Cycling the Sahara by Fat Bike part 2 - Bike Magic

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Cycling the Sahara by Fat Bike part 2

Our intrepid explorers Richard Harpham and James ‘Pringle’ Bebbington are now through the High Atlas and halfway through their journey.
Richard Harpham and James Bebbington are somewhere hot and spiky in Morocco.

Part 1 of the adventure is here.

The Fat Bikes are faring well although even with those great big tyres there’s no stopping the savage African thorns…


Words: Richard Harpham

We are now within striking distance of Merzouga and the iconic dunes that have become the target of our adventure. It has been two long days since our last update for differing reasons. We thinned our kit slightly at Ouarzazate to reduce the weight we were carrying. It lead to some pretty interesting discussions about what was essential and what was not? Some of the kit that got left included second pair of socks, third inner tube, my book (now read), Pringle’s waterproof. A host of other items were the source of back and forwards discussion. Do we really need the main USE lights and also the spare tyre? We concluded that we should keep the items that would be show-stoppers without them.

So we are back in the little Vango tent typing and we have used almost all the kit in question.

The day of a million spikes

Firstly upon leaving Ouarzazate we were really flying and having fun. Making good time I commented to Pringle it would be good to get some more off road action shots and play. I rode up onto the crest of a small rise and flew back down the other side. Arriving back on the road I saw a few thorns embedded in the tyre. I removed the first one and heard a deadly hiss. As I span the wheel I was gutted to find it covered in the little bast**ds.  Both wheels in fact. So therein lies one of the only world records I am able to justifiably claim. Most punctures in 5 seconds.

Thorns? Just a few..

So we were then faced with a painstaking task of removing all the thorns and spikes. That laborious task took us about 30-45 minutes per wheel for a first pass. All was not going to plan thanks to yours truly, Captain Clunk! We decided the best strategy was to use one of the new inner tubes with the new rear tyre and pick all the thorns from the front tyre. The picking process took nearly two hours during which time Pringle had replaced and pumped up the fat tyre with the micro pump. No easy task we can assure you. We replaced the front wheel and stopped the clock on a two hour pit stop in the mid day heat of the Sahara…

If Inuit’s have many words for snow then surely the Berbers and other tribes must also have a host for the desert and the terrain as the landscape keeps changing. One fact that remains constant is that it is really dry and arid.

Despite losing the 2 hours we managed to make a respectable 56 miles on the fat bikes. We were then tired and stopped at a hotel adjacent the river. It had a great view and we wandered back to the bridge to the Café where we were served a lovely tomato salad.

Undulating monotony

The next morning we headed back to the Café for Jus de Orange and a coffee and spent another hour on each inner tube trying to find the small holes left by the thorns. I repaired 6 holes on one tube and Pringle marked 7-8 for repair on the other. We simply didn’t have enough patches to risk using them all to fix the tubes. That done and we were finally on our way.

It’s not all about fantastic locations and mint tea, there’s a lot of boring ground-work to put in too.

The roads started with various undulations before becoming much longer straights through the extensive valleys. Riding those routes is monotonous compared to the mountains and their communities. As we reached a higher plain of about 1500m we spotted a small café before a long straight road as far as the eye could see. The weather had changed and a small front brought strong winds and even some small twisters.  The café was something of a surprise as it served an amazing salad; we ate two each including some damn hot pickled chillies.

We managed 96.5 miles with the last 16 miles in complete darkness through the desert. We hadn’t intended to but the last town had no hotels on the far side and we were sticking to our policy of not going back. Cycling through towns and the desert at night can be a little off putting. It was then pitch black other than a little moonlight and a host of stars for company. Finding a spot to camp after our thorny experience was tricky but eventually we found a small track to some palms and pitched the tent.

Another day, another 76 miles

The third day was another 76 miles to Merzouga and the high dunes we were searching for. Although not far we were then in barren desert with nothing to break the monotony and few towns all day. We kept running low on water and/or oranges which proved something of a tough mental challenge. We spotted a head of camels in the plain and stopped for photos. As Pringle walked over a young lad demanded money. Although Pringle doesn’t speak French the lad repeated his demand for money “They are his camels”. Pringle was undeterred and explained to the lad that “they are their own camels”.  It is fairly surreal to watch a conversation between two determined people speaking different languages. I couldn’t help laughing out loud.  We pushed on and made the last big town, Erfoud, before the dunes. The volume of 4×4’s and also little Renault 4’s in rally colours increased as did the wind. We stopped to eat and rehydrate and found the wind continually growing. The locals observed that it was not a good time to be in the desert.

A point of contention.

An observation of life on adventure is that there are always these little moments to test your mental resolve. By the time we were back on the bikes it was howling and dust and sand were thrown our way. The headwind was exhausting and genuinely if you stopped pedalling the bikes immediately ground to a halt.  The final 30 miles was a slow torturous pace and we were exhausted.  Night fell again and we were out of water, left to cycle against Mother Nature and a well deployed wind and dust machine. It was all we could do to keep pedalling and watch the kilometres reduce one at a time. By the way, our backsides were by this point killing us from pushing hard with such weight so getting comfortable was not an option. We had also run out of water and oranges and were left with dry, dusty throats.

We finally saw lights in the dusty gloom and knew we have arrived. We had three long miles to go at this point. We were greeted by another moped riding local in traditional head dress, a common occurrence. He turned around and rode alongside enquiring about where we were staying. Never fear, he knew just the place. We followed and headed off-road down a small track to Le Petit Prince, an Auberge that backs onto the Dunes. (We didn’t know this till daylight.)

Playing in the very large sand pit

We slept well after another vegetarian salad feed and the obligatory mint tea followed by a hot shower to wash away the desert grime. The back of the Auberge was literally about 50 metres from the sand and a small herd of camels.   It’s not every day you find that at your back gate. The locals told us that we were at the end point for the infamous Marathon De Sable, The Desert Marathon, which is approx. 150 gruelling miles. We finished our morning coffee and decided to try the bikes in the sand. It is tough going. We headed out and dropped off a few dunes to get our hand in, with mixed results I might add.  Pringle hit a submerged tree stump and tumbled and I also managed to drop the bike clipped in. Other than a sand bath all was good…

And here we have the finest ‘Fat Bike’ specimen in its element.

Undeterred we decided to get properly kitted up and head for the bigger dunes in the distance. If the first few runs were tough this does not bear comparison to the ‘Beau Geste’ like trek across the sand. In fact we were out for 2-3 hours taking it in turns to push/pull the bikes up the steepest dunes before dropping, riding, skidding and surfing our way down. We really hope that anyone following our escapades likes the photos, as they were great fun making.

After many different dunes and experimental runs we decided to call it a day and literally trudge back. Time for tea.  We spent some time getting to know the local camels (no euphemism intended)! It really is slightly amusing that they are so better equipped to be here than us. Although Merzouga is a place for petrol heads with all manner of 4×4 rides, dune buggies and, of course, the old faithful camels, we decided it didn’t fit with our budgets.

Next step

We have been mulling over what to do next. Having cycled through the desert once and pushed hard neither of us has much desire to repeat it given our tight schedule. In summary we would much rather enjoy some tough riding, on and off road in the High Atlas mountains than flog ourselves back through the desert. We have been mulling this over since our ride in last night and think enjoying the few days back in the mountains is a better plan.

So our plan now is to rise and shine very early, catch the sunrise over the dunes and then hit the only road back to Ouarzazate, giving us a further 3 days to ride off-road and explore the mountains.

We are charging all our cameras and the Mac air and getting ready to hit the road early again tomorrow. Incidentally it looks like rain, to put that in perspective it has only rained here once in the last year!

Update: OK it has now rained. Apparently that is lucky in the desert so that’s our bit done.

About Cycling the Sahara

James Bebbington (kayaking world Champion) and Richard Harpham (adventurer) wanted a new year’s resolution with a difference, to cycle a fair chunk of the Sahara desert.  In February 2013 the pair of accomplished kayakers will take to Salsa Fat Bikes and cycle over 1000 miles of the Northern Sahara. Their route will see them cycle over the Atlas Mountains, the Anti Atlas mountains, and then follow the Northern East edge of the Sahara desert.  Their adventure will see them start and finish in the historic Medina of Marrakech.

Richard has a passion for adventure and has kayaked the English Channel 3 times, kayaked 1000 miles of the Inside Passage from Vancouver to Glacier Bay Alaska, canoed the Yukon and also completed London to Marrakech by bike and kayak, almost 2400 miles.  His most recent adventure saw him sea kayak over 500 miles with fellow adventurer Glenn Charles from Niagara Falls to the Statue of Liberty, NYC which engaged thousands of people across New York State. He was also the manager of the Ghana Ski Team  at the Vancouver Winter Olympics 2010 and co founded to raise aspiration in young people.  Already Inspired Life has helped over 13,000 young people and was awarded the London 2012 Inspire Mark. 

James Bebbington is the current world champion in freestyle kayaking and a former World Cup Champion.  James has been a kayaker since the age of 10 and is now also a professional film maker who has a thirst for pushing the human body to its full potential.  For James cycling has always been a means of cross training for his competitions but the recent Tour De France has reinvigorated his desire to challenge himself on a bike.

The pair aim to raise money for SportsAid, who help fund emerging talent in sport, as part of giving something back. They will be documenting their journey and adventures by bike on film using state of the art cameras to capture the action and scenery.


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