29 August 2022
Discover photographer and MTB travel guru Dan Milner share one of his favourite trail destinations, in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, with the PRO Community Riders Scotty Laughland, Sharjah Jonsson, Monika Büchi and Stefan Garlicki.
“It feels like we’re riding through a tajine,” says Scotty, referring to the iconic earthenware oven pot that delivers our nightly meal here in Morocco. Maybe it’s the vivid red clay across which our tyres are now carving, or maybe just the searing midday heat that is drenching our jerseys with sweat—or most likely a combination of the two— but either way Scotty’s observation doesn’t feel far off the mark: I for one, am cooking.
We pump our handlebars around swooping, natural berms and drop our posts to flow through mini valleys that together forge a natural pumptrack finish to an epic forty-kilometre ride that began at first light and swallowed up a decent vertical Kilometre of climbing, before finishing at our Riad accommodation set among the oven-like, rolling foothills of the Atlas Mountains. When we roll through its gates and lay eyes on its swimming pool, first changing out of our shorts doesn’t even become an option. Plunging into the cool water, my head goes from tajine to ice-cream in seconds, and it feels good.
Ever since I first rode here in 2006, on a self-guided bikepacking week between remote villages, the towering Atlas Mountains have become my ‘go-to’ for accessible adventure. Morocco’s rich culture, colourful landscapes, relaxed Islamic customs and welcoming attitude lend it appeal to anyone with a mere taste for adventure. Throw in the Atlas Mountains’ myriad mule trails starting just an hour’s drive from Marrakech airport, and the ability to communicate even if armed with just rudiments of French and you have easy-to-reach, accessible adventure served on a plate. Or perhaps that should be a tajine.
So here I am, back again, but this time I’ve brought four fellow Pro Bike Gear riders —Scotty Laughland, Monika Buchi, Stefan Garlicki and Sharjah Jonsson— each fresh to Morocco but hungry for its flavours, and each bringing their own unique skillset to apply to the landscape that greets us. This may be my fifth time in Morocco, but through their riding and their fresh experiences, I hope my own eyes will be opened even wider to see even more that this amazing country has to offer: I don’t have to wait long.
We meet old friend and local mountain bike guide Lahcen at a stone café high on a pass overlooking the sleepy village of Imlil. Just south of us, the 4167m-high behemoth that is Toubkal, Morocco’s highest peak, juts skyward unapologetically raw and brutal in appearance. Sipping on sugary mint tea we catch up on old times and hear how for the last two years tourism’s lifeblood of the village was put on hold by the pandemic. And then, fuelled by the sweet tea and a fidgety, collective energy we are back on our bikes, launching into a loose, clattering, serpentine trail that cuts back and forth through shady pine forest. Bringing up the rear and peering through the cloud of dust raised by ten tyres ahead of me, I can just make out the silhouettes of riders carving high lines into tight bends or throwing whips over boulders —lines and shapes I’d never have thought of adding to a Morocco descent.
We tumble out of the trail five hundred metres below, in a sea of smiles and high fives, the air filled with excitement and reflection. The trail we just rode is an old mule trail to the pass. Trodden daily by dozens of hooves it’s a million miles from a bike park creation and if the electricity of the group is to go by, it’s more than a fun descent. But what if we cleaned it a little, perhaps adding a little more flow to the awkward corners? Lahcen agrees. “Mules and storms take their toll”, he says. Trails like this are his bread and butter; and he is more than happy to work on them. After all, a better riding experience means more happy bike tourists.
We return to the trail early next day with Lahcen and his colleagues Mohamed and Houssain, armed with a dozen hand tools and an appetite for sweat. Dust clouds the sky as an army of toiling mountain bikers rakes and shovels and muscles boulders from flow lines, until the trail’s true potential shines. During the day we swap notes on riding styles and line choices, debate the difference between trail cleaning and over-sanitising and most importantly, the virtues of sugary versus unsweetened mint tea.
And over the next few days we share more laughs, rides and experiences, as Lahcen leads us further from Imlil. By the end I can see the layered impressions Morocco has made reflected back from the faces of my fellow riders; a calm appreciation of venturing into unknowns and finding rewards —from waking to the call to prayer each morning and embracing steep hike-a-bike sessions to reach wilder more remote trails, from raking rocks on a Moroccan hillside to discovering the warm hospitality of our hosts as they welcomed us into their homes for dinner with their families, where of course, we’d feast on the best tajine I have ever tasted.