Tours & Travel

Romance Cycling – Atlas Mountains ‘Unbound’

Redouane said that there hadn’t been much snow this winter. The ski season never really got started. And yet, whenever the roads turned south we would see the magnificent snow-capped peaks of the high Atlas Mountains on the horizon. Maybe it wasn’t enough to ski, but it took our breath away every time.

We rode in the Atlas Mountains for five days. Our aim was to connect and ride together as a team and to explore new and challenging terrain. If you looked at a map, we were only ever an hour’s drive south of the chaos of Marrakesh, with its Medina full of people and noise, of music and spices and snake charmers and monkeys with dyed fur, and even a man selling false teeth from a picnic table. But just outside the city, we were plunged into days of complete isolation, hours of riding on empty dirt roads that cut and wound their way through that breathtaking landscape.

None of us had really known what to expect. We knew we wanted something different. More than a training camp, we wanted to explore. Morocco offers a landscape and culture far removed to what you might find in a more typical European destination, despite being just as easy to access.

I was blown away by the diversity, changing colours and beauty of the Atlas Mountains. The scale of the terrain to ride was insane too.

Each day was so different to the last that we could have been riding in five different countries over the five days. A desert raid, tracing tracks through the sand by following painted rocks that had been placed there by someone, sometime. A long rocky climb through a pine forest where we saw a marching army of caterpillars following their Queen to a new home. Riding across a surreal football pitch mapped out onto empty salt flats where once a river had flowed.

High-fiving kids as we rode through their remote mountain villages. They’d cheer and shout while those with bikes would ride alongside us and pop wheelies. Being welcomed into the home of a Berber shepherd, where we crouched around a fire in the blackened basement to warm our hands after being caught in a storm.

Passing through the dusty hills at the foot of the Atlas Mountains. High-fiving the local kids as you roll through their villages. Climbing off-road mountain passes that are hidden in the clouds and only used by the Berber shepherds. You can’t even dream up those scenes.

People make a place, and those that we were fortunate to meet gave depth and perspective to our short visit. Each day we rode with Abdel Hida, a Moroccan pro cyclist who’s competed in major races across Africa. His humility and good nature while he rode the legs off us in perfect silence was something to behold.

On one particularly tough day, we were supported by Ali, who followed us in his battered old Land Rover Defender. It had 500,000 miles on the clock. Ali was full of jokes and stories and kept the Berber music cranked up from the car’s stereo. When he handed round a bag of dates after the climb with the caterpillars, we were already singing his praises. When he then led us to his house high up in the mountains for a delicious lunch, he cemented his place in our Hall of Fame for the week.

Our last day was set to be a challenging ride even before the storm rolled in. We watched the only rain of our trip (in fact the only rain they’d had in the region for over two months) lash down all night and into the morning and wondered what to do. We were secretly all relieved when our guide – Redouane – told us we’d be forced to cut the ride in half. Certain mountain passes would be dangerous at best, if not totally impassable.

And so that final ride ended at lunchtime. But what a magical lunch it was. They say that in the mountains, difficult times bring out the best in people, and this couldn’t be truer that day. After a cold, misty morning of climbing up to 2,000 metres altitude, we were spent. But suddenly we found ourselves being hurriedly welcomed into a small house in a small village in the clouds. As with so many moments over the week, we weren’t sure what to expect. The home’s owner, a local Berber shepherd, motioned to us to leave our filthy bikes in the bare stone hall and duck through into the next room.

It was a small pantry with a fire burning in the corner. The walls were black and various tagines were bubbling away. A few stools were brought in and we crouched around the fire to bring life back to our hands and toes. Abdel pulled a sheet of polystyrene out from his jersey, and smiled knowingly at his age-old trick of warding off the cold.

Soon enough our Lycra kit started to steam and smiles and laughter filled the room. We made our way upstairs to be served a delicious lunch from the tagines that had been cooking long before our arrival. The Berber family displayed immense generosity and the meal was completed with a traditional Moroccan tea ceremony. Green tea, mint and sugar were mixed, poured, mixed again, poured again to produce the perfect compliment to our meal.

A super special week. It was very humbling and I felt a real connection to nature and the outdoors the whole week. Which you don’t always get from cycling trips.

In the final hours before our flight home, we rested our tired legs in the sun on the tiled terrace of a Marrakesh Riad. Morocco had delivered an experience far removed from a typical team training camp and we were all extremely grateful for that. We wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Morocco to anyone looking for a cycling adventure, and we can’t wait to get back ourselves.

How we did it

We flew with BA from London direct to Marrakesh.
We used Bike-Morocco who plotted all routes, looked after hotel bookings and guided our rides each day. The full seven days – with a free day in Marrakesh either side of the riding – came to less than £1,000 each all in: Guiding, accommodation, all meals (not including flights).

For more info check out our website

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Words & Photos: Romance Cycling