Kit Wilkinson rides the Tour of Toubkal in Morocco. At the beginning of March, I was lucky enough to lead the first of this year's Road Cycle Tour of Toubkal departures. With sunshine almost guaranteed and a quality of light that can be breathtaking, Morocco is perfect for road biking early and late in the year. We crossed the snow-covered Atlas Mountains twice, climbing on largely traffic-free roads and descending for hour after hour, through Berber villages and by way of café stops and visits to ancient kasbahs. After 3 days of riding, we arrived at Zagora, where everyone was keen to be photographed in front of the iconic sign that points across the Sahara and says - ‘Tombouctou 52 Jours'. What a treat to be able to kick-start the year with a week of riding on dry roads, combined with the usual fun and culturally fascinating Moroccan experience!
Day 1. Marrakech to Ouarzazate
We made an early start from our hotel in Marrakech and drove out to Taddert to avoid the city traffic and get us within range of a day's biking to Ouarzazate. Sunshine, dry roads and ever-improving views of the snow covered Atlas Mountains, had everyone buzzing and keen to get on their bikes. After a quick expresso and a top-up of our water bottles from the support vehicle, the clients, local biking guide Mustapha Imharken and myself set off on the introductory 14 km ascent to the Tizi n'Tichka. A couple of photos at the col, then we set off on a brilliant descent between pretty villages and the well-tended fields of the Berber people, with the terrain quickly becoming much more arid on the southern slopes of the mountains. Beyond the bizarre film studios that mark the arrival in Ouarzazate, we made our way through the town to our comfortable hotel.
Day 2. Oarzazate to Agdz
A shorter day today, so before setting off on our bikes we had a guided visit to the Taourirt Kasbah and some of the older parts of Ouarzazate. The kasbah was built by the Glaoui family and in its time controlled the Saharan Caravan Route to West Africa - a fascinating place, with its hammam and extensive concubines' quarters. An undulating sort of a day on a good road, with the biggest (not very big) climb just after the lunch stop in Ait Saoun leading to a viewpoint where we could look back to the snowy massif of Jebel Mgoun. The last part of the day's ride involved a magical descent, twisting and turning through brown hills, to the overnight stop in Agdz. As the sun went down, it was great to stroll to a café in this ‘wild west' town.
Day 3. Agdz to Zagora
This stage of our ride took us through the Draa Valley and in the early morning it really was surreal, with mist rising from the Draa River that at this time of the year still flows. There were kasbahs and palm groves pretty much throughout the day and, just as on the previous 2 days, almost no traffic. Arriving in Zagora, we spotted the first camels of the holiday and checked in at a great hotel, with palm-shaded pool and bar. One of the clients commented that he had chosen this holiday in part because it included the chance to visit the ‘Tombouctou 52 Jours' sign, so we couldn't skip that photo opportunity, could we?
Day 4. Agdz to Tazenakht
We used the support vehicle to take us back to Agdz, for the continuation of our circuit around Toubkal. Then, heading west on a thin strip of tarmac, with even less traffic than on the first 3 days, we were entering a part of Morocco with very few towns or villages. We had our usual regular stops for water, bananas and the Berber ‘trail mix' of nuts and dried dates and then, in the early afternoon, decided we'd take lunch at the only café on today's route, which was still some way off. An increasing headwind and hilly terrain in the vicinity of the cobalt mine at Bou Azzer, resulted in a late lunch and a group of hungry bikers. Dropping down to Tazenakht, the distinctive peak of Jebel Sirwa was prominent above the town and clearly had a lot less snow on it than when I was there with a KE group in March 2010.
Day 5. Tazenakht to Aoulouz
Looking out of my hotel room before breakfast, a neon thermometer above the main street flashed 07.00 hrs and then 5°C, cool enough for arm warmers even an hour and a half later. Still heading west, we climbed across a high plateau, with wandering herds of goats on the road and the brown hills of the Sirwa Massif to the north. The numbers on the ‘Agadir' kilometre posts were gradually ticking off, as we made the long descent to Talioune in the Sous Valley, a region famous for the production of saffron and argan oil. Our overnight stop was in an impressive, fortress-like ‘riad' above the town of Aoulouz.
Day 6. Across the Tizi n'Test to Ijoukak
This was always going to be one of the toughest days, with a 32 km approach to the turn off to the Tizi n'Test, followed by a 37 km ascent to the pass. Never too steep, though, with tree-climbing goats and far-reaching views to keep your mind off the low-gear, 1650 metre grind. A lunch stop before the pass suited everyone, well maybe not Paul and Annie, who would have relished any King of the Mountains challenge. After another stop for coca cola and coffee at the Auberge Haut Vue, at the crest of the pass, the day ended with a 2-hour plus descent on a wonderful road that drops down into the Nfiss Valley via a whole series of hairpins and sinuous curves. En route to our charming gite accommodation in Ijoukak, we enjoyed some fine views of Mount Toubkal and of numerous picturesque Berber villages.
Day 7. Via Asni to Marrakech
Another great start to the day, as we cruised down to the small reservoir at Ouirgane with barely a pedal turned in anger and still no traffic to speak of. Beyond the lake, a couple of small climbs: 100 metres, the first and 250 metres the second, took us to Asni, where KE groups turn off on their way to Toubkal. Saturday means market day in Asni and it was far too busy for us - we'd seen nothing like this for a week. So we rode on to a lunch stop at Tanahaoute and brought ourselves kicking and screaming back into the present day with a slap-up meal at a colourful garage-cum-pizza restaurant. The final 25 km stage into Marrakech was dead flat and on the smoothest road of the trip, so we fairly steamed along, only slowing a little as we traversed the city centre, Djema el-Fna, Koutoubia and all.
STOP PRESS: Road bike hire is now available in Marrakech
For the last few years we have used the services of a bike hire company in Marrakech who supplied us with good quality mountain bikes. Only last month they have just imported a selection of Cannondale Synapse Ultrega road bikes which would be perfect for this tour. See our dossier for more details.