Gravel Culture: Travel Gravel - Morocco

Posted By Gravel Union On 22 July 2020

We’re off on our travels again, searching out the perfect mix of gravelly goodness and cultural wow-factor. This time we’re heading to the north African country of Morocco – home to amazing gravel riding, winter sunshine and mint-tea so strong you can stand a teaspoon up in it.

“Allahu Akbar, Allahu Allahu”. The dawn call of the muezzin from the top of the minaret, summoning the faithful to worship in the mosque, carries over the rooftops. This slightly alien, yet somehow comforting, wake-up call reminds you that you’re in Morocco, my favourite north African country, and signals the start of another day of gravel riding in the Anti-Atlas mountains. If I’m ever asked for my opinion on the perfect winter gravel-riding destination, a country known for its vibrant colour, friendly inhabitants, stunning scenery and amazing gravel trails, Morocco is top of my list. I once read some marketing material that said “Come to Morocco. A short flight, and 300 years away”. Although your mileage may vary, the time machine element still works.
Walking through the souk in Taroudant, known as the Marrakech of the south due to its fortified walls and friendly atmosphere, it truly feels as though you’ve have travelled back in time. Wizened old men wearing wool djellabas, the kind of all-in-one hooded coat worn by Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars movies, sit casting a wary eye over their market stalls. The souk is split into different sections – woodwork, metalwork, ceramics, herbs & spices, fruit and vegetables, leatherwork.
Each section has its own distinctive sights and smells. Visiting a Moroccan souk is a sensory experience like no other. First time visitors walk around eyes wide open and mouths agape. There is an initial shock of entering the medieval atmosphere; smoke fills the air, stall holders try to entice you to viewing their wares (although a polite “la prochain fois” – the next time, normally placates them), small boys riding clapped-out bikes weave between your legs, donkeys pulling over-laden carts attempt to squeeze down the narrow cobbled streets, and street vendors selling individual cigarettes or freshly baked pastries attempt to relieve you of your dirhams (local currency).
Although northern Moroccan cities such as Casablanca and Rabat have a modern cosmopolitan air about them, the smaller settlements in the south of the country, particularly the squat, flat-roofed villages found in the mountains don’t appear to have changed for centuries. One of the joys in exploring a country by gravel bike is that you can enter villages where the tourist buses don’t reach, thread your way along centuries-old urban singletrack, smell what the Berber women are preparing for dinner, practice your language skills on shy, yet fascinated local children, and really feel part of the landscape and culture that makes Morocco so special.
In more developed western countries, the infernal combustion engine is king, yet in the remoter parts of the Anti-Atlas mountains, motive power is just as likely to be supplied by donkeys or mules, and those not lucky enough to own one of these beasts, use their own two feet to get around. Although as a tourist, you might feel that better road access and introduction of air-conditioned vehicles would benefit the locals, as gravel riders, the use of donkeys and feet as the main form of transport has one huge advantage - trails The Anti-Atlas Mountains are blessed with thousands of kms of off-road trails. Trails that link villages together, allow goods to be transported to market or children to walk to school, are highways in Morocco, yet are the Holy Grail to gravel riders. The trails here vary from vehicle width French colonial-era pistes to smooth, fast, ribbons of singletrack with a hardpacked dust surface and gentle changes in gradient, to precipitous goat tracks, cut out of the mountain side, littered with fist sized rocks, slabs of bedrock and 4” long cactus spines ready to perforate your tyres.
Until three or four years ago, 99% of visitors who came cycling in Morocco would likely be riding a mountain bike. Generally travelling on guided trips, as the mapping was so poor, distances between settlements pretty far in the mountains and it cut down on the hassle-factor, most two-wheeled visitors explored the trails of Morocco on an MTB. The problem was that local hire bikes until very recently were of somewhat variable quality and finding the right kind of trail depended on which tour operator you booked through.
In the last few years though, the arrival of gravel bikes and bikepacking on the scene has revolutionised the ride experience in Morocco. A combination of easily accessible digital mapping, route planning tools like komoot and better satellite imagery (all of which I would have sold my Granny for, when I first travelled to Morocco in the mid-90s) means that finding routes and planning trips is now significantly easier and more straight-forward. 2020 saw the arrival of the Atlas Mountain Race in the south of Morocco. Although a lot of the riders significantly underestimated how challenging some of the trails were going to be, a gravel bike with large volume minimally treaded tubeless tyres (ideally 45mm or bigger) is the ideal bike for off-road exploration of a lot of the Moroccan trail network. Strap your bikepacking kit onto your gravel bike, pack some essentials (including an extra bottle of tubeless sealant to ward-off the acacia spines), practice your Moroccan greeting “As-salamu alaykum” and head out there. Some of continent’s finest riding, friendliest people and most jaw-dropping scenery await you.

If you’d like some more gravelly inspiration for the riding in Morocco, albeit in the pre-gravel era, check out our short film here.

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