Blazing saddles


It’s just after nine on a glorious Sunday morning as we set off for our first bike ride into the mountains, a blue sky hazy in the distance. Six of us, with Ahmed the driver, take the road from Marrakech, turning off after almost thirty kilometers to begin our rise into the lower slopes of the High Atlas;  a group of chaps of a certain age, all tucked, in one degree of decency or another, into a set of slinky cycle kit, but all proudly wearing the Education For All red, white and black shirt, with its Moroccan star and Arab calligraphy written across our chest.

The road winds upward to Moulay Brahim, a scattered village on a limestone plateau, where we unload our bikes. This is our first day, so it’s meant to be reasonably easy, just to warm us up. But ‘easy’, just like ‘gentle’, ‘short’ and ‘just a couple of kilometers more’ are relative terms when spoken by Mike McHugo, the owner of Kasbah du Toubkal and Discover Limited, who set the bike ride up to raise money to provide houses for girls from poor homes in outlying villages to help them continue their education.

The mountain landscape is beautiful, but anyone who knows the Valencian region in Spain, where I live, would be totally at home in these surroundings. The same rolling landscape, red and cream striated earth, pine covered hills and olive groves as you would see if you took a ride inland to Requena, but the physical geography of low, boxy, one-storey villages of hill stone and cement block, plastered over with dull pink adobe made from the local soil, and the literal high point of the village being the minaret, is in total contrast to a Spanish village. But above all, it is the people, their animals and the way of life that create such a striking image.

We set off, and the upland plain dips and rises, but without any extremes, mainly because we’ve been bussed to a departure point of over 800 metres.  Even so, climbs over next the four hours will take us higher than Ben Nevis.

I’m cautious at first. The others are wearing helmets (which I find extremely uncomfortable so stick to my M&S baseball cap) and sunglasses to protect them not only from the glaring sun but also from the wind on the downward stretches. I have a silver wrap-around pair that I bought for skiing years ago but don’t wear them because I find sunglasses very disorientating. I’d rather squint into the sun and put up with tears than wear them, so I hand them over to Andy, who’s forgotten his.

Whizzing down a – fortunately – minor slope an hour into the ride I’m too busy looking at the view to notice a pot hole that suddenly appears below my wheel. I clip the edge, which throws me into the rough ground at the side of the road, and the wheels skid from under me. Years ago, as I was driving on a long down-hill slope in torrential rain in northern France I got into a skid that I couldn’t control. As the car slowly circled and circled all I remember was thinking, “Don’t roll over! Don’t roll over!” As I skittered down the road in the High Atlas, all I could think was, “Keep your head up! Keep your head up!” I slid to a stop with nothing worse than a grazed palm and twisted wrist.

The pleasure of the ride was exactly as I hoped it would be. In some ways being ‘tail-end-Charlie’ takes any pressure off the need to keep up with the pack, but this isn’t the Tour de France, or even the Tour de Maroc, you do as much as you want at the speed that you want, always knowing that when you want to call it a day the cavalry, in the shape of Ahmed or Brahim in the blue pick-up, will come riding over the hill behind you.

The long, low corrals we pass surprise me. No more than a metre tall, made of stones hauled from the barren fields (and a lot of this land is both very stony and very barren) plastered over with mud, they seem to serve no purpose, as they are almost all empty. But they are still being built, as a group of men manhandling stones on top of each other to create a wall and mixing soil with mud prove, and who wave to me as I pass.

The countryside passes lethargically; men of all ages, from early school age to wrinkled, wizen-faced ancients, tend small flocks of sheep and goats, slowly chomping through the scrub. Heads appear at darkened doorways to silently watch these peculiar men in their figure-hugging shorts, brightly decorated shirts and strange hats ride through their village. Almost everyone we come across offers a “Bonjour. Ca va?”, “Bon courage,” and a wave. Some of the braver young boys stick out their hand for a high-five and laugh as they do it.

I climb slowly from a village of no more than a couple of houses and the ubiquitous shed-cum-café selling Coca Cola and Technicolour Fanta. In the distance I see an old man wearing a straw hat with an enormous brim and a long faded grey jacket, apparently picking at a tall spiky bush. I ride closer and realize that below the spiky foliage are the legs of a donkey, hidden in the shadow of an enormous load of eucalyptus branches. As I pass I see the donkey’s head sticking out the front, staring vacantly at the ground as more kindling is piled high on its back.

Suddenly I spot a solitary bright red hang glider off in the distance. In moments it’s joined by four more vivid spots of colour against a bright blue sky, as they circle above a small village. A ‘picture moment’ presents itself; Gareth and George in their black, red and white cycling shirts bottom right; the hang gliders with their brightly coloured wings at top left; and in the middle the pale rose and white of a minaret, struck against a translucent blue sky. But from experience I know that by the time the camera gets out of the pouch on my hip the image will be totally dispersed, so I just free-wheel down the hill and enjoy the view.

As I continue my stately glide downhill I drift around a bend and see Mike by the side of the road, looking downwards. I stop, and look in the same direction, to see the hind legs of a tortoise disappearing into the undergrowth. He’d seen it in the middle of the road and had stopped to pick it up so it didn’t get crushed by a lorry. Isn’t that nice!

We arrive at Lalla Takeroust, a small town bustling with the weekly market, beside an artificial lake where we’re to have lunch – and I’m ready for it! The slow drag up a rough track from the main road is about all I can manage, but when we arrive we find rich Moroccan rugs and gold embroidered cushions set out under a shade tree. Ibrahim has been there for a couple of hours cooking lunch, and serves us freshly cooked pasta with meatballs and an enormous salad. As we kick off our shoes Ahmed brings over an ornate metal kettle and dish, and pours warm water over our hands, handing us a soft white towel on which to dry them. A small dish of biscuits and a gleaming pot of mint tea is set on the table to refresh us as the final preparations for lunch are made.

We eat like sultans, and when the freshly-brewed coffee is drunk and the plates cleared away, we stretch out on the rugs for a siesta. Andy and Gareth make the most of the shade provided by the table cloth, and lie with their heads under the table. I tilt the brim of my cap over my eyes, move a couple of stones to settle my back, and drift into a siesta.

When we leave the picnic spot, a short ride takes us away from the lake and the bustle of market day in Lalla Takeroust. For a couple of kilometers I leisurely peddle past a continuous wall of deep red adobe, interspaced with battered, ancient plank doors. Behind the walls, clusters of white almond blossom mix with the grey-green of olive trees. Occasional stands of eucalyptus cast dappled shadows over that road as I gently and contentedly keep turning the pedals.

A couple of hours later we drop down to a junction with the main road into Marrakech. Mike’s cyclometer clicks over to fifty-four kilometers of mountain climbs, long plateau and high speed downhill whizzing, four kilometers short of my best ever daily ride, so I decide to better it. A white and yellow marker indicates twenty kilometers to Marrakech on a long, straight road, a fair part of it with a slow gradual incline. I really don’t like these, give me a short, sharp rise any day of the week. And besides, Andy has promised us that there’s an ice-cream stand just around the corner, so I can’t give up yet. But there isn’t, and nor do they sell ice-creams at the next kiosk a couple of kilometers further on. Such small temptations keep you going; not the fancy hotel with the deep bath a ways down the road, but an ice-cream just around the next bend.

When we finally realize that the only ice-cream we’ll get is in Marrakech, by which time a cold beer will hit the spot better, we’ve done 59.3km. I ask Mike to signal me at 60km, where I’ll dismount and wait for the cavalry to ride me into town.

The sixty wave goes up just as we hit the fifteen kilometer marker. It’s not that much further to go really, is it? Just do a couple of more kilometers. Fourteen becomes twelve. Let’s call it a day at ten.

The road is excruciating; patched tarmac, potholes and scattered grit. Just after 11km I pass a train of eight camels, ridden by three boys dressed in traditional Berber robes. “You wouldn’t see that in Basingstoke.” I tell myself.

By 10km the scratches on the palm and the twisted wrist from my tumble earlier make gripping the handlebars and changing gear painful. At eight the buttocks in their padded shorts scream at every bump and pothole, so I straighten my legs to peddle, which creates a swaying moment on my forward motion and puts pressure on my aching arthritic knee. Approaching six kilometers my knees are burning and my mouth is so dry I feel as if my tongue is packing it with cotton wool.

Andy and Gareth, who I haven’t seen much in the last half-hour are waiting for tail-end-Charlie so we can go in together. The back-up van arrives, and this is the deciding point. There will be other days when I can take the easy way out, but this is the first day and a personal record. Six kilometers is only a return ride to the beach from my home in the centre of Valencia, and I’ve done that hundreds of times. I sit my burning backside onto the saddle, my feet onto the peddles, and push off.

We enter the suburbs and pretty soon all I can see of Gareth and Andy are the white strips on the top of their shirts, although I get an occasional glimpse of Andy as he raises himself up off his saddle to ease his aching arse.

We arrive at an enormous traffic jam, the first I’ve ever seen that has camels in it, and I see the others disappear into the distance. I’m complete lost. Suddenly I hear a horn blaring behind me and painfully turn around to see Brahim frantically gesturing to the right. I let him pass, and like an ailing chicken follow mother hen home. But Andy and Gareth’s misdirection means that the granddad of the group is home first (although they later try to lessen their embarrassment by saying that they rode further), and Mike’s fancy little meter tells me that I’ve ridden 77.82 kilometres. That’s almost 78! In fact, we can practically call it eighty!

I’m exhausted and aching…but elated.

To learn more about Education For All, the reason I’m doing this bike ride, go to Education For All Morocco. If you would like to make a donation you can make it on-line by going here Derek Workman, or paying cash into my Spanish bank account ES45 2090 2802 4301 0016 8891 (ignore ES45 if you are in Spain), and I will hand it over direct to the charity.

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One Response to “Blazing saddles”

  1. John Maher Says:

    Allez, Derek. Amazing cycling and fantastic post. Chapeau!

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