Road Cycling in Morocco - Suggestions, Advice and Video

photo: Andy Withey
I spent seven days cycling a circuit of the Toubkal Massif in November 2018.

The date is important as road conditions change frequently.

I travelled with an organised group run by KE Adventure Travel and Hausser, who subcontracted the whole trip to Aventure Berbere and guide Hamid Outglaout.

If you need first-hand advice, I'd suggest checking with the locals and perhaps booking their services for a couple of days.

Despite having everything sorted for me, I learnt a lot about road cycling in Morocco that might be useful to independent travellers, or those going for the annual sportive, The Atlas Etape, and planning to stay a few days longer to travel around.  At the start of each day I've provided a distance and elevation gain, plus a link to a page on Ride With GPS where you can see the day's ride in detail and download the GPS tack in a variety of file types.

This is a long post!  But if you want the entire trip in one minute, watch the video I made for KE Adventure Travel.  Oh, and if you can add to the advice and information please do so in the comments.



Cycling conditions
Roads varied from smooth tarmac to cratered mud to broken pavement that threatened to dislodge the fillings from my teeth.

Weird colour, shot through minibus window
Other roads are being improved, but the roadworks created such devastation I wouldn't take my car on them, let alone attempt them on a bike.  I'm no chicken on a bike, but some road conditions were simply horrid.

Being a minibus passenger was bad enough.  It's the closest I've come to the Karakoram Highway since 1994.

For this trip I took my old, battered carbon Specialised Roubaix and fitted aluminium rim wheels with tough, new 25mm tyres.

If I'd had my ultralight bike with Enve wheels (carbon rims, bladed spokes and recessed nipples) I'd have wept at their unavoidable mistreatment.

Most of our group rented bikes.  I was pleased to have my own.  If renting, at least take pedals and saddle.  If you're touring independently then spare spokes and a tyre boot, plus the knowledge of how to use them, would be essential.

I was healthy throughout but got sick at the end once we returned to Marrakech, as did some other members of our group.  Bottles of clean water are available to buy in towns along the way and I always decanted mine into a Water-To-Go filter bottle.  It doesn't fit a normal bike cage, but it does fit this one.

Due to Islamic extremists, tourism has largely shifted to Morocco from Egypt and especially Tunisia.

A huge number of them take coach, taxi and private group trips from Marrakech to the desert, adding great volumes of traffic to an already busy RN9 across the High Atlas.

This is one road which is rapidly being improved, but at the moment, sections of it are hideously difficult to drive (see above).

I frequently saw a car trying to overtake a truck while it was passing a bus, often heading into a blind mountain bend.  To add to the fun, conditions through the roadworks were akin to driving through a muddy quarry.  I saw one vehicle on its roof and watched another being winched from a ravine.

I was delighted we were driven out of Marrakech to our starting point, a town below the main pass of Tizi n Tchka.  If I were touring and absolutely had to cover this part of the RN9 out of Marrakech, I'd arrange to be driven to the start point we used.  Oh, and I wouldn't start on a busy weekend.


Overview
I made this Google Map from my GPS tracks.  The ones provided by KE were fine but huge sections of road have changed (been improved) mainly on the RN9.

The yellow loop is the route of the Atlas Etape Sportive so you can compare it with our larger track.  Our ride went clockwise and, after descending to the most southerly point, we drove back to the previous point and continued the ride west.






Day 1 - Argane Tichka to Ouarzazate via Tizi n Tichka - GPS    64.8ml  +3285ft



Hotel Mogador Gueliz (Gueliz is the area in Marrakech) is on the south west side of the city, handy for a fast getaway and it will store bike boxes.

Ask for a room NOT on the main road or you will not sleep.  Traffic builds steadily until 3am and there are hooting trains coming into the station.  Otherwise it's a decent hotel where French is spoken more than English.  That's true across Morocco.

The breakfast buffet, where everyone handles the bread, is suspect health-wise.  The 6am Buffet Battle against an entire regiment of German tourists, trying to cram down food before their 7am desert coach departure, is highly entertaining so long as you're not in the middle of the carnage.

I've already described some of the road conditions heading toward the Col, which would be utterly vile to cycle.

However, from where we began our ride the improved road was superb.  We climbed easily to the Col du Tichka, dropped into a saddle, then climbed again to a minor col before a long descent.  Sadly, this sweeping descent turned sour as the road surface degenerated into a cross between crazy paving and cobbles.  It was rattlingly unpleasant.  The rain didn't help.  But it was over quickly.


First of many (many, many) tagines for lunch and one of the best, a Berber Tagine of meatballs and baked eggs.  Normally I don't eat meat but faced with a probable alternative of endless omelettes I immediately relented.


The next bit should have been an easy descent, but the traffic was busy and... insane.  Bicycles were of no consequence.  Cars heading in the opposite direction would simply pull out to overtake directly into our path speeding towards us and inevitable collision.  They expected us cyclists avoid them by steering off the road.  One such manoeuvre resulted in one of our group hitting a speed bump, flying over the handles, and suffering some nasty road rash down one side of his body.  He used quite a lot of the first-aid kit.


Ouazazatte is the centre of the film industry, the location for movies as diverse as Lawrence of Arabia and Star Wars.  It's now a major stopping point for tourists on one of several well-driven circuits into the desert.


Consequently we had a big, tourist hotel - Hotel Ouazazate Le Zat.  Warm and comfortable, with another looming Battle of the Buffet.  So we breakfasted after they had departed.


Day 2 - Ouarzazate to Agdz - GPS 45ml  +3599ft
This day was one long, gradual climb.  Gradually the warm kit was stripped off, down to just jersey and shorts.  Now that's what I came here for.


Far too long spent touring the Kasbah (Kasbah = castle, pretty much).  A great guide but out of the sun, whether in shade or indoors, it was very cold until around lunch-time.  Contrast that with the 50C July/August temperature here.  Still, for us it was arm and leg warmers plus a decent jacket every morning.


Still on the previously busy RN9, but far less traffic on Monday, which made cycling much nicer.  Hotel Rose du Sable is a small boutique place with great rooms and decent food.


The heating is in the form of an air-conditioning unit which meant I could wash and dry my jersey and shorts.  The GPS track should take you to the door.


Day 3 - Agdz to Zagora - GPS 60.5ml  +1978ft
I'll remember this as a day of chain-gangs.  Either in larger groups or in sets of three we worked together and whizzed down this valley at a fair clip.  The tarmac was good, the sun was out and it was a great day.

Lunch was always something cooked - usually a type of soup or salad, followed by a tagine or couscous, sometimes with the addition of skewers of chicken.  In fact, that's the sum total of our culinary experience in Morocco.  I thought it would be rich and varied but it all tasted rather plain.  Except the Berber Tagines, everyone's favourite.


A tour of palm trees occupied lunchtime.  A local guide Hassan shinned up a three hundred year old palm to fetch some dates.


The afternoon flashed past in conditions like you see in this video.  Having shot and edited this on my old iPhone 6 I had the idea to start making video blogs about each day which I posted to Facebook.  That means there'll be less writing and more video in the coming days.



Overnight at the Hotel Kasbah Sirocco was probably the best on the trip, with a Hammam (steam room) and reasonably priced massage which I'm told was excellent.



Day 4 - Agdz to Tazenakht - GPS 54.0ml  +3801ft
All aboard the mini-bus for the drive back up to Agdz then a long climb to one pass, a drop past an ugly cobalt mine, then a steeper climb at the end of the day.

This is the point where the riding changed.  We left the popular tourist route to the desert and headed cross country.  The roads were much quieter, the tarmac rougher and draggy (but still vastly improved on previous years I hear), and the towns few and far between.  Few tourists venture this way.  Consequently, the standard of hotels fell somewhat over the next couple of nights due to their being no alternative.


Please bear in mind these videos were shot and edited on an old iPhone 6 each night after cycling.  I've tidied them up a little, but not much.



We stayed in the Hotel Bab Sahara in Tazenakht (there are different spellings of the town name) and I couldn't find it on Trip Advisor, only Facebook.  It's not the Bab Sahara in Ouazazate.  The swimming pool was drained and there was no heating in the rooms, just a pile of old blankets.

I had anticipated this and brought warm running tights, fleece top and a hat to sleep in.  I'm sure I got a couple of bites during the night too.  It was not a problem, just part of the adventure.  There seemed to be little alternative accommodation.


Day 5 - Tazenakht - Aoulouz - GPS 75.9ml  +3206ft
Still in the back of beyond, still well off the tourist trail.  It was the longest day in terms of distance, so we rode as a group and the miles flew past.   



This will forever be remembered as the day I saw goats grazing up a tree.  Seriously.  Watch the video.  It cost me 20 dihram and a Mule Bar to the goat herder to take these shots (so about £3) but worth it.  Agree?



Apparently, the only tourist hotel in town closed due to lack of tourists.  Google suggests other places to stay in the town, but we didn't use them.

We were accommodated at an Auberge, like a large private house, where the people were super friendly and went out of their way to help.  I can't find a name for it anywhere.  Unfortunately, a sudden rain storm messed up their drains and there was no water, warm or otherwise, to shower.  Yet our group seemed more concerned about the wifi (OK I'm guilty).


Day 6 - Aoulouz - Ijjoukak - GPS 68ml  +6124ft 
This was always going to be the hardest day.  A 19 mile warm-up, dropping to the low point of the ride, then a 24 mile climb of over 6000 feet to the second highest point of the ride, the pass called the Tizi n Test.  Only the Tizi n Tickha on Day-1 is higher, and we drove most of the way up that.



It stands comparisons to long climbs I've done in riding La Marmotte in the Alps and especially the Raid Pyrenean (still my favourite week).  However, road conditions were utterly different.  At times it again felt like being back in parts of rural Pakistan, with cars and trucks hurtling past.  Watch the video and you'll get an idea.



Overnight was at the Gite Auberge Tigmmi N'Tmazirt which you can also find on Air B&B.  Another one with no heating and, since we'd just had rain and hailstone, it was chilly.  We met two French-Canadian cycle tourists heading up the pass on titanium bikes and enjoyed chatting about each others experiences.


Day 7 - Ijjoukak - Marrakech Outskirts - GPS 53.7ml  +2745ft
Mornings on this ride were always cold because it took time for the sun to warm the desert air.  Today was colder than normal, partly due to the overnight rain, and partly due to the steep sides of the surrounding mountains which left the road in deep, chilly shade.



We started the day surrounded by high mountains and ended in the Marrakech suburbs, with only one climb of note.  Along the way we visited the utterly authentic Asni market where two of our group risked Hep A, Hep B, Hep C and HIV just to get a shave.  Utterly crazy.



By early evening we were back in the Hotel Mogador Gueliz where I stayed an extra couple of days to explore Marrakech.  There's a video of that here.

I hope this has been helpful to other cyclists thinking of heading to Morocco.  If you have experience of riding in the country, I'd appreciate you sharing it in the comments below.  I'm quite happy for you to correct me if you think I've made some mistakes - no-one has a monopoly on wisdom.

November Challenge #3: Explore Morocco

When I drew up my list of Challenges at the start of my 60th year, visiting Morocco was near the top.

I'm not sure why, but it's a place I've always fancied going.  I've been to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait but not this much more accessible and adventurous Kingdom.

As with my visit to Andalucia, the location came first, then I looked around for something to do.

Road cycling seemed the best way to avoid the crowds of tourists on the usual trekking routes, and I was drawn to the 'Tour of Toubkal' itinerary offered by KE Adventure Travel.

I have a history with the company, having done some work with them in the 1990s.  After speaking to the teamI decided this was the ride for me.  I was not disappointed.

I posted to Facebook a series of on-the-road videos, all shot and edited on my old iPhone 6 and I'll work them into a longer post about our cycling route.

November Challenge #2: More Charity Work

Last year I became one of the Trustees of a newly created charity, Highland Openwater Swim.

It's aim is to run small, friendly and challenging wild swimming events that are affordable to everyone while raising money for a nominated charity.

I had been taking photos or swimming at most of the 2016 and 2017 events and I live near two of the other trustees.  We're very much and Ardnamurchan based group.

However, in 2018 we were late in publishing our swims because we were waiting for our charitable status to be approved.  Consequently I was booked for filming work on almost every weekend that a swim was subsequently planned.  I was disappointed not to be at the Falls of Lora swim Saturday just gone.

November Challenge #1: Stay Motivated



It's the time of year when most sporty-folk in the northern hemisphere start to take things a little easier.

The 'off season' has rolled around.  With it came the stark realisation that I haven't even had an 'on-season', and that hurts.  It would be easy to give up.

I haven't moaned in writing (much) but this year has been dogged by long-term injury.

Specifically, my right knee, which suddenly started hurting on 9th September 2017, and my right shoulder which was damaged in February in a mountain bike fall.  While attempting one of these daft challenges!

I have made lots of visit to FASIC, the Edinburgh University Sports Injury clinic, trips which have taken a whole day by public transport.

Most mornings now start with one hour in our gym area performing the exercises I've been set.  These change every few months with each new visit.

My shoulder improved for our Montenegro swim trip, then relapsed.  Now it's improving again and I hope to keep it on that trajectory.
Short reminders of current knee exercises

My knee is a different matter.  I've given up running completely.  I've had special orthotics built for my cycling shoes and another custom bike fit.

I'm seeing the podiatrist who helped my colleague Cameron McNeish and getting extra work from his physio.  Four months into that treatment and my knee still hurts after walking the dog for two hours.

And yet I feel it's improving.  Am I just kidding myself, clutching at straws?

For someone who partly defined himself by his ability in the mountains, losing the ability to hike longer distances is crushing.

Many other people go through much, much worse.  I can walk, I can see, I can hear and I'm generally healthy.  Stop moaning.

And generally I don't moan, but sometimes it's hard to push through.  To keep doing the exercises, to believe it will all come right in the end.

Open Water Swimming on TV (Again)

It was a wet day when we shot this!  As you'll see on the lens.  Stewart Bailey is 'Loch Bagging', trying to swim in each of Scotland's largest 103 freshwater lochs.mmWhy 103 not 100?  You'll have to watch to find out.

Stewart features in The Adventure Show this coming Sunday.  That's the second programme in a row which features open water swimming that I've shot, the previous one being Colleen Blair's record setting swim across The Minch.

You can see Stewart on BBC-2 Scotland on Sunday at 7pm.  If you're elsewhere in the UK, then BBC-2 Scotland is on the higher channels of Sky and Freesat.  Within 24 hours it will also be on the BBC iPlayer and i'll aim to add the link here.

I haven't seen the final edit of this feature, but I'm told it made a good piece.  The video below is just something I quickly cut together form the rushes.

We shot this close to where I live, in a place we sometimes swim in Loch Shiel.  We had great safety support from Source2Sea Canoe who also provided the craft from which I could shoot.


October Challenge #2: Declutter

For me, this is the Autumn equivalent of Spring cleaning.  This seems to be my season for a good clear-out.

It happens when I put the cycling shirts and shirts away for another winter and get out the long tights and warm jackets.

When I see kit I haven't used for a year or two I think, "will I ever use that again"?  If the answer is no, it goes on eBay.

Sometimes it sells, sometimes it doesn't.  There's always a charity shop.  In the last two months I've sold 19 items.  They've been a mix of old sports kit, bags, rucksacks and camera equipment.  I have substantially decluttered my kit boxes.  And on eBay I've made a few quid.

October Challenge #1: Resurrect Kit

This is utterly amazing stuff.  Nikwax TX.Direct wash in re-waterproofing.  I know the internet is full of "unbelievable, brilliant products", but this one really is.

Remember how your waterproof jacket shed showers when it was new?  The rain 'beaded' on the surface and rolled off.

However, now the garment probably 'wets-out' because the DWR, Durable Water Repellent finish has gone.

This is the way to put it back.  It has to be done every year or so but it hugely extends the life of waterproofs.