Peak District legend Nik Cook deserted the late snows of the English spring to join the Hotchillee route gurus for three days of gravel riding in the Atlas mountains, as a precursor not just for a future Moroccan adventure, but a reminder of October’s eagerly-awaited Western Cape Rollercoaster.
Having successfully negotiated the painfully slow queues at passport control and reclaimed my bike in one piece, I was leaving Marrakech behind and heading for the snow covered peaks of the Atlas Mountains. Just an hour’s drive later, I was building my bike up in the peaceful and verdant gardens of the Domaine de la Roseraie hotel in Ourigane, our luxurious base for three days of gravel-riding adventures with HotChillee.
I was actually joining the tour a day late so, while I settled down by the pool with a beer after an hour-long test ride, my fellow riders were tackling the Marrakech Atlas Etape, which included climbing to Okaimeden, a ski-resort at 2500m. As I sat there basking in the sun, the riders started to arrive and, although obviously tired after a big day in the saddle, all were buzzing. A small part of me was thankful not to have ridden such a mammoth day on the gravel bike but, in the most part, I was gutted that I’d missed out.
Ouirgane – Lake Takerkoust
Setting off half an hour after the Group 2 riders, we rolled out of the hotel at the very civilised hour of 10am; five-star hotel, late starts, I could get use to this sort of cycling trip. Led by two HotChillee ride captains and two local guides, our Group 1 posse spun up the first road climb before, after about 3.5km, taking a right turn and plunging into a beautiful valley. Still on tarmac, a 4.5km climb warmed my legs up nicely but the pace was pleasantly ‘touring’, the views stunning and I had to remind myself I’d spent yesterday on a sun lounger, not grinding uphill for hours on end like the rest of the group. As we crested the climb though, the tarmac changed to gravel and we were re-warded by an exhilarating 7km descent. Whoops of joy echoed around the valley and, as we re-grouped at the bottom with huge grins on our faces, we knew our gravel adventure had truly begun.
With 20km ridden, a steady climb saw us catch and pass Group 2 but, entering the hill-top village of Amghras, I and few others got a bit caught up in some impromptu racing and, thinking we were going the right way as we were following the support vehicle, added a 7km detour to our ride. Finally realising our mistake and being joined by one of the guides, we retraced our tracks, made the turn we had missed and the chase was on.
It was soon obvious why the vehicle hadn’t come this way as the trail became rougher, narrower and steeper. It was a blast, just the right side of technical for gravel bikes and, as we slalomed through a village, dodging chickens and high-fiving kids, we again passed a slightly confused looking Group 2 and carried on with the descent that had already exceeded 8km in length.
Finally, hitting the river plain, we caught Group 1 tackling some fairly deep puddles but, having all dealt with those, we were faced by a more serious aquatic challenge; a fast-flowing and, as yet, depth-unknown river. Having been held responsible for our impromptu breakaway, it was decided that I should act as a dipstick and, wading into the chilling snowmelt with my bike on my shoulder, hoped it wouldn’t get much deeper as it rose over knee deep midstream. Making it to the other side, the rest of the group followed and, despite a few stumbles, no-one took a serious dunking.
The next section of trail was like a natural BMX pump-track and then, as we came to the shores of Lake Takerkoust, a singletrack line skirting the water proved irresistible. A steep and loose final climb tested our legs before we hit the tarmac again for a stunning end of ride tagine feast by the lakeside. It’d been an incredible first day, with our gravel bikes proving the perfect tools for tack-ling such mixed trails. I’ve done few rides with so much variety packed into 55km and, having had a few beers in the evening, went to bed excited about Day 2.
Ouirgane – Asni – Ouirgane
Falling asleep to the sound of heavy rain, it was a relief to wake up and roll off in the dry. It’s obvi-ous that everybody in Group 1 was pumped up by the previous day’s ride and, despite some drizzle, the pace set up the opening 12km tarmac climb was a great way to get warm in the still-damp morning air.
Turning off the tarmac though, the overnight conditions had played havoc with the trail and made upwards progress became a fish- tailing balancing act. It was just rideable but I hoped, with more height, it might dry out a bit. Thankfully after about a kilometre, a more solid line appeared and we were able to tap out a steady tempo to the top, catching a number of Group 2 stragglers. It’d been a tough 3km of climbing, with pitches over 20%, but the views at the top definitely made it worth-while.
With both groups and the two support vehicles having come together at the top of the climb, every-one took the opportunity to grab some food and some extra layers. The mud on the climb had claimed a few mechanical casualties and sticks became extremely desirable commodities to clear the gloopy mud from frame and components.
The mud had only just got started with us though and, as we set off across the plateau, every 100m there seemed to be an anguished cry as another rear mech died a clay-covered death. I switched into mechanical survival mode, shifting into the middle of the block, not changing gear, using my trusty stick to clear mud and, if I felt the slightest tug on my drivetrain, stopping. I nursed my bike through the next 5km, which felt more like a Spring Classic in Belgium than riding in Morocco. It was challenging but, not being adverse to a bit of the mucky stuff, I was having a great time slipping and sliding about.
Eventually we hit tarmac and, finding a handy ditch to clean our bikes in, surveyed the carnage. Our original Group 1 and Group 2 combined peloton of over 30 riders had been slashed and now numbered just 13. The support vehicles’ bike racks were fully laden and, inside them, the seating arrangements were cosy to say the least.
Accompanied by horrendous sound of mechanical suffering, we rode the 5km to the lunch stop. While we feasted in front of a fire in tented luxury, the HotChillee support machine clicked into gear. Bikes were cleaned, any running repairs that could be made were carried out and a plan was made for the rest of the ride.
With poor trail conditions anticipated on the rest on the planned route, the sensible decision to stick to tarmac was made. Riding as one group, we rode through the town of Asni under the strict pacing controls of the remaining ride captains. Having passed the turn-off to the clay climb of hell and now retracing our tracks, we were let off the leash for the final 12km and, as always happens with a group of competitive cyclists, an impromptu race kicked off.
Imlil – Ouirgane
44.3KM / 475M
Overnight the amazing HotChillee support team had arranged for the fleet of broken bikes to be in Marrakech, taken to a mechanic and, all apart from three terminal cases, fixed. For those riders whose bikes were beyond repair, hire bikes were sorted. With the previous day’s ride in mind, an early morning vehicle recce was dispatched to check the trails and thankfully, with no more rain overnight, they were deemed rideable.
The original plan had been to start the ride in the mountain town of Imlil and go straight into a 7km/600m climb up to 2 350m. However, with heavy rain forecast later on in the day and temperatures down at 5C, the decision was taken to drive to the high point.
Getting out of the vehicles and readying our bikes, the gravel road we were on clung precipitously to the mountain side and, every now and then, the clouds parted giving spectacular views of the snow clad summit of Mt Toubkal far above.
What followed was 26km of fast and fun off-road downhill. Brief uphill kicks stung our legs and reminded of us the altitude but it was mostly just ripping down the trail, drifting round hairpins and occasionally pausing to take in the amazing mountain scenery.
Eventually, the off-road fun had to come to an end but, turning onto tarmac at Imsker, the rain started. We’d timed it perfectly and, as it really started to hammer down; we were glad to be off the technical mountain tracks. Again the final run-in turned into a bit of a burn-up and, soaked-through but smiling, we ended another fantastic day of riding in the Atlas Mountains.
The three days I’d ridden had been incredibly varied and, even though the weather threw a slight spanner in the works, a truly amazing and enjoyable adventure. We might not have quite ridden the kilometres or trails that had originally been planned but in no way did I feel short-changed. The riding we did do, the scenery, the group, the HotChillee team and our accommodation combined to make it a truly magical and unforgettable trip.
But wait there’s more!
Hotchillee organises a raft of ridiculously good events in Europe, the UK (sore point, don’t go there) and beyond, including London-Paris and the Cape Rouleur. Their first leap into the gravel-biking phenom will be the Rainmaker RollerCoaster, a seven-day stage race across the Western Cape in October 2018. We pre-rode the last two stages, and boy do you need to bring your A-game if you want to race this thing: stage six is a 140-odd-kilometre blast from the arid karoo south of Oudtshoorn, over Montagu pass to George (already a beast), with the beastly Seven Passes road to Knysna to finish… 2 200m of ascent, with five days (and nights, remember, this is HotChillee territory, and getting to know your fellow riders is almost as important as riding). The final day is shorter, but arguably tougher, with the small matter of Petrus se Brand, one of the Garden Route’s iconic MTB trails, included to give the mountain bikers one shot at out-doing the more sensible gravel-bike choosers, who will have had the upper hand for the previous six days. This 13km section will test skinny tyres and fragile constitutions to the max, but offers a sublime reminder of how privileged we are to ride bikes in the Western Cape, and in Africa. The RainMaker RollerCoaster has a few options that will suit local budgets, too, with all-inclusive packages ranging from cosy tents to relative luxury, from R12 995, and with tailored packages available.
Pop over to www.hotchillee.com and they will make it happen.
Saturday, 6 October: Stage 1
Swellendam (Prologue) (16km/135m)
Sunday, 7 October: Stage 2
Swellendam – Swellendam (57km/1 150m)
Monday, 8 October: Stage 3
Swellendam – Riversdale (107km/2 000m)
Tuesday, 9 October: Stage 4
Riversdale – Calitzdorp (109km/2 100m)
Wednesday, 10 October: Stage 5
Calitzdorp – Oudtshoorn (53km/350m)
Thursday, 11 October: Stage 6
Oudtshoorn – Knysna (140km/2 150m)
Friday, 12 October: Stage 7
Knysna – Plettenberg Bay (74km/1 650m)
RIDE MOROCCO IN 2019
The 2019 HotChillee Atlas Mountains will take place from 27 April – 2 May.
It will once again include the Marrakech Atlas Etape on Day 1 followed by three days of gravel adventure. Additional routes have been recced in case of a repeat of the poor weather and the final day of riding will take you all the way back to Marrakech. For more information go to www.hotchillee.com/event/hotchillee-atlas-mountains/