On the road in the atlas mountains

While most of us at Sportive Breaks are seasoned vets in Morocco, this autumn saw a debut into the chaos and beauty of North Africa for one of our lead guides, Simon Powner. Here is what he made of his first week riding in Africa...

Landing into the melee of Marrakesh, you instantly know this is going to be special. But more than that you know YOU”RE NOT IN KANSAS ANYMORE!

Marrakech Airport is situated just South of the madness of Marrakech and the infamous walls housing the hustle and bustle of the Medina. A 10 minute transfer from arrivals to the Hotel you are quickly captivated by the charm of the Moroccan madness.

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Everyone has warned you about the chaotic roads in and out of the city, but seeing them first hand puts any worries to bed: Cycle lanes and perfect Asphalt in the city is all the evidence you need that the Moroccans are glad to welcome the cycling community into its home.

So, bags unpacked; bikes built... let’s get this show on the road. Warm up ride ASAP please!! With expert mechanic and ex pro rider Taylor Gunman by our side; a quick espresso at Muncho’s Café House and it was time to turn a wheel. Close on three hours later, with 85KM and 612M of ascent on our Garmin we were coming back into town. The ride was fast and flat, exactly what we needed from day 1. The real question was did we really ‘need’ the cake stop we managed to ‘squeeze’ in?? Regardless, day 1 on the bike in Morocco did not disappoint we all threw our steads back into storage with smiles on our faces. More of that please!!

 

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Day 2

Warm up done. We were keen to get our teeth into the trip proper. A short van drive to the foot of Tizi n Tichka and we were at the start line for what promised to be 5 days of the most memorable riding any of us had ever undertaken.

The route into Ait Benhaddou had a bit everything and would set the tone for the days ahead. Col Du Tichka stood at 2260m, this was our first challenge and the highest point of the tour. We set out on a road that could have been mistaken for any winding stretch of tarmac from an Alpine pass in Europe. The only notably difference were the two blankets of sand pulled tightly up to either side of the road. Roughly 250w later we crested the first ascent. Job done! Time to enjoy the descents we’d just earned… ALL 70km of them (with the odd kicker thrown in for fun). We arrived at our accommodation in Ait Benhaddou completely spent but knowing we’d earned every km on the flashing computers mounted between the hoods of our handlebars. Bring out the Tagine, while we just sit here and soak up the incredible views as the sun sets on the road now behind us.

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Day 3

We awoke early to discuss the day ahead. It was a long transit day to our accommodation which sat in the foothills of our final ascent. Long and exposed; we knew it would pose a new challenge, but we were in cycling paradise, so the daunting prospect merely whetted our appetite rather than dampen our spirits. The cross winds meant our “flat” day would be just as sapping as any day in the mountains.

9AM, locked and loaded, we set out for Tailouine. 160km with 1508m of ascent, gave us just over 6 hours in the saddle. Grateful for the stops we managed to take in a Hollywood film location and the most mouth-watering beef tagine in a restaurant hidden behind a petrol station, ONLY IN MOROOCO!

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After lunch it was heads down and motor on to our home for the night. Arriving just before the sun bid us farewell, we kicked off our bike shoes and set about a pot of mint tea and a huge bowl of home baked biscuits (they didn’t last too long!!) whilst relaxing beneath the final mountain range of our journey.

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Day 4

The prayer bells woke us before sunrise in Tailouine; but given the excitement for the Queen Stage I doubt any of us would have needed an alarm clock. 8:50 (yes, we were early), we each threw a leg over our respective whips and began eating up the kms with the mighty Tizi n Test our target looming in front of us.

30km in and our first puncture!! It had taken us an enormous 363km to pop an inner but I think we were grateful for the stop as the pace was up from the off. The next circa 40km flew by without any real event apart from the odd man on a moped with a goat on his shoulders flashing us a smile and waving enthusiastically.

Before we knew it we were planted at the bottom of our final climb: Tizi n Test. A lot of banter in the group meant that I had been nominated to go for the Strava KOM. My mission: 35km and 1400m of vertical ascent in 1h33m… HELP!!! I got to the top and flopped off my bike 1h37 later, absolutely exhausted. 3rd overall and disappointed not to claim top spot as I’d had great legs. A quick bike inspection showed I’d perhaps ridden the last 2km with 30psi in the front tyre, A PUNCTURE! My excuse and I’m sticking to it!

A refreshing beer and an unparalleled view of the Atlas Mountains from the terrace of our accommodation helped to ease the pain. Some sarcastic questioning about being a whole 4mins off the Strava crown around our lofty dinner table at 2093m quickly ensued.

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Day 5

Our next two days were focused on getting back to Marrakesh punctuated with a stop in Asni. Surrounded by the famous North African peaks we carved our way back to the capital, soaking in the last bit of Moroccan peaceful goodness before we alighted our frames back in the ‘kesh. 91km and a final 98km gave us our days five and six, respectively. We’d conquered the Atlas Mountains!! Rolling back through the maze of streets and barrage of taxi cabs, the sense of accomplishment was palpable. We slumped into our hotel with huge congratulations from the hotel staff and anyone who overheard the chat about our last week of heroics. The table erupted into spontaneous fits of laughter when the waiter asked us if we would like to share a tagine.

What an adventure!!

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Marrakech smacks of contrast. From the Medina to the Mall; from the Mopeds to the Mercedes; but from whatever walk of life one thing the Moroccan people never forget is their duty as your hosts, it’s what truly defines this trip, as a lifetime experience: the people!

We cycled through the stunning scenery of the Moroccan mountains with the feeling of pioneers in an undiscovered land with a smug grin that the road was our own and we didn’t have to battle other pelotons for the best line. Whilst all of us hold a place like Mallorca central to our cycling compass, there was something almost zen like about pinging along these roads with not another Rapha jersey insight. Admittedly a lot of the locals looked on in amazement as a group of ‘crazy westerners’ came whizzing through town; racking our carbon steeds next to a mix of donkeys and mopeds always drew a crowd of inquisitive local children.

Ups aplenty, and some of the most challenging ascents we’ve ever crested. The passes here seem to tease you with the summit with each hairpin, before whipping you back on to another 4%; a series of gentle gradients stretched over the longest distance possible giving you enough time to look up from your stem every once in a while. A bizarre notion floating around your head that the road was put there just for us. And the cherry on the cake: the aghast Strava kudos from friends back home struggling to pronounce the names of the locations your route snakes in and around.

An Arab proverb says, "If you have much, give of your wealth; if you have little, give of your heart.", Morocco certainly gives you it’s heart.

Come and ride with us in Morocco in 2020. Our 6 night Marrakech & the Atlas Mountains Raid can be booked HERE

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