I expect Morocco won’t appear on too many cyclists’ bucket lists, but after riding this lesser known sportive, I’ve got a feeling that more people will be heading out there on their own discovery.
The Marrakech Atlas Etape (MAE) has an impressive route description – a 140km out-and-back with a neat, but slightly scary synopsis of ‘70km up, 70km down’. On review though, the bark is worse than the bite – the first 30km are mostly flat, and the steepest climbs don’t pull more than 5%. It was a long challenging slog, but compared to some of the UK’s toughest sportives (I’m looking at you Fred Whitton), you’ll blag it a bit more easily if you’re not peak fitness.
There were a few fast looking club and team riders there, but for most of the small(ish) pack of 150 or so riders though it wasn’t about speed. Lots seemed to have been there before, and was a chance to catch up with friends and enjoy the unique experience – from dodging mud drifts across the road to racing the local kids through small Berber villages in the Altas mountains. There’s plenty to keep your senses occupied up to the 2-lift ski resort at Oukaïmeden (2,624m), and back down again.. or not.
Riding towards the wall
The ride starts out at the local karting circuit – probably because donkeys and scooters would get in the way of a city centre start. The local police got very involved, and led us out from the line with sirens blaring. It was quite surreal.
The distant, hazy wall of mountains slowly growing in on the horizon is the focus for the fairly eventless 30km to the first feed station in the foothills. Unlike the Alps or Pyrenees where you can see sets of peaks in the distance, the Atlas mountains form a relatively narrow strip of peaks giving quite a unique and imposing look.
After a great feed, and pockets full of nuts, apricots, bread and local honey – we were heading into the ascents.
Into the Atlas (and the mist)
This is where the real ride began and there was suddenly a lot more to look at – small villages, Argan oil farms, rug makers and lots of people chipping away at rocks at the side of the road. Presumably to build with or sell on.
With hardly any flat space to make a football pitch, the local kids seem to all be out playing on the roads. Without fail, they wanted a race. My Arabic is a bit rustier than my French, so ‘allez-allez-allez’ it was – unimaginative but it seemed to fire them up for the chase.
Shortly after the 50km feed station, with about 20km to go to the top, we were riding into thick mist and those the amazing snow-capped peaks growing around us disappeared. It was then that I realised how cold the air was without the sun. My hairy legs and face soaked up cold water and had to put on the layers and push on.
Ski resort white-out
After a bit of ‘head-down’ effort, I reached the top – only evident by the sign as the mist made it feel like I could be anywhere.
The hot soup and big cushty tent was a nice touch, and it was a chance to chat to the others about the ride up whilst I waited for my mate Ant. I told them about the kid who ran after me with a machete (note: no disciplining necessary, he had been slashing some grass when he decided to join in the race) and they had their own unlikely stories.
Sadly, this was the end of my ride as we were informed that the Police were stopping us riding back down after a cyclist had hit a car in the mist further down the mountain – which we later found out was not part of the group but luckily they were ok.
I was tempted to break the rules and catch up with some others that had just left, but one of the organisers told me with a smile that the Police would shoot us, so concluded it best to stay and enjoy the beers that were being cracked open.
That was it – we were all on buses heading back down off the mountain, feeling a bit grumpy that we were missing out on the massive descent that we’d all earnt. We were also trying not to look out the windows as we couldn’t work out how the driver could see what was road and what was cliff in the thick mist. It was back to the karting track to collect our medals, say goodbyes and head back to the riad.
All considered, it was a great trip, and we got a good stretch of amazing riding pre-mist, but if we’d only been there for the event then it would have been a disappointment to have it cut short – especially if we’d trained hard up to it!
It seems that the unpredictable weather will be a constant problem for this ride – but if you make a long weekend of it, I think it’s well worth the punt.
And a big chapeau to the guy who rode up on the Brompton.. pretty quickly too.
To the Hammam
Marrakech isn’t a bad place to be for tired legs. Getting a massage is like buying a loaf of bread for locals. You can either dive into a proper local joint for a cheap rub down (that sounds unintentionally sleazy), or pay the tourist prices but get the more luxury (and cleaner) experience. We went high end at the Les Bains D’Orient, complete with half-time mint tea and 2 rounds of massage – the best of the few I’ve had in my life.
Marrakech the city
You probably wouldn’t go to relax – it’s a pretty full on place, especially in the souks of the Medina where you’re a walking wad of cash. I read that the average tourist spends £850 in a weekend, the equivalent of the average salary in the country. If that’s true, you can see why.
Once we’d mastered the salesman escapes, I really warmed to the city. Past the touristy snake charming performances, and rug sellers – there’s awesome food, friendly people and plenty of authenticity left to discover.
Education for All
Proceeds from the Marrakech Atlas Etape goes to support Education for All. They help girls from the local rural communities to continue their education past primary school. It justifies the slightly steep ticket price, and expensive bike hire.
Give it a go..
Visit https://www.marrakech-atlas-etape.com/ for more info and to register.
Easyjet got us from Gatwick to Marrakech for a little over £100 return – not too bad. You can also fly from most other UK international airports.
It took about 3 hours which is short enough to make it a long weekend without feeling like you spent most the time on the plane. Another bonus is that you’re less likely to yourself in the crossfire of a stag and hen do – it isn’t easy to find a beer in much of Marrakech.
There are some big hotels, but I’d recommend staying in one of the many riads in the Medina (walled historic centre). Airbnb is full of them and the prices are reasonable for a nice one. You’ll probably be welcomed with a mint tea and baklava.
We booked into Riad Birdy – £227 for me and my mate in a twin for 4 nights.
We registered on the Saturday, the day before the ride, at the local go-karting centre! Here we got a chance to meet some of the organisers and other riders. Plus, the partner bike hire shop was there with all the pre-ordered hire bikes, including our Giant Propel Advanced.
We hired our Giant Propels from Argan Sports (http://www.argansports.com/). They were the recommended shop for the event. At about £45 for a day it seemed quite expensive, so you may be best shopping around.