Why?

Why indeed.

Packing a tandem seemed easy, but at 2.30am Henry and I gave up for the evening leaving a parcel that looked like a cardboard wrapped paraplegic horse while we went to our respective cabins for a few hours rest.

The morning saw some entertaining rope work, despite over excited pajama clad children’s fingers getting in the way, which meant our parcel was more stable (horse puns not intended).

The lovely Bangladeshi driver, old school in his threadbare suit, several sizes too large with Clarkes shoes protruding from the crumples at one end and beard jutting out the other, didn’t bat an eyelid as he hacked us consumptively to Gatwick, only pausing to ensure we booked him for the return journey.

Easy Jet panicked at our equine parcel and potential burger scandal, but ignoring them I checked it straight through oversized baggage, which, frankly should have happened to the passenger next to Henry, and we were away.

Upon collection we were amused to see that customs had attempted to undo the rope work, only to give up having been out knotted by our limited nautical know-how. The Moroccan military gave us an additional x-ray as we failed to clear customs, but they smiled indulgently and waved us on thereafter.

The pre-booked transport dropped us at the Hotel Islane, between the main square and the mosque. The staff didn’t bat an eyelid at the parcel in or the speedily built bike out as we headed off to register for Sunday’s ride – a combination of the tip and the ‘mad dogs and Englishmen’ attitude probably helping this.

To the Grand Prix circuit, slightly lost via road works, and to register. Some old faces and the couple from Zeus events – him Neanderthal strength, her blonde beauty – a change from the worthy old hippy and something to please both sexes. They were obviously confused as to which one should turn on the charm for the man arriving (with another man, on a tandem) in a skirt.

An evening of introducing Henry to the culture – essentially a walk around the square before getting lost in the Medina. Two hours and sore legs later, via the Schindler’s lift to the roof, an Indian meal in a Moroccan hotel served by French – as you do.

Exhausted, I miss the alarm, knock on the door and other attempts to wake me. As a result we arrive at the start after ‘le grand depart’ (ex French colony) to a few people milling around. No whirling Dervishes, one hand clappers, drummers or army closed roads with ambulance lead out for us – the ambulances, incidentally, being part of the service set up by Chris, Mike and the citizens of the three valleys.

Instead, already part of the slow group, we chase up the road to Ourika, the Scorpion City – ironically neither a city or a place with many scorpions, but hey. While we cut through the field of fun, hotel teams and family riders doing the short course, we are never going to catch the riders going to the top, other than to see them heading back down. (That said, many got there and then got bused down which seems a bizarre and masochistic choice)

Bananas, a stretch and onwards, into the more varied landscape at the foot of the Atlas, past the police barrier into the national park, the first major climb and last down hill only to realise that the stop at 40km was no longer there. A lesson – read the manual beforehand. This meant climbing the next 12km over the steepest part of the route without water.

52k in. Water, coffee, fruit and salty olives. Real toilets and what is soon to be a trout farm. No wonder many took this as a natural place to stop and head back, be it under their own steam or not. But why? To get this far you are but 18km from the top.

Henry and I wobble spectacularly as we set off, leading the back markers. The other tandem, bar the one ridden by members of the Moroccan cycling team, is a magnificent Condor model and, despite being husband and wife, seem to have less communication than us and struggle to get moving. Another determined woman follows and later describes this as ‘harder than child birth’, while the wife of the UN ambassador, once she has realised that there is an inner ring on her gears, makes it look easy between getting increasing frustrated by phone calls from her husband to check she is okay. These, incidentally, work in our favour as it means we keep catching her up and are offered much needed encouragement at some of our lowest moments.

While the brief low cloud is a blessed relief from the relentless heat and exposure, Henry starts to feel the altitude before the final stop. The dubbed adult movie sound effects in my ear are disturbing as his breathing and cycling pace get more erratic. However, we continue with regular breaks, hopping off to relieve sore arses, weak bladder and the like, and it is me on the final run that has to pause for cramp and, as a result, letting the Condor tandem peak before us.

It is not a race and, not that I am competitive, they didn’t cycle back.

We got there – 10,032’ of climbing on a 20” wheeled tandem which, by now, I had decided was not designed for hills. In short it fucking hurt.

While trying to take on real food to help us back – by now our caffeine fuelled guts were wracked and Henry was his own horn section as a result – Chris (Mike’s brother) magically sorted out large G&Ts with ice! Let me point out, we are on top of the second highest mountain in north Africa in a dry country. G&T is an achievement, ice is astounding!

Suffice to say, that and a roll up made me feel like a new man.

Downwards. All four brakes smoking as we average 34mph around hairpins, pot holes, dust, sand and gravel. Henry had to be rock solid as the slightest move threw the tandem off balance, while I had to try and absorb the knuckle fracturing pounding, operate four brakes, steer the best line and avoid oncoming traffic.

It is amazing to see what has taken over six hours to climb fly past in 30 minutes as we dropped people along the way.

We then did the ups and downs at speed to Ourika and regroup with the final thirty to go.

The tandem wouldn’t take the wheel. We’d get close and the sheer weight wouldn’t allow it to draft, so bar Chris (Gurney), people did it to us without providing relief. The tempo was making the indestructible Henry want to puke so every km we’d have an arse break, standing on the pedals for relief for three seconds as circulation flowed and reverse peristalsis was prevented.

And so on at 18mph until the finish where Chris, Henry and I came home together, although I beat Henry being the person on the front of the tandem.

I was amused to hear one of the guys we paced home saying to his wife, who had made it to the top and cycled down as far as the 52k mark as her first ride where she made the aforementioned child birth comment (massive respect) say, ‘but they were so fast, despite the small wheels and being so fat, I just couldn’t keep up!’.

And so, a couple of beers and back to the hotel to pack the bike, shower and have dinner.

Henry managed to go the distance in astounding fashion for someone who has ignored exercise for 33 years!

We beat our fundraising target and did our small bit.

However, we felt a bit deflated. This could be a big thing.

In fact cycling events, training camps, packages and the etape could be massive if they maximise the potential of the Eagles Nest and the Kasbar du Toukal. The cause and everything done to date is huge, yet some direction and purpose could really sort it out. And, realistically and slightly sadly, three old men like us are not the target audience for what the future of the event could and should be, however, we were part of the start of it and want to support its evolution while, maybe, not being part of the future.

Having sounded negative, it is intended to be constructive. In the present, 2016 was as beautifully organised and logistically brilliant as you could have asked for. Mike and Gareth (and many others from AXS to Zeus) deserve massive credit for a class event. If we didn’t care, we wouldn’t suggest improvements or keep coming back.

EFA is a great cause. We can help make this better by being a little smarter.

Ten four good buddy. 2016 out.

View from the top

Looking out from near the top of the Oukameiden, I see the lines of snow in shaded trenches around the peaks, the pink orange of barren rock, strips of lush grass following the waterways, animals grazing, the powerful beauty of the landscape, and pain in many forms.

The instinct to give up, fighting against the desire to finish, both having the same end of making the pain stop. How on earth did I get here? It started with not being good at saying no.

 

The outset

Taking on a bike ride of more than 90 miles and 10,000 feet up a mountain for the first time, you listen, and take all the advice you can get. As if hearing of people being taken off the mountain in ambulances through dehydration isn’t enough to get the message across. Drink as much as you can (which has always been a motto of sorts). If you’re flagging along the way, like a boxing referee they look into your eyes, and if you can’t focus: sorry champ, into the back of the lorry with you.

Just after 8am, having missed the official start, we head south out of Marrakech on a gentle ascent for 30kms to where the Ourika Valley begins. This is a long straight road, with development going on, but with the backdrop of the Atlas Mountains, their peaks streaked with shelves of ice and snow that look almost painted on. Chris is on form, a form he keeps up throughout the day, while James is ominously suffering from cramp and a sore back.

We reach the first staging post, and so far so good. There’s a table full of delicious dates, prunes, dried apricots, nuts, bread and honey, and bananas. We top up water supplies and start the next stage.

 

The next step

There’s a change from urban to rural as we enter the Ourika valley and start the ascent. The road immediately starts to wind. Rugged beauty is an often-used phrase, but it works in this case. There’s a feeling of exhilaration that we are finally tackling the mountain. The up and down nature of the road gives some respite, but as the day warms up the heat starts to take its toll. The sweat running down the inside of the sunglasses is a reminder to keep drinking. And then drink again. A brief period of cloud cover brings some respite.

It’s here that we start to pass through the Berber villages some with crafts on display, herds of livestock and people going about their business. Always groups of children lining the way, looking curiously at the tandem, some shy, some extrovert, reminding us of one the reasons we’re here.

The stop is a smart café, with pristine facilities and a trout farm being built beneath. We’re 50km into the 70km ascent, and the team is looking good, although we all know the next 20kms will be hard earned.

 

Last stage but one before the top

Now it started to get tough. The up and down of the previous stage becomes a relentless uphill slog. Pain comes in many forms, but for the first time ever in my life, I hear a woman say “It’s worse than childbirth.” Spoken however lightly, or with what quantities of poetic licence, she surely must have had a painful downstairs that we could all identify with. That sounds a bit wrong.

The last staging post before the top, and we enjoy a glass of mint tea. The gentility of sitting at a table with that delicate vessel in hand seems very British and slightly comic with the thought of the task ahead.

 

Taking the mountain

This is hard. I’d noticed my breathing becoming more rapid in the previous stage, but now it seems hard work in itself to get enough air into the lungs, and deal with protesting leg muscles, a thirst that had to be kept at bay, and an agonising seat.

The human settlements became scarcer and more sparse, and the landscape took on a massive quality that made you feel like a pebble among it. Now we were close enough to the snow to make it look invitingly cool, but enjoyment of the landscape was not to be had because the physical exertion demanded everything.

The red flag marking the end of the ascent fluttering in a breeze is a milestone achieved, but there’s still another 500 metres along to the rest stop. We’re presented with a welcoming stiff gin and tonic by Chris McHugo.

How on earth did I get here indeed.

 

The descent

There’s an element of what feels like time travel in the rapid descent of a mountain that took hours to climb. Within moments we passed landmarks that moments before had seemed far behind us. The extra sets of brakes James had added to the bike were earning their keep as we sped down the mountain, overtaking the occasional motorised scooter. As stoker I was hoping for a chance to look around at the scenery, but the slightest movement of the head sent the bike on a discernable wobble. But it was still distractingly beautiful. The wind whistling by turned the bike into an eolian harp playing out some eerie tunes. Chris was way ahead clocking some outrageous speeds while we took it carefully by comparison, given the 200 kilos of momentum that were powering our descent.

 

The final stretch

Tiredness had taken hold in the final 30km stretch, but with gravity on side and the end in site the pain was bearable. We powered along as fast as we could to get to the end on the straight road into Marrakech, coasting every now and then to relieve the pain.

So I’d made it. A few people asked, will you do it again, to which the answer should be no. If you say no it’s easier to then say yes, but if you say yes…well, I’ve been down that road before.

Epic

Well, a week to go and between needing to update the ‘hall of fame’ and thank everyone for the support to date, from Linda to Imogen, Heather to Jai and all between, we have been making the effort all the more ‘epic’ by not training. Chris has been busy burying people while I have moved from pitch-frenzy to being ill and on antibiotics that keep making me throw up.

While this is far from ideal preparation, Henry and I have had our photo taken with the Circe Helios Duo from an ‘epic’ low angle.

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