I knew the idea of crossing the Sahara on a road bike was ambitious, but I had no idea how hard it would actually be.

At the Moroccan border I’m immediately unnerved by some Frenchmen. They look at my bike and shake their heads; “you’re taking thison the piste?” The 1,130cc machine still looks box-fresh and ill-prepared for one of the planet’s toughest environments.

Taking on the Piste

“Oui,” I reply, wondering what a piste looks like. Soon I’m into the no-man’s-land between the Moroccan and Mauritanian borders. Now it’s a piste. I soon learn that this term defines every surface that can be travelled on – from smooth dirt road to rugged wilderness.

The 135bhp bike starts acting like it’s drunk. I ride slowly, paddling with my feet when the sand is deep. I’m soon in the Mauritanian town of Nouadhibou.

Mauritanian Madness

It’s post-apocalypse fiction brought to life. The cars have no headlights or windows; most look like they’ve been rolled a dozen times. Locals give me dead-eyed, zombie-like stares. The architecture is Mogadishu-chic. In among the madness my bike has become invisible. Nothing gives me an inch. I’d be safer on a donkey.

Sanctuary is found in a walled campsite full of Europeans. Tomorrow I’ll start on the real purpose of the journey – riding in the Sahara. For that I’ll need a guide. I hook up with two Dutch guys driving to Gambia. The guide will travel in their car and I can follow. As guides go, Mr Abba certainly looks the part: a dark-skinned Arab in his mid-50s wearing a Bedouin’s flowing, white robe and head dress. He doesn’t seem fazed about taking the bike along, though he takes a long, close look at the fat rear tyre.

The next day we’re out on the piste. There may be some tarmac here, but the riding is hot, dusty work demanding concentration. After 55 miles the car turns right, off the piste and into the Sahara desert. My mouth dries in an instant.

Doing Things the Hard Way

Now I know I need to relax and just keep the front wheel pointing in the direction I want it to go and the rear will follow. I know I should try standing up. I know I should grip the bars lightly. But I sit down and hold on with white-knuckle ferocity. I have little faith in myself and close to none in the road tyres. All I do is stare at the Dutchmen’s car and try to follow. It’s painfully slow going. At times it’s just painful.

At one point I haven’t fallen off for close to an hour, my confidence has risen and I make the mistake of attempting a turn in the sand. Then I’m down and pinned to the floor. I have time to reflect on just how much fun I’m having - none. After four hours we make a proper stop and Mr Abba brews a pot of mint tea.

“You look like an accident happening in slow motion,” I’m told. But I feel remarkably upbeat. Mr Abba points to a mountain in the distance and says we’re staying beyond that. The day no longer feels like it’s going to last forever. 2 hours later, we’re past the mountain and spend the night at a small Bedouin camp.

The Finishing Line

The next morning I crash within five miles of an 80-mile day on the sand. I’ve no choice but to get back in the saddle and keep riding. My reward is being taught a lesson in life: it doesn’t matter how much talent you lack, perseverance can often paper over the cracks.

My last night in the desert is spent in a tent on the beach with the Atlantic crashing a few feet away. Home aside, it’s the best destination I’ve ever reached on a bike. I’m no longer scared of dying in the desert or of crashing and breaking bones. I’ve ridden a bike fitted with road tyres through a gruelling section of the Sahara. I know that’s a first.

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