“I will not lie to you, the situation is far from great by now,” says Pierre-Alain Renfer, a Swiss MTB guide based in Marrakesh, Morocco. A former member of the Swiss bicycle military unit has been living in Morocco for 28 years. Since 1992, he’s been organising bike trips for groups of tourists from all over the world to show them the best parts of the country. In recent years, he guided up to 100 riders annually. Last year, his livelihood sustained a severe wound that still waits to be healed. We called Pierre-Alain to find out first hand how his business has been changed after the Covid-19’s arrival.
Pierre-Alain understands that lockdown has changed bike business in many ways and not everything went particularly wrong. Big cities in Europe or the US designed and built new cycle lanes to match the rising amount of citizens cycling and manufacturers all around the world raced to satisfy the increased demand for new bikes and parts. Perhaps, for the first time, cycling started to be regarded as an alternative to the traditional motorised means of transport even among the still sceptical part of the population. For many people, though, the outbreak of Covid-19 meant an instant loss of work, disillusion and fear of the future, which has turned more uncertain than ever. Seriously impacted were mainly people offering services to the public like guides and travel agents.
Pierre’s expectations were quite similar to what he did in the past: organised cycling in the Atlas Mountains range, which lies about 35 km from Marrakesh. After shuttling the guests with his off-road car, he’d spend one or more days riding over renowned bike trails. There were approximately eight big groups booked to come in 2020, each consisting of 5 up to 8 people. Unfortunately, none of them has ever stepped on the Moroccan ground. Pierre-Alain still recalls it as if it was yesterday. On May 15, due to concerns about the Covid-19 outbreak, restrictions were imposed all over the country, stricter than what citizens of Europe experienced. All hotels, restaurants, shops and services had to stay closed, except for food stores, pharmacies and elementary goods suppliers. To minimise personal contact and thus spreading of the disease, people were ordered to stay home and needed a special permit to enter the street.
Obviously, all bike trips were cancelled or postponed to next year. Some clients worried about the future asked for a refund on their prepaid tours. “In the first four weeks, I was in utter shock, thinking about how to save my job,” Pierre-Alain remarks. As an avid cyclist, he spent a few hours every day sweating on the indoor trainer placed on the roof terrace of his house, just to forget about the newfound troubles. “On the other hand, when I failed to check TV news and my bank account, things were not that bad,” Pierre-Alain laughs. His nickname “Swiss Fennec” refers to the country of his origin and a certain facial resemblance of a small fox with long ears that lives in Africa.
After a month of restrictions, Pierre-Alain teamed up with different managers of five most luxurious hotels in Marrakesh and started to cycle around the city twice a week. Even though cycling was not officially allowed in the city, police never stopped anyone. Friendships with these top managers brought Pierre-Alain precious contacts for the future and made him cycle almost every second day. Unfortunately, it was not possible to take the car, put the bicycle on the roof and go to the mountains because there were barriers with checkpoints on the roads leading out of the city.
Since June 25 onwards, the situation improved and most measures were removed. With no booked tours and best part of the bike season over, Pierre-Alain took advantage of the offer given to him by his friend and flew to Switzerland to work in a bike shop in Rheinfelden for three months, just to make some money to survive. Unlike European countries, it is incredibly difficult to reach for any kind of financial support or help in Morocco, which is known for rather convoluted bureaucracy. After coming back in late November, he immediately started to unfold plans for the upcoming season.
Pierre-Alain describes Morocco as a perfect cycling destination. From most large European airports, it only takes three hours to get to this country with an absolutely different culture and landscapes. The hospitality of Moroccan people is proverbial, particularly in the mountains with the Berber minority and their delicious cuisine. One good thing is that there are no restrictions on riding in Morocco. In contrast to Alpine countries where bicycle access to the mountains is banned or limited, the Atlas Mountains are perfectly suitable for all kinds of mountain biking.
There are hundreds of kilometres of first-class single tracks. From that point of view, cycling in Morocco offers something very rare or precious compared to most European countries. “Many of my clients who were raised in bike parks are astonished about the natural kind of riding they can experience in Moroccan backcountry. Amazed, they call it a return to the roots of freeriding,” Pierre-Alain says. Mostly during spring, from February till May, it is possible to enjoy bike trips in just a T-shirt with views of beautiful mountain ridges covered by snow in the backdrop. “Moreover, I’d add that in Morocco, we have nine months of cycling season a year,” Pierre-Alain says.
Given the circumstances, he now anticipates that the current travel restrictions won’t allow the first client to come no sooner than June, which is already towards the end of the best season as in July and August Morocco experiences the highest temperatures. That’s why he researched the ocean trails to propose three- or four-day trips from Essaouira, a small harbour at the Atlantic coast. Two or three legs along the coast in direction of Agadir are intended for e-bike tours as they run through sandy beaches. The other project counts on e-biking clients who can get accommodation in one of the twelve camps located in the Desert of Agafay. The groups will be provided by twenty-five Swiss Flyer e-bikes. Anyone interested in cycling in Morocco, or to experience an original bike trip is encouraged to reach Pierre-Alain through his website.