Words by: Michael Fox
Moroccan Mountain Biking Is Good, But Different
I'll get straight to the point: there is some excellent singletrack riding in Morocco. You can ride the high alpine trails in the Atlas Mountains well into late October or early November, a time when your home trails in Europe or North America are likely cold, wet, muddy, and otherwise unpleasant.There are several guiding outfits that have scouted out all the best trails, and who will also arrange all your logistics from the moment you touch down at Marrakech International. I recently did such a trip with Freeride Morocco, whose logistical support was invaluable.But don't book your ticket just yet. If you’re expecting to ride purpose-built mountain bike trails and to enjoy the kind of comfortable accommodation available in places such as Canada and Switzerland, you’re in for a bit of a surprise. This isn’t your local trail centre, this is Morocco, and things are a little bit different. Here are a few tips that I’ve assembled based on my recent experience.
Tip Number One: This Isn’t the Hilton
Do you enjoy flush toilets? A comfortable bed at night? Hot showers?Well, that's too bad, because you won't be enjoying any of those luxuries while you're biking from village to village in the Atlas Mountains.The villages of the Atlas Mountains are beautiful and remote. Exploring these villages by bike is tremendously rewarding, as is the privilege and opportunity to stay in the local “Gites” and to experience first-hand what life is like in these villages.Rider Jana McLean on a mattress made from . . . cement, possibly?However, don’t expect to enjoy luxuries such as central heating, hot showers, flush toilets, or even comfortable beds. Many villages are only accessible by dirt road (or by donkey-path!) and as a result it is difficult and costly to transport materials and supplies in. Your Riad in Marrakech may have a nice mattress and a hot shower, but up in the Atlas Mountains it’s a very different story.This absence of luxury is more than made-up for by the jaw-dropping mountain views and starry nights. You’ll also come to appreciate the chance to experience the hammams in each gite: a spartan room, heated by a wood-burning stove, with warm running water to wash and relax at the end of a long day on the bike.The villages were located in some stunningly beautiful spots.However, if you’re not prepared to accept slightly rougher accommodation than what you might be used to, you'll want to re-think whether Morocco is the destination for you. That expensive refugio in the Italian Dolomites might be worth a look after all . . .
Tip Number Two: Know Your Bike
Can you fix a snapped chain? Straighten your rear mech? Swap out your brake pads?If you run into mechanical trouble in Morocco, you're on your own. Don't count on being able to buy anything at all in-country (not even chain lube!) Nor will you find a local bike shop that can do a quick repair whilst you sip a latté at the café next door.Bring all your kit with you and be damn sure you know how to use it! Also do a thorough service before travelling. If you experience a preventable mechanical while out on the trail, you'll not only ruin your own holiday but you'll be a drag on the rest of your group!
Tip Number Three: Know Your Limits
Can you ride on a trail that is thoroughly covered in loose stones? How about bouncing down along a riverbed with no real trail to speak of at all? What about riding along a very thin line of “singletrack” (i.e. a goat trail) that is carved into the side of a steep slope with tremendous exposure below?The trails in Morocco are not purpose-built mountain bike trails. Rather, they are a network of ancient routes, used by locals to travel between villages and by nomads to herd animals. They were not designed with 27.5-inch wheels in mind.Rider Altaf Abbas dodging loose stones Rider Bari Khan dodging loose stones Many of these trails happen to make for some spectacular riding, but they come with challenges, including washouts, exposure, tight switchbacks, slippery piles of donkey dung, and more loose stones than a gravel quarry!Freeride Morocco Guide Ibrahim handling the exposure.Rider Adam Bowler handing the exposure.Adjust your expectations accordingly. The trails are fun to ride, the scenery is spectacular, and the uniqueness of the location is unbelievable, but these trails aren't meant to be compared to purpose-built mountain bike trails that you may have ridden in Europe or North America.
Tip Number Four: Pack Your Chammy Butter
Singletrack abounds in Morocco. But accessing it often involves lengthy stretches of pedaling on dirt roads.Lube up your rear end, slip into your most well-padded chamois, and sit your ass in the saddle and start pedaling. You're going to be there awhile.Depending on where you start out from and which trails you're aiming for, you might spend as much as 70-80% of your day pedaling on roads. It's a lot of road pedaling but the singletrack bits are quite rewarding.Expect to be doing a lot of this . . .. . . and this.There is very little in the way of singletrack climbing trails. When the roads end, but you still have some climbing left, chances are it's going to be a hike-a-bike situation.If you're the sort who can't stand long pedaling sessions, if you prefer singletrack climbing trails (or, better yet, uplifts) then you'll be in for an unpleasant surprise.
Tip Number Five: Embrace The Tea Breaks
Do you like an ambitious day's riding schedule? Hate stopping for unnecessary breaks? Have you ever considered urinating from the saddle of a moving bicycle just to avoid having to stop for an extra 30 seconds?In Morocco, that's all out the window. Each day, after two to three hours of riding, your entire group will stop for what you might think is going to be a quick snack, but for what will in fact be a 45- to 90-minute long tea break.Day 1 Tea Break: This isn't so bad, is it?Day 4 Tea Break: Enough damn tea already!During said break you'll sit and wait for an inordinate amount of time before finally being served mint tea (choices include “with sugar” or “with extra sugar”) as well as some delicious Moroccan bread-type products and associated honey and spreads.Depending on your personality type, you may struggle to accept these lengthy breaks. Please remember that you’re being welcomed into the home of a wonderful host who is going to all the trouble of making tea for a dozen filthy mountain bikers.As much as you'll be antsy to spend as much time out on the trail as possible (especially as you're in a country that you may never get a chance to visit again) you may as well sit back and enjoy a hot cup of mint tea and some delicious snacks!
Tip Number Six: The Cuisine is Tagine
What's your favourite post-ride meal? Burgers and beer? Pasta paired with a nice merlot? A hearty burrito washed down with a refreshing cerveza?Morocco is a dry country. Although piss-poor beer and cringe-worthy wine can be located at select locations by determined drinkers, you may as well resign yourself to little to no alcohol. And the food? Well hopefully you like steamed meat (or vegetables, for the vegetarians in the group)... because that's what you'll be eating for dinner, every single night.Tagine is basically a giant plate of steamed vegetables (potatoes, carrots, leeks, onions, etc) served on a bed of couscous with accompanying meat. It's a nice dish, and Moroccan spices definitely add a nice flavour, but it can certainly grow tiresome after a week straight.Perhaps this is a critical factor for you, perhaps you couldn't care less. Just don't expect your trip to be a foodie's paradise.
Tip Number Seven: Mind the Chickens!
Mountain biking is a hazardous sport. Mountain bikers know and accept that fact. What most riders don't count on, however, is the possibility that a suicidal chicken may unexpectedly dash in front of your bike as you’re riding at high speed on a loose, uneven dirt road into a village.Alarmed poultry flee from the path of rider Maxime (not all poultry we encountered had such good sense, and in fact often ran toward the bike rather than away from it!)In the case of our group, we had two chicken incidents in the span of the week. Fortunately, no chickens were killed and no riders were harmed, though one chicken was reportedly dazed after it clipped the side of the bike. Arguably, the rider got the worst of it as she (a true animal-lover) was quite traumatized from having come within a feathers-width of rolling right over the chicken in question!Throughout the rest of the week, chickens (and other various forms of poultry) would routinely present themselves on the trail suddenly and without warning. The only predictable feature of these “chicken runs” were that they tended to occur in and around villages.Keep your eyes peeled and be aware at all times. Typically, when you're approaching a village, you tend to let your guard down as it means that either you’re going to have a reprieve after the heinous climb you’ve just done, or it means you've just made it through another stretch of exposed, nerve-wracking singletrack and you can relax your frayed nerves.Don't be fooled. Chickens are out there and they're a real hazard. Danger doesn't take a holiday!
Is Morocco worth it? Yes, absolutely, without a doubt. It’s a beautiful country, the people are warm and welcoming, and it’s a wonderful culture to experience.Rider Adrian Reed getting rad -- treat the riding as a bonus, but not the main attraction of the trip!Rider Maxime descending down towards one of the many stunning villages in the Atlas Mountains.There also just happens to be some awesome riding -- but consider that to be a bonus, not the main attraction. If you go to Morocco, keep in mind that you’re there for the overall cultural experience, and the riding just happens to be a good way to immerse yourself in that experience.Of course, the fact that you’ll get in some rad singletrack now and again doesn’t exactly hurt, does it?