Saturday, October 08, 2011

High, Ride and Handsome – by bike in the High Atlas Mountains

Derek Workman had a vague plan that one day he’d take a long bike-ride through Morocco, but somehow never got around to doing it. Until, that is, he heard about the bike ride that takes place at the end of March every year in the High Atlas Mountains to raise funds for Education For All, a Moroccan-based charity that builds boarding houses for girls from the poorest of families from remote mountain villages to help them continue their education. He wrote a diary about the six-day ride, from which this excerpt is taken.

Day 1 – A gentle Sunday jaunt

It’s just after nine on a glorious Sunday morning as we set off for our first bike ride into the mountains, a blue sky hazy in the distance. Six of us, with Ahmed the driver, take the road from Marrakech, turning off after almost thirty kilometers to begin our rise into the lower slopes of the High Atlas Mountains; a group of chaps of a certain age, all tucked, in one degree of decency or another, into a set of slinky cycle kit, but all proudly wearing the Education For All red, white and black shirt, with its Moroccan star and Arab calligraphy written across our chest.

The road climbs upward to Moulay Brahim, a scattered village on a limestone plateau, where we unload our bikes. This is our first day, so it’s meant to be reasonably easy, just to warm us up.
We set off, and the upland plain dips and rises, but without any extremes. I’m cautious at first, but an hour into the ride I’m whizzing down a – fortunately – minor slope and I’m too busy looking at the view to notice a pot hole that suddenly appears below my wheel. I clip the edge, which throws me into the rough ground at the side of the road, and the wheels skid from under me. I skitter down the road and slide to a stop with nothing worse than a grazed palm and twisted wrist.

The countryside passes lethargically; men of all ages, from early school age to wrinkled, wizen-faced ancients, tend small flocks of sheep and goats, slowly chomping through the scrub. Heads appear at darkened doorways to silently watch these peculiar men in their figure-hugging shorts, brightly decorated shirts and strange hats ride through their village. Almost everyone we come across offers a “Bonjour. Ca va?”, or “Bon courage”, and a wave. Some of the braver young boys stick out their hand for a high-five and laugh as they do it.

I climb slowly from a village of no more than a couple of houses and the ubiquitous shed-cum-café selling Coca Cola and technicolour Fanta. In the distance I see an old man wearing a straw hat with an enormous brim and a long faded grey jacket, apparently picking at a tall spiky bush. I ride closer and realize that below the spiky foliage are the legs of a donkey, hidden in the shadow of an enormous load of eucalyptus branches. As I pass I see the donkey’s head sticking out the front, staring vacantly at the ground as more kindling is piled high on its back.

We arrive at Lalla Takeroust, a small town bustling with the weekly market, beside an artificial lake where we’re to have lunch – and I’m ready for it! The slow drag up a rough track from the main road is about all I can manage, but when we arrive we find rich Moroccan rugs and gold embroidered cushions set out under a shade tree. Brahim has been there for a couple of hours cooking lunch, and serves us freshly cooked pasta with meatballs and an enormous salad. As we kick off our shoes Ahmed brings over an ornate metal kettle and dish, and pours warm water over our hands, handing us a soft white towel on which to dry them. A small dish of biscuits and a gleaming pot of mint tea is set on the table to refresh us as the final preparations for lunch are made.

We eat like sultans, and when the freshly-brewed coffee is drunk and the plates cleared away, we stretch out on the rugs for a siesta. Andy and Gareth make the most of the shade provided by the table cloth, and lie with their heads under the table. I tilt the brim of my cap over my eyes, move a couple of stones to settle my back, and drift into a siesta.

When we leave the picnic spot, a short ride takes us away from the lake and the bustle of market day in Lalla Takeroust. For a couple of kilometers I leisurely peddle past a continuous wall of deep red adobe, interspaced with battered, ancient plank doors. Behind the walls, clusters of white almond blossom mix with the grey-green of olive trees. Occasional stands of eucalyptus cast dappled shadows over that road as I gently and contentedly keep turning the pedals.

A couple of hours later we drop down to a junction with the main road into Marrakech. Mike McHugo’s cyclometer clicks over to fifty-four kilometers of mountain climbs, long plateau and high speed downhill whizzing, four kilometers short of my best ever daily ride. So I decide to better it. I ask Mike to signal me at 60km, where I’ll dismount and wait for the cavalry to ride me into town.

The sixty wave goes up just as we hit the fifteen kilometer marker. It’s not that much further to go really, is it? Just do couple of more kilometers. Fourteen becomes twelve. Let’s call it a day at ten.

By 10km the scratches on the palm and the twisted wrist from my tumble earlier make gripping the handlebars and changing gear painful. At eight the buttocks in their padded shorts scream at every bump and pothole, so I straighten my legs to peddle, which creates a swaying movement on my forward motion and puts pressure on my aching arthritic knee. Approaching six kilometers my knees are burning and my mouth is so dry I feel as if my tongue is packing it with cotton wool.

Andy and Gareth, who I haven’t seen much in the last half-hour are waiting for tail-end-Charlie so we can go in together. The back-up van arrives; this is the deciding moment. There will be other days when I can take the easy way out, but this is the first day and a personal record. Six kilometers is only a return ride to the beach from my home in the centre of Valencia, and I’ve done that hundreds of times. I sit my burning backside onto the saddle, my feet onto the peddles, and push off.

We enter the suburbs and pretty soon all I can see of Gareth and Andy are the white strips on the top of their shirts, although I get an occasional glimpse of Andy as he raises himself up off his saddle to ease his aching backside.

We arrive at an enormous traffic jam, the first I’ve ever seen that has camels in it, and I see the others disappear into the distance. I’m complete lost. Suddenly I hear a horn blaring behind me and painfully turn around to see Brahim frantically gesturing to the right. I let him pass, and like an ailing chicken I follow mother hen home. Mike’s fancy little meter tells me that I’ve ridden 77.82 kilometres. That’s almost 78! In fact, we can practically call it eighty!

I’m exhausted and aching…but elated!

You can read the full diary of the Education For All bike ride HERE. If you would like to know more about the ride in 2012 you can learn all about it at Education For All.

Derek Workman is an English journalist living in Valencia City, Spain – although he admits to a love of Morocco and would love to up sticks and move here. To read more about life in Spain visit , and Spain Uncovered.  Articles and books can also be found at Digital Paparazzi


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