Our plan was simple: escape wintery weather to sunnier climbs…where could we guarantee that the weather would be suited to our needs? At the Sahara Desert. The world’s largest desert spanning northern Africa. Our most accessible point to get to it, Morocco.
The plan for riding really was never developed much beyond the location and some rough ideas of a few routes. The destination was to be Erfoud, a town providing a great platform for some amazing desert riding. The composition of this XPDTN3 trip would be myself and Marc Gasch which is now usual, a shared love of coffee and cake in equal balance to our riding means we always have a good trip. This time we would be joined by Loren, a friend of Marc’s and a previous XPDTN3 trip rider. A perfect dynamic for 3 days of freestyle desert exploring. The only negative to this group was that I spoke no Spanish and Loren no English, not matter we both understood the language of bike.
As we landed in Marrakech already the weather was a step change from what we had left behind. Next step the long transfer to Erfoud. How do you get 3 guys with bike bags and luggage in to a 4×4… you just need a Moroccan and his creative packing style. In no time we were loaded up with bikes in car and on roof and settled for a long drive. Arriving to Erfoud in the dark we had seen little of the terrain we would explore for the next 3 days.
DAY ONE, ERFOUD TO MERZOUGA, 83.8KM, 220M CLIMBING (www.komoot.com/tour/27012083)
Our plan to start with was to be an out and back ride using two varied routes to seek out the Sahara. Merzouga would be our overnight and here we would be at the start of the expansive Sahara desert. As soon as we reached the outskirts of Erfoud we transitioned from tarmac to gravel, the WTB Ranger tyres soaking up the undulations as we followed the vague desert tracks developed by 4x4s and camels before us. Navigating proved no challenge as the terrain was so flat and the trails so numerous on the ground we simply headed in the direction we wanted to get to and let the Exploro bikes deal with the rest. This was going to be, by the way, the first time for XPDTN3 testing the New Exploro Flatmount bikes. Tough test indeed…
Route planning was aided in part by the trails on the ground so numerous and dynamic in their creation that we simply followed whatever approximated our route knowing that our planned route may of long since disappeared.
The conditions proved ideal, the sun warm verging on hot but never unbearable. The trails under wheel perfect for our set ups and the views stunning as we cross paths with Camels and Pandas. Yes Pandas, of the automotive variety as we found ourselves running parallel to a classic Fiat Panda car rally.
Progress was quick with so little elevation to tackle we took a lunch stop to slow progress and take on board some sandwiches constructed from the mornings breakfast buffet. We saw very little sign of settlement on our ride, the occasional small group of houses but mainly we were surrounded by open ground occasionally bounded by weathered rock cliffs breaking up the views.
Early in the afternoon we saw the first dunes of the Sahara. They grabbed the sunlight and were lit in the most vibrant shades of orange. We followed their flanks on our left as we cruised down and in to Merzouga, our overnight location. Our accommodation sat as an oasis and gateway to the dunes. We took opportunity to play in the sand making the most of the warmth and beauty of the sunlight we had come here to find. Tourists on camels rode out in single file while others set off on foot to reach high points to see the sun set. We adopted a more reserved approach looking out as we appreciated the far more favourable climate in this place.
DAY TWO, MERZOUGA TO ERFOUD, 87.9KM, 340m CLIMBING (www.komoot.com/tour/27027262)
The plan for the second day was to ride a more tarmac based route back to Erfoud. As always though plans change and we decided as we were close we would go visit Gara Medouar. Gara Medouar, nick named the “Portuguese Prison”, an erosional formation famed for as it’s nickname suggests historically being a holding prison for slaves being transported from Africa to Portugal but more recently for its appearance in the James Bond film, Spectre.
With this new plan we needed a new route so Komoot and Wahoo were utilised to figure our new days adventure.
Leaving the Oasis of Merzouga the day started on a long dragging tarmac climb, the gradient not so severe but the duration over 20km with no sign of it ever relenting. Sitting on the front with clear view of the road ahead I only saw up.
The next town we would get to would be Rissani, I counted the kilometres ticking by on the road side markers. Just as we got close to the outskirts of the town the Wahoo Elemnt indicated a left hand turn on to a far more interesting looking track. The joys of Komoot planning, having pre-selected a gravel bike route the planning app was free to send us off on more interesting adventures than the tarmac could offer.
The gravel dirt road was a welcome change to the tarmac. We rode in to Rissani through its suburbs and emerged in to a bustling market place, complete with what looked like a donkey parking lot with rows and rows of the animals having being left tied up no doubt while their owners conducted business.
Every little store front in this town seemed to offer some differing service from sales of food through to manufacture of furniture… a real hive of industry and ingenuity. No doubt if you needed something and you couldn’t find it you could find the store to make it.
We left Rissani rejoining the tarmac road on the other side of town and now we were getting close to Gara Medouar.
Soon it was there on our right, it came in to site projected from the desert around it long before we made the turn on to the gravel road to get to it. We rode the long gravel road to it and entered through its natural break in the rock. We climbed up on to its back walls from which the views were far reaching and spectacular. No better place to take some time for lunch.
As we sat we looked at the desert floor beneath us and again the myriad of tracks and trails. We could see Erfoud in the distance and had an idea of the direction we needed to take. Leaving this geological marvel the choice was to retrace our steps back to the road or adopt a more freestyle adventurous approach. Freestyle wins every time. There was a reason we fitted WTB Ranger tyres and it wasn’t to ride tarmac.
At first we set out across a dried lake bed… pan flat with just the desiccation cracks defining the surface we rode in and out of each other loosely tracking toward the edge we knew we had to exit at to find a track to Erfoud. As anticipated we found a loosely defined track and for the next 10km we jumped track to track just keeping ourselves on a bearing toward Erfoud.
The tracks ended and again we found ourselves riding through the outskirts of a town, navigation more challenging with no sight of the horizon so we resorted to just making the series of left and right turns heading where we thought we needed to be. As we reached a more main road we then were ducking in and out of kids heading toward their afternoon at school, the occasional race taking place.
At the other side of town the Wahoo signalled we were back on the tarmac route we had planned. An easy pedal now in the afternoon sun back to Erfoud and Xaluca Hotel. A cold coke, some food and time to think about the next day.
DAY THREE, ERFOUD TO ERFOUD, 105KM, 230M CLIMBING (www.komoot.com/tour/27049292)
As with the previous day our plans needed to be changed. We were set for a big days ride to Gara Medouar but we had ticked that box the day before. Luckily a previous night’s internet search had turned up some crazy art installations within riding distance, the desert and art … what was not to like. Komoot employed again to figure a route.
The art in question was by German artist Hannesjörg Voth, his work here consisted of 3 structures. In no planned order we would visit them all.
The joy of the Exploro even with mtb tyres fitted is the efficiency in the bike, distance is covered quickly which allowed us to work with these multi surface routes. When planning these routes we didn’t need to pay much attention to surface highlighted by Komoot and we always ticked the gravel option. Another first on this trip was the new Superghiaia bars, a gravel-flared dropbar which keeps the levers straight but have a huge flare at the drops (most prominent in our 44cm version) and lots of real state on the flat top to attach food pouches, lights, GPS and the like. Loving it!
The installations are set a long way back from the road, most tourists access them by camel but we were happy to ride, at times freestyle routing, to reach them by bike.
The first, The Golden Spiral. Only just visible from the road we left we were lucky to find the jeep track leading to this low stone-built circle. Our excitement to ride right up to and explore inside was damped when we realised there was a custodian in place and though we could not converse due to the language barrier it was obvious we were already too close for his comfort having crossed a perimeter marked by white painted rocks. We took some shots and rode on.
Next up the far more impressive Orion Constellation. With a 2-storey tower at each corner of this roughly square structure and towers linked by bounding walls it was a far more imposing sight. This time we respected the perimeter and instead rode around it taking in this architectural marvel.
Finally, we rode to the most famous of the three, the Stairway to Heaven. A huge stone stairway looking to reach straight for the sky. Definitely the most impressive of the three and worth the ride. On the ride to the installation we had the first fall of the trip by myself failing to unclip in deep sand , this was closely followed by Loren suffering a similar fate.
The custodian at this third installation was more interested in where we had been and were going too, he was even kind enough to suggest an alternate all gravel route back to Erfoud avoiding the roads.
We now rode off our planned course with only some vague instructions committed to memory but maybe this is the essence of XPDTN3, we set out with a plan but the mindset to evoke change when a better option is presented to us. This alternate gravel route was rough at times and our ability to follow the instructions given doubted as the trail often forked. The decision was made to adopt a straight-line jeep trail back to what looked like the road and finish up the last few km on the road.
As we rode the gravel jeep track we passed a few small settlements far out from any town, as such the canine inhabitants were more than curious ending with us in a three up rider sprint to evade a first then a second dog only just escaping unscathed. 3T Exploro, possibly the finest dog evading bike in the world 😉
We cruised the road back to Erfoud ending our 3 day riding adventure in the Moroccan desert. What started as a journey to seek a warmer climate had finished with the discovery of some amazing German art. Our plans had constantly altered but the level of enjoyment in experiencing this amazing part of the world had never faltered. We could have spent many more days exploring. We all hope to return to explore further in the future.
Exotic and near at the same time. Normally, if you want to embark in a exotic trip with a different culture, 10 hour planes are usually involved. Not in Morocco. Take a plane anywhere in Europe, and in 2 or 3 hours you will be in Marrakech, ready to head down to the desert where a completely 19th century lifestyle still exists. Sandy (but rideable) gravel roads, clay huts and smiling kids awaits fro you on every small village, and for 3 days you will be living in a different world…
Stages : 3
Distance: 273 km
Ascent: 710 m+
Best time to go: If you are heading down to the desert, we recommend doing in in Spring (March to May) or Autumn (October-December) Otherwise can be too hot for cycling. And if you are also riding in the Atlas mountains , be aware that those are high , we went through snow when we did the bus shuttle to the desert from Marrakech at the mountain pass…
Terrain: Rocky and sometimes sandy perfect gravel roads. Some pavement stretches. Can get very rocky on some parts, like close to the German art installations, or smoother as you get close to the dunes.
Weather: Sunny and warm. If you ride on those months, it means arm warmers in the morning and evening, and shorts during the day, perfect temperatures for cycling and to keep the load of your bikepacking packs light.
Tires: We used WTB Rangers in 650b , perfect combo of volume, grip and resistance for this kind of terrain changes.
Gearing: No climbs at all. Flat profile, so feel free to use whatever suits you. On the road-paved stretches we were using all the gear on our 38T chainring and 10-42T cassette.
Don’t forget: Water. This is the desert, no shops to get water, so be prepared. If its not too hot, you can survive with 2 liters, but if you come in the warmer months be ready with extra bottles. You can also place a Camelbak reservoir on one of the frame bikepacking packs if you don’t want to wear a backpack on your back.
Nearest airport: Marrakech or Fez
Hotels: Contact the Xaluca group at www.xaluca.com and they will figure out all the locations for you, along with shuttles, info, etc, nice people, recommended!
We stayed at the following hotels:
Xaluca Maadid Erfoud
Route Erfoud to Er Rachidia, km 5
Kasbah Hotel Tombouctou Merzouga