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 -

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Just get back on and ride.

The Race to Rhodes: Last Friday I left Pietermaritzburg on my bike at 6am - the plan was to ride to Rhodes as quickly as possible, even non-stop if it came down to that. The incentive was to try and get close to the record of 56 hours. I chose to ride a singlespeed, hoping that a lighter, simpler bike would help. Well today I sit in Rhodes in front of a warm fireplace and how I got here is all a bit of a blur...

Things started off OK and I rode together with Oliver Burnett to the first support station at Allendale (110km). Unfortunately Ollie felt a bit off colour by the time we arrived and decided to stop there and rest. I made sure he was happy with that decision before pressing on to Centocow, (an interim stop at 150km) where I grabbed some soup for supper before continuing to Ntsikeni (the second support station at 200km). Along the way it got dark and cold, very cold. It also got increasingly difficult as nausea set in - my stomach wasn't happy and I began to suspect the soup may have been the culprit... so I crawled into Ntsikeni at 00h30 and stopped. At first I just lay down on the floor for 10min. That seemed to help, so the next task was to try and get some food in - the only thing I managed was a few more spoons of soup! No choice really, I needed some nourishment. An hour later, I felt OK, so I put on all my layers of clothing  and slowly headed out into the cold again.

There's a portage section out of Ntsikeni which involves a grassy jeep track and a trek across the open grasslands - not too bad in daylight but very tricky at night. A mistake here cost me more then an hour - frustrating for both the time lost and the energy wasted. The energy cost was significant and I was battling to stay awake now, despite it being well after sunrise. When I got to another interim stop at Glen Edward (235km), I needed to rest again. Another snooze, this time for 20min in front of the fireplace, a few more sips of soup and I felt a bit better. So I headed off to Masakala. The sun was warm and the riding was good but I still couldn't eat anything on the bike, so I just sipped a very diluted energy drink and kept the pedals turning as best I could (with plenty of walking up the steep hills along the way)

I got to Masakala (285km) later than intended and managed to eat a bit of bread and drink a cup of tea before heading out the door again. The next section to Queen's Mercy involved some fast singletrack across the floodplains into the fading light and it all went by too quickly. But I guess you can only ride so far on bread because after two fun hours of smooth fast riding, the tank was empty. I was feeling grim again and on the point of vomiting. Up ahead lay the tricky Mparane Ridge, more great riding but difficult to find the right paths in the dark. I pedaled on into the second sunset of the ride - still alert but now very low on energy. Just before the turn-off to start the climb up to Mparane, I had to pull off in a hurry as the nausea overcame me and I started to vomit. I was in no shape to continue so I made a call to race director David Waddilove, to discuss my options. I didn't want to throw in the towel but I had to stop and recover before carrying on. The decision was made to proceed along the shorter touring route to the next support station at Malekholonyane (345km) with the proviso that I return to the point I left off the next morning and rejoined the route there.

After the initial push of 38 hours, I felt disappointed at having to stop because I was still within striking distance of the record - but the choice was the only realistic one to take, as I was in no shape to continue then. Arriving at the support station, it was a full house with most of the other riders already asleep. I chatted to some of those riders (from previous batches) who were still awake, while I sipped tea and nibbled on some rice, then I found a bed, set my alarm for 4am and (literally) crashed.

Six hours of sleep felt like a luxury and when I awoke at 4am, I dressed up warmly once again and had a cup of tea. Not having any appetite yet, I packed up and left to retrace my steps from the previous night, rejoining the route at Mparane Ridge. By the time I got to the tricky navigation section, first light was approaching, so I snapped a few pictures and found the right path down without too much trouble.

Once back at Malekholonyane support station, I bravely asked for breakfast and for a change, ate it all with glee - my appetite was back which meant there would be fuel in the tank for a good day's riding. I made up my mind to get going and keep going until the end in Rhodes - the weather looked good and barring any major catastrophes, I had a chance of finishing before midnight and at least improving on the current singlespeed record to Rhodes. The route of the day took me over the brilliant singletrack ridgeline called Black Fountain, where I passed some of the riders from the night before, down to Tinana Mission (with Guy and Anton in tow), across to Setabataba, where I stopped for a spaza Coke before heading up the valley portage to Vuvu village. Here I stopped briefly to refuel again, before continuing to the final hurdle , the big climb up Lehana's Pass.

Starting the last portage in fading light enabled me to at least scan to ridgelines above and trace out the intended route. For the rest, it was just a case of putting my head down and one foot in front of the other, while paying enough attention so as not to wander off track into one of the deep adjacent valleys. The night was cold and clear and the stars and moonlight sufficient to see without the need for a headlamp. Walking slowly up in the dark, I enjoyed the peace and quiet and had time to reflect back on the mad dash that had started in Pietermaritzburg the previous day.

As I climbed higher, the temperature steadily dropped and despite having all my warm layers on, I couldn't stop for more than a few minutes at a time before starting to shiver. Once over the mountain, it was after 9pm and I still had to get back on the bike to ride the last 35km stretch into Rhodes. I thought it had been cold coming up the mountain but the added windchill on the way down had me looking forward to every uphill climb so I could get off and walk a little to warm up! On the way down, the bit of water left in my bottle froze solid, the dreaded nausea returned and my stomach started going into a knot but none of it mattered by then because I knew I was close to home.

And home appeared out of the dark almost by surprise, when my lights lit up the signboard to the village of Rhodes. It was just before midnight and the Freedom Challenge sign on the gate signaled the end of my ride - 66 hours, about 500km, not quite non-stop but a cracking adventure nonetheless.

As I sipped warm tea in front of a crackling fireplace, I was tired, stiff and sore. My mind was a bit fuzzy and my stomach still tight - but I was happy, already playing back through some of the highs and lows of the ride - it felt like one long ride and despite the setbacks and breaks along the way, all the different stages had merged into one. If there was a message in there, it was really quite simple: no matter what, just get back on and ride

Sunrise on Mparane Ridge

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