Bring me a mountain.

There is always a double knot of anxiety and anticipation when packing riding rucksacks and fettling pointlessly, when facing the prospect of riding somewhere a little edgy. This is a useful simile because Morocco is essentially an ancient, extinct volcano circumcised by donkey tracks and watered by mountain snow melt. Global warning here doesn’t mean the loss of a few ski-ing slopes – no with bugger all annual rainfall, the entire south of the country is a couple of warm winters away from sliding back into the desert.

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So a Landrover supported trip into the mountains shuttles us high into the foothills on increasingly crumbling roads clinging to ever steepening slopes. And where the Landy cannot go, the semi-nomadic villages and their animals can, creating vast swathes of lonely singletrack hugging the side of the mountains in a series of never ending rocky switchbacks. It is is – by degrees – achingly beautiful, stunningly unspoilt and bloody terrifying.

The villages are cut into the hillside, camouflaged by the sandstone – itself cleaved from anywhere close enough to hand carry it. They appear at first crude and unfinished but that’s just through the prism of the Western eye. Each building blends perfectly with its’ surroundings, ensues form for function and its’ inhabitants lack nothing in terms of fierce pride in their culture easily mixed with genuine hospitality.

Loading the Landy is always a faff and we’re about an hour late striking out beyond the lunacy of the city. But it’s only ninety minutes into the mountains and soon we’re climbing reasonable gradients at unreasonable altitudes, low lying lungs painfully adjusting to the thinner air.

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One of the joys of riding a bike off road is you get to learn the extremes of personality unshielded by any veneer of social convention. I know how well each of my friends climb steep slopes, how able and brave they are going the other way, where they are fast and smooth or slow and nervous. How they react when it’s all wet, cold and shit and their bike is ‘just fucking useless‘ and the unashamed joy of when they’re on it and nothing else can ever get close. This is stuff you understand before anyone volunteers a vocation or springs a surprising family in a bleak car park.

Today we were all a bit average. Desperately happy to be out riding our bikes, but a bit clumsy and lacking in any sort of flow. I like to think of this as my ground state. The first downhill confirmed what I really already knew in that my trusty bike was a barely ridable pogo stick and my shoulder was just a smidgen from being totally fucked.

The sight of my friends snaking away in ever increasing distances was one that became irritatingly familiar over the next three days. A combination of being properly averse to falling on the shoulder and said limb not being of any real use other than for resting lightly on the bar. And aching.

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Fiddling around with shock pressures and quaffing ibuprofen kept me going most of the day though and what a great day it was. Officially the warm up, it still threw up nasty little climbs, endless off camber singletrack and fast blasts down dusty fireroads. The landy was always somewhere close, carrying all our stuff, lunch and our rather splendid Berber driver going by the name of Najiv.

30 years old, brilliantly competent in the drivers seat, making local salads and shooing away the occasional seller of tat. His English was better than my long forgotten French (Morocco has been independent of the French since around 1954 but along with infinate Arab dialects, it’s still the common language) and through a bit of both he explained he was away from his wife and kids for six months at a time to earn a living.

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Jason had the first proper stack, dumping his front wheel in a rocky gorge and pirouetting over the bars at a velocity marked “that’s going to fucking hurt“. But he emerged unscathed leaving me cursing silently on the unfairness of life. Clearly I am just Mr. Mong and I’d better get used to it. My shoulder really had had enough by this time but my ego hadn’t so I grimaced on for the remainder of the day until two late punctures provided the excuse I was looking for to quit.

Somehow a packet of 20 Malboro had been planted on my temple like form so it seemed a shame not to smoke a couple in the warn sunshine leaning on the handy landrover. I’m a cheap date when it comes to finding some inner peace and mountains, bikes and a general lack of responsibility does it every time.

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We shuttled 20 clicks up to a Mountain lodge run by a sour faced French dame whose father had clearly been Vichy. She didn’t like us much and dispatched us to a remote bunkhouse warmed only by steaming ride kit and sufficient methane to ratchet up global warming. But there was more beer, more bollocks and a partial lunar eclipse perfectly framed by a total lack of light pollution.

And since we were on the top of the mountain, tomorrow was all downhill apparently.

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