L’Étape de Suisse and L’Étape Morocco both launched this year and offered beautiful routes with the promise of a guaranteed place in L’Etape du Tour 2020. I was in the Hautes-Pyrénées during l’Étape de Suisse (it’s a hard life!), so decided to head to Marrakech for a long weekend…
The race offered three routes, ranging from 80km to 150km and up to 2020m climbing. I opted for the long route, which would head up into the Atlas mountain range and over two mountain peaks before looping back and descending into Marrakech.
The build up…
At the village, I registered sitting on Moroccan cushions, whilst drinking mint tea. The small team managing the process were really friendly and chatted away, despite my rusty French! They explained that a cavalcade of cars would accompany the race, ensuring rider safety over route. There would be one out and back section where riders should stick to the right at all times. It was good to see there was a team of mechanics on standby if needed!
I chose to do a race package with the Étape organisers and the hotel had been upgraded at the last minute, so I was pleased when I arrived. I had a pool, gym (albeit one treadmill had a hole in the screen!), a bar, couple of restaurants and shop. I squeezed in a quick 7km jog at the gym, then headed for some delicious fusion morrocan food at +61 before collapsing into bed after a long day.
On the Saturday, my friend and I did a quick leg spinner out and back to Tahamaout over 70km. It’s quite an easy route, although you soon come to realise that once you leave Marrakech there isn’t really any flat land. The ‘faux-plat’ or false flat pretty much climbs at 1-2% for 15-20km, with a short climb over 6% at the end. Annoyingly, I got home and realised I was 20 seconds off the QOM! It was, however, a good recon ride for the route home on race day…
At 6.30 am, we were met at our hotel and followed a van pro-pelaton style at a fairly nippy 30-40kph to the start line. One way to wake the legs up! Upon arrival, the étape team had laid on breakfast and coffee and the 150 or so riders were able to settle in before lining up.
The Morrocan national cycling squad were all lined up on the start line; roads were closed and a full police/military escort had been engaged to support the event, lining the whole of the course.
In true Morroccan style the race started 25 minutes late, but we were then off quickly. I rode with a group of about 20 men, all taking turns on the front.
Within an hour and a half we were in the mountains and onto the first named climb: King of Atlas. The views were simply stunning. Under glorious blue skies, we rode up a winding road, past a lake into the mountain villages surrounded by olive trees. The average gradient was around 7%, although there were a couple of juicy kickers off some gravelly corners, coming in at around 18%. Families and their children had come out to line the streets and high-fived us as we rode through and at the top of the first climb, by the feed station, there was a morrocan band drumming and singing!
After the first climb, I rode for a short while with a group, then having dropped them on the next climb found myself riding alone in the desert for a good half an hour before I caught a Spanish chap up. I was relieved to see an Étape car come up behind me, as I’d started to worry I’d gone the wrong way!
At the village of Asni, we took a right and made a fantastic descent for ten or twelve kilometres before climbing back up on an ‘out and back’ route. Back at Asni, the police were on form again and stepped out to stop the traffic as we headed through the town at a pace. We then climbed up through winding red-rock lined roads towards a castle before eventually seeing signs back to Marrakech. From that point, it was a 50km descent home. I worked in paceline with a new French friend tackling headwinds the whole way home, making it a fun finish on tired legs. As we crossed the finish line, we were handed medals, bags of food and drinks and given hugs by the event organisers. What a ride!
So would I do it again..?
100% – but I’d stay a few more days and explore the mountains further… there was SO much more to see.
Morocco pulled out all the stops: stunning scenery, a police escort allowing safe but fast sprinting through towns, amazing wide smooth descents and challenging climbing with amazing vistas. Despite being pre-warned to bring winter tyres and to expect potholes and gravel, the roads were excellent. The event was well organised and we were very much looked after.
I met some amazing people and had an awesome time; and have my eye on a few QOMs for the taking 😉.
Take winter tyres – whilst the roads are good, there are potholes and they are gravelly and dusty in parts!
Change cash for local currency at Marrakech airport – you will need cash and you can’t get Moroccan Dirham in the UK, so it’s the easiest way to get sorted upon arrival.
Buy a SIM card at Marrakech airport – I had no phone signal all weekend, which was peaceful, but not very useful at times!
Make sure you get your passport stamped upon entry – passport control will check this when you leave.
Take extras – there were no obvious bike shops in Marrakech, so better safe than sorry! I’d recommend taking extra inner tubes as well as CO2 if you have room.