Summaries from the 2015, 2014 and 2013 étapes can be read below the background section.
I first came to Morocco in the early 1970s, and instantly fell in love with this enigmatic country. I loved the exotic mix of cultures and the geographic extremes of high mountains, Atlantic coastline, sand dunes and snow-covered vistas. Above all I loved the people, their history and the way their colourful culture welcomes the visitor. A short time later I started running adventure holidays to Morocco in an old Land Rover. Now, some thirty-odd years later, I am just as enamoured with Morocco as I ever was.
From this first involvement with Morocco, Discover Ltd was formed to run educational field study trips in France and Morocco. In 1990 Discover bought the ruined Kasbah du Toubkal, and in 1995 it opened its doors.
Being a keen cyclist, I’ve crossed the country on bike from the Mediterranean coast through the Rif Mountains, on to Marrakech and then up into the High Atlas Mountains. From a cyclist’s point of view the magnificent and varied terrain does not get much better.
With cycling coming of age in Morocco, and with Marrakech to Oukaïmeden as a classic ascent to rank with any of the classic climbs in the Tour de France, I believe the time for a classic cyclo-sportive in Morocco has arrived. To put the idea into action, I teamed up with Saif Kovach, of Argan Extreme Sports, and the Marrakech Atlas Etape was born.
As one of the founders of the charity Education For All, I have been involved in raising funds to help educate young girls in the Atlas Mountains since 2007. While the Marrakech Atlas Etape is a challenging ride in one of the most beautiful regions of North Africa, the intention is that it will also generate income to help less fortunate members of the community—and what better charity to support than Education For All?
I hope you can join us for the Marrakech Atlas Etape.
Below are the summaries for the last two events.
Kasbah du Toubkal
Read Keith Gilks’ excellent article in Sportive.com, “Africa’s best sportive? Riding the Marrakech Atlas Etape”
As you wiz down the scarifying descent from Oukaïmeden on your return to Ourika, the glorious views are almost enough reward for the effort you have expended in conquering the ‘Ouka Monster,’ at 2624 metres one of the highest climbs of any etape worldwide. In this year’s Marrakech Atlas Etape ninety-two riders from over two-hundred starters had the exhilaration of having their numbers marked off as they checked into the ski station, with the last of the winter’s snow still sparkling on the mountaintop.
Described by The Telegraph as one of the six best cyclo-sportives of 2015, the third year of the MAE provided some spectacular results with five riders coming in at under three hours, two in an incredible two hours forty minutes, for the gruelling 70 km ride from Marrakech to the ski resort of Oukaïmeden.
And word is spreading; not only were there teams from Casablanca and Rabat, the numbers for Moroccan riders in general were up–including the participation of riders from the national team. Flights from the UK carried more British riders than ever, and there was even a Dutch contingent. Father and son pairs, long-distance and Sunday riders, teenagers and retirees, all taking part to support Education For All, a Moroccan-based charity that provides accommodation for 180 girls from the poorest families in the remotest villages of the High Atlas Mountains, to allow them to continue their education beyond primary level.
Mike McHugo and Gareth Westacott, who originated the MAE with Saif Kovach of Argan Xtreme Sports, are quietly pleased with the way the ride is developing: “One felt there was a bit of a buzz about the whole thing,” says Gareth. “More and more locals wanted to ride it, which was highlighted by the talented riders at the top end and the very good times they made. We’ve also seen more interest from cycling clubs, with a team from Casablanca Cycling Club and quite a big entry from the Marrakech Cycling Club, and riders who did the sixty-kilometre ride going on to do the longer sections.” And not forgetting Mohamed Zine, a fourteen-year-old who is both deaf and mute, who shared the exhilaration of the ride with a big grin on his freckled face.
James Wix, of Riad Farnachi in Marrakech, completed the sixty-kilometre round trip for the first MAE in 2013, but decided to put in a bit more effort for the last two and tackle the full route. How do they compare?
“The 60 was a fun day, and I think that that’s what the 60’s all about, a lot of people going out having a bit of fun, not challenging themselves too much but having a great day. The atmosphere’s amazing doing the 140 with a complete mixed bunch…there was everybody and anybody doing the 140, from young Moroccans to ex-Moroccan nationals to current Moroccan nationals. It’s a really hard slog, but I would say that anybody who applied themselves with a certain level of fitness could do it.”
A bone-wearying bike ride might not be everyone’s idea of the perfect birthday present, but Andy McCoren, a tall, fit-looking man in his sixties was amused with the idea of an intense ride in the beauty of the High Atlas when his son, Richard, presented him with the gift of entry to the MAE, although he wasn’t so sure about it as he stopped to take an energy gel nearing the sixty-four kilometre marker.
“It’s tough going. It’s a constant grind because there’s no downhill to rest your legs a bit. I’ve done other etapes and you get a bit of respite in the climb, but not with this one. But you only have to look around you and see just how beautiful the landscape is, even if your head is down most of the time. I’m sure it’s going to be a fabulous ride back.“ “And by the way,” he adds, “These gels are disgusting, no matter what flavour they say they are.”
Andy and Richard exemplify the spirit of the Marrakech Atlas Etape, because as father bent to the wheel to finish the arduous climb, son came steaming round a bend on his downward flight, stopped, turned his bike around and rode side-by-side with dad back up the grinding climb, adding around twelve kilometres to his own day.
James Tuffs has become a legend in the brief life of the etape mainly because of his insistence on riding a three-geared, around-town Brompton up the staggering slope to Oukaïmeden for the first two events. But this year his status gained brownie points because of his sheer dogmatic approach to getting back in the saddle after an accident put him on crutches.
As he enigmatically puts it on his blog about the Etape, Tuffcall, “on my return to London [after the MAE] I got hit by a taxi–honestly, how often can you get a taxi on a Friday night in London–and broke my pelvis in three places. On the bright side the Brompton was unscathed.” Three months on crutches and another three months having to learn to walk again should have been enough deterrent, but by January he was back on wheels again, building for the next trip to Marrakech, but they weren’t the Brompton’s wheels–they were stolen the day he dug them out of storage to begin his training regime. This time he went for something with a few gears, although it was still a folding bike, as was the tandem he bought for his first jaunt on the etape in 2013 with his partner, Justine, but he had to resort to the Brompton when she had to cancel at the last minute. “It might just get an airing next year, though,” said James, eyeing the duo who reached the top and posed for a photograph with their bike held high and the mountain as a backdrop.
2014 summary Read
The riders assembled behind the ambulance; the more powerful who might see the day as a trial as to how they would cope with the ‘Ouka Monster’, the steepest étape in the cycling calendar, and those who simply wanted an exhilarating ride under the blue Moroccan skies, with the bonus of raising funds to provide homes for girls from the poorest of Moroccan families so that they might continue their education and create a better future for themselves, their children, their families and their country.
The ambulance moved off, with almost two hundred riders jostling for position to get a good start to the day. It shepherded the cyclists along the perimeter fence of the Moulay El Hassan Grand Prix Circuit onto the main road to Ourika where, after a couple of hundred metres, its flashing lights and screeching siren signalled the beginning of the second Marrakech Atlas Etape.
For experienced riders the first thirty kilometres to the staging point at Ourika, (which for some reason is known as ‘Scorpion City’) is a warm up, a chance to stretch the legs in preparation for the thirty-five kilometres to the summit, an unrelenting climb to 2624 metres without flats and dips to ease the legs from the interminable turning of the pedals. For others it’s the turnaround point, and the slow, steady rise to 850 metres from the flat plains of Marrakech can feel equally as unrelenting, although with the comforting thought that once they’ve fed and watered at Scorpion City, it’s downhill almost all the way home.
In total contrast to the first étape in 2013, when the day began in chilling mists and stayed that way all day, other than for those who reached Oukaimeden, where the skies were bright and sun warmed their arms—briefly, this year experienced glorious weather, more the kind to spend the day lounging on the beach than pedalling. The constant to-ing and fro-ing of the backup vehicles, provided by co-sponsors, Argan Extreme Sports, dispensing water, bananas and the occasional puncture repair made sure that no-one suffered from the affects of the heat, and it was with a sense of pride that everyone who set out returned under their own steam.
Timothy Madden is an experienced triathlete, and has been cycling in Morocco for years. This was his second Atlas Etape. “On the way out there’s a peloton that’s moving along pretty good. And then these strong guys got out in front. Those guys are really strong. Because you are riding out with these guys and you get your adrenaline going fast, you put so much in, but once you get away from the pack it’s a lot harder. You are making a balance, do I slow down but if you do you have to work harder to stay in the pack. It’s much easier because of the drafting, something like twenty to thirty per cent easier.”
Sit at the table below the last snows on the mountains at the ski resort of Oukaïmeden with Chris McHugo as he stamps the cards of arrivals and notes their time, and you realise just why the Marrakech Atlas Etape is so special. From fourteen-year-olds Abderahim, Yasin and Dejamal, who were so determined to finish the course that they pushed their bikes up the seemingly never-ending bends of the last two kilometres to the turning point, to Eddy (short for Edwina) Brocklesby, who completed her fourth Iron Man in 2013—at the age of seventy!—the event is open to everyone, whatever their age, experience or energy level.
“That was really tough,” says Eddy, not pulling her punches. “I think it’s the consistency of just going up, up, up. I don’t think climbing the actual hills is the issue. There are 2300 metres climbing in Iron Man and that’s about the same as this, but I think it’s something about the consistency of it and you don’t get any relief. It’s tough, but fabulous, absolutely brilliant.”
But while the going up might be gruelling, the coming down is another matter altogether.
Chris Gurney made the climb to Oukaïmeden last year, but all he saw on the way down where ghostly figures coming toward him through the mist. The views were different this year. “The coming downhill was just awesome, absolutely amazing. You realise you were just climbing and climbing and climbing and you don’t realise until you are coming down just what it was you were going up. And you can pick up some speed, we were going down at fifty-five kilometres an hour. It was a bit tougher than last year because of the heat, but I couldn’t recommend it highly enough.”
Every event needs a character, and the Brompton that James Tuffs completed his second Atlas Etape on appears to be filling the role. It might seem a bit masochistic to tackle the Ouka Monster on a folding bike with wheels not much bigger than a large dinner plate (which probably means that James’ legs have to go around three times more than other cyclists’) but despite having said he wouldn’t be back at the end of last year’s event he was there again at the starting gate this year. “The views are truly, truly stunning. I’ve actually seen it this time around, which is a bonus. It was fantastic, beautifully organised, great weather, but for us non-acclimatised people it was bloody hard work. Nice sense of achievement now though.” And he still took time on the long ride into Marrakech to stop at the side of the road and phone his wife to assure her that yes dear, everything’s fine.
When sixteen-year-old Chaouki Addad returned to the Grand Prix Circuit two hours and seventeen minutes since he waved goodbye to the ambulance, he was a bit surprised to see it almost totally devoid of human beings, until he realised he was the first one home—he’d won the sixty kilometre leg!
“It was a really strange feeling because I didn’t even know that I was ahead of everyone. It was slightly hard at times, but I just kept going, and it was wonderful when I arrived back at the empty car park and suddenly realised I’d won my section.”
Mike McHugo, of Discover Ltd, who, with Argan Extreme Sports’ Saif Kovach came up with the idea of the Marrakech Atlas Etape, was only a couple of years older than Chaouki when he first rode his bike through Morocco, and in the forty years since then has criss-crossed the country on two wheels many times. It was great to see how successful the ride itself was, but there were other things that stood out for him.
“I think it was excellent to see so many young riders this year because there were none last year. These are the up-and-coming riders that will help put Morocco on the cycling map. It was great to see Chaouki, a sixteen-year-old Moroccan boy win the sixty kilometre leg, and the determination of the three fourteen-year-olds to get to the top was remarkable. We also had a father-and-son team, Hamoud and Youssef El Foukai, who’s fifteen. Hamoud was a professional rider for Hamburg and he’s now coaching Youssef, who competes all over Morocco and could well become a professional rider himself.”
Probably more than any other event of its kind the Marrakech Atlas Etape stood out because of its inclusiveness. “That really impressed me,” says McHugo. “We had riders from their teens to their seventies, almost thirty per cent of whom were women. We had an enormous amount of individual and community support but also teams and individuals sponsored by Moroccan companies and non-Moroccan-owned businesses based in Marrakech, mainly in the tourism sector. There were a lot of riders from the UK and other parts of Europe, but it was great to see the number of Moroccan riders taking part and communicating with the other riders in whatever way they could.”
Saif Kovach had trained hard for the event, but at the last minute gave up his hope of completing the ride to be part of the support team.
“I really wanted to be out there, but on an event like this it is so important to have full back-up available to cover any eventualities that I decided to ride with one of the support vehicles. It’s a spectacular ride, and an event like this can only help develop Morocco as a cycling destination. The word spreads from this type of thing.”
“Many of the riders were hugely complimentary about the friendliness of the event,” adds Mike McHugo. “Not just the event, but the friendliness of the Moroccan people they passed on the road, the little kids giving them a high-five, people encouraging them from cars and mopeds, and I think the friendliness of the event comes from the friendliness of the people of the country. We intend to keep it relatively small, small enough to remain friendly, because it’s not easy to have a friendly event when there are thousands competing. Obviously the number of Moroccan people and people who have never cycled before taking part will grow, mainly the 60km ride, I think, with all sorts of people doing it.”
And James Tuffs, stretched out on a Moroccan rug at the end of the event, a roll-up cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other, will he be back next year? “At the moment, no,” he says with a grin. “But I said that last year. It’s amazing how time heals the pain of it all.”
Derek Workman, May 2014
The third Marrakech Atlas Etape will take place on 26th April 2015. Registration begins on 1st September 2014.
2013 summary Read
Approximately 170 cyclists took part in the first ever Marrakech Atlas Etape, aptly nicknamed the ‘Ouka Monster’, a cycling event like no other!
The base station and the various feed stations provided information and much-needed sustenance for riders throughout the event and later on in the day an excellent lunch provided by acclaimed chef Damien Durand was attended by many people. Amongst these were some of the girls and housemothers from the boarding houses supported by EFA as well as partners to the event including technical support and bikes supplied by Argan Xtreme Sports. We were also delighted to welcome the British Ambassador to Morocco, Mr. Clive Alderton.
Whilst the shorter 60km route was without event, something very different was taking place on the longer route up to the turnaround at Oukaïmeden—unseasonably cold temperatures, persistent rain and poor visibility were creating difficulties for many of the riders. Although the turnaround point itself at Oukaïmeden was by contrast gloriously sunny, concerns were voiced that cyclists, already cold and wet, would encounter even greater difficulty on the descent due to the effect of windchill. Around 15:00 with the weather getting worse, the organisers called a halt to any further people starting the descent back to Marrakech. However, several riders had already made or started the descent and did manage to complete the entire 140km, the quickest returning to base to rapturous applause in just under 5½ hours!
Congratulations to all those who successfully completed the 60km route to Ourika and back. Particular thanks to Four Seasons Resort Marrakech for bringing a team of 30, all emblazoned with their own purpose-made jerseys.
A gala dinner and charity auction were held on the evening of the event at Four Seasons Resort, Marrakech for both riders and supporters of EFA.