Off-Road Atlas: Mountain Biking Morocco

Put together 200 epic miles through gorgeous mountains and ancient villages

Only a two-hour, $5 bus ride away from the bustle of hawkers, street traders and snake charmers in the Djemaa El Fna square of downtown Marrakech, the rural but rugged High Atlas mountains adopt a different pace of life—one dictated by the dusty hoofbeats of donkeys rather than the growl of spluttering diesel engines.

Morocco was first put on the map as a riding destination by the 2006 mountain bike movie Roam . Now, having ridden there, it's shocking that it took so long for riders to discover. After all, Morocco is a colorful, bustling country that delivers a taste of sub-Saharan Africa just a short flight from the familiar comforts of Europe. And its Atlas Mountains are carved through by centuries-old foot- and hoof-carved trails perfect for mountain biking. [slideshow:537]

Using Jeep tracks, Guillaume Bouveron, Mike Foster and I built a week-long, 200-mile circumnavigation of one of Morocco’s highest peaks, 13,356-foot-high Ighil Mgoun, seeking out singletrack treats along the way. We carried overnight backpacks and stayed in humble local accommodations. To get to the mountains, we hopped a bus from Marrakech then leapt off, bikes in hand, at the top of the first mountain pass. From there, we dove headfirst, headlights on, toward the village of Telouet, into the Atlas Mountains as they disappeared into dusk.

A week of unknowns—unknown trails, unknown accommodation, unknown foods—made for an epic adventure. In this area, bicycles of any sort are rare sights, and the modern mounts we rode—relatively "tricked out" with full suspension and disc brakes—are downright alien. Needless to say, we attracted some attention, most of it of the warm, welcoming variety.

High-altitude passes delivered lung-searing uphills and brake-scorching descents. Because we were self-supported—without the comfort or tourist-image that comes with standard 4x4 backup—the locals treated us without fuss when we arrived in their villages, renting us beds for the night and filling us up with meals of couscous and tajine, the perfect fuel for hard riding.