GCN Goes Bikepacking In The Atlas Mountains, Morocco

GCN Goes Bikepacking In The Atlas Mountains, Morocco


– Well, good morning. It’s currently about half
past six in the morning, and I am about two and
half thousand metres in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Yesterday Josh and I,
that’s Josh over there, more on him in just a moment, we rode about 130K through
some of the most remote and breathtaking scenery
I have ever been in. And then we decided to call
it a day at this very spot and then slept out under the stars. This is quite an
introduction to bikepacking. (gentle electronic music) This is gonna be something
pretty new to me. In fact, I’ve not done
anything quite like this for 17 years, and that wasn’t with a bike. So as you can see, I’m pretty nervous. But because I’m like a fish out of water, I have drafted in a total
expert to show me the ropes. This is Josh, bikepacker,
ultra-endurance cyclist, former winner of the legendary
Transcontinental race, and a man eminently comfortable
with sleeping in hedges. We fly out to Morocco in three days, so Josh has stopped by to make sure that I’ve got everything that I need and nothing that I don’t. We are travelling light. – Hey, Si, why’ve you got
three pairs of pants with you? – ‘Cause we’re going away for five days. – No, no, you just need one pair and that’ll be fine.
(laughing) – Well, what does he know, anyway. I’ll pack ’em when he’s not looking. Next up: Morocco. This is Marrakech. This is one of the gateways
to the centre of the city. It’s currently lunchtime on Monday and we’ve got a flight out
of here on Friday morning. In that time, we’ve
got a route plotted out that’s 400 Ks long. We’ve got to get over the Atlas Mountains, turn right when we get to the desert, and then all the way back over the Atlas. It is only 8,000 metres of climbing. – But there’s also a catch. We checked out the route on
Komoot while we were planning and it’s telling us
that there’s potentially a large amount of off-road
riding on day three. In its own words, it was
“extreme mountain biking.” – Extreme mountain biking. Shall we go bikepacking, Josh?
– Yeah, I think so. Let’s go.
(dramatic electronic music) (horn honking) (gentle rock music) – Well, we survived, which I think is the main thing, isn’t it? Actually really doable, like super hectic but you know, like, you get into it. – It’s controlled chaos.
– Controlled chaos, yeah. – If you play by the rules you’re okay. If you start trying to stop
at traffic lights and things then it’s gonna go wrong for you. – Right, or horses, as you found out. – Yes.
– To be fair though, when you’re looking at that
backdrop with those mountains you kind of always know
where you’re going. I mean, you just kind
of hear them calling. Come on lads, come on, up up up. Aha.
(laughing) So Josh, maybe you should fill us in a little bit more on your backstory. I’ve said that you’ve won the
Transcontinentals, you have. I’ve said you like sleeping
in hedges, which you do. But how exactly have
you got to this place, and so early as well,
’cause you’re only 29, actually 30 today, sorry 30 today. – I’m old now. Officially a masters racer.
(laughing) I actually started in a
very similar fashion to you, so I started racing
cross-country in the UK. – Yeah.
– But I found as I got older I was just better at, I always did better in the longer races,
kind of the marathons, and then through
university I started doing 12-hour mountain bike
races, and I won a few and did well, so the next step was kind of 24-hour racing. And then I really enjoyed stage races, and it kind of escalated from there, and then I saw people like Mike Hall who I’d raced against and knew do the around the world trip, and then he started the
Transcontinental Race and won the Tour Divide,
and I was really inspired. And I was actually really scared
to do the Transcontinental Race to start with.
– I’m not surprised. What, it’s (mumbles) miles–
– ‘Cause it’s intimidating. (mumbling)
Exactly, and I’d never done anything like it before. So I didn’t enter the first one, but I watched it avidly,
I was (mumbles) watcher and the day it finished
I booked a one-way flight to Slovenia, brought all
the kit and rode home, and that was that.
– Wow. – And the next year I entered,
and it kind of escalated. – So I see bikepacking came
out of a competitive thing, and now do you bikepack
for bikepacking itself? I mean, you went round the world this summer.
– Yeah, well, I’ve done extensive travelling,
and I actually found that the TCR opened my eyes, because I’d never been really outside of the sort of Western Europe area. And it’s all very kind of similar, and TCR took me through Eastern Europe and really opened my eyes. You ride from your house, basically, ’cause the first year I
did it it was in London, and then you ride all the way to Turkey and you see the gradual change. I just love the change of cultures, – Yeah.
– and I wanted to see more. So now I have a tick list
of places in the world I wanna see, Morocco being one of them. – Nice, done.
– And I love it, it’s, whether it’s racing or
just cruising around seeing the place.
(gentle music) (thump)
(sighing) – So, kind of size of kit bag I’m used to, but there is a pair of
boxer shorts in there. (electronic rock music) Well, it’s time for second breakfast. We are at 1400 metres, in
the foothills of the Atlas, and you know what–
(speaking off camera) Ah, yeah. – Cheese omelette.
– Thank you very much. – Merci. One of the things I’m learning
to love about bikepacking is the fact that you
stop whenever you want and have something to eat and drink. – The great thing is, you can pretty much eat whatever you want as well. – Ah, the coffee, yes. So this is a Moroccan
specialty called a nuss-nuss, which means a half and half. So I think that’s espresso and milk. It’s like a kind of a cortado,
a Moroccan flat white. Amazing, nuss-nuss, it’s
what it’s all about. Hipsters everywhere will
be eating them soon. (gentle electronic music) Oh my god, look at that. Ah, wow.
– That’s the one. That’s the one. – What a spot to be riding pushbikes. – Smells nice. Nice, cool. This is the spot, mate. – Wowie, look at that.
– Woohoo! (crowd chatter) (muezzin calling) – Oh nice.
– Alright, cool– (chatter) – Okay, so this is
apparently a barbecue joint, so we are choosing our meat. They’re gonna grill it for us, and then there’s this super
cool place out the back over a suspension bridge. What an amazing spot. (speaking foreign language)
– This is minced meat. It’s called kofta. (crosstalk drowns speakers)
– Yeah, lovely. (laughing and crosstalk) (gentle music) – It’s quite a feat of
engineering, that, isn’t it? Right, and here we go. This is the literal high point of day two. As you can see, it is the
summit of the Col du Tichka at 2260 metres. It’s been a pretty long
slog to get up here, but it’s not the most brutal
climb I think we’ve ever done. – No, no, it’s not the steepest thing. There’s a few sections, but
it’s kind of pretty gradual. The thing that got us the
most was the thin air. – Yeah.
– The last half hour we’ve been out of breath quite a lot. – Yeah, and to be fair,
actually stopping for lunch halfway up probably helped, as did stopping for second
breakfast before that. So it’s not like we’ve raced up, is it? – No, it’s definitely not.
– No. But we do have now is
pretty much 30 kilometres of uninterrupted descent to
where we’re sleeping tonight. – And I would like to add
that I got here first. (rock music) – Well, there we go. That is day two done. Little bit harder than day
one, it’s got to be said. We are now on the south
side of the Atlas Mountains, having just ridden over them. What a day it’s been. Incredible views, you’re going from like, the lush northern slopes on
the way up from Marrakech to here, where it’s super arid, isn’t it? But just incredible. We’re now about at the town of Agouim, and this is where we are gonna
be staying for the night. – To refuel, have a good sleep, and tomorrow we head off into the unknown. But we know a little bit, actually. We know there’s gonna be some gravel, we know there’s few resupply points, and we know it might get a bit, bit scary.
– Yeah. This is the point at which Komoot said that it’s gonna be an
extreme mountain bike ride. And actually, we have got
no hotel tomorrow night, we are bivvying out in the High Atlas. So that’s a first for me. – Let’s hope it’s not too cold then. – Yeah, please let it not be cold. Anyway, that’s tomorrow. First things first, a beer and a refuel. – And possibly a shower. (speaking off camera)
(laughing) (gentle atmospheric music) – Moroccans really know
how to do breakfast, that’s for sure, so just finishing off freshly squeezed orange juice,
that was a nuss-nuss coffee, ah, merci.
(speaking foreign language) Olives, bread, and this little bad boy is an omelette with cumin. – This msemen, which is
a bit like a pancake, it’s kind of like a chapati
or something, with honey. This what everyone eats for breakfast. – It’s gonna be a big day, mate. (speaking off camera) So 3000 metres of ascent today, and what that translates as in reality is 3000 metres of ascent, which I kind of really glossed over until we started struggling
up the first 11% gradient. Think it is gonna be a big day, this. (gentle music) Whee. Civilization. Wow. (horns honking) I was not expecting that, mate. Not entirely sure where we are. This little village has
just come out of nowhere on this epic descent. And apparently it’s market day, it’s Wednesday, it’s market day. We’re just gonna see whether
we can grab some lunch, second lunch, we disappear
off kind of up that way, into the mountains. But it’s cool. Hanging out with some kids. They don’t speak French, don’t speak my level of French anyway. – Bonjour.
– Bonjour. (crowd chatter)
(shouting) – Now by now, you’ve probably worked out that Josh and I are not
completely alone on this trip, and that is a very good thing, ‘case otherwise all you would be watching is a load of shaky GoPro footage and listening to a load of wind noise. And you would also be missing
out on all the how-to videos that’re gonna be coming out on the channel over the next few weeks, ’cause
Josh is taking us through the finer points of bikepacking. But anyway, rather than hide that fact we thought we would
introduce our little crew. So this is Tom, who is our filmmaker. This is Pete, who’s riding the motorbike that Tom can sit on. And then this is Aziz,
who’s our local legend, and he is driving that
4×4 to stash camera kit and Pete and Tom’s luggage in. – At this point, it’s worth pointing out that we are carrying everything
we would use on this trip if we were doing it by ourselves. I’m pretty adamant that
Si does it properly, I want him to have a proper
bikepacking experience, and therefore we are
not taking any advantage of the 4×4 or the motorbike
to carry stuff for us. We’re doing this properly.
– We are indeed. Now, we’re gonna be together
for pretty much the whole trip except for this much
talked-about Wednesday afternoon, Wednesday evening, Thursday morning where effectively, Josh and
I are gonna be using tracks that only bikes can go on.
– Apparently. – Yeah, hopefully they can go on them. Hopefully the tracks exist, we don’t know. Hey.
(crowd chatter) (gentle electronic music) That’s a cool little town there. – Our last 20K has been amazing. Gradually undulating, loads
of nice curves, great views. – Yeah, a real contrast to this morning where we were climbing up through
this really arid landscape and then suddenly
descending down this valley with this beautiful kind of oasis next to the river at the bottom. It’s just been magic, isn’t it? – Yeah. And we weren’t even expecting tarmac, we thought it’d be dirt
roads all day, so– Maybe it wasn’t so bad after all, Si. – Yeah.
– Bonjour. – Well, this is the
point at which the guys are gonna have to leave us, so we’re gonna do a
ceremonial hand-over of camera and, well, this is it now, Josh, isn’t it? – I guess the– Ah, lens cap, let’s not lose this. I guess the quality’s gonna
go downhill from here. – Yeah, a little bit. (Josh laughs)
It’ll be fine. – Steady, steady.
– I’ve seen ’em do this all the time. Right, Josh.
(horn honking) There we go.
(engines roaring) So that is it, the guys are leaving us. It’s currently just
after six in the evening and we’ve got another
couple of hours of riding before Josh reckons it’s
gonna be time to bivvy out. So it’s obviously gonna depend
a little bit on location, it’s gonna depend a
little bit on altitude, we don’t wanna be up too high. We’ve gotta go over about 8000 feet, so, so we’d better do some
pedalling, eh, mate? – Yeah, I guess so.
(gentle electronic music) So we’re now at 2000 metres and we’ve climbed our way up this valley, and it’s not quite what we were expecting. It’s actually, we’ve been passing loads of tiny little villages. All this green land you can see behind us is actually farmland, and
the little villages here are thoroughly self-sufficient. – Yeah, it’s incredible, isn’t it? It’s like a secret kingdom. Totally wasn’t expecting to find, what, 70 people up here, like
there’s just enough water in that stream down below
to irrigate enough land that they can grow, we’re told barley, there’s a load of fruit trees down there, – Nuts.
– There’s nut trees, yeah, walnuts, almonds. It’s just, it’s incredible, isn’t it? It’s like a little mini paradise hanging 2000 metres up
the Atlas Mountains. – And really isolated from anywhere. – Yeah. I mean, this road probably,
I mean, it’s super new so I guess they were really,
really cut off, weren’t they? – Yeah, yeah, I mean, we
were expecting dirt roads, even some trails at the top, and actually, so far it’s been pretty
much fully tarmac, so– – Yeah.
– Let’s see if that continues. – Oh yeah. Right, we’ve got our gravel at last, even if we can’t fully
appreciate the majesty of it, given that it is pitch black. But basically, the Wahoo is telling us that we are on the summit plateau and we’re just about to drop off down into what looks like a sheltered valley. So, given that it’s a little
bit inhospitable up here, we are gonna head down before we actually get into our sleeping bags
and camp for the night. And also, we’ve got to bear in mind that there’s a rather
impressive lightning storm going on just over there, and so this doesn’t
feel like a particularly sensible place to stop. But to be fair, it’s pretty cool up here. The stars are absolutely incredible. The riding is great, we’ve got enough lumens between
us to enjoy it properly. Fantastic, what do you think, Josh? – I’m loving it, it’s great.
– I bet you are. – [Josh] My only regret right now is that we can’t see the view. – I know, man, me too. (gravel crunching)
– Woohoo. This is so cool, man. – Just to appease Josh, I am gonna be in my shammy tonight. This is it, it’s bivvy time. What are you doing, Josh?
– It’s time to get up, Si. We’ve got some bike riding to do. – [Simon] We haven’t had
any coffee yet, mate. – I know. Maybe we get a few K under
our belts and get warm and then stop for coffee.
– Speak for yourself, mate, I am very warm, very comfortable. I’m quite for a lie-in,
if I’m quite honest. (mumbles) This seems to get quicker
the more you practise. Nailed it. – So this is the track we
found ourselves on last night. We slept down here, just
off the side of the road, and we basically descended
from these mountains up here, where you can see the sun rising now. So it’s pretty awesome, really. – Okay. Let’s do it. (gravel crunching)
(wind rushing) – Quite a spot, mate. Anyway, mate, I think we should get the big camera out for this shot. Right. Now, this is one of the bits of the trip that I’ve actually been most
looking forward to, I think. And I know it sounds silly,
but stopping somewhere absolutely incredible early in the morning for breakfast and a coffee. Now, that is our master
barista just there, yeah, that’s Josh. We’ve got water on the go, we’ve got our drip coffee, that’s right. And then we’ve got a
selection of coffee beans. This one is sent in by a mate, this is Ember ground coffee
for the travelling cyclist, oh yeah.
– That’s us. – Well, yeah. Yeah it is, it’s me now too.
– You’re a bikepacker now, Si. – Oh yeah. Look at that. That’s just incredible, isn’t it. (gentle electronic music) Cheers, mate. That is actually a very good brew. (gravel crunching) (gravel crunching) – [Man] So how was that descent? – Awesome.
– How’d the food? (laughs) – Awesome.
– Pretty good right now. – Yeah. As second breakfasts go, this is amazing. – Yeah.
– Pretty much one of the best days riding ever, and it’s still not even lunchtime. Like, that was just incredible. Yeah. True, true highlight. – So Si, last night was your first night out under the stars, in the
middle of the mountains. We’re back on the tarmac now. How are you feeling? – Ah, mate, I’m buzzing,
to be honest with you. Like, it’s really funny, when
we were talking about it, Josh and I, beforehand and Josh said, “Ah, I don’t really see it “as day three and day
four, it’s one big day “with a bivvy in the middle.” And I didn’t really
understand, but now I do, like it’s hard to separate, you know, sleeping under the stars from the amazing trails that we rode in order to get down to second breakfast. (upbeat rock music) Moroccan traffic jam. Okay, so according to the old Wahoo we’ve got just 13 and a half
Ks to go until Marrakech, so it kind of feels a little
bit mission accomplished, doesn’t it, despite the fact that, for the first time in our 400K trip, we’ve found ourselves on slightly
uninspiring roads, really, and with a massive block headwind. But it’s been a pretty good
day up to now, hasn’t it? – Yeah, I mean, this
morning was incredible, waking up in the mountains and sort of riding our way through
the (mumbles) gorges has been amazing, and it feels, it’s nice just to have a
flatter run into the finish, (mumbles) over climbing.
– Yeah, we’ve, we’ve descended two and
half thousand metres today and climbed only a thousand, so that gives you a pretty good idea of what kind of a day it’s been. Now Josh, I’ve got a
question for you, mate. So now I’ve got a little bit
of experience at bikepacking, a little bit, I’m really intrigued. So you’ve done like,
big bikepacking tours, but you’ve also got your
ultra-endurance racing, which is, I guess, like
competitive bikepacking for want of a better phrase. So how have you combined the two, like what took you from bikepacking
to racing or vice versa? – Well, I actually went
the other way around. So I went from racing and
kind of the ultra-endurance bikepacking races towards touring. I found, like especially
the Transcontinental Race, I really enjoyed seeing new
countries, new cultures, and I’ve always had that
competitive aspect to me as well. – Yeah.
– I’m sure you know that from your history.
– (laughs) Yeah. – So I found that I loved
the kind of adrenaline of it, and ultra-endurance kind of really strips you back to the bare basics. I mean, there’s no bunch,
there’s no set course, there’s no tape on the side of the track, it’s just you and your bike and you’re essentially surviving. And it almost, to me, feels like it’s kind of natural instinct. Essentially we are kind of, we’ve evolved from hunter-gatherers, and I feel like when you’re racing, you kind of revert back to those instincts. You’re thinking about food,
you’re thinking about shelter, and you’re thinking about being
chased and chasing people. – Yeah, that’s pretty cool.
– (mumbles) glory It’s really nice to strip back your life. – And so, does it differ very
much from what we were doing? – It does in the sense that
we’re not racing nonstop, so we had quite a
luxurious bivvy last night, I’m not gonna lie.
– A luxurious bivvy. – It was a gentle introduction. – Now he says, oh yeah. That was an easy one, mate. – That was. That was an amazing bivvy.
– It was. – But yeah, so the main difference is, in a race you’d probably
do that in one (mumbles) The less than 300 miles,
that would be a nonstopper. – Yeah. Well, I tell you what,
I’m glad we stopped. – Yeah, so am I, actually. (upbeat rock music) – There we go, mate. The Koutoubia Mosque. Built in the 11th century, you know.
– Oh really. – The tallest building in Marrakech. And it’s got to be said,
that is a fitting spot to finish our Morocco epic. Marrakech, over the Atlas, over some more Atlas mountains, and then back over the
Atlas to finish here. 400 Ks, 8000 metres of climbing. And we did it, mate! – We did.
– Yeah. I tell you what, I’ve got to
say a huge thank you to Josh for coming along and showing me the ropes. It’s been a fantastic experience for me; there’s gonna be loads
more videos coming up on the channel, showing exactly how we’ve done what we’ve done. I would’ve been lost without you, mate. And speaking of which, actually, thank you for the route,
too, using your experience. It looked a little dicey at one point, but actually it worked out brilliantly. So mate, thank you again. – No problem at all. Thanks for inviting me. It was a really, really
tough ride, actually. – Ah, thanks. – Although it looked pretty short on paper compared to some of the rides I’ve done, it was certainly one of the toughest. So I just wanna say on behalf
of bikepackers worldwide, you’ve earned the right to finally clip your mug onto your saddlepack. (celestial music)
– Noo. I’ve made it! – Well done, buddy.
– Thanks, mate. (laughs) Okay, Josh, now I’m gonna suggest that we break from GCN tradition and, rather than going and
heading straight for the bar maybe we go and have showers first, what do you think?
– Really? After all that effort? – Okay, so we are going
straight to the bar. Do make sure you give
this video a big thumbs up if you’ve enjoyed it,
and if you can’t wait until our bikepacking
content begins in earnest, then why not head over to
the tech channel right now, where there is an in-depth
video about this very bike, the one that has just
survived a bikepacking epic.