Chasing Mystery at La Ruta Del Nabab
Riding motorcycles is about freedom, sure. But it’s also about looking good — something the organizers of La Ruta del Nabab clearly understand. This mysterious, invite-only annual adventure comes as close as anything to the aesthetic ideal of modern motorcycling.
“We cannot go to paradise dressed in fluorescent colours on ugly motorcycles. It would not be our spirit,” writes Thierry Philippe, a motorcycle enthusiast based in Switzerland who founded La Ruta del Nabab a few years ago.
The 2022 edition took 21 like-minded riders on a 1,400-kilometre off-road loop around Morocco. The event isn’t advertised, and the website is largely devoid of basic information like when and where the next one will be, or how much it costs, or how to get an invite.
Unlike most other motorcycle trips, this one has an art director. His name is Félix Rodríguez, and he designs the pants, t-shirts, caps, technical jerseys, handkerchiefs, and even the socks that riders wear. “Everything is designed to maintain an aesthetic balance, and a balance with nature. We do not want to be in such a beautiful landscape with colours or clothes that are not up to par,” he explains. “Every day, we wear a technical jersey that has to do with our spirit, the psychology of colour, and the specific place we are going,” says Rodríguez, who works under the name Mr. Zé as an illustrator and creative director at a design studio based in Spain.
A Nabab, Rodríguez explains, is a person who “lives life in a fraternal way, who enjoys the pleasures of life as an epicurean, and who shares his experience and his goods with others. We are a group of romantics, determined to enjoy every second.”
Roughly translated, “La Ruta del Nabab” literally means something like “the route of rich men.” (“Nabab” is Spanish for “nabob,” an archaic word meaning a wealthy or important person, perhaps with a grandiose style.)
“We are not nostalgic, let no one misunderstand us, but we like the time when motorcycling had that romanticism of being dressed elegantly,” Rodríguez says.
More than other forms of transport, riding a motorcycle involves a lot of playing dress-up. Whether you’re cosplaying as Peter Fonda in Easy Rider or Ewan McGregor on one of his round-the-world adventures, there are a lot of fashion choices to be made. (As a newish motorcyclist, I still feel I’m only cosplaying as one when I put on all the gear.)
The rider, though, is only half the outfit; the motorcycle is the other half. The bikes of La Ruta are unique, purposeful machines. They’re all custom-built, running the gamut from boxer-engined BMWs to low-tech Honda workhorses to affordable Royal Enfield scramblers. Many of the bikes are modern but look vaguely like old 1980s Paris–Dakar rally bikes with bulbous tanks and tall suspension, or like the Californian desert-sleds seen in Bruce Brown’s 1971 documentary On Any Sunday. Rodríguez paints many of the motorcycles by hand.
It would be easier, of course, to spend $20,000 on a high-tech Transformers-esque BMW R 1250 GS or a fully loaded KTM 890, machines tailor-made for a 1,400 km rip across Morocco. But to take that shortcut would miss the point of La Ruta.
“We couldn’t find an event that united our other passions, our idea of aesthetics and lifestyle,” Thierry Philippe wrote to me through Rodríguez. And so, a few years ago, he got a group of riders together and started this. The first running of La Ruta took place in southern Europe due to travel restrictions. The first “real” running was in 2021, in the Sahara desert.
This past summer, La Ruta del Nabab went back to Morocco for an eight-day trip. It started in Marrakesh, crossing over the Atlas Mountains and heading southwest toward the expansive beaches along the Atlantic coast before looping inland though the desert and back up to Marrakesh. In addition to the 21 riders — which included Thierry Philippe and his son, ex–Indy Car racer Nelson Philippe — were another 10 or so support staff including mechanics, photographers, and a medical team.
“On other adventures, when they stop due to a breakdown, they lose time and it is negative. Here, we have the time and the power to enjoy every second,” wrote Philippe. It’s not a race. Nobody takes a GPS with the route mapped out, and riders help each other. Participants come from France, Spain, Portugal, the Dominican Republic, Italy, Germany, America, Mexico, Morocco, South Africa, and elsewhere.
“On this beautiful journey, we move as a group. We dance under the stars, we share a look, a smile, a drink in the middle of the desert,” says Philippe. “There is joy, and that’s what we don’t want to lose.”
It genuinely looks like fun, like maybe this is the path to motorcycle nirvana. The vibe is meticulously curated, which is the reason anyone can’t simply go online and join the next Ruta del Nabab — but, if you could, it would cost around €4,000. There’s the catch: two-wheeled nirvana doesn’t come cheap.
“It is a journey open to all those who share our spirit,” wrote Rodríguez. “If someone considers himself a person with high purchasing power, open to sharing and helping others, if you are an aesthete, an adventurer who enjoys the beauty of the road, the mystique of this trip, you can contact us, of course.”
All Photography courtesy of Manuel Portugal.