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 -

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Racing to Rhodes as a trail rookie

Day 1: dropping into the Umkomaas valley

Jerrard Le Roux is an avid rider from Johannesburg. He took part in the Race to Rhodes this year, riding together with his friend Anton Maybery, who is no stranger to the Freedom Trail. The plan was to race hard with Anton and although it was Jerrard's first attempt at the event, he was prepared to give it a good go - hoping that his previous experience at solo 24 hour races might come in handy. They finished in about 84 hours and rode some long, continuous stretches, often in the dark. I chatted to Jerrard about some of his experiences:

What made you decide to do R2R?
Curiosity initially. I'd heard about it via friends and seen some reports of the Freedom Challenge. When my son was born, my riding time was restricted to early mornings and on one of these rides in the dark, I bumped into some nutters out there riding with these big backpacks. When I started chatting to them, I found out they were preparing for Freedom Challenge. I started riding more regularly with them and they spoke of the trail and the adventures and misadventures of riders in previous years - the sense of adventure really appealed to me. I couldn't see myself being able to commit to the long event but the Race to Rhodes seemed doable.

How did you prepare?
I spoke to people with experience of this event and researched the gear online. Looking at all the specific gear required was an enjoyable part of the process as I'm a bit of a gear junkie at heart! I realised that the navigation was a big factor and this not being my strong point, decided to rather ride with with someone who knew the route. As far as the physical preparation went, it was a case of putting in the long rides on weekends, riding with a full backpack and testing out lights on night rides. Having finished it now, I'm amazed at the intensity of the event - its an almost non-stop assault on the body and mind - riding, walking carrying, navigating, all the while trying to stay mentally focused.  It has shown me the difference between riding hard and riding long and what's required for success in this type of event.

At what point did you realise that this was going to be a bit different?
Right on the start line actually - there was no fanfare or loud music - just some nervous banter and a small group of riders. 

Was it physically tough? 
Much more than expected, not so much the riding, just the all-round body strength required for portaging, pushing and carrying your bike.

And mentally?
Mentally it never lets up - It's very tough because nothing is predictable out there and your ability to adapt is constantly being tested. The riding conditions are varied, the navigation is tricky, the terrain and temperature constantly change throughout the day and night. There are also other surprises like arriving at a support station to find there's no hot water and you are left with a freezing cold bucket shower! When you aren't sleeping enough, all these things start to wear you down and make it really tough.

Scott and Anton
Highlights of your race?
The last step up Lehana's Pass - after battling up the huge portage, it was a relief to know we were over it and could ride on from there to Rhodes. The views up there are also incredible. Another highlight was the interaction with the people I rode with - riding with Scott and Anton gave me the chance to literally watch the race from the inside out. These guys almost operate on autopilot, going through the hourly and daily routines without having to think.

Tell us about some of the more bizarre moments of the race?
Sleeping 3 in a bed at Mrs Kibi's house in Tinana Mission, that was a first! The bucket shower at Masakala, that was really cold! The beauty in the ice crystals on the ground and the cold morning air when we rode across the Knira floodplains, wondering if we could ride over the ice layers over the puddles without breaking them. Trying to climb over the high fence into Ntsikeni Reserve with my bike and realising that I just couldn't do it on my own - the other guys had to help me down. Going 36 hours without sleep - your reactions become so heightened and the smallest things can become so irritating but everyone's feeling the same way and you just get through it.

Crossing the Knira floodplains

Are there any lasting impressions?
Yes, it was incredibly humbling to go into some of the overnight stops and be taken care of by people who have very little. At that point you are totally dependent on them and they are vital to your survival and they give freely and generously. I also have huge respect for those who have finished this event - it was an eye opener for me. All the amazing scenery along the way was also a highlight. You are taking six days worth of riding experiences and cramming them into three, so it becomes really intense. Its the type of event where gods fall apart and the ordinary peoples become heroes.

Did you ever think of stopping or encounter a personal limit?
No, I got frustrated and even angry sometimes  - for example after taking a wrong path going up the already difficult Lehana's Pass - but the thought of quitting was never there.

Slogging up Lehana's Pass

What advice would you give to people who are thinking of doing it?
Just do it - its different because in a way its the people that become a part of this race, not the other way around. After you've done it you have a real sense of achievement and because of the shared camaraderie amongst the riders, you feel like you've been invited to join a very special club.

Can you sum it up in one word?
That's really hard but I guess I would say "privileged" I feel privileged to have shared it with the people I did and humbled by the experience.

Nearly there...

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