The prospect of riding the back roads of Morocco from Tangier over the Riff and High Atlas Mountains and ending up on the coast at Essaouira was too good to miss. Andi Buchs had piloted the route and this was edition #1. 1750km in length (with extensions available for keen riders) and over 30,000m of climbing.
I have a great love for Morocco. Jenny and I spent over a year of our lives there during the last ten or so years. Two months each winter in our campervan gave us warm African winter sun and time to enjoy some of the beauty and culture of this friendly safe country. In the last couple of years my boys,Tom and Jonny, have joined me for surfing at Imsouane on the coast, biking in the mountains and Astro photography in the dark deserts of the south. (I just did the biking!)
After riding Bikingman Portugal in late September and averaging 300km a day I intended to take it a little easier in Morocco however the parcours was going to be tough and remote at times and so it proved to be!
I left my car with Paul and Debbie, in El Palmar, and loaded my kit on the Mason ISO before riding 60km down the coast to Tarifa and ferry across to Tangier.
Tangier is a great port of arrival. Suddenly so different from Europe, notwithstanding some architectural influences in its historic sea front buildings. I was greeted with the call to prayer from the harbour side mosque – such an evocative sound of Morocco.
I was staying for a couple of nights before the start at the Rembrandt Hotel, dating from 1950, and although comfortable was showing its age a little – a bit like me I guess!
Over the next day I met up with organiser Andi and the eight other adventurers and it felt strangely relaxed because all the kit I had was what I was riding with and no “take this – ditch that” decisions had to be made.
The other riders were all experienced ultra distance guys with Trans America, Transcontinental race, Tour Divide race experience.
Andi had been out on the road to check some of the route and there were a couple of changes that had us scratching heads as we gathered for GPS updates and downloads into various navigational aids. We all had Spot Gen3 trackers which allowed for live tracking on MapProgress. Good for safety and nice for friends and family dot watchers. Local Maroc Telecom SIM cards were loaded into phones to give us data access and good mobile coverage. 4G was pretty much available everywhere.
A relaxed start was planned for about 0830 at the lighthouse point that sits above Tangier Bay to the east. We gathered at the Rembrandt and rode through light city traffic the 8 or so km to the start.
A few photos later and we were off right into a steady 500m climb onto a ridge that was clouded with early morning low mist.
We were soon up among a farm of massive wind turbines, blades whirring in the clouds with the occasional hazy sun visible.
It didn’t take long for the clouds to clear and a warm day was in prospect as we descended into valleys and made more climbs on our way to Chechaouen and Check Point 1.
We were soon heading back towards the coast and arrived at Tétouan where I made a good lunch stop at a roadside fuel station.
A spectacular ride along the rocky coast then followed with some lovely descents followed by the inevitable climbs out of the coves up over the cliff tops.
Come mid afternoon I arrived in Bni Said on market day as we headed back inland. A short distance out of town the roads were deserted and then rolling into town you are faced with the shock of a busy market, everything for sale at the side of the road, thousands of people milling everywhere, lots of noise, food being cooked and the road completely blocked at times. Car boot type selling on the outskirts and then the more established stalls nearer the centre selling just about anything and everything. Exciting to pass through but you need your wits about you on a bike!
The road then rose up 1000m climbing towards Chechaouen and suddenly a turning right gave us the first taste of gravel.
Pretty steep at times I jumped off a couple of times and pushed for a few meters to get over the steep ramps.
Once over the top of the climb there was a short descent and Chechaouen came into view in the evening twilight deep down in the valley below.
I rode into town away from the route and found a small hotel, had a reviving shower, and kit wash before walking into town for supper. Chechaouen is famous for the blue buildings and did not disappoint.
However I had limited time to explore and sat in the corner of a small square eating a good kefta tagine. Walking back to the hotel I picked up some provisions for breakfast and got to bed.
I was up and away at 0630 just as dawns early light was emerging over the mountains to the East.
I climbed out of the town and back onto the gravel/rock/sand road that climbed pretty steeply to the summit of the first mountain at 1800m. And what a morning it was. The road was little used and headed towards the Riff cannabis farms that make the area famous. The going was tough and on numerous occasions I had to push the bike up sharp ramps where the surface was too loose or rocky to ride.
For much of the climb I was in company with Mark who had narrower tyres than me and had decided to push the bike a good distance.
After one such bike push I was setting off but I had a silly tumble when the wheel spun. I landed hard with my ribs on a perfectly placed rock. Cursing and swearing I carried on and initially the bruised ribs did not feel too bad.
The morning was warming up with no breeze and the road stayed rough. I got to the top of the second climb by lunchtime and reckoned it had been one of hardest mornings I had had on a bike.
The afternoon ran through more spectacular landscapes with lots of climbing and cautious descending.
I rode on into the dark with no prospect of anywhere to stay so decided to bivouac when I found a suitable spot.
At the top of a small climb I found a remote area of flat ground with a few low bushes to hide behind. It was warm and I put on a jacket, laid out the sleeping mat and wrapped the lightweight groundsheet over me for a few hours kip. The half moon was falling to the horizon and lying there looking up at bright stars was one of those special moments. The only downside was the pain from my ribs and a couple of lads arriving in a car a few meters from my bivouac and stopping to listen to loud music for half and hour! I couldn’t really tell them to go away!
The night was a bit restless and my ribs had got a little worse. I was up and away by 0530 after a breakfast of cake, biscuit and a couple of yoghurts.
The road descended to a completely different landscape with bone dry grasslands and a couple of substantial reservoirs that sat there waiting desperately for the winter rains to arrive.
The land was incredibly arid and by late morning the Mercury was heading towards 40degC.
The day was not great for progress with pain from the ribs pretty acute at times when moving position on the bike bars or reaching for a bottle.
Again there was no prospect of accommodation in the small towns and villages – we were well off the tourist’s beaten track. I had resolved to bivouac again – not great after two days riding in 40deg of heat! I stopped at a fuel station for drinks and sat in the shade for an hour feeling a bit miserable. After a while a policeman came and chatted and after the usual passport checking he offered me the police station yard to camp. I thanked him but it meant retracing my steps a few kilometres so I pushed on.
After dusk I had passed through the town of Tissi and then arriving at the next village stopped outside a cafe and asked a couple of locals if there was any food available. They said “no” but invited me to have some tea and coffee with them and they would sort something. One kindly went away and came back with bread and eggs and we sat there chatting in broken English with a little French. The other, Mohamed Zarzour, invited me to stay with his family for the night. I was so happy to accept his kindness and after registering with the local Gendarmerie (required by law) we went to his house.
His wife, Mounia, and three young children, Hasnae, Razane and Riad were lovely and she had been warned of our arrival and we sat down to spaghetti and a bowl of soup. I had a shower and they insisted on washing all my kit. I must have been pretty ‘high’ after a couple of days riding in the warm sun. We chatted away as far as we could in broken English and French. The kindness of strangers.
Zarzour was up for the call to prayer just before 0600hrs and I was up and away just after 0700 in the early morning stillness of a village still slumbering. Thanks seemed hardly adequate.
I rode on and the route crossed the main A2 motorway and started a steady climb. At the first cafe, after 13km of warm up riding, I stopped for breakfast and took time to assess my situation.
Forty eight hours after the fall my ribs had become even more painful. Just getting on and off the bike was difficult. Once in a stable position on the bars I was ok but any movement – onto the aero bars or reaching for a bottle was horrible. I was pretty down and realised the game was over. Heading to the remote High Atlas made no sense and would be risky.
So decision made I retraced my steps and joined the N6 road and headed towards Fes, a bustling City, where I would be able to stay and get transport back to Tangier. It was a 60km ride and not too hilly and the following wind was a blessing in one sense but made it incredibly hot at times.
Another day at 40degC so I stopped at just about every opportunity to take on cold drinks.
Once in the big City I aimed for the car hire places and managed to dodge some crazy driving. I found a hotel and enjoyed a couple of Flag Speciales in the bar before going out for food.
City of Fes
Home run and thoughts
I guess once you make the decision to scratch with an injury the homing instinct kicks in. So the following day I got to Tangier and the late afternoon ferry to Tarifa where Paul kindly met me and we drove to his place. One night in El Palmar to sort bikes and kit was followed by a 1000km drive to Bilbao and the overnight ferry to Portsmouth.
As I write this the six remaining riders are still out riding in southern Morocco and have faced a storm, flash flooding and some stomach problems. It’s been quite hard Dot watching their progress, wishing I was with them, but pleased they are battling on so well. My bruised ribs actually got worse a few days after the fall so it was the right decision to scratch.
I only managed to ride a small part of the course but still enjoyed a great few days on a challenging parcours. I rode 500km with 9700m climbing. Thanks Andi.
The Mason ISO was so good on the rough stuff – pity about my lack of skills that resulted in the off as I tried to get peddling on that climb on day two. I undoubtedly carried too much kit – it seems to border on a psychological block I have! I decided a tent with sleeping bag and mat was needed for the remote mountains. The ISO is so well set up to carry the kit with my set of Apidura bags there is always room for more stuff!
The Absolute Black 30t Chainring with a 42/10 cassette gave me a great range of gears for the mountains. The Cane Creek EE Silk seat-post worked well again and saved my backside from problems! The WTB 2.4 Ranger tyres were good on the rough and rolled well on paved road.
A well documented experience after a big ride is the feeling of emptiness as one adjusts back to normality. One way to help is to have some challenges and objectives to look forward to in the not too distant future. Well I am fortunate to have the opportunity to plan such things and have the Tour Aotearoa in New Zealand next March and have just registered for the Pan Celtic Race, riding with my son Jonny, next July. Lucky man🤪!
And right now I will take time to rest and recover after a busy year on the bike. Over 750 hours in the saddle riding 15,300km and 192,000m of climbing. I have been so lucky to maintain my fitness throughout which is in no small measure down to my coach Rob Wakefield of Propello Coaching. Thanks Rob.
Thanks too go to Dom Mason and the team at Mason Cycles – the FastFar bicycle company – for your great support. Thanks too to Adrian who runs Adrian’s Bike Shop in Freshwater who always has a solution!
Last but not least I have shared the road with so many special people – thanks guys.