A Final Word
The 2016 Freedom Challenge has come and gone. For riders in the Race to Rhodes and Race Across South Africa, some of the signs of their efforts are still fresh in mind, the vivid memories of places seen and people encountered along the way, the still familiar aches and pains for those that finished not too long ago. But as time slowly takes the edge off the hardships they experienced and bodies slowly heal and come back stronger, something more permanent comes to the fore.
After the blur of the finish and the sometimes rude awakening of getting back to normal life, the realisation of what they have been through slowly dawns on them and the overwhelming sense of achievement brings with it a new sense of pride. For some there will be unbridled excitement and wanting to share their stories with friends and family, for others it will be more of a sense of knowing, an inner smile that they carry forward with them. Either way, few are left unaffected by overcoming a great challenge and so to with the Freedom Challenge.
We would like to thank all the riders who set off along the trail this year, each facing their own particular challenge and overcoming it in their own special way. The Freedom Challenge leaves room for a person to test their own limits and to overcome many obstacles along the way - and long may it remain so. For all those new Whip Bearers and Blanket Wearers, welcome to the clan and well done for taking up the challenge and succeeding.
From the Race Office.
And in the end there were three - the trio of Neville Higgs, Clint le Roux and Gerald vd Merwe, who after a night out in Stettynskloof managed to regroup and get it done, crossing the finish line at 5pm this afternoon to a warm welcome from friends and family. For Gerald, the final cutoff had been beaten and he received his Blanket after finishing in 25d 11h. For Clint and Neville who started a day later, their finishing time was 24d 11h. The three of them have stuck together through thick and thin and will surely have many shared memories and stories to tell - for now though, all that matters is that they have finished and can wear their Blankets with pride.
As the sun sets on yet another day on the trail, the Race Office waits for the last three riders to arrive. The trio of Clint le Roux, Neville Higgs and Gerald vd Merwe left Trouthaven this morning to take on Stettynskloof, the final stage in their journey to Diemersfontien.
As first timers to Stettynskloof, they would only have known what to expect by the reputation of the place and the stories of those who have gone before. Any Blanket Wearer will confirm that it is a place not to be underestimated. Judging by the time they got going this morning, they may have underestimated it..
Having made fairly slow progress through the kloof all day, they found themselves about halfway with the light beginning to fade. It seems they have taken the decision to camp out for the night and are in for a cold and uncomfortable night in the kloof, waiting for daylight before they proceed further. If they get going at first light, they should get to the finish at Diemersfontein by late morning - where the Race Office will be waiting to welcome them home.
Brad vd Westhuizen set off from Trouthaven before sunrise this morning - a man on a mission. Having rested there yesterday, his first task was to locate his bike and then finish off what he had started by getting through Stettynskloof. His progress was hampered by swollen rivers after all the rain and the ubiquitous thick bush in his path but he steadily made his way up the valley, making it out just after dark. From there it was a slow ride through to the finish at Diemersfontein and he arrived at 22h30 to be greeted by the biggest crowd so far - all the riders and supporters at the FC Finisher’s Dinner. A fitting welcome from the many fellow Blanket Wearers and congratulations all around - well done Brad.
That leaves only the trio still out on the trail - Neville Higgs, Clint le Roux and Gerald vd Merwe are spending the night at Trouthaven, having arrived by lunch time from McGregor today. There will be a nervous anticipation in the air, the task is almost complete but the final obstacle still has to be conquered tomorrow. They should be well rested and up to the challenge - not much will stop them now.
In the early hours of this morning, Caren Henschel and Tony Wright crossed the finish line at Diemersfontein - after a very long day out for them which ended in the pouring rain - but nothing could dampen their spirits by then, they had persevered and finally earned their Blankets. Having ridden together from the start, they finished in 19d19h20min, a very good effort by both of them.
Catching up with the rest of the field today was a bit like watching a game of chess - one rider maintained his position while the others made a strategic move before their final assault.
Brad vd Westhuizen spent the day at Trouthaven, resting up and giving his injured back a chance to recover before his second attempt on Stettynskloof in the morning. He has used the time well, staying positive and is confident about his chances tomorrow.
The trio of Neville Higgs, Clint le Roux and Gerald vd Merwe completed the short hop to McGregor today, despite the wet weather. They arrived in time for lunch which meant they had the whole afternoon to rest and recover. Tomorrow they will move forward to Trouthaven and with the weather set to clear over the weekend, they look to have timed it well for a possible trip up Stettynskloof on Sunday.
For these four riders the end may be near but a finish is still not guaranteed - they still need to focus on the task at hand and continue in the same determined manner that has gotten them to this point - their Blankets await them.
The onslaught on Stettynskloof got underway early this morning as nine riders entered the valley at dawn. They worked their way steadily up towards the steep exit slope, beyond which lay a short ride to a warm Blanket. For the group of Hughes Clauser, Greg Perrett, Richard Cole and Gary Scoular, it was business as usual as they forged their way up the kloof and emerged by mid afternoon, then continued to the finish at Diemersfontein, arriving before dark. Apart from Gary, the other three have ridden together since before Rhodes, now their adventure has finally come to an end. For Frenchman Hughes, there will no doubt be many stories to tell back home. Well done to all of them for getting to the finish.
The next rider to emerge from the kloof was Fanus Vorster, who then continued to cross the finish line and receive his well deserved Blanket. His ride has been full of ups and downs and he went from the brink of withdrawing to completing a determined, mostly solo effort - well done for seeing it through.
Pierre Oosthuizen is another rider who had a tough ride - that was last year, when he got as far as Cambria. This time around, he was more determined than ever to get the Blanket and went out everyday, focussed and resolute, steadily making his way down the trail on his single speed. A few late night arrivals and early morning starts couldn’t break his rhythm and today the hard work paid off when he finally arrived at Diemersfontein and wrapped himself in his Blanket - well done Pierre.
Among the nine riders leaving Trouthaven this morning were Brad vd Westhuizen and Caren Henschel together with Tony Wright. Brad made it halfway up the kloof and then his tracker showed him making a u-turn and heading back. It turns out, he took a fall on the way up and hurt his back, badly enough to make it very painful to carry his bike - so he went back down, leaving his bike near the dam and seeking assistance from the manager there, who helped him back to Trouthaven. He’s not done yet as he will rest up tomorrow and try again. Tony and Caren have had a very long day in Stettynskloof but have made it out and are on their way to Diemersfontein, where the are expected later tonight.
The sweeps, Neville Higgs, Clint le Roux and Gerald vd Merwe, are in Montagu tonight, after a double stage from Rouxpos today. Neville had to take a detour to the local clinic to have his hand stitched up after he cut it coming out of Anysberg but he is on the mend and will continue with the others tomorrow. They are still hoping to finish over the weekend.
Today saw the first batch of riders in the winter event of the Freedom Challenge heading out from Pietermaritzburg intent on pedalling their way to Rhodes. All seven riders hailed from the little province making it an all Gauteng affair. While Colleen was the single rose among the thorns, it turned out that thorns abounded in the Umkomaas valley. But that didn't happen until after midday. The fun began a lot earlier.
Day one draws a wide online audience ranging from loved ones, riding buddies, general race followers, as well as other participants who are yet to start. Of cause there is always a degree of schadenfreude as we eagerly wait to see who gets lost and how they deal with it. Unless the rider is one of your dearest and nearest it's hard not to enjoy their antics when things go pear-shaped. Hundreds of FC race fanatics, many who have never ridden a bike, reappear from an eleven month hiatus and begin a relentless assault on their keyword F5 keys a.k.a the refresh button. Watching the race is addictive. So what happened?
At 6 am the riders set off from the Pietermaritzburg City Hall, under a cloudless sky, in good spirits. They had no problems heading through Bisley Valley Nature Reserve. Once through the reserve the route heads along a farm jeep track that empties out on the edge of a sugarcane plantation. Once there it appeared that it became a game of monkey see, monkey do. Someone veered left into the sugarcane instead of right onto a road and it seems the loosely packed peloton followed suit. It's an interesting phenomenon. Batch 1 comprises three trail veterans and four newbies. As the newbies were paired (double-paired in Rob Collier's case) with experienced rides we didn't expect too much excitement on day one. That early into the race it was unexpected but not uncommon. It bodes well for some interesting adventures in the days ahead.
The deviation cost was measured in minutes and was of little consequence. From there the riders moved flawlessly through Baynesfield Estate and up and over the big climb at Cunninghams Castle. With Minerva out of service as a refreshment station the riders continued down to The Oaks Hotel in Byrne that had taken over the duties formally offered at Minerva. Tea, coffee, soup and muffins disappeared down hungry throats before the riders pressed on to tackle the Umkomaas Valley.
I'm told that there are no longer any rideable paths through the bottom of the valley and it takes a fair bit of grit to make ones way along the river. Colleen Cawood and Steve Wright opted to ride along the north bank of the Umkomaas river where they crossed on the road bridge. If you are of the view that trail gods need appeasing, I can assure you sufficient blood was shed as they mashed their way along the overgrown track. Stewart Lombard and David Holyoak chose to cross the river and take the alternate road toward Highover. Interesting enough all four riders arrived at Highover about the same time which puts paid to the long standing debate over which route is faster.
Rob Collier, riding with his son Murray and friend Dave Joyce decided to abandon convention and try something new. They followed the north bank of the river for half the distance to the bridge and then unexpectedly crossed the river and continued to the bridge on the south bank. All rather confusing and also time consuming. They emerged at the bridge almost 2 hours adrift of the other riders.
Stewart and David arrived at Allendale just before 6pm with Colleen and Steve a few minutes behind. Rob, Murray and Dave finally arrived at 8:05. It's been an interesting day both on and off the bikes.
By Mike Woolnough
The 2016 Freedom Challenge is about to get underway and we are looking forward to an exciting event. With a capacity field this year, the Race Office has needed to expand to accommodate this growth and we are excited to welcome Rider 27 - Johann Rissik into the fray. He needs little introduction, having been involved in the Freedom Challenge from the early years - many riders already know him for his roadside coffee stop near Prince Albert and for working his magic on their ailing bikes at Dennehof. As a proud Blanket Wearer, he will serve as Race Director for 2016.