Atlas Descent Cycling Holiday - A Leader's View
Life as a mountain bike guide can be tough at times! The sun was pouring in through the window, my trusty bike was tied securely to the roof of the Landrover and Ali and I had the next two days to ‘recce’ a new route through the mountains, which we were going to test with a group of paying guests a few days later. The pressure was on…
... as the route had to driveable for the support vehicles, have a variety of trails for the riders, have good views, not be too challenging (but have some good singletrack options too), and be rideable whatever the weather.
“So, what do you think, shall we try this one?” said Ali in perfect French. We were sitting in Ali’s Landrover, at the junction of a small tarmac mountain road and a vehicle width dirt track that snaked its way off towards the distant range of mountains. We needed to find a suitable route over the mountains, part of Morocco’s Anti-Atlas, to a remote valley, and out the far side, to link up with the existing route to our hotel.
Barely twenty minutes earlier, we had been parked on the forecourt of a small petrol station, holding counsel with a group of bearded djellaba wearing village elders. Spread on the bonnet of the Landrover was the most up to date map I could find (surveyed by the French authorities in 1964) and a couple of low resolution satellite photographs.
Since I started guiding in Morocco way back in 2000, I’ve been lucky enough to lead something like sixty bike trips there and during that time the mountain bike trips that we run have all evolved – every year the routes seem to improve, with each of the different generations of guides adding ‘their stamp’ to the trip! Sometimes this is due to World Bank Funded road building schemes turning our trails into billiard table smooth roads (much to the delight of the locals, but selfishly not so good for mountain bikers), but often is just down to Exodus (and its guides) wanting to make the trip better – we’re always seeking the Holy Grail of flowing, dusty trails!
Luckily with a combination of some ancient French maps, some welcome (although not entirely accurate) local advice, a dollop of luck and some finely honed Zen navigation, Ali and I struck trail gold! The new route climbed gently up a number of switchbacks for a couple of kilometres, and although a bit steep in places, the view as you crested the first col was breath-taking. The main trail levelled out and traversed around to a second col, before doubling back and snaking down the far side of a wide, but steeply incised valley. This route would be perfect for the vehicle support, and for those riders who wanted to take in the view and keep the climbing to a minimum.
As we crested the top of the first col, I caught a brief glimpse of something amazing out of the corner of my eye. My friends and numerous former clients have noted on a fairly regular basis, that I have an in-built ‘trail finding radar’ – whenever I’m a passenger in a car, bus or train, I spend a good percentage of my time gazing out of the window, searching for that illusive piece of singletrack, and this time I knew I’d found something epic! As Ali pulled to a halt, I climbed out and scrambled up onto the roof for a better look. The morning light was just catching on a sinuous singletrack cutting down from high up on the side of valley in a series of hairpin bends, and appeared to head for a small village with an iconic mosque close to the bottom of the valley. I could make out a jeep trail climbing steeply out of the village, and figured that with a bit of luck, the singletrack descent could be linked into the jeep trail climb, and so make the perfect ‘optional’ singletrack for the clients a few days later.
We continued on in the Landrover, with me itching to get on my bike, but I had to wait until the following day, by which time we had driven the whole route, taken photos, and made copious notes. The following morning I rode exactly the route I would take with the group a few days later. I took careful note of timings, marked difficult junctions and looked out for any obstacles or likely problem areas. As I reached the top of the first climb, the main vehicle track continued on, traversing around the side of the high valley, but I was looking for a small rock cairn, which marked the start of the singletrack descent. As Ali gave me a cheery thumbs-up from the window of his Landrover and wished me ‘bon courage’, I checked I was properly clipped in to my pedals, steered around a small prickly pear bush and headed off into the unknown!
The Atlas Descent is the best selling of all the Exodus mountain bike trips. It is graded C, and with a perfect combination of amazing scenery, fantastic trails (including plenty of ‘optional’ singletrack), good hotels, friendly locals and great weather, it’s not hard to see why its so popular!
Olly Townsend was a full time leader for nearly six years, before ‘retiring’ to the office, where he’s now in charge of the Exodus leader team. Luckily he’s still allowed out of the office a couple of times a year to run trips and get his annual ‘fix’ of sunshine and singletrack.