The Freedom Challenge

The Freedom Challenge Race Across South Africa is an "unsupported" non-stage mountain bike race of approximately 2,300 km across South Africa. While recent winners have won in around 11 days, the race cut-off is 26 days. The race starts in Pietermaritzburg in early-to-mid-June, and ends in Paarl near Cape Town. Temperatures are known to drop as low as minus-10 deg. Celsius. While there are periodic "support stations" which will feed and accommodate riders should they require, the race is unsupported in the sense that riders must carry their own clothing and equipment, are responsible for their own maintenance and navigation (without the aid of GPS), and there are no marshalls or safety officials on the course (Race monitoring is done by satellite tracking). Estimates of cumulative ascent are around 37,000 metres, and the highest point on the route is approximately 2,700 metres above sea level. See the following link for an introductory slideshow by Mike Roy -

Saturday, 30 June 2012

Conversations with Martin and Alex - dissecting this year's race.

Sitting around the breakfast table at Diemersfontein this morning, Martin and Alex swopped stories from the trail and recounted the epic battle of the last 11 days. Both in good spirits but visibly tired and stiff from their exertions, they were both glad to be off their bikes for a change and were working their way through a few breakfasts each.

These are some of their insights into this year’s race:
1.Tell us about your strategy going into the race:
Alex: The plan was always to try for sub 11 days. My race stops and support boxes were planned and sent with this in mind. We all started fast and it very quickly became a race – from then on there was constant pressure.
Martin: I never really had a fixed plan, just a basic aim of around 13 days and to try and finish on or before my wife’s birthday (29 June). I wanted to ride hard though and test myself to see what I could do. I aimed for the same places as Alex most days but pushed to get there before him to keep the pressure on. What I like about Freedom Challenge is that you can make it as hard as you want to, it’s up to you as a rider to decide.

2.Were you racing for the record or racing each other?
A&M: It went from racing the clock to racing the man. As soon as Martin went ahead, he became the hunted man and the pressure was from behind, trying to stay just ahead of Alex. For Alex it became the a case of “chasing the jack rabbit across the country.” The constant drive though was always the ticking clock – after day 3 they were both on sub 11 day pace, then fell a bit behind due to the mud after Rhodes, then got going again when the roads dried out near Hofmeyr. Martin gained some time from Alex’s mechanical issues with his seatpost but felt he gave most of it back with small navigation errors and extra time wasted in support stations.
This year it literally came down to the wire. If there was one specific point where you could say someone made a break, it would probably be the day after Kranskop – Alex had been slowed by his seatpost issues and Martin pushed on past Hofmeyer to Elandsberg that night as the roads dried out. Factoring in their relative sleeping times, this effectively consolidated the gap of a few hours between them which lasted for the rest of the race.

3.You both ended up riding on very little sleep. Where did the sleepmonsters finally catch up with you?
Alex:  Initially I was getting 3 hours of sleep in a 4 hour stopover. At Chesneywold I got 5hrs and the difference in how I felt the next day was huge, despite the mud slowing actual progress. In the second half of the race, I was sacrificing sleep when pushing bigger days, in an attempt to get back on track for a sub 11 day finish and stay in contact with Martin. From about Prince Albert, I was ‘going for home’ so my sleep was further sacrificed – net effect was falling asleep on my bike coming down Ouberg Pass into Montagu and some stretches which required regular 2 to 5 minute power naps just to keep moving. The worst was in Anysberg Nature Reserve - I was hallucinating and started hearing faint music in my head time seemed to slow down to a crawl. 
Martin: I was also working on about 3 hours of sleep most nights before cutting back even more nearer to the end. For me the stretch up Swartberg Pass in the dark was particulalrly difficult, I couldn’t keep my eyes open, was swerving all over the road and had to nap often. The moonlight made my own shadow visible and I started thinking it was another rider next to or just behind me, like having a riding partner. I also started hearing voices on that stretch. The final push for me started from Montagu and whole day I was thinking about getting into Stettyn’s Kloof and up the valley before dark. You have to know yourself well when trying to push it without sleep. I was coping fine for the first half of the race but towards the end I was getting too little sleep and I think it became counterproductive – everything slowed down and it was a huge effort just to keep moving forward.

4.How a big a factor was the weather?
A&M:  It was warmer overall than last year but also much wetter. The worst part was the mud after Rhodes, particulalrly around Moordenaars Poort – this slowed everyone down. There were also sections where strong headwinds made it really tough – like coming into Willowmore and again near Ashton.

5.Any places where you were concerned about navigation?
Alex: Coming over Black Fountain at night made me nervous and proved to be really slow and tricky in the dark. I was also worried about getting through the Gwaas Valley before dark, it’s a pretty bleak place even in daylight.
Martin: I was a bit concerned about Elandsberg in the dark and got lost there, wasting about 2 hours. Also, going around the Darlington dam just after Toekomst was a tricky section for me.

6.This year’s race has had a large following on the internet and especially Twitter – were you getting any info from friends and followers out on the route?
Alex: I was monitoring Twitter for updates and getting sms’s along the way. The info was useful for pacing and judging the effectiveness of my efforts on the bigger days. I could also see from the check in sheets how far ahead Martin was at each support station and adjust my efforts accordingly.
Martin: I was sms’ing info to my wife Jeannie for her to put on Twitter and she was updating me with any developments, like Alex’s check in times behind me, which influenced my pacing. I also spoke to friends on the phone for info if required. I received a ton of sms’s while riding but did not reply to them out on the trail.

7.The support stations are an important part of this event – do any of them stand out for you?
Alex:  The support stations provide food so the standouts are the ones where the food was memorable – for me the spread of food at Grootdam and the coffee and ice cream at Kasra.
Martin: It’s hard to single out any particular one, you don’t spend much time in them and they all go out of their way to make you feel at home. The most memorable food experience didn’t involve a support station though – I ran out of food on the way to Prince Albert and knocked on the door of a labourer’s cottage somewhere near Rondawel to ask for some bread, they gave me some ‘roosterkoek’ which tasted divine and saved me that day.

8.You both had to eat constantly to keep your energy levels up – did you gain or lose any weight during the event?
Alex:  I lost quite a bit, probably about 5kg by the end. (Could feel it in the last few days.)
Martin: Not sure exactly, probably lost about a kilogram by the end.

9.Highlights of the journey for you?
Alex: I had quite a few encounters with animals along the way this year. Coming through the Baviaanskloof, I came around a corner straight into a herd of buffalo standing on either side of the road. I went straight through and they scattered to either side. Approaching Rondawel, I was riding along when a frisky horse appeared next to me on the road, snorting and putting on a show. He trotted off ahead of me and then returned to inspect me again – made me a bit nervous. Later on before Prince Albert, I noticed some shiny dots up ahead in my lights, as they grew bigger, I realised that they were eyes and approaching fast – at the last minute I realised there were two brown Hyena running towards me in the road! I braked and swerved to the side and they ran off.
Martin: The amazing scenery and night skies, getting a fright when I triggered a leopard tracking camera and the flash suddenly went off next to me, many small things like that. But the best for me was being out on my own and eventually getting to the front of the field and having no tracks to follow for the last few days.

10.Tech info for those that need to know:
Both rode 29er hardtails with tubeless wheelsets. Alex rode 3x10 gearing and Martin 2x10. No major mechanical issues apart from the seatpost for Alex and a Martin splitting his chain and struggling to get the replacement link fitted properly.

11.Classic comments:
Alex remembered pedalling out through Bisley Nature Reserve on day 1 and casually asking Martin what his plans were, his reply: “I’m just going to try and hang on…”
Martin’s comment to Alex about feeling the pressure from him chasing hard: “If you had slowed down, I would have too…”

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