Journeys

In the Moroccan Sun

Sometimes, reaching the start line of a race can be a journey in itself.

Words by Lukas Grabowski, Photos by Bengt Stiller

Writing the day before the start of the PEdALED Atlas Mountain Race, Lukas Grabowski tells us about he and his riding partner Bengt Stiller’s journey to reach the start line. The Atlas Mountain Race, or AMR, is a gruelling bikepacking journey through the high Moroccan mountains, with most of the route off-road and far from resupply, but to reach its beginning they first decided to ride through Spain, before crossing the sea and arriving in North Africa. This is the Road to AMR…

As we sit now in the Moroccan sun, it’s rather hard to reminisce about the wet and cold beginning of the trip we named ‘The Road to AMR’. We are two of about 190 riders that will race the first edition of the PedalEd Atlas Mountain Race. The Atlas Mountain Race is an unsupported endurance race over the length of roughly 1150Km through the famous Moroccan mountain range. It started on 15 February and the official ‘finish’ was 22 February.

 

On 25 January we arrived in Madrid, Spain’s capital and the starting point of our journey. After an uncomplicated bike assembly at the airport, we tried to catch a train that would help us to skip the first few kilometres and leave this far-stretched metropolis behind. Unfortunately that didn’t work out, so we had to spend the first night in a tiny hotel room – two boys, two bikes, last minute adjustments and a first glance at the Mediterranean spectacle that lay ahead of us.

 

Over the following days we had to battle unexpected challenges, that would not come to mind when one thinks of Spain. It welcomed us with an empty, grey and somewhat hostile landscape dominated by foggy mornings, rain and headwinds. However, even the very beginning of the trip surprised us with warmth, whether it was the sacred place where we sheltered on the first night, a supportive greeting by the people of the small Castilian villages, or the open arms with which Nico invited us to spend the evening in his petrol station. He didn’t just share his stories, heater, beer and food with us, he even gave us a little hint about an abandoned public building that was just the right place to shelter and hide away from wind and rain for a good night’s sleep.

 

As we got further south, it all changed for the better. In northern Andalusia, the cities of Montoro and Ronda, but especially the roads between those whitewashed ancient places, offered the first hunch at what was yet to come: river crossings, long gravel segments, sun-bleached landscapes, roaming wildlife and tremendous views. The Parque Natural Sierra de Cardena y Montoro is especially worth a detour, its descents will definitely put a big smile on your face.

 

As we left Ronda and slowly climbed into the southern Andalusian mountains, we could already feel the presence of the sea, and beyond it the other continent we might get a first look at in the afternoon. When we rode up another gorgeous gravel climb around Algeciras it suddenly appeared; Gibraltar and, just at the horizon, the coast of Morocco. We could already see the rocky conditions fewer than 20 kilometres away from us on the other side of the ocean.

 

In Tarifa, we teamed up with two other guys that rode down from Lisbon and set sail for what we hoped would be beautiful and mind-blowing scenery in the Maghrebian Tangier. After a first contact with the Moroccan authorities on the ferry, we were prepared and set to land. Tangier sucked us in right away. People like the self-proclaimed tourist expert Mohammed Coca Cola, the Sim-Card guy, people at the market stalls who just returned from the afternoon prayer, the dog that was eyeballing us from above, they all were a vital part of the first impression we got from Morocco.

The first part of the Moroccan episode of Road to AMR took us through the Rif Mountains, the little brothers and sisters of the Atlas Mountains. A rather remote place, rarely above 1,000m in altitude, inhabited by shepherds and their cattle and known for a very fertile crop of a certain herbal production. From the very first day in Morocco, it was abundantly clear that the infrastructure, when it comes to supplies, is very different and somewhat challenging. Nevertheless, after a few hours it became more and more obvious that it’s not the lack of supplies but the westerner’s eyes that are spoiled and tricked by big supermarkets and flashy advertising.

 

 

The first dinner, a chickpea soup, a night under the rising moon and a sky, scattered with bright stars, hike-a-bike sections and clouded, forest-like mornings, is what best describes our moments in the Rif Mountains.

 

As we headed further south through stunning places like Moulay Idriss and the Imperial City of Meknes, known for its agricultural heritage and pottery, we spent long days in the saddle to reach Khenifra, the last city for a reload before we would slowly but surely start climbing again.

We travelled into plateaus that reminded the group of Patagonia or Central Asia, vast fruitless valleys, red rocks, pines and every now and then a human settlement. As we got deeper into the Atlas it was not just the geography that changed, the people did too. The Berber people dominate the region of the Atlas that we visited. Most of them are tremendously friendly but reserved.

 

Just outside the small city of Imilchil we hit a 50-kilometre gravel path that passed by a beautiful auberge and turned slowly into a long climb up to a 3,000-metre high pass that would then open the view into the valley of the Dadès river. In hindsight this section, the climb and the following 20-kilometre gravel descent, presented a preview of the AMR route. It was a hell of a ride but we needed to be thoughtful and alert on our way down. The tiring day ended at another auberge that just popped up in one of the smaller towns that we came through. An old Berber took us in, invited us to the mandatory Moroccan welcome tea and prepared yet another tasty tagine for dinner.

 

Our final chapter of the Road to AMR was a nice long descent through the Dadès river valley, highlighted by the famous Gorges des Dadès slopes and an evening sunset in the oasis-like town of Skoura. From there we took a local transport to the starting point of the AMR in Marrakesh.

 

Bengt and Lukas began the 2019 PEdALED Atlas Mountain Race together but Lukas scratched after around 350km. Bengt continued on solo to the finish.

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