Cycling the Atlas Mountains

Who wouldn’t want to cycle the Atlas Mountains in Morocco? I have to be honest and say I hadn’t spent much time thinking about it until the opportunity presented itself. I had been invited to Morocco for a work event and the time off in the schedule triggered a conversation with a colleague who also loved cycling. The next thing we knew, we were sat in a taxi following a Land Cruiser that was fully laden with full suspension mountain bikes.

As we arrived at the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, it dawned on me that I hadn’t given the whole activity much thought and it was in fact, a year since I had last ridden my mountain bike. It was on my mind when we set-off and this contributed to the catastrophic attempt to climb the base of the entry hill. The air was thin, hot and in very limited supply, the wheels were spinning beneath me and I felt really awkward on the bike. I had to stop and compose myself.

After some adjustments to the saddle, and a little riding around flatter terrain, I soon started to get a rhythm so I focused on keeping my legs spinning and my breathing. Within about fifteen minutes the bike was no longer on my mind and instead, the great views in front of me were.

Making our way down to the old town

It was beautiful. The snow capped mountains in the distance were in huge contrast to the hot and sandy desert like roads we were riding towards them on. The Atlas Mountains is a huge region and we were only on the fringes and dabbling with the easier climbs. For the next four hours we were hardly on level ground and were either skidding and flying down some windy tracks, or doing our utmost to make our way up them. The climbing was really tough but I must admit, I was loving it.

From time to time we would come across small tiny dwellings where in some cases the children would make a point of coming over to say hello at these very red faced and strangely dressed strangers. We passed shepherds herding their flock, camels being walked along the road, and even a snake charmer who wanted to swap my Adidas trainers for his copper bracelet!

Lunch was at the top of a big hill in a large and cool restaurant where we all enjoyed tagines. By now we were ready to consume about 2,000 calories but we were also aware we wanted to make good use of the limited time we had on the ride. From there we headed off on a long descent, which was exactly what we needed as our lunch digested. The pleasure lasted no more than five minutes as very quickly we were back climbing, this time along a tarmac road with a manageable gradient. Thinking we were now finishing our ride, our guide then turned off the road and into another dirt track. “To the top” he said, as he pointed towards nothing in particular in the distance. “Its only 5km”.

It was the longest 5km of my life. It was now boiling hot and the track had no shade so the going was really tough. I was weaving from side to side to find the firmest bit of sand that I could and I honestly don’t think I was travelling at any more than about 4mph. Usually in these situations I try and count down the kms but it was pretty depressing looking at my Garmin to see what appeared like the same information regardless of how often I checked.

I reached the top after a minor delay. A large JCB digger was repairing the road following a landslide and the really friendly worker picked up my bike to carry it over the large hole that was still blocking my access. After squeezing myself along the edge I was able to make my way back to my bike to continue the final km to the top.

Usually, the top of a climb greets you with a reward for your efforts. Not this time, the views had been so amazing all day that it looked like pretty much a normal backdrop for the area. It was though a relief to be there and this alone energised us for the descent back down which was pretty hair-raising in places. Not because it was dangerous, but because my technical skills were so poor that my back wheel was sliding in the sand at every opportunity and it made me nervous to go too fast.

Trying to make my way across a bridge

All in all, this was a fantastic day and one that I will remember for ever. There were so many interesting and stimulating aspects to it that it felt like I had crammed in a weeks holiday in one ride. As we made our way back to the hotel in the taxi, I reflected on the day and really did feel very fortunate indeed.

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