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Pedaling Over Atlas

Atlas Mountains, Africa

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The Atlas mountains stretch for more than a thousand miles across the top of north Africa, starting in Morocco and stretching through Algeria and Tunisia before gradually fading into the Sahara at their eastern and southern extremities. These are very old mountains indeed – they were formed when America and Africa were still attached to one another, millions of years ago, and pushed up by the same geological forces that created the Appalachians, now thousands of miles away in the US. In places, the range runs close to the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts – the highest peak in the Atlas, Toubkal, is only fifty miles south of Marrakech on the Atlantic coastal plain.

Atlas Mountains Many first time visitors are taken aback by the amount of snow that falls on the Atlas. The tops of the highest peaks are snow-capped even in the middle of summer, and looking out at them from the baking heat of the coastal plain they look like some kind of mirage, hanging in space – a distant dream of coolness.

One of the most interesting ways of seeing the Atlas – and one that has exploded in popularity in recent years – is by bike. The mountains are criss-crossed by narrow shepherd’s tracks and paths, and during the summer the land below the snowline is often baked to pleasantly hard consistency that makes for excellent mountain biking.

If you’ve never done it before, mountain biking is rewarding, exhilarating, exhausting, occasionally terrifying, and altogether worthwhile. Although you don’t have to be superman, a reasonable level of fitness is required, and, if you’re not an experienced cyclist, it might be a good idea to build some ‘bike fitness’ before traveling to Africa. Essentially, you don’t have to be Lance Armstrong, but if you’ve never done a day’s exercise in your life you’re going to struggle.

Cascade d'Ouzoud Local Moroccan companies offer training, transport and guides, plus bike and equipment hire for a very reasonable charge. Routes and courses are available for all levels, and no matter how heroic and fit you are, it’s a good idea to get used to riding a mountain bike off-road before you try anything spectacular. The key thing to remember is that what the bike does, and whether or not you stay on it, has very little to do with the handlebars: any experienced off-roader (and most road racers) will tell you that frontal steering is only one aspect of bike control. At least as important is what you do with your body weight. Shifting it about on the bike gives you different levels of stability and speed when ascending or descending uneven surfaces and helps you corner safely and efficiently on tight turns. If you’re unsure, hire an instructor. They’re very used to dealing with novices, and it’s important you don’t have a crisis of confidence when you’re hammering down an loose-surfaced Atlas single-track at forty miles per hour.

The best rides are probably the ones in the High Atlas around Toubkal. They tend not to be long by the standards of a day’s bike ride – something around the 17-25 mile mark is about average. That may be a lot less than a stage of the Tour de France, but it can be pretty strenuous if the route is ‘technical’ – a mountain-bikers’ euphemism for difficult. Of course, to make the most of the thrilling descents, you have to go up first. Most Atlas bike tour companies will take some of the strain out of this by heaving your and your bike as close to the high point of the ride as they can in Land Rovers. However, it’s never going to be downhill all the way. Be prepared for some uphill slog.

There are two important safety issues that any reputable bike tour company will impress upon you. First, you should always wear a helmet. Your skull is the only bone you can’t afford to break, and you may be a long way from emergency medical help. Second, although it weighs a lot you need to take as much water as you can. Again, a great deal of fluid will be hauled around in tour company Land Rovers, but you won’t get away with carrying it completely. Although some of this mountains have snowy tops all year round, their coolness doesn’t extend right down into the valleys, which can get baking hot during the summer months.

Follow this advice, listen to your guide, and do some practice on your bike before you get out there. Before you know it you’ll be speeding down baked mountainsides with snow and blue skies above you and the unique feel of a properly setup bike underneath you. Take it easy on the switchbacks, and remember that this is no other feeling in the world that’s quite like this.