Cycle Morocco's Great South
Let’s play a little word association. I’ll start. “Morocco”.
Morocco…. Africa…. Hot!
Oops. Sorry, no. Wrong. The correct association would be “freezing”.
It’s 5am in the High Atlas. The cold has woken me up. Get dressed as fast as possible, coat on, and back under the thin blanket.
Oh man, I’m gonna have freezing fingers again today. I’ve only brought fingerless summer cycling gloves. What I need is thermal ski mittens. I know it gets cold at night in deserts and mountains but I didn’t expect it to be so cold all through the day here in Morocco.
It was a last minute trip, booked and packed and out the door. Car, airport, plane, airport, taxi, hotel, bicycle, mountain, dinner, wine, bed. Whoosh. Day 2. 5am. Shivering. Spent yesterday riding along with alternating hands in armpits to relieve the numbness.
Worth it though. Cycling in Morocco is wonderful. Virtually traffic-free roads that wind up and down through breathtaking mountain scenery. Breathtaking to look at, and literally breathtaking as you climb and climb and climb.
Just 6300 feet of climbs yesterday, for day 1. A gentle introduction. That’s almost 2000 metres.
The altitude is 6000ft / 1800m, so there’s plenty of air. You’re only breathless from the exertion. But when that one competitive guy takes off like a rocket, it’s hard to resist going for the kill. I’m not competitive. But I’m having him. But I’m really not competitive. But I am going to take him.
At the top, you’re done for.
Today we’re off up the famous Tizi n’Test climb. Just 9487 feet of climbing to do. 2891m of climbing over 57 miles. It’ll be alright though, we’ve got all day.
Here I am, on my bike in Morocco.
The convoy takes us to the start point, free of what little traffic there was back in the town.
A day in the saddle up in the High Atlas begins with the ritual assembly of the wheels, the testing of the brakes, and the rubbing together of the frozen hands.
Time to start riding.
Time for the sun to come out and start the defrosting.
Time to start climbing.
The views are vast and impressive and the characteristic redness of the ground is all around.
The air doesn’t feel thin, but it looks thin. You’re up high enough and the sky is clear enough to get that darkening blueness above you that makes you feel like you’re on the edge of space.
Looking down into the valleys and across the plains, all the haze and dust is below you. You’re looking down on the distant clouds, and you’d be happy to stand there and watch the view all day long.
At least, you’d be happy to stare at the view if the view didn’t include that amazing winding road. It calls to you. Get on your bike and join me. Come on, have some fun!
OK, I will.
From your vantage point it looks like a perfectly smooth ribbon. You envision yourself sailing through those bends joyously free of effort. Downhill all the way. Someone has crafted the geometry of this perfect piece of tarmac just for your enjoyment. So let’s do it.
It really is winding. Snake-like. A ribbon of left into right into left, a never ending flow that brings a grin to your face.
A grin that turns to a satisfaction and a relaxation, and as your muscles warm up and the speed builds and the views expand, all your senses ramp up a level and tune into the smallest detail.
The smell of the wild flowers, the chirp of the insects, the rush of the air against the side of your face, the warmth of the sun on your back, the rumble of the road beneath your tyres.
A perfectly timed turn of the pedals as you enter a series of S-bends through a gorge, an instinctive shift of your weight to the inside of the saddle, a slight pressure on your outside pedal to balance the turn.
You carve into the bend, flick across to the other side, then snap back over to the right.
A perfect line, picking up speed all the way through. Head down, tuck your arms in, slide back in the saddle. Feet into attack position.
The road ahead blurs, the blue sky starts to streak past on both sides. You transition to warp speed.
Think I’m exaggerating? Take a look at the map. You want winding roads? You got ’em!
Of course, if you’re going to cycle Morocco, in the High Atlas and the Tizi n’Test in particular, you’ll have to do some climbing.
Some people come over the top of the climbs more sedately. I can see the top now, take it easy.
Others crest more aggressively. That’s the top… Power!
There are some stunning places to take a break for a drink or some lunch.
Just saying “stunning” is lazy writing, but I can’t think of a better way of describing it. You need to see it. But don’t accept a photograph. Go and see it for yourself.
While the cyclists take their break, the support crew leap into action to keep everything running smoothly.
Not everything runs smoothly though.
There are plenty of really good smooth tarmac sections, but up in the mountains there are a lot of rough, worn out bits of road, lots of loose gravel and potholes. Get carried away on a downhill and steam into a tight bend, and you might find that the road suddenly gives way to a sandy gravelly pit.
Up at the top of the passes, where water runs down the mountain and washes away the surface, you might find yourself aiming for the last remaining 2 inch wide strip of tarmac at the edge of the road, to avoid all the potholes, and then realise you’ve put yourself right on the edge of a thousand foot drop down the mountain.
One of us was unlucky enough to clip an unseen crack in the road on a fast downhill section. Very unlucky, but also lucky to escape without serious injury. Serious enough to end his cycling for the rest of the tour though.
I’ve ridden with Exodus on several group cycling holidays, and each one has been utterly brilliant. The organisation is superb. The route planning is faultless. The variety baked into each tour is judged perfectly. And the guides are always absolutely first class.
Our guide on this tour, Radu, proved his credentials again during this incident. As well as being a great tour leader, informative, funny, helpful, a superb cyclist and all-around thoroughly nice chap, he was completely unfazed by blood and injury. First aid. Hospital. Compassion.
And aftercare. Changing bandages for our fallen comrade every day for the rest of the trip. A legend and a gentleman.
If you go to cycle Morocco, there’s one more thing you have to look out for. The famous tree goats.
The cycling is over for the day. My hands are finally warm, just in time to relax at this evening’s hotel. The accommodation on this trip is really very good. Comfortable, and with some great views.
There’s more to the trip than just cycling. Essaouira is a fascinating 15th century Portuguese fishing port. There’s the beach at Agadir. The famous blue rocks. Paradise Valley. The bazaar at Djemma el Fna in Marrakech. Berber villages and Kasbahs.
From the heights of Mount Toubkal to the chaos of Marrakech, you won’t be bored for a second.
Cycle Morocco epitomises To See The World’s mantra of More Adventure, More Often.
It’s such an easy place to get to – 3 and a half hours direct from Gatwick to Marrakech with British Airways, 24000 Avios economy return or 34000 Avios and £50 in business – and it’s Mediterranean Africa.
You’ll stay in a traditional Riad where you can pick an orange straight off the tree and share the road with those ancient Mercedes 230s that last forever.
Lake District for a week, or the Moroccan High Atlas? For me that’s a very easy choice.
Here’s where to find the Exodus Cycle Morocco’s Great South trip.