect to see more snow in Feb / March). Similar to Tizi n Test the road follows the river for around 40km and there is one section of bad road surface (apart from this the roads today are good). The last two days we have been out on our own so when we see some tourist shops it is a bit of a shock but we are now on the road to Marrakech and Tizi n Tichka is a popular day out with it's amazing views of the Atlas.

The climb proper (another relative term, there is not a massive difference between the drag to the climb and the climb itself) is 15km (Strava section HERE). The "steepest" section is after Aguelmous. Here you can see the valley down below and you realise how much you have climbed already and the views now get really pretty. After a photo at the top (its not every day you summit a 2,000m climb) the final 10km of the trip are spectacular.

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This descent is long, sweeping and on an inviting road surface. You can see for miles down and this is a fitting way to finish the Atlas loop. The road surface then deteriorates and the traffic increases so we pack the bikes on the top of the van and drive the final hour and half back to Marrakech. This is one of the world's great cities and after four days in the remote High Atlas it is quite the contrast to be in the bustling souks and lively squares. 

Tizi n’Tichka-1

In Summary:

Cycling in Morocco is definitely not for everyone. If you want the best road surfaces and facilities for cyclists, Mallorca is impossible to beat. However, what Morocco can offer is a real adventure, stunning scenery, great weather and very quiet roads. We have been here a number of times for recon rides and always leave with buckets of memories. 

Interested in riding the Atlas Mountains? Schedule a call with one of our sales specialists here: https://app.hubspot.com/meetings/info1280 or see more details of our trip here: https://sportivebreaks.com/morocco/