“You can do it.”
I wish I could tell you that was my own voice, strong and positive, cheering myself on as I attempted to bike up my first mountain. Yes, that’s right: mountain. For my first-ever cycling trip, I had picked a country with mountains. On a map, this specific range of rock hugging the northern coastline of Morocco – where it meets the shimmering Mediterranean sea – is called the Rif. I had my own name for it. It cannot be printed.
Because the truth is, if there was any thought at all going through my head as I slowly, very slowly, pedaled up the Rif’s backside, each hairpin twist in the road opening up to reveal yet another imposing climb, it was most likely some version of “What the $%#$ am I doing?”.
In other words, it’s a good thing I wasn’t alone with my own thoughts. Without my group, and my guides, I would never have made it.
Intrepid’s two-week Cycling Morocco trip hits all the spots that my Morocco travel dreams were made of. The medinas and markets of Marrakesh and Fes. The romantic port of Tangier. The blue pearl city of Chefchaouen. The great Sahara desert. It connects them, through the never-ending mountains, rose-scented valleys and breathtaking gorges, with their picture-perfect vistas and undulating up and downs that attract cyclists from around the world looking for a challenge.
I’ve never been a serious cyclist. Oh, I do love riding a bike. I am an enthusiastic all-season urban commuter, happy to hop on the saddle for hours. But I am not fast. I’ve never cycled in a group. I look terrible in spandex.
So what was I doing here?
To do something I’d never done before.
When I travel, it’s great to see new things, but it’s even better to do new things. So while there were easier ways to see Morocco, the idea of cycling the country truly fired my imagination. I also knew that with an organized tour, there would be a support vehicle at all times. So what if it was hard? I could always hop in the van and be driven through Morocco cheering on a bunch of new friends. Still sounds pretty amazing.
Jump forward a few months (and more than a few spin classes) and I’m stuffing my backpack with a bike helmet, some new padded shorts, and one question: could I actually do it? I was about to find out.
On the first day of our cycling tour, I learned a lot. I learned that the expression “Yallah, yallah!” is how Moroccans say “let’s go.” That with our trusted street-savvy guide Hicham, our group actually could bike through the chaos of Marrakesh, navigating its dizzying roundabouts and narrow souk passageways, amongst honking cars, speeding motorcycles, donkeys pulling carts of oranges. What a rush! I learned that cycling in a group is like being in a school of fish, taking up space, working together.
I also learned I was going to be last.
It wasn’t a race, and my travel mates – of varying age and cycling abilities – all went at their own pace, but I was definitely the slowest. This meant as we left the city and embarked on our journey I mostly found myself at the back of the pack, and sometimes quite behind it. I was never alone — we had Youssef, our bike mechanic and support, making sure no one was left behind — but I had a lot of time in my own head. And it seemed I had packed plenty of self-doubt in there, which slowed me down more than any hill.
By the fourth day of riding, when those Rif mountain hills kicked in, I had started to feel pretty discouraged. Here I was, over 40 and overweight, trying to ride 10 kilometres uphill, against the wind, in the heat of Africa. No amount of spin classes had prepared me for how tough that would actually be. I wanted so much to get to the top. I knew there would be delicious dates for snacks, a gorgeous view, and supportive new friends from around the world waiting with high fives. But despite Youssef’s cheerful insistence that I could do it, I just couldn’t. I got in the van. The next day I tried again, full of bravado in the morning, but by afternoon, depleted and deflated once more, reaching the top as a passenger, not a rider.
Nobody in the group ever made me feel bad about pulling up the rear, or judged whether I cycled, walked, or rode in the support van. Quite the opposite. Over lunch picnics, or the long drives between cities, I received nothing but encouragement. Almost everyone, at all fitness levels, had their own tricks for getting through a hard spot of riding, and I made mental notes of their advice. My favourite? Simply, “Pedal, pedal, pedal.”
Still, I was struggling. I needed a new tactic. I couldn’t change my body overnight, but I could change my attitude. Everyone else believed in me. Why not myself?
One of my travel mates suggested we give our bikes names. This made me smile. At home, I’ve always named my bikes. I picked the name Henna – which sounded like the Moroccan word for “here.” It became my motivational mantra. Be here. In the moment. For the rest of the trip, I would stop thinking about how much I rode yesterday, or didn’t. Or worry about how hard tomorrow might be.
I recalled my favourite line from Lawrence of Arabia, a movie that had partly inspired my visit North Africa in the first place: “Nothing is written.” It means there is no destiny that should prevent you from getting where you want to go. So off I went: Yallah, yallah.
The mountains didn’t get any smaller, but with a fresh outlook — and my guide’s little white lies that it was always “just one kilometre more” to lunch — each day I found was able to cycle a bit faster, and climb longer.
I started to look around more, to take in some of the most beautiful scenery on earth, and appreciate just how amazing it was to be here, actually cycling across Morocco! Was there any better way to travel than outside in nature, up close with the goats, and camels (actually dromedaries, we learned that too), and local kids who line the side of the road to cheer you on like you’re in the Tour de France? In these moments, I realized going slow was actually the point.
I remember the day we faced our longest ride: 70 kilometres. I did not get in the van that day. I rode 70 kilometres before lunch. And the next day, when we went off-road, I wasn’t even last. I had finally tapped into that sense of freedom that made me love riding a bike. At the start I was doubting my ability to finish the trip; now, its end seemed far too soon.
There would be one last hill to climb though. One more uphill battle, straight into the wind. As I geared down to “pedal, pedal, pedal,” I heard Youssef over my shoulder, giving me a final pep talk. “You can do it,” he said. And for the first time, I could answer back, “I know.”
Liisa travelled on Intrepid’s 14-day Cycle Morocco small group adventure. Find out more about it here.
Feature photo by Matt Batchelor. All other images by Liisa, unless otherwise stated.