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 -

Monday, 18 June 2012

Preview of tomorrow's racing for the "Racing Snakes" starting the Race Across South Africa

Right, I hear tomorrow's starters are out on the course checking their navigation "hot spots" and the levels of the Umkomaas River, and the scene is set for tomorrows Batch J start, the final and arguably strongest batch to leave Maritzburg. Well, Mike Woolnough and Trevor Ball from yesterday's starters perhaps have another opinion of who is the strongest of them all. The two of them skipped the 1st standard overnight stop of Alendale early yesterday afternoon, moved through Centacow early in the evening and reached the 2nd standard overnight stop at Ntsikeni at about 01h00 this morning. They left Ntsikeni shortly after 05h00 this morning, and had passed Glenn Edward, the 3rd stage "half way" stop shortly after 10h00. So they clearly have plans for a fast trip to Cape Town, and have possibly gained a slight advantage over tomorrow's starters weather-wise. Yes, the reports are that it is pouring down at Rhodes already, which one tweet said was what happens before the snow arrives. One of the riders also reported rain at Tinana Mission, between Malekhalonyane and Vuvu. Rain and snow have a profound impact on the race, and can make parts of the trip far slower due to creating a muddy surface. Even if you manage to miss the rain, you often have to deal with its aftermath for some days thereafter.

Weather Forecasts for Batch J, the Racing Snakes (starting at 06h00 Tuseday 19th June from Maritzburg):

The Maritzburg weather forecast for tomorrow is for the weather to be okay, with only a very slight possibility of small rainfall overnight tonight but cloud clearing through tomorrow. For Maritzburg weather forecast see link:

Up the road at the 1st stage halfway stop of Minerva, the forecast is very much similar to Maritzburg. See link:

At the 1st "overnight" support station of Allendale, tonight's overnight rain forecast is a more significant 5 mm, a further 1 mm in the morning tomorrow, but also clearing as the day goes on tomorrow. See link:

I talk about Allendal as an overnight, because for us normal okes it usually is. It probably won't be for many of these racing snakes, however, who have a significantly longer range. On to Centacow, and the forecast is slightly better for tomorrow, overcast overnight but no rain predicted.

At Ntsikeni, the 2nd standard overnight station, which the racing snakes could well reach some time tomorrow night, 3mm of rain is forecast tonight but the forecast is for no rain tomorrow night, which could be when some riders are heading towards it.

The 3rd overnight support station is Masakala. This is most probably out of range for any time tomorrow, but just in case, here rain is also forecast to night but then clear through tomorrow daytime and Wednesday.

So in short, the general impression along the intial part of the route to Rhodes is that there may be rain tonight but that the riders may by-and-large avoid being rained on. However, tonight's rain, should it happen, could make parts of the route muddy and slower going for the "racing snakes". 

But then again, weather forecasters were put on earth to make economists like me look good when forecasting, so the situation is a "dynamic" one as Glenn would probably say.

The 1st day's route:

With the top racers in the Race Across South Africa, it is difficult to define the 1st day of the route because we don't quite know where the 1st day will end for them. Last year, Alex Harris decided to "cut his 1st day short" at Centacow, which he reached early on the 1st evening of the race. He slept there for a few hours before setting off in the middle of the night and rode al the way to Malekhalonyane by the 2nd evening of the race. Others, by comparison, moved on to Ntsikeni on the 1st night before stopping for a quick sleep, reaching Ntsikeni in the early hours of the 2nd morning.

And then there's the Adventure Racer's amongst them, i.e. Graham Bird and Martin Dreyer. Do they go for 36 hours before sleeping, which sounds like it is customary in that sport? That may see them reaching Malekhalonyane by late on the 2nd afternoon for their 1st sleep.

I should, however, cover myself by including the detail of the route as far as Banchory, which for the social riders represents the 3rd day lunch time stopover (at Glen Edward farm just next door to Banchory actually). Whether they've rested before Banchory or not, it is unlikely that they'll have reached it by tomorrow night.

Total kms of the various stages to Banchory (Official race distances)

Pietermaritzburg to Allendale                         - 99.5km
Allendale to Centacow                                  - 49km
Centacow to Ntsikeni                                   - 48.5km
Ntsikeni to Banchory (Glenn Edward)           - 34km

During this stretch from Maritzburg to Banchory, the total cumulative ascent (climbing) over this 232 km stretch is recorded at 5497 metres, while the cumulative descent is recorded at -4428 metres. The bulk of this climbing is done before the 212km mark, whereafter it is generally downhill to Banchory.

So it's a big climbing stage on Day 1. The big hills include:

From near the 30km mark to around 45km there's the 1st big climb up to Cunningham Castle, an ascent of near 800m. From Cunningham Castle theres a lot of downhill into the Umkomaas River valley where one hits the 1st real bushy part with a bit of portaging. Fortunately it's winter, because you I suspect the valley is full of slithery reptiles in summer. At the Umkomaas portage there is some decision making to be done. You can gain 20 minutes or so by crossing through the river early and carrying the bike up the slope to join the road some way up the hill out of the valley. Alternatively, one can ride on down the valley to Hella Hella Bridge and cycle the huge hill from the bottom. Either way, you come to what is probably the sharpest and toughest ascent of the day, known as Hella Hella. This rises approximately 650  metres over about 5kms whereafter it is undulating to the first support station of Allendale for, in these riders' case, lunch.

Two more big climbs follow between Centacow and Ntsikeni, as the riders ascend to near 1916 metres above sea level at the 212km mark, after having been as low as 555 metres above sea level just before the start of the Hella Hella climb.

With regard to navigation, my dear friend Albert and I got spectacularly lost regularly on this stage. Glenn himself reportedly slept a night in the forest just before Donnybrook (just after leaving Allendale) in earlier years. But given the experience that these top riders now have, the tricky navigation sections through the forests from just before Donnybrook to Centacow are well-rehearsed and will pose no problem, especially given that they will be negotiated in daytime in all likelihood.

The other tricky part, which could come in the darkness for some Gxalangene Forest about 16km up the hill from Centacow on the trip to Ntsikeni.

So that's pretty much it. With all the top riders racing together it will be interesting to see how each one approaches it, and how far each will go before the 1st rest. It is a day (and night) of big climbing, but should not offer any significant navigation difficulties to these riders.


  1. No one has ever gone beyond nstikeni on the first night without stopping, doing the wetlands in the dark is not easy and you've got a lot of miles in the legs already.

    otherwise it is much quicker to do black fountain/vuvu valley and lehanas in the day if possible.

    I suspect we will see the batch J race snakes tear the legs off each other and then regroup at malekholonyane at various times of night 2.

    for the first time in a long time we are going to see people quietly sneaking into SS to overtake sleeping rivals. As well as quietly waking up and disappearing too.

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  2. Ja Steve I agree (John Loos replying to you). I suspect there could be lots of cloak and dagger stuff this year...sneaking in and out of support stations hoping not to wake your opponent up as you pass through. And if they get to Trouthaven exhausted together, everyone's going to be too scared to sleep. Could be a great one.