Big is Beautiful - Fat Bike Adventures in Morocco & Cycling the Sahara

Date: Friday June 14, 2019 at 12:56pm

Big is Beautiful – Fat Bike Adventures in Morocco

Fat bikes are like Land Rovers!  You can go anywhere. On good roads from A to B, you could probably get there quicker on a road bike, but you wouldn’t have the same smile on your face. I love Land Rovers and Fat Bikes equally and they certainly harness my inner ‘Peter Pan’.  I have been lucky enough to complete some great adventures using Surly Fat Bikes the from day tripping in Manitoba, Canada to various adventures in Morocco.  I aim to share some tales from my journeys in Morocco to inspire you to spin your pedals and plan some journeys.

Whilst working in a windsurfing and Mountain bike shop, I signed up for London to Paris aged 18 on my mountain bike and joined an eclectic group on one of the first such rides raising money for the NSPCC. Despite rubbing my backside raw making the mistake of wearing rugby shorts on day 1, the feeling of cycling down the Champs Elysee was incredible. They had closed it off and I genuinely felt like a Tour de France Winner. It turns out celebrating ones cycling achievement with carafes of fine French wine is not a good rehydration regime and can lead to a very heavy head!

   

Several decades later as one of my adventures, I cycled & kayaked London to Marrakech. Morocco was a true 4D experience, an immersion in North African culture, vibrant and rich colours, hubbub and noise as well as fragrant and gentle spices in their cuisine. I was hooked and concluded more journeys were essential including cycling the Sahara by Fat Bike.

My Moroccan adventures meant recruiting different wing men for the task, the mission – cycle, eat local food, wild camp, repeat . Cycling the Sahara by fat bike was going to be a tough challenge, route planning confirmed we would cycle over the Atlas Mountains at Col Du Ticka before heading down to the high dunes of Merzouga, infamous for the Marathon Des Sable, the gruelling desert running race.  The digital maps revealed we would climb to 2200 metres which to me seemed a scary proposition.

Cycling the Sahara

I landed in Marrakech with James ‘Pringle’ Bebbington, one of the world’s top freestyle kayakers and former world champion. James powers his endevers on a raw vegan / fruitarian diet and I was keen to try it out. We booked in to a family run hotel called Albakech House run by Adam, a real paradise in the bustling city to use as our adventure base. We unpacked a small mountain of kit sat by the pool much to the amusement of other guests. Packing tents, clothes, stoves and spares for the two weeks filled us with trepidation especially when the scales tipped 32kg fully loaded.  

Leaving Marrakech weaving through the rush hour was a relief, just to be pedalling forwards, in the distance we could see the High Atlas Mountains casting a hazy blur.  The foothills brought us almost to our knees. It was a real mind game knowing we had miles of this to come and the weight of the bikes surfaced new doubts as to whether we would be able to achieve our goal.  We spent two days climbing almost continuously up switch back mountain roads passing Berber cafes allowing us to rehydrate on Mint Tea. 

Our camping plans (loose at best) involved escaping off the beaten track, avoiding attention to ourselves and kit. I have found this game to be easier after dark unless pretty rural. Some mistakes have included being woken by locals, sleeping in a meat market and sliding down various hill.

   

Reaching Tizi n'Tichka (called Col du Tichka in French) felt like a triumph signalling 2260 m above sea level on seriously heavy bikes. Our efforts were saluted by the Renault 4 rally who tooted us onwards towards our goal of the Sahara. Descending into the dry arid plains and piste of the Sahara literally speeding down the mountain roads was exhilarating and brought smiles and laughter.

Like so many adventures there were plenty of twists, turns and mishaps including setting a new world record of 15 punctures in 5 seconds riding over Argan thorns. Fair play to Pringle who never moaned once about our two-hour interlude in the mid-day sun. 

We experienced all seasons of weather, from sand storms to dry dusty head.  Oranges, nuts, dates and avocados kept us powered along with salad food stops.  Like so many adventures and expeditions it was a simple daily routine and existing soaking up Morocco’s welcoming culture.

   

We spend a few days in Merzouga perfecting our fat bike descents which proved great fun, with power slides, drifts and magical lines.  The locals equipped with camels were bemused by our fat bikes and certainly on reflection we did wonder if camels were better suited to deserts than us or our fat bikes.  

Returning from the high dunes certainly had a sting in the tail as we camped high in the Atlas Mountains. Winds gently buffeted the tent walls as we drifted into an exhausted slumber. Waking up was a different world as the tent was blasted, walls dancing in the gale force storm. Worse still it felt pretty cold. James informed me it was OK for me as he was on the windy side! 

A blizzard was raging, and we were literally freezing in our cycling shorts and Sahara clothing pack list.  We ripped the tent from the floor and set off down the mountain hair pin bends at break neck speed desperate to escape the freezing conditions. An hour later we burst through the door of a Berber café, teeth chattering, frozen hands and feet with screaming chill blains. The locals were knights in shining armour, and came to our rescue with blankets, bowls of warm water and a few raised eyebrows.

   

One of my abiding memories of the trip was James taking pictures of a nomadic camel herd and being approached by a boy tending them demanding money, in the middle of the desert.  Bizarrely James and the boy then argued in two completely different languages, the boy demanding recompense for photographing his camels and James insisting this wasn’t correct as they were their own camels. Free agents!

We spent the final few days exploring the Ourika Valley with its beautiful escarpments, and river crossings, making it quite the tourist trap.  We of course attracted a fair amount of attention on our giant fat bikes looking like extras from a ‘Judge Dredd’ movie.  Even finishing this trip, I knew I would be back for more Moroccan adventures by fat bike and returned a few years later to cycle from Marrakech to Essaouira.  

Read more about Richard​ Harpham's adventures in the next issue.

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