The Freedom Challenge +-2300km Race Across South Africa (http://www.freedomchallenge.org.za/) started at 6h00 on Saturday Morning 9th June at Pietermaritzburg Town Hall. The 8 riders in "Batch A" set out in far quieter circumstances than did the many thousands of Comrades runners that started from the same spot less than a week before. 6 of the riders in Batch A were headed as far as Rhodes in what is known as the Ride to Rhodes, while 2, the 66 year-old Hennie De Clerq and his riding partner Gerrit Pretorius, were the 1st out of the starting blocks for the Race Across South Africa (RASA). This made Hennie and Gerrit the "early race leaders", at least for 24 hours until Batch B took off 24 hours later.
For logistical purposes, the Freedom Challenge is started off in small batches over more than a week. The reason is that, unlike the large commercialised races such as Joberg2C or Sani2C, the Freedom Challenge does not make use of large temporary race villages that resemble olden day American Civil War camps. Rather, it makes use of existing accommodation for its "support stations", and the accommodation capacity is thus limited. The support stations provide food and accommodation for racers passing through, should they wish to make use of it. These stations are mostly farm houses, in KZN sometimes "traditional guest houses", and on the odd occasion a lodge.
Starting in batches has traditonally made the race tough to analyse from the top riders' and their followers' point of view, because the few favourites to win the RASA have often been dispersed across batches, with one often finishing a few days before the others. This arguably made the race a little "unfair", as certain riders starting at different times may experience significantly different weather conditions, depending on the luck of their timing. And those starting later could also arguably have the advantage of knowing what time targets to aim for based on the earlier pace setters' performances (somewhat like batting 2nd in a one day cricket match).
2012 promises to be somewhat different. While there are no guarantees that the RASA doesn't have some unknown new blood in the earlier batches, this year the organisers have attempted to start all of the "known favourites" in Batch J on Tuesday 19 June, right at the back of the field. These pre-race favourites include Glenn Harrison, who was 2nd in 2012, along with Alex Harris, last year's winner and record holder, and "Dusi King" Martin Dreyer who has sinced carved himself out an adventure racing career, and rode in 2012 to "recce" the race. These 3 riders appear to be the most talked about pre-race favourites, but one or 2 others such as Graeme Bird (in Batch J) and August "Boskind" Carstens, who has just ridden from Kilimanjaro (http://www.kili2cape.co.za/) and is doing the Xtreme Triathlon* version of the race (Batch I the day before), also deserve mention.
Should the members of Batch J indeed prove to be the race favourites, the beauty is that the playing field will be level, with all batch members subject to the same weather conditions (well, later in the race their different positions may subject them to different conditions but that is at least their own doing). However, I believe that this will make the race decidedly more stressful and competitive for the Batch J racers. When your closest competitor is a few days ahead or a few days behind, having started on a different day, one arguably worries less about what that person is doing and more on one's own planned race schedule - at least in the earlier stages of the race. Sticking to one's plan may become far more difficult if you'd planned to sleep at Support Station X, and as you arrive your closest competitor ups and leaves. Is he going to burn out? Do you let him go? Do you follow and risk burning out yourself? And when one gets to the final stages of the RASA, near Paarl, as exausted as you may be do you risk sleeping at a support station when your closest competitor is only a few hours behind or even there with you, lest he goes sneaking past?
My guess is that in 2012, Alex Harris' 12 days 15 hours and 30 minutes course record is under threat, perhaps from Harris himself, but with similar odds on Harrison and Dreyer. Glenn has changed from single speed to gears in 2012**, thus promising to be significantly faster, and don't forget that on 13 days 10 hours and 50 minutes in 2011 he has the 2nd fastest time in the short history of the RASA. Dreyer has yet to ride the RASA competitively, but we all know the quality of this man from his Dusi days.
Get ready for a hummdinger
* The Extreme Triathlon comprises an 85km Trail Run from Durban to Pietermaritzburg via the Umgeni/Dusi Valleys, followed by the 2300km RASA, and ending off with The 240 km 4 day Berg River Canoe Marathon in mid-July starting in Paarl
** The argument in favour of a single-speed bike is that it offers less room for technical problems, and on a heavily self-supported race such as the RASA this can be an advantage. But the trade-off between this vs a bike with gears is speed.
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 - http://mg.co.za/multimedia/2010-02-04-extreme-endurance-the-freedom-challenge