Willy's Way

The adventure junket is a bike industry sector gaining in importance. It's a profit (or loss) center unto itself; and it cements vendor, media and customer relations.

If you want to express to a retailer just how much you appreciate his loyalty, invite him on a cycling vacation, preferably with access to company principals and sponsored athletes. Often these trips feature an ability to ride the latest equipment, sometimes in the proximity of, and on the roads used in, a grand tour.

I appreciate when I receive invitations to buy my way into these trips, and I acknowledge the honor. Still, I usually eschew the opportunity, because I don't like to travel. When I do travel I want the experience to be special, challenging, and unfamiliar. I like to be stretched.

In this way I think I'm like most Slowtwitchers. The idea of Epic Camp, the production of Gordo Byrn and Scott Molina, appeals to me, as it appeals to most of you. In fact, if a junket doesn't challenge you, maybe even scare you a little, you're less interested, aren't you?

When I found out about Orbea's mountain bike trip to the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, that piqued my interest. I asked to speak to the person in charge of Orbea travel, Juan Carlos Nájera, to find out more. I was advised I could not talk to him, because he was at that moment leading another trip in Mongolia. I'd have to track him town in between Mongolia and an upcoming MTB trip to Bolivia.

I admired this man's choice of locations. I committed to Morocco on this basis. My wife informed me I could relocate permanently to Morocco if I had any idea of going without her. We both decided to attend.

There was one fly in the couscous: Neither of us rode mountain bikes.

So we each invested in an Orbea Alma hard tail 29er, such bike style recommended to me by my fellow Slowtwitchers, considering the terrain and ground surface indigenous to where we live.

I'm tactile, and I like comfort. Again, Slowtwitchers to the rescue. You recommended Ergon grips, and these proved a godsend. When we traveled to Morocco the wife made me bring these along with, to place on the Orbea soft tail Occam she would ride during this trip. Good choice for her, as it turned out.

For this trip I spent wildly at Backcountry.com, on Kelty sleeping bags, stuff sacks, down vests, a first aid kit (which we used), and some other stuff. I also got us a pair of Ergon backpacks with bladders. Thankfully, and as noted, on this particular trip we were not required to bring our own bikes. Each rider was to be provided the use of an Orbea Occam soft tail 26. We rode them stock, except of course for my wife's Ergon grips.

I once saw a National Geographic special on the Barbary Leopard, an endangered big snow cat living in the High Atlas Mountains, among the Atlas cedars, at that range's most remote elevations. This, plus northwest Africa's penchant for producing the world's best middle distance runner during most of the past three decades (Morocco's Said Aouita and Hicham el Gerrouj, Algeria's Noureddine Morceli), conspired to give me a fascination for the place, and made Morocco one of the few locales I still had an interest in visiting (in my golden years I've turned into a homebody).

Here's a pop quiz: What country is America's oldest ally? What was the first country to recognize the sovereignty of the United States? France, you say? The Netherlands? Each would be a good guess. But incorrect. It was the Kingdom of Morocco, and it is with this country that the U.S. enjoys the longest continuously running treaty of friendship.

Morocco has been the seat of powerful kingdoms since the 12th century. There is no distinction, really, between the Moors and the Berbers, and for 800 years they ruled not only North Africa but the bottom half of the Iberian (Spanish and Portuguese) peninsula (8th through the 15th centuries).

The French colonized Morocco in 1912, but not without friction. According to the Berbers who live in the High Atlas, many of their "flatland" countrymen acquiesced to French hegemony, but never the mountain dwellers. The High Atlas Berbers objected viscously, and eventually drove the French out in 1956.

But French is still the country's third language—behind Arabic and Berber—and it's compulsory in school. Probably half of all Moroccans are trilingual at least. In this sense, they remind me of the Belgians, who grow up as language experts.

Our tour lasted seven days, which included a day of transfers and traveling once in-country, and a similar day upon exiting. The middle five days were spent aboard bikes.

We rode about 200 miles in those five days, and you might think that this sort of mileage (55 miles was our longest day) is not that much. But it depends on the terrain. The High Atlas includes peaks that rise above 13,000 feet. We rode in the Middle Atlas and the Anti-Atlas. The entire range extends about 400 miles, and bears some resemblance in length, width and altitude to California's Sierra Nevada range (though slightly shorter and not quite as high).

On the first day, we hiked our legs over our top tubes at a starting elevation of 4800 feet. We ended the day just above 7500', after 40 miles, a couple of passes and about 5000 feet of total vertical. All the high mountains were snow covered by the time we arrived, in the beginning of December. For the last few miles of our day-1 ride we pedaled through a bit of snow and mud left over from a storm a few days earlier.

The terrain is, in parts, rocky and challenging. We were not in what you might think of as the Sahara desert, that is, a desert of white sand and dunes. Traction was almost always good and it was not particularly sandy or dusty.

When we weren't in the mountains, we were in a grassless savanna (if there is such a thing), amid a sparse forest of acacia, with the occasional sighting of a browsing camel.

Most Moroccans are Berbers and can be categorized various ways. One distinction is between sedentary versus nomadic. Sedentary in this sense does not mean chair-bound, rather they are not nomads. Most of the Berbers we encountered were sedentary, living in villages almost always in the proximity of an old casbah (How old? I could never get a good answer on that).

A casbah is a walled semi-fortress inside of which the prominent family in the village lived. The villages we encountered were mostly situated along streams and rivers, in which agriculture predominated life and commerce. Date palms, fig trees, and mint (for the population's ubiquitous mint tea) was most of what I noticed.

My reticence in coming had to do with the geopolitics of today. Americans traveling to a Muslim country? During the middle of the Arab Spring?

By the time I was three days in I felt safer in Morocco than were I in Los Angeles. By the fifth day: Ich bin ein Berber. Drinking traditional Moroccan mint tea out of a Moroccan tea set I carried back on the plane has become an addition to my routine back at home, and modern Moroccan electric and acoustic music has become a part of my playlist (see Rachid Taha and Souad Massi).

We spent almost our entire time in the Atlas, and in that part of the country the people appear more orthodox in their observation of Islam. This did not, now in retrospect, make me more fearful. Rather, the opposite. There is an homage to honor, to tradition, to protocol, rather than to fanaticism, that attaches to these people, overtly religious though they may be. I saw children kissing the hands of their grandmothers upon greeting them. When you see a pair of men stop, lay prayer rugs down, side by side, fall to their knees, head on the ground, facing their God, it spoke to me of a soberness and seriousness I found attractive and often lacking in my own culture.

When Berber men greet, after not having seen each other for a time, there is something like the traditional phantom kiss on each cheek you see throughout much of Western Europe. Except it's four in a row in Morocco: right cheeks adjacent, left, right, then left. I had one of our Berber guides teach me.

This Berber guide and I became fast friends during this trip, and it's a friendship I hope continues. He speaks at least four languages and is now learning English, which would his fifth, or maybe sixth. We communicated in Spanish, and the Spanish language never sounds better than when Js and double-Rs are spoken with the hard Hs and trills of a Berber.

These rural Berbers were the most friendly people I think I've ever met during my travels. What you see, when riding through a village, are children everywhere. They sprint toward the riders and form a sort of tifosi, waiving, or holding their arms out for a hand slap as we pass. I did not have a bad or awkward encounter, with anyone of any age or either gender.

The Berbers are a handsome people, lean, high cheekbones, olive skinned. Half the men look like Sam Cooke or Lenny Kravitz. Many of the young women look, as youths, like they'll grow up to become Tyra Banks or Zoe Saldana. Some do. Others, well, it's not an easy life. I saw no poverty, but I saw a lot of hard living. Berbers are brave, fun-loving, hard-working, affable. You just want to scoop up a half-dozen of these kids and, like Angelina Jolie, take them home with you.

There are quite a few darker skinned Berbers who've emigrated, over the centuries, along routes that took the Berbers to sub-Saharan locales, such as the romanticized trade route to Timbuktu (along which we rode during part of this tour). They appear fully integrated into, and fully vested in, Berber society and culture. This, sifted into the genotype, adds to the beauty of the people.

Because there are mountains, there is stored water, in the form of snow. This means continuously flowing water, down rivers, which allows for irrigation, which grants the ability for a robust agriculture. Wheat is Morocco's largest food crop, and Morocco is among the top-6 countries worldwide in the production of several crops, including olives.

But its largest export is of phosphates, for the source element phosphorus. Morocco sits behind only Russia and the U.S. in phosphate extraction.

While we saw groups of Berber nomads, we were not quite far enough south to see Tuaregs, the sober, fierce, blue-clad men and women. They augment the ubiquitous blueness of their tunics and headscarves by covering their skin with blue indigo as sun protection. The northern Berbers call them "The Blue Men."

If you go on a tour led by these gents, it's like this: pretty hard core if you want hard core—less so if you don't—and then inexplicably stylish and comfortable at night, considering where the day's ride may terminate. It might be a 4-star hotel. Or a set of clay-brick, low sod-roof structures at 2,300 meters in elevation, at the top of an Atlas Mountain pass, that might remind you of what you could find 18,000 feet in the Himalayas. Places like this—and there were a couple on this trip—will certainly be among the most memorable in which you've ever stayed.

In each case, regardless how primitive or modern the accommodations, you'll sleep comfortably and the food will be first rate. Every meal. We'd round a curve in the middle of a Saharan panorama to find ourselves at a remote oasis with a catered, top-cabin lunch laid out in front of us. At night, the refrain was, "Pintxos at 7, dinner at 8." Pintxos is the Basque word for appetizers.

Orbea Travel is run by Juan Carlos Nájera and the tours are captained by Juan Carlos and his longtime pal Willy Mulonia How to describe these two? Tuaregs in pants, with mountain bikes in place of camels. Juan Carlos looks like Sean Connery, but twenty years younger. Willy is Rutger Hauer, twenty years younger. Athletically, you'd better be fit if you want to try to find the bottom of either man. Technical expertise as a mountain biker? I'll never find their bottom in my lifetime.

Nevertheless, I ended these five days a much, much better technical mountain biker because I rode directly behind Willy most of the time. I just rode Willy's wheel, at his speed, which was breakneck when he knew I wanted it. Riding at this speed did not afford me the time to balk or shrink back from the terrain. Had I not been fairly well constipated from the air travel, I would have soiled by bibs several times riding over what Willy rode at Willy's pace.

I'll tell you two things about Willy. Ten years ago he mountain biked, unscripted and alone, starting from Patagonia. He came across an abandoned and scrubby looking puppy in Peru, and kept it with him for the entire bike ride. He built a sort of sidecar attached to his mountain bike and the eventual vehicle he pedaled, dog included, grew to weigh about 250 pounds by time he finished. The bike ride ended when he reached Alaska. Willy brought the dog back to Europe and the dog is still going strong.

The second thing: There is a mountain bike stage race in Mongolia, open to pros and high level amateurs, with an accompanying "randonneur." This race is a 14-day, 1400km, 10-stage event for the sorts of pros who might find Leadville a bit too easy. The Mongolia Bike Challenge is Willy's brainchild and Willy owns and runs this race.

I asked Willy—an Italian by birth, and a Spaniard by current residence—a question about why he did something the way he did it. I don't even remember the question I asked, but I do remember his answer, which was spoken third-person: "This is Willy's way." That tickled my funny bone and became a refrain of the trip for me.

Willy gave me a lot of useful tips, and as I continue to pursue mountain biking as a semi-autodidact I will remind myself that exploring and finding my limit is all of a piece of Willy's Way.

There was one on the trip who went everywhere Willy went on the bike: Suzanne Karklins. She heads up Orca North America and is married to Tony Karklins, a partner of mine in Triathlon America and the president of Orbea USA. Suzanne is petite and ladylike, but it would be a mistake to underestimate her. Just Google her name along with the words "race results." She ripped to shreds every double black that Willy descended, while I was picking my way down and taking a mental inventory of everything in my first aid kit—just in case.

Charles Aaron was also on this tour. The pro cycling team OptumHealth—formerly Kelly Benefit Strategies—is one of three teams he owns. Also aboard was a photographer known and beloved by the triathlon community, John Segesta. (I suspect John's photos will show up on MovePress's Switchback Magazine sometime soon.)

There were some other folks on the trip, including a couple of ladies from Italy who're veterans of adventures produced by Juan Carlos and Willy. The guides and staff were all either Basque, Italian or Berber. The Berber, Arabic, English, Italian, Spanish and Basque created an Esperanto spoken around the campfire that was semi-understandable, and that formed a colloquial with which Willy and Juan Carlos seem now most comfortable.

For example, I never once heard either of them say "porque." They universally said, "perchè," even when they were speaking strictly Spanish, and even though per que is Italian. Juan Carlos isn't Italian, he is Basque. Still, this is as orthodox as the Spanish ever got.

I should say something about the equipment we rode. Not because I'm knowledgeable enough about MTB equipment to write about it in any authoritative way. I'm not. Rather, I'd like to comment on the nature of today's mountain bike equipment.

What I learned, among other things, on this trip, is that you must trust your equipment. The speed at which we were traversing the terrain, and the terrain over which we were often rolling, were nothing I thought wise or possible prior to this trip. I am frankly shocked at the abuse these bikes can take, and we certainly did abuse them. Were I to throw this Orbea Occam out of the airplane at 30,000 feet while flying directly over Gibraltar, I could not treat it with more disregard than I did while riding it during this trip. Nevertheless, we never so much as had a flat tire. None of us. The entire trip. Several thousand tire miles, in the aggregate. No equipment failures of any kind.

And the thing is, I'm not a truster. Not by nature. I don't trust. "Trust but verify" is about as close as I shave it. But you can't be a mountain biker with that as your credo. You just must let 'er rip, hell bent for leather, and trust that the bike will roll over it. And, so far, knock on wood, it has: both the hard tail Alma I've got at home and the soft tail Occam I rode through Morocco.

I suspect there's a greater cosmic truth about trust I need to discover. I'll have to ponder this.

None of this is to denigrate the style of travel other bike companies might prefer. Indeed, Orbea Travel produces something called the Wine and Fish Route that's an homage to the Basque country where Orbea is domiciled. There's a tour through the Dolomites that takes you over the cols traversed by the pro cyclists in the Giro Italia. Fine. Sounds great.

But I've got my eye on Mongolia, and Atacama Bike Marathon that traversed the great Atacama desert sitting atop Chile, Peru and Bolivia. That latter trip takes you over 4000 meters in elevation. Twice.

Each of these harder core trips is two weeks long. In Mongolia you stay in yurts. The thing about the indigenous Mongols, Willy says, "You'll set up your yurt in the middle of nowhere, not a soul to see for miles and miles. Somehow, they know you're there. And someone will arrive, with a gift. Of something. For you. But, they will not ask or even accept anything in return. The only thing they want in exchange is that you, at some point, will visit them in their village."

There are some other trips I think sound pretty neat. A number of Specialized employees ride from their Morgan Hill headquarters to the Interbike show in Vegas every year. But not the most direct way. In fact, they go out of their way to find a rather arduous and scenic route, and it's a different route every year. I think I'd like to accompany them on that.

Trek, Specialized and Orbea all have absorbed travel into their greater businesses. I'll write more about this growing sector as I become more aware of what companies are offering, both to their direct customers and to end users.

[Photos: Paulino Oribe took the first four photos above, I took the last five. As opposed to me, Paulino's the photographer, and if you'd like to see a gallery of his fine pics, there's a link just below this article to "Morocco by MTB".]