If there’s one place where you could forget that the sky is falling, it must be a mountain range named for the deity who held the heavens on his shoulders.
These mountains really do seem like the universe might be resting on them.
The climbing is very steady, and there’s little relief but it never seems impossible – only later do you realise you reached 1400m, not far off cols like Aravis, Colombiere or Joux Plane. On longer tours deep into the mountains there are passes above 2200m.
And yet it feels like you’ve barely penetrated the foothills. The massive snow-capped bulk of Toubkal looms above, daring you to keep climbing and mocking the meters you’ve gained with such pain. At more than 4000m it would tower over any European summit except Mont Blanc.
I was in Morocco on business but with the season fast approaching a two-week trip in March with no riding was potentially ruining a winter of good training.
In case opportunity arose I packed a set of kit and shoes. No power pedals, no gels, no computer or HR and I always go sans casque anyway. With luck I managed to arrange to be in Marrakech for the weekend, feeling sure there would be some way to get a ride.
Sure enough I found Bike Morocco which promised various tours and holidays and more importantly rented decent Cannondale road bikes. I emailed to say I’d like to get out in the hills for the two days and needed a bike. Sure, they said, and a quick PayPal later it was all done.
I’d been told to turn up at 9. They didn’t tag inshallah on but I should have checked… handy Arabic tip, when someone says ‘X will happen, inshallah’ your response should be ‘Akeed?” which means “Really? For sure?”. It usually gets a knowing laugh and they may give you a real time.
To be fair this was a bad morning. Coronavirus was cutting a swathe through tour bookings and the shop had many changes and cancellations – the worst was still to come. Nevertheless you feel a bit awkward standing outside a closed shop in a small side street wondering if you’d misunderstood something.
Eventually they arrived and started busying around. It turned out this was very much a bespoke tour. I was introduced to Abdellah, who would be my ride partner, and Ayoub who would drive with us. All for me. Yallah… let’s go.
Outside the old city, Marrakech has pretty wide, modern roads extending around and out from the centre with a bike-moped lane at the side.
Abdellah, while clearly an experienced cyclist had as much English as I had Arabic, and about the same in French. Happily some basic cycling terms and comments are universal so we settled into a tempo, riding side by side, as the roads became longer and straighter. It wasn’t hard but it wasn’t easy. Later I worked out that it was just a continuous false flat – a real bastard in fact, about 30km at 1% where you just had to keep the pedals turning. Good thing I’d done all that track training.
Soon though, around the hour mark, the mountains came into view and after another 15 minutes we turned off the main road heading in the right direction. We stopped for bananas and a minor saddle adjustment for me. After this, Abdellah said, it was uphill.
The temperature had also been climbing. It was mid 20s and after a London winter that seems hot, so I suffered as we started to climb. I’m pretty good at judging my own pace and I just kept going while Abdellah danced ahead and occasionally slowed for me. Looking back I see the climb, to Tamazoute, was nearly 10km at an average 4%. With a couple of easier sections I’d say it was mostly 6-7% and there were parts up to 14%. Incredibly I’m on the Strava KOM podium but I’m assuming that’s a sign that not many people use it.
After a few more rollers we finally got to what Abdellah assured me was the end of the climbing for today. We descended through some very tight turns which he knew well but the dusty roads and my skinny tyres made sure I didn’t relax too much, giving one or two hairy moments on the way down.
Now at this point I should also mention he wasn’t even on a road bike. A good 10kg lighter than me, Abdellah had been cruising along on a gravel bike. As we headed back to Marrakech he suggested we swap turns and while I did my share I could see he was well within his limits. I shuddered to think what he would be like on some aero carbon.
I’d refuelled after the previous day in the amazing souk at the heart of Marrakech. Some chicken kebabs and a banana, date and avocado smoothie followed by mint tea and fruit with the local yoghurt was perfect.
My hotel was a lovely riad, one of the traditional styles in Marrakech, with rooms around a central courtyard. Right at the edge of the old city, it was so quiet I woke to the sound of Mosque prayers and birdsong.
Pocketing some dates at breakfast was my best move all day because it was just me and Abdellah for this one, no support. I’d been given the route after the previous day’s ride and knew we had a bigger climb and would be into the mountains.
Again we set off on that horrible false flat – about 40km to gain 600 meters – but then we were into what felt like real mountains from Tagun to Moulay Brahim and across to Ouazgita. The climbs themselves were not that difficult; some sections at 6-8% but nothing dreadful and the day was cooler. But I certainly had more sense of being in the mountains with this rugged bare landscape rising up on every side and falling to valleys below.
At the first summit we stopped for a photo and Abdellah pointed to a town far above in the distance where the tower of the Mosque could be seen. I’m not religious but prayer seemed like a good thing.
‘Up to Mosque’ he said ‘but down first.’ The descents here were fast and open – a confident rider knowing the roads could really take it at speed. I didn’t.
After the climb to the Mosque it was really a long plateau with a smaller crest at the end. Constantly at 1200-1300m we felt the chill and as we started to descend we were in quite heavy cloud, compromising both visibility and traction. A long winding descent and we reached a town for coffee and food before the last hour back to Marrakech.
These cafes are present in every town and village – it’s very much part of the social fabric here. And the flat slightly-sweet Moroccan bread served with jam and cheese is a great fuel. Also highly recommended is ‘nuss-nuss’, which literally means half-half (espresso and milk), like a cortado. If you want a simple espresso ask for ‘un Italien’.
Over coffee I’d asked Abdellah ‘Avez-vous un equipe?’ as well as ‘Quelle age?” It turns out his team was ‘l’equipe national’ as he showed me his results from the Tour of Morocco and other pro races in Spain and the region. And at 28 he was little more than half my age.
So I felt it was only fair to let him do 80% of the work on the way back. It would make him feel good 😉 Although the false flat was in our favour now it was also a headwind and my two days had been quite an effort. Here’s riding with you, kid.
Back in Marrakech I showered and packed ready for the drive back to Casablanca and another week of work. While we were out however the world seemed to have gone coronavirus crazy – word was all flights would stop that night so it was a mad scramble to find a way out, on a 15 hour trip via Istanbul to cover the 3 hours direct from Casablanca to London.
Mind you the thought of not getting out and having to spend a few weeks in the mountains was tempting. Quel dommage. I’d love to go back and do one of the longer tours that really penetrate the mountains, if only because I wouldn’t have to face that false flat every day.
If that plane left the ground and I wasn’t on it, I’m not so sure how much I would have regretted it today, or tomorrow but certainly not for the rest of my life.