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 -

Thursday, 21 June 2012

For slower riders in the Race Across SA, the mentally most testing time is arguably just after Rhodes. Motivate your riders.

For those of you whose favourite riders are, like myself, slower than the racing snakes and doing the Race Across South Africa just to entertain themselves. mid-life crisis, tired of the boss at work or some other interesting reason, NOW, while your rider is passing through the Eastern Cape/Karoo section after Rhodes is probably the time for you as a supporter to launch your own motivational speaking career.

I say this, because the few days after one has left Rhodes seems to be the most mentally testing of the entire trip. At least that is what my riding partner, Albert, and I found last year. We really hit that "mid-race" mental low badly around about Romansfontein. And I think there are a few good reasons as to why:

Firstly, the section after Rhodes is a bit easier from a physical effort point of view, compared to the Maritzburg-Rhodes section. But herein lies the pitfall. Loads of former riders had warned us last year about the heavy climbing through KZN to Rhodes. They'd warned us against getting lost in the Vuvu Valley at night ("so start out early and push to Vuvu"), and the huge Lehana's Pass portage is already part of Freedom Challenge folklore. So we'd been well-warned, and we were expecting the 1st 6 days to Rhodes to be tough. And when your expectations match the reality, you're up to the task and it turn out not to be too bad (in your mind at least). The trouble is that, after Rhodes we sort of expected it to become easier. Take a look at the route profile and you see that there isn't as much climbing anymore. Former riders don't talk much to you about this Eastern Cape High Country stretch, and I mean "the Karoo is flat", or so you think if you drive regularly through Beaufort West etc on your way down the N1 to Cape Town. Physically, this High Eastern Cape section is easier than the pre-Rhodes parts. But I think where riders go wrong is that it is not nearly as "easier" as what we thought. The days remain long rides for us "slowies"

Less climbing, yes, but the days remain long. And there are some nice areas to get spectacularly  lost. The portage over the mountains staright after Slaapkranz kan be trick navigation-wise, although they are done in the day so should be okay. The day from Vaalbank to Romansfontein is a long one, and the section through a few farms in the  few hours before Romansfontein (hunting for the notorious pivots) saw many riders who approached it after dark getting horribly lost. Further down the track, after Hofmeyr, one gets the Elandsberg portage where racing snake Glenn even spent the night out. Riders are strongly advised to do this portage by day.

Now getting lost is a real mind blower, because it makes the day even longer than your already perhaps unrealistic expectactions on this stage.

Then there's the cold. Until you go down into the Karoo, the Eastern Cape Highlands (perhaps up until Elandsberg) is bitterly cold (minus10 degrees celcius not uncommon). Now what you have to understand is the "day after day riding" is taking its toll on the rider as it is, and in addition he/she is facing severe discomfort caused by the cold. On top of this, 7 or 8 days into the race the "novelty" has worn off (that novelty kept us all excited in the 1st few days despite the hard stuff). If you have small kids you're missing them, and even the warm heated corporate head office started to seem like a better idea.

And then of top of it, Cape Town is still a mind-blowing 1,500km away, which remains un-imagineable. You can afford to even think about that, but sometimes you do and it is depressing.

The loneliness factor also plays a big role. We had ridden with a crowd of Ride to Rhodes riders in our 1st 6 days. Its always better mentally in a bigger group of positive people. Then the Ride to Rhodes riders pack up and go home, after a great few beers in Rhodes, and the next morning before dawn in freezing cold Albert and I headed out for Chesneywold. On top of that, the Eastern Cape is far less inhabited than KZN, so you see far less people on your way through.

Yes, this stretch from Rhodes to past Elandsberg, at least, is designed to test you mentally. This year, it has the added feature of serious rain and mud, if all of the other factors weren't enough.

Its at this stage that supporters need to talk as much as they can to their riders. When Cape Town gets nearer, the mental side sorts itself out. You can take hardship easier because you sense that the end is near. You even begin to feel stronger as a result. So it is important that one encourages them as much as possible to NOT focus on more than getting through today, and then the next few days....and gradually the days add up, and you're suddenly a lot nearer to home. "Remind them that discomfort is temporary, whereas the pain of  not finishing is forever" (that was Lance Armstrong who said that I think). And remind them that as Cape Town gets nearer their mental condition WILL improve.

And one  more thing. Remind them that the Karoo is NOT flat, and they still will have  more hard days. Because the ultimate solution is for the expectations to be in line with reality. When you expect it to be easier than what it really is, that's where trouble sets in.
The Karoo ain't flat. Mountain portage in snow near Cradock

So, while I don't know what goes on in Martin and Alex's heads, the Eastern Cape High Country section was, for us slow pokes at least, the worst part of the race mentally. The drop out rate can be high here as a result. If they  get though this Eastern Cape High Country stage, Chances are good they'll  go all the way. Work on your riders hard for the next few days. They need it now.


  1. Only time goes on in their heads, at a certain time you need to be at a certain place, that's what went on in my head. Pictures from home kept me driving and then you need to ride for goal, in my case "Miles for Smiles"
    Wise words :"The body goes where the mind goes " Keep the body focused on the positive, deliberately look for beauty and laugh lots.

  2. I think the weather and conditions are a major swing factor here. AND because this is the highest ground of the course, the weather is often the worst.

    for me, just make it to Aaasvoelsberg(and down) and you've broken the back of the race. If the weather is ok, then Bonthoek portage is the gate. I had lunch there with tim james and he gave us one helluva speech saying just that(and then we next saw him in cape town).

  3. Tough Love! Be sympathetic but don't let them give up. The bad patches pass and then its too late. Its worth the effort and pain and often too much sympathy from farmers along the way and home weakens the spirit.
    Bolster them, dust them off and kick them back out on the trail.