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, 18 October 2012

An Idiot's Guide to the Ride to Rhodes

This year, for the first time, the Ride to Rhodes was held in September - a springtime version of the 6-day event usually held in conjunction with the Freedom Challenge/RASA in winter every year. One of the rookies who took part this year was Oliver Burnett, an accomplished mountain biker,  a veteran of many of South Africa's bigger stage races and someone who was keen to do the event to help him prepare for his own RASA attempt next year (2013). His account below provides an entertaining look at what happened and a useful guide to anyone else thinking of doing the ride - over to Ollie:

An Idiots guide to the Ride To Rhodes

After having followed the incredible RASA this year I decided to do the much tamer and “supported” Ride to Rhodes in September as a taster and possible precursor to the RASA next June.
Naively, I interpreted the word “supported” in its broadest definition and I simply rocked up at the start (after getting lost) and expected to be guided to Rhodes. Supported means your extra clothes will be taken from the start each day to the overnight stop, do not expect any hand holding! There is a guardian/sweeper at the back but his task is simply to look after the weak and dying. The first lesson is to download the maps and narratives from the website - YOU WILL NEED THEM! Sometimes the narrative may be obscure but don’t get pissed off or complain, neither will help you in any way whatsoever! Get a compass and be prepared to ride and navigate alone, even at night, and oh yes, bring a light, I had lent mine to a friend, a big problem when you’re alone at 8pm looking for Nsikeni in the dark!

Navigation by committee: it ended in tears!

I used my normal bike that I use for “normal” stage races and it worked perfectly fine. However unlike normal stage races you will have to carry your bike for longer periods than any sane person is accustomed to, 3 hours plus over Lehana’s for instance, so I would suggest a comfortable pair of shoes that are designed for walking in and that can take a beating. You can find a comfortable way to carry your bike pre-ride but believe me you work this out pretty quickly up Lehana’s!

Top of Lehana's Pass

S-Works becomes touring bike!!

Be self-sufficient with regards basic spares, tubes, chain lube, plugs etc - there are no bike shops or mechanics where this ride goes. A day-pack is sufficient with enough space for food, water and extra layers. Be prepared for a trivial 8 to 16 hours in the saddle depending on speed and navigational savvy.

There are plenty of Spaza shops en-route for emergency Cokes, in fact a rule of thumb is that if you see a shop get a Coke and whatever food they are selling. Whilst on nutrition, there are some very specific rules here - if its solid, eat it and if its liquid, drink it and if you do this constantly for the entire 6 days you should be fine. Overnight stops all have wholesome dinners and breakfasts on offer and remember to always make sandwiches in the morning, they’ll save your life! If you are a vegetarian or a bit fussy you may have to take a week off and simply treat chickens as fast moving vegetables...

Centocow Mission feast

Spaza shop feast

When it comes to fitness you need to be fitter than Julius Malema but don’t have to be as fit as Martin Dreyer, somewhere in the middle should be fine. Be prepared to “kak off” a bit and under no circumstances be tempted to get in the support vehicle, you will live to regret it. With regards the support vehicle, do not ever expect to see it or rely on it, however it may also just arrive out of nowhere and provide you with a delightful impromptu tea party.

Breakfast at Vuvu

The riding itself is really varied with a bit of everything, do not however expect groomed “Nick’s Pass” type trails, this is mountain biking in the raw and it’s fantastic, even if you are a worshiper of groomed single track as I am. I also tended to ride my bike like there was a tomorrow rather than my normal caution to the wind style (it’s a long walk out of the Vuvu valley with a broken wheel) but I found this more conservative type of riding strangely satisfying, good grief I can’t believe I just said that!!

One of many "small" climbs

I entered the ride on my own but ended up riding with others most of the time, mainly because I am a coward, but also for the company and the sheer entertainment value of witnessing navigation by committee. My advice on group navigation is simple, do you want to be lost on your own or with others, you take your pick, however if you are in a group of headless chickens it may be time to forge your own path.

“Getting lost when you're already lost is no fun” -Ted
If you’ve done a few Epic’s, remember no one other than your mother cares, this ride is different, there are no dancing girls at the finish line (in fact there is no real finish line), no fabulous goodie bag (although we did get a cool top, the wrong size) no stroking of ego’s, no timing mat (you could time the slow group with a sun dial but only if it worked at night!), no massages, no sanitised food, no music and video display at dinner, I think you get the picture....

Fanfair at the "finish-line” in Rhodes

So what do you get? Well if you are lucky enough to get to Rhodes without catching a lift anywhere or falling off a mountain, you’ll get a whip that has been dipped in horse piss (my wife loves it!). But you also get to sleep in a local village, shower under a bucket, experience proper sunsets, meet real people, get dirty, get lost a lot, rely on yourself, rely on others, learn something about our country etc but most of all, you get to ride your bike all day - I guess it’s a bit like being a kid again and that’s cool.

This was meant to be a practical beginner's guide on the Ride to Rhodes but I’m not sure it ended up that way, so I suggest you get onto the Freedom Challenge website and get Meryl’s contact no. and phone here with any queries!!

Road to Rhodes

I would strongly recommend the Ride to Rhodes for any aspiring RASA riders, whilst nowhere close to it’s big brother in terms of sheer vasbyt, it will certainly give you a good idea of what to expect. It is very achievable for any reasonably fit rider who is willing to take a few knocks and experience something truly special. See you in June!!

Thanks Ollie. Just a note on the weather - since this event took place in September and not in June, in the middle of winter, the weather was indeed much kinder to the riders. Apart from a bit of rain on the first day, Ollie said that they had decent weather for the rest of the ride, with clear days and comfortable temperatures. With the September R2R planned again for next year, it is a really good  option  for rookies to discover what its all about in relative comfort. Plans are still to host a R2R in the winter (together with the Freedom Challenge itself) but this event will be the unsupported or 'Rough Ride to Rhodes' where there is no riding guardian or support vehicle - much like its big brother, the Freedom Challenge.

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