I didn’t come to Morocco to push my bike. I was seduced by vistas of the Atlas Mountains radiating improbable shades of ochre and green and red in the golden hour; smooth-looking gravel tracks disappearing into the distance; pedalling up passes and swooping down descents; desert skies strewn with stars at night; Berbers, camels, oases and donkeys. But here I am feet on the ground struggling for purchase on the bedrock and boulders grunting my trusty steed up a steep, unrideable path.
A few hours later and it’s hotter and drier, our water is running out and, though we are descending, I’m going little faster: my handling skills and nerve are being tested and my shoulders are tied in knots from the tension of grabbing my brake levers in an attempt to stay in control. I didn’t come to Morocco to pussyfoot down mountains.
I didn’t come to Morocco to quit halfway through the Atlas Mountain Race either. I knew it would be tough covering nearly 1,200km of rough, barren, isolated terrain in eight days. Even more so when some 20,000m of climbing were thrown in. At that point though I wanted to scratch and go home three days into what had been a baptism of fire when it came to off-road, ultra-distance bikepacking racing.
If you quit in the middle-of-nowhere you still have to get yourself to somewhere you can get a taxi or a bus or a hotel. As this nadir came part way through a 90km stretch in the middle of nowhere we had no choice to push on anyway. I didn’t come to Morocco for the cuisine but the flatbread and Vache Qui Rit washed down with Mountain Dew in Afra was astonishingly restorative. So Tim and I decided we wouldn’t quit and kept on riding.
I don’t know whether the terrain got easier, we acclimatised or just accepted this how it was and I could put up or shut up. The fourth day marked a turning point and rather than eking out 120km, then 154km, then 120km again we manage 203km and we were back in the game. I didn’t come to Morocco for a crash course in offroad bike-handling but I guess I got one and I guess it worked.
I didn’t come to Morocco to freeze but in the middle of the night I was near-shivering as unexpectedly cold winds blew off the Sahara. Making the push towards Control Point 2 in Aguinane it seemed to take forever for the sun to rise and warm my bones in a landscape that looked almost Scottish. A few hours later it was distinctly un-Scottish as temperatures soared and we descended switchbacks to an oasis filled with palm trees then on into a desolate landscape in the heat of the day. As night fell temperatures dropped again and the wind rose but at least we’d covered 100 miles even if we’d learned the semi-desert of the Anti Atlas is a tough place with a freeze-thaw cycle that wouldn’t let up for rest of the race.
We’d been lucky the night before, getting to Ibrahim’s small shop in Ibn Yacoub just before he shut for the day (supper perched on a step, chatting to him in French was one of the highlights of the race) but the next morning at 7am nothing was open in Tagmout. I didn’t come to Morocco to starve or get heatstroke and we knew one of the toughest sections of the route was coming up. So we waited until the shops opened, gorged on omelettes, topped up supplies then hit the old colonial piste to Isaffn.
The climb and descent nearly broke Tim. We recuperated on a main road speaking about our families and backgrounds and picked up conversations we’d had over the past few days as we headed for a feared section of dry-riverbed. Our trepidation was misplaced and the riding was tranquil through pretty villages and blossoming almond orchards. But as we left the riverbed and climbed it was my turn to break struggling up steep ramps in the dark and eventually reaching the top. A lone almond tree appeared in ghostly blossom from our bike lights and we hit a well-made road and decided to stop and sleep a few metres off the road, a slow 134km done for the day. I didn’t come to Morocco to get run over but what had appeared to be a quiet road as we bedded down was a thoroughfare for quarry trucks and every time one rumbled past through the night and the earth shook I feared I would be squashed.
I didn’t come to Morocco to hit the tourist trail but as we reached the third control point in the Ait Mansour valley and climbed on tarmac up-and-over to Tafraoute we were suddenly in the land of camper vans and tour groups. It was a relief to have a change of diet in a more civilised town but it made me reflect once-again on the privilege of travelling by bike: you are slower, more approachable, visit the places in between and get a more intimate sense of the geography and psychogeography of a country. And as we found that evening after 155km and a dream of a bitumen climb it gives the chance for encounters you wouldn’t get otherwise. Getting to a small town we looked for somewhere to stay and asked locals, instead of getting shrugs, Errais invited us into his home and gave us food. He also worked a miracle when my Carradice broke and he had just the right bold to fix it – truly our own Prince of Serendip.
The rest of the route promised about 100km of downhill then flat to the coast. I didn’t come to Morocco to be hoodwinked but I was truly mugged by riverbeds, hike-a-bike and most of all as we edged to the finish by sand. I hate sand. I hate that I struggle to ride it. I hate it more when it is a diversion sent to test you and there is a perfectly good road is available. I hate it when it doesn’t take you somewhere beautiful just scrubby towns and industrial vegetable plantations that stink of muck. I hate it the most when it’s the heat of the day, there’s no shade and your riding buddy is breaking down. 40 flat kilometres took us nearly four hours.
And then it was over. Embraced by fellow racers, showered and bike packed, food consumed, beers drunk and deep, deep sleep. I didn’t come to Morocco to feel lost but an event like the Atlas Mountain Race has a brutal simplicity: keep moving, find food, find water, find somewhere to sleep and nothing else matters. When it’s over life returns with all its complications and a moment of escape is gone. I don’t really know why I came to Morocco, but I’m damned glad I did.