Desert dust and gravel-paved altitudes in Morocco
On a dark November morning, I was picked up by my friend at 4am. We were leaving for Morocco to ride gravel with Running26, a travel-adventure company specialized in tailored events for the explorer. We stuffed our bike bags into a large taxi and chugged off to the airport to meet the 35 other dirt geeks, who loved gravel enough to get out of the warm beds at this God forsaken hour.
After 4.5 hours in the air, of which I proudly managed to sleep 4, we landed in Marrakech. We swiftly got our bikes out from behind of the oversize counter and we could all breathe a sigh of relief after having body searched our frames and rear derailleurs without finding any damage. A part of the group had rented bikes from a bike shop in town, which we headed towards to change clothes, get a handle on all our gear and pick up the Moroccan gravel machines for the rest of the group. The sun was shining from a bright blue sky and with a blink of an eye I had forgotten all about the 0 degrees at home in the dark; my mind was only set on what the next four days on the bikes would offer.
The start of the first stage was from a parking lot on the outskirts of the city, where we could see the Atlas Mountains on the horizon. We drove off in 4 groups led by the local guides, who were with us for the whole trip and knew all the small dirt roads that you can't find on Google maps. My group had been given a Moroccan MTB champion as leader and I quickly learned that I shouldn't try to follow his track. He rode the whole trip on a mountain bike and we were all a little envious when we got to know the character of a rather bumpy desert roads on the first day.
The goal on day one was a Bedouin camp in the best luxury 'glamping' style. The road went through the desert with a lot of small dried out riverbeds we had to cross, going steeply up and down. You had to concentrate and hold on tightly to the handlebars while getting used to the rocky desert surface. It was nice, rough and "dreamy" to cruise around in this very exotic but harsh landscape while having a little too few hours of sleep in the bank. As we moved across the dry dusty roads I was reminded of movies with people stranded in the desert being unable to think about anything but water. There wasn't a drop for miles around and I was extra pleased about having filled two bidons before the trip. With pretty bad "flying-legs" and lack of sleep, not everyone in the group thought the long sand pit we encountered was as great a gift as our guide had intended it to be. The sandbanks in Koksijde seemed like a small sandbox compared to this approx. 1K stretch in a dried out river covered by deep dry sand. It put all the pale Danish gravel people through the mill, and there wasn't one of us who didn't have to give up in this 'the-earth-is-poisonous game' and see ourselves half-running in despair, deep in the heavy sand.
Wrapped in a fine layer of reddish desert dust, we arrived at our luxury camp for the night, placed on a top of a ridge in the desert. To the south, we could spot the contour of the Atlas Mountains and to the north, the lights of Marrakech twinkling as the darkness settled. We were accommodated in top-tuned tents, each of which most of all reminded us of a large private luxury hotel room with high ceilings. The level of energy in the group was at a low point during dinner, which was served in the best Moroccan style. We were sitting on the floor at a long table and had one delicious dish after another served directly from the steaming tangine. After the meal, a few stayed and looked at the quite breathtaking starry sky by the fire, but most of us quickly called it a night and went to catch some sleep.
On the second day, the course was directed towards the foothills of Atlas. We drove off as a group across several more dry desert roads but the landscape slowly began to become partially more lush with olive tree plantations and small succulent-like plants alongside the road. We made an early coffee stop that I will probably never forget. A small restaurant overlooking a peaceful dammed lake, a beating sun, nice company, cold colas and a coffee like.. well the coffee was there anyway. A big zen moment for me, sitting there on the terrace with zero worries and great joy in being right there, right now. Shortly after the stop we met a herd of camels with tourists on their backs and then there was no more chit chatting. Now, the first regular climb of the trip on tarmac came. Lunch was waiting at the top of the climb and it was announced that we would gather there. It had been a long time since I had climbed and I was quickly reminded of all the genius and brutal things about climbing a mountain on a bicycle. How to find the rhythm, push; push; push, the naked truth on power as the group slowly splits into atoms on the way up and I am "on my own"; the sweat burning in my eyes, the demand on keeping distractions out, ignoring the fly that swarms around my head, keeping self pity thoughts out, push; push; push, the uplifting feeling of seeing the coffee stop lake getting smaller and smaller, as I slowly eat the altitude meters and finally see it looking like a small puddle down there; surrendering to the circumstances, it goes up and it goes slowly; finding the patience, the balance, how I zig-zag towards every little patch of shade that's on my way; the relief at the top that it's over and the pride in dragging myself all the way up there.
I found my own pace and rode smoothly to the top alone. On the way up I was greeted by a couple of locals who came roaring down the mountain on their overloaded scooters and by others who were standing in their fields harvesting something I couldn't understand could grow there. Two very foreign worlds that crossed up that mountain; first and third world challenges, side by side.
After being served lunch on the mountainside by our driving chef, we moved deeper into the Atlas Mountains and the surface changed again from tarmac to rocky gravel. The landscape reminded me that the Star Wars was filmed here, and I could easily imagine Anakin Skywalker rushing forward from behind a rock wall. We had one more climb on the menu and this time the rocky ground demanded my full attention. We crept in long lines up to the highest point of the day at 1400 meters of altitude, after which we could look down into the valley to our hotel, which was located in a paradisiacal lush oasis, and would house us for the next two nights.
On the third day, which misleadingly was called 'the rest day', you could choose whether you wanted to hike or bike. I chose the bike ride and very quickly found myself on an unmanageable long climb that caught me unprepared. It's been a long time since I've suffered that much and the uncertainty of how long the climb would last was especially difficult to handle for the inner control freak in me. But I got up, flanked by two stand up guys who helped with a fine pace and who didn't suffer half as much as me. I later found out that we had climbed a little over 1000 meters on a approx. 16K stretch, where the last kilometers were on a small gravel ledge. A really cool climb, very beautiful as it snaked its way through the rock walls, putting the hammer down with a max gradient of 18% and with hairpin turns in the finest Alpe d'Huez fashion, before crawling up on the last bit on the gravel patch, where I had a slightly pounding heart reminding myself to lean a little up against the mountain side and not look down. Again a gigantic zen moment for me, sitting at 2000 meters altitude, eating lunch in the sun, in the calm, with a mountain view and with a lot of nice gravel people around me, who were all equally stoked about what we just had been through.
At home by the pool, stories from the different groups' adventures of the day were exchanged and the day ended with dinner and World Cup soccer in the hotel fireplace launch.
The Queen stage came quicker than we expected, and by that the end of the trip also slowly creeped in on us. We woke up with the chickens on the fourth day and most of us were shivering a bit in the rather cool night temperatures, which were still hanging in the valley when we rolled out at 8am. We started with a quiet asphalt climb while the sun slowly rose above the mountains. I had to wake up slowly and get my body going again after the hardships of the "rest day". Todays biggest challenge was called 'Outghal 'and was an 18K long rolling climb, exclusively on gravel, where we had to gain 725 meters of altitude. The whole group was again gathered on the bikes and the excitement was high towards Outghal. The elevation profile had been talked over and over again, what energy might be good to take in (but not too much) had been discussed, and many speculation had been given on the tactics of the best way to reach the top. Although the trip had had a minimal competitive feel throughout, there was still a bit of play and racing in it when we reached the bottom of 'Outghal'. My legs were good, but tiny signs of fatigue had gradually appeared. Especially the somewhat sluggish pulse hinted to me that I should not follow any accelerations too soon. So I opted for the defensive Froome tactic and let the others go, as they tried to keep up with the guide and the lightest guy in the company. But quietly my diesel engine also revived and I slowly closed the gap to many from the morning break as I ate 'Outghal' bite by bite. I met my partner in crime from the rest day's climb after a while and we went together for the rest of the way up. I think we both got motivated by each other's company, by the unspoken common goal of getting to the top together and from the special bond that forms when you have climbed a mountain while suffering side by side and overcome it together.
At the top, a great treat of a lunch in the open again awaited, this time totally surrounded by the mythical Atlas Mountains. The day ended with a seriously long gravel descent where you, for approx.15 playful kilometres, had to keep a cool head and let yourself surf over the gravel. A huge rush to wrap it all up with. We slid into a couple of buses at the foot of the mountain and drove back to Marrakech, where I just had time enough to get lost in the medina and have a nice dinner with the group before pulling the plug at our nice hotel and flying home the next morning.
Day 1: 47 km and 750 hm
Day 2: 66 km and 1470 hm
Day 3: 53 km and 1370 hm
Day 4: 73 km and 1650 hm
I rode my cannondale superX cross bike with 42 mm well studded rhombus tires from Spezialized. I missed a few more gears. Regular mountain gearing would have been an advantage.
We were in Morocco at the end of November. The weather forecast can fluctuate, but we had 20-25 degrees every day and high sun. At night, the temperature drops and loose arms, possibly legs, and a vest can be a good idea in the morning. Gloves are also a good idea - bumpy roads. Sunglasses are of course a must - full value on the rays down there.
Thanks to Running26
Photo cred: Alexander Overby/Running26 and Cornelia Crone