Taking it slow on the Atlas Mountain Race recce route

Inspired by the official Atlas Mountain Race route, four intrepid cyclists headed to Morocco to bikepack their way into 2020. Claire, Neil, Natalia and Petra met through the international adventure cycling community, and with a gap in their schedules and a shared hankering for a new adventure, they set their collective sights on the AMR 2020 route.

The seven day komoot Tour took them 483 miles (777 kilometers) from Marrakech to Issafn, weaving on and off the official AMR route. The amazing photos they came back with attest to how spectacular the scenery is, while their anecdotes from the road prove that this is a great destination for adventurous riders — and a very special setting for a self-supported bikepacking race!

Riding conditions as colorful as a desert sunset

When they told us about their route in Morocco, the descriptions were as colorful as the sunsets there. “Technical singletrack,” “Super nice gravel descent,” “mixed earth, gravel and bedrock road,” “dusty, hot and fast,” “dry riverbed,” “switchback ascent.” It seems their Morocco route had it all.

On day one, they cycled out of Marrakech on cycle lanes, soon hitting the quieter minor roads, where the cycling infrastructure disappeared, along with the traffic. The riding was flowing, hard-packed earth and gravel through surprisingly green farmlands, interspersed with a number of short, sharp climbs. 

From then on the scenery varied frequently as they rode through tiny Berber villages, picked their way up steep, rocky hike-a-bike sections, and cruised down gravel roads with the sunset casting a red tint across the desert. They rode a part-mud, part-concrete road along a desert ridge, with views of the sheer cliffs fencing Oasis Fint into the valley, even throwing in a river crossing to get to their accommodation.

Even when the landscape barely changed for miles – case in point the 18.6 mile (30 kilometer) stretch of wide, unfinished gravel road into Skoura that went on and on and on – it was arresting enough to distract them. That being said, bikepacking along Morocco’s lesser-trodden roads was never going to be dull, because as we all know, there will always be a story-worthy mechanical or two along the way…

Baptism by Mechanical

Like some kind of informal baptism into Moroccan bikepacking, each of the riders: Claire, Neil, Petra, and Natalia, experienced bike-related hiccups on this route.

There was the time on day two, between Telouet and Skoura, when the group realized that they’d lost Natalia. After a 7 mile (11 kilometer) stretch across a stunning plateau, they began a steep rocky descent. Neil stopped to take a few photos of the leaders, Claire and Petra, and waited for Natalia to come through for a photo. He waited. The leaders rolled out of sight. After five minutes of waiting in the hot sun, he decided to backtrack up the hill to see what was up. He found her pushing her bike – her tubeless tire had deflated and she couldn’t get it to re-inflate. A bit of mastery with the mini pump and the tire seemed to hold. 

Later in the day after another steep climb the pesky tire was in need of a top up. After a lively, interesting descent it became clear that it was going to need a more permanent fix. Cue a stop beside a Berber house; and it’s friendly tea bearing occupants; to put in an inner tube, which lasted for most of the rest of the trip.

It was not the last mechanical for Natalia, who had her rear derailleur fail on day six on the trail to Tagmout and had to limp the 30km to the finish, with the support of the others.

Another memorable kit failure occurred 1 mile (2 kilometers) out of Oasis Fint on day four. Claire was effectively stuck to her bike, thanks to a lost cleat bolt which prevented her from unclipping her shoe. After prying her foot out, they applied some additional leverage to prise the shoe from the pedal. This was followed by much faffing, photograph-taking, and general hilarity as they tried to find a substitute bolt from one of the bikes. Eventually one from Claire’s own bike did the job, and in turn, that bolt was replaced with a spare from Natalia’s. Finally, they were on their way again. 

During the trip Neil experienced his fair share of mechanicals, a cracked saddle – his trusty Arione split underneath across the center (which lead to some spine-shaking rides along bumpy Moroccan gravel) was the first. The second was a ride shortening failure of his rear derailleur on day seven, which led to a lot of single speeding and a bus ride. 

The final member of the group to experience a hump was Petra, who crashed on a gravel section on a morning ride out of Tamskrout on day five. With some bruised ribs and a torn jacket, it wasn’t a bike-related mechanical, but a riding-related hiccup for sure.

Goes to show that anything can happen on these isolated Morrocan roads, and as the Atlas Mountain Race is self-supported, the riders will need to be well prepared! Luckily for Petra, Natalia, Neil, and Claire, they had each other, and more than that, they had the warmth, curiosity and enthusiastic hospitality of the Morrocan people they met en route.

Where mint tea is cultural currency

Tea is not usually the marker of a good bikepacking trip, but on the Atlas Mountain Race recce route it was the thread that linked each gesture of hospitality from the friendly and curious locals. 

Frequently the riders would pull up at a small cafe to buy supplies for lunch (sardines was a strong theme on the menu), then take a seat at a roadside table and chairs to rest and drink tea. They would inevitably attract the attention of the local stray-cat population, and the children, who, in international child-code would gather and stare shamelessly, then break into giggles.

It wasn’t just the children and cats who were drawn to the lycra-clad foursome, though. Grown-ups showed interest too. Early on in the ride they met a local Berber man, Hussain, who invited them in for tea with his family. They shared bread, nuts and mint tea with the family elders and Hussain, with all of the collected cousins and children watching on. 

“This was really lovely, the family was so open and welcoming, and genuinely interested in us.

“I’m not sure they believed us when we told them in halting French that there were 200 cyclists racing through their back garden in February on the Atlas Mountain Race 2020.”

As well as being friendly, the locals were helpful. Rolling into Tamskrout on day four, it had become clear that finding somewhere to stay for the night was going to be a faff. They found a tiny café to get some food and work out a plan…

“At this point, a Berber gentleman with a masters degree in English Literature turned up and set about solving all our problems. Food was ordered, accommodation was arranged with the owner of the café in his family room, and a call was even made to the owner of the following night’s accommodation in Aguinane to book ahead. The generosity of the Berber people never ceased to amaze us, and filled with tea, Berber omelet, and chocolate, we headed off to our makeshift beds in the lovely orange-painted lounge of the café proprietor.” 

In Morocco, goats (and sheep, and donkeys) own the road

From being overtaken by a “Berber taxi” (a donkey carrying, in this case, an elderly Berber man), to a forced evacuation of their picnic spot thanks to an encroaching herd of grazing sheep, livestock and domestic animals are a strong feature of Morocco. And thankfully, the main form of pesky traffic they encountered was the four-legged kind. 

In general, even the traditional traffic wasn’t an issue. Roads in the Altas, even the major ones, are not challenging in terms of traffic or bad driving. They found that drivers were generally courteous to cyclists, and there is so little traffic on the roads that space was never an issue. Truck drivers were amazingly polite, even stopping as the group passed on one dusty gravel road.

The biggest hazard turned out to be the stars… and the goats.

Darkness falls quickly in the Atlas Mountains and if you turned off your front light, the view of the stars was amazing: satellites, Orion, the Milky way — you could almost touch them. They had to be mindful riding in the dark though because unlike in Europe, the rugged furry goats that spread out across the road one evening had no bells on them, making them tricky to spot!

Sheepdogs are another hazard, although with experience they become less of a threat. As Neil says, “They are beautiful and well looked after, they obey commands from their owners, they bark loudly, they chase, but in our experience they always kept a decent distance from cyclists, and never tried to get close to us and bite. They were content to “see us off.” Once we realized this, it was a very refreshing position to be in!”

The Atlas Mountain Race 2020

Claire, Natalia, Petra, and Neil’s idea was to get a taster of what the AMR competitors will be up against in this year’s event. Their recce route diverted from the official route in some places based, mainly, on the availability of services. Some things they were able to ascertain from the adventure is that the scenery is stunning, the route is varied, and the riding can be challenging. 

After a few day’s worth of hopping on and off the AMR2020 track, they rejoined the official AMR route on their day seven (Tagmout to Issafn), with a rough track leading to the start of a French colonial-era piste. The group’s description really sums up what the Atlas Mountain Race is all about, capturing the beauty and toughness of the route:

“It was a lovely climb, gradual and well-engineered, but time has taken its toll [on the surface quality].

The surface is very rocky with lots of loose stone, from both the supporting walls and the mountain itself, making it really hard to climb. There are also sections of the piste that have been completely destroyed by water action as it crosses stream beds. Higher up there are hike-a-bike sections where the bridges have washed away or the road has collapsed over time.” 

But in between the tough riding, there is always a reward: “Higher in the climb there are spectacular views of the road from all sides as it cuts into the hillside, allowing the onlooker to get some amazing views of riders ahead rounding exposed corners with vast sandstone backdrops.” 

The Atlas Mountain Race is going to be an epic event, and as these four have shown, it can provide great inspiration for your own bikepacking trip to Morocco. 

You can see the day by day route Collection that Neil, Natalia, Claire, and Petra created here,

… and see the official Atlas Mountain Race route Collection here. The race kicks off on Saturday 15 February 2020. 

Content and photos thanks to Neil Davey, Petra Dolejsova, Claire Frecknall, and Natalia Pasierska. 

These riders will also be posting their Atlas Mountain Race routes on komoot. Follow them here:

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