The self made 4 stage Tour d’Atlas is under way. We have crossed the High Atlas range once towards Ourzazate and are now looping back west with the intention of crossing back north and closing the loop near Marrakech.
Stage 2 – crossing the windy desert
🚴 166km, 1670m (strava)
Strava claims that I spent 6100 kcal yesterday to get over that range, while my normal daily take is 2100 kcal. No wonder then that after two hearty breakfasts I felt full, but hungry.
There isn’t much vegetation on this side of the range, it starts to look much like a red stone desert. We followed down the valley and cut right to Tazenakht. A small empty road winding across dry oueds and circling around hills of red sandstone.
It was 50km from start and 30km before Tazeknaht, when the early morning joy vaned and the realisation took hold that it will be one hell of a hard day with another 110km to go. The system hadn’t really quite recovered from the sudden loss of 6000+ calories.
Then someone switched on the fan. The strong thermal wind gushing from the West to the hot stone desert in the East. We found ourselves near one edge of a flat circular patch 40km diameter with wall of hills at the distance in every direction you look. With 85km to go in the surroundings of a hot desert, the growing pain in the legs pushing into the wind got mixed with fear of whether we’re going to make it before nightfall at 7pm.
It is good to book the accommodation online a day ahead, then you have less stress when you know there is a bed and tajine waiting for you. Unfortunately there wasn’t anything bookable in the desert before the village of Taouline.
This ride got only harder. At the end of the first straight 25km road we climbed on a plateau and continued in another straight line for 20km, then another climb and another straight crossing. The desert was pretty exciting in the morning, but by the afternoon we had enough of it. Much thanks to the impenetrable headwind.
After the first day the emotions had been high – it was a hard day but we had conquered the highest tarmac pass in Africa. Today we all felt like beaten up dogs.
Stage 3 – Tizin Test 2100m
🚴 145km, 3600m (strava)
Our legs didn’t feel any better in the morning than they did yesterday, we were so afraid of the thermal wind that we started early and didn’t stop for the first 55km of the route going west. Then the day really started, from the wide valley floor at 500m, we had to get up the wall ahead of us to a little opening called Tizin Test at 2100m.
Judging by the tarmac, this pass is best taken south to north as we did. There is new surface between ca 1000m to 1500m, but the rest of the south side hasn’t been resurfaced for the last 30 years. Going down on the north is near perfect, just a bit narrow.
The climb is 34km and took us 4h30m including a 30 minute stop for tea and a couple of breathers for taking pictures. The whole thing is somehow very very similar to the famous Mont Ventoux in the Alps. Both are 1600m of climbing and in both cases you see the whole way of switchbacks to the top ahead of you once you’ve reached ca 1200m or so. Ventoux is a bit shorter and steeper.
An expected issue surfaced excruciatingly – the connection between the seat and the saddle. Three long days on a rough tarmac has made that connection point painful for all.
The guesthouses have all been great along the way, topped by the last one, hidden away in the crossing valley, serving us the much awaited couscous after the long climb.
Stage 4 – downhiller to Marrakech
🚴 92km, 1700m (strava)
The last stage was more for sightseeing while rolling downhill towards Marrakech. The only exception was a short 9km climb to Asni. I had been to Asni 16 years ago hitchhiking in Morocco and remembered its birch alleys from then. Back then we got a ride from Asni to Imlil and hiked to the top of the 4047m Jebel Toubkal. Time goes slow here, its the same birch trees, same old Mercedes taxis, same endless buzz in the terrace restaurants.
4 days, 540km, 11 000m climbing.
Road cycling in the Atlas is very possible. Our concerns about the traffic and tarmac were proven wrong. Traffic is light, drivers cheer you on when passing. You can start the season early and ride short-sleeved in March. Ryanair and Easyjet flights from London are frequent and don’t cost much more than flights to Spain or Italy. March is still off season, accommodation is plentiful and cheap. Outside of Marrakech €30 per person gets a night at the guesthouse, together with a big dinner and a breakfast.
Be aware of
- The thermal wind. Check if it is seasonal and try to avoid a desert crossing against it. Starting at sunrise should buy 4-5 hours of riding before the wind picks up.
- Tarmac and tyres. While the tarmac is totally rideable, it is not as smooth as the best roads in Europe. Wider tyres will absorb some of it.
- Route planning. Cycling around Marrakech alone can be very boring, it is a wide flat valley and on most roads you’d always be going 1% uphill or 1% downhill depending on the direction.
This was my first multi day point-to-point self sustained tour. It was great. Long cycling always puts a strain on the neck and shoulders, therefore I was convinced coughing up 92 pounds for an oversize saddle bag made by Apidura. It was definitely worth the money. I filled 70% of its max volume.
The summary video (2m20s) below gives an idea what cycling in the Atlas looks like. Made with my favourite new video app KineMaster.
New photo added to shared album