19 June - on the trail beyond Rhodes

With the last start batches still heading to Rhodes today and tomorrow, we turn our attention to those that are already past Rhodes and making their way across the Stormberg and Karoo sections of the trail:

First up are Theo van Dyk and Fjord Jordaan, who left a very cold Rhodes at 4am this morning with plans for a big day out. They are nearing Chesneywold to refuel before heading on to lunch Slaapkranz. After that, they’ll be chasing last light to get over the Slaapkranz and Bontehoek portages and ride on to Moordenaarspoort, where they are hoping to arrive for supper.

The riders who stayed at Slaapkranz last night got away early enough and will make their way over the Slaapkranz portage before taking on the more difficult Bonthoek portage. Andrew Blackburn, Nic Jordan and Mike Potgieter got away earliest, with Mike and Ingrid Talbot following shortly afterwards. Word from the trail is that there is still sticky, black mud on the trail from the recent snows, so this may slow them somewhat. They may bump into Andrew Hunt somewhere on the way to Rossouw, he came off the wrong side of Bontehoek mountain late yesterday and ended up staying at Naauwpoort farm. His second attempt at Bontehoek this morning seems to have gone well, today he’s making tracks in the right places and once he hits the dirt roads on the other side, he should be on his way.

Jump ahead to Kranskop and we had Liehann, Beat and Pierre Oosthuizen staying over. Pierre was last to arrive and last to leave and he’s still under pressure to get to Hofmeyr before the next interim cut-off of 13 days - today he needs to get to Romansfontein to give himself a chance. Liehann and Beat are under no such pressure thanks to consistent riding up to now. These guys are usually on point with their navigation and maintain a good steady pace regardless of the conditions. They are also getting enough sleep to recover every day, so they may start looking at trying to double up in the near future.

Romansfontein was busy last night with a big group arriving late afternoon: Lee Fuller, Gary Green, Gary Preston, Ant Jankovic-Bessan, Dave Telford and Stu Brew rode through from Kranskop together and continued in the same vein this morning. They are over the Aasvoelberg portage and on their way to the pie shop in Hofmeyr, where they’ll take a break before pushing on to Elandsberg. Arriving much later at Romansfontein (00h30) were Mike Ward, Mike Roy and John Bowen. Thanks to Mike Ward’s patience, the other two were able to latch on and get through the tricky pivot section under the guidance of a more experienced navigator. This morning though, it was back to business and Mike Ward left early to continue his impressive solo ride, while the other two must focus on getting to Hofmeyr today and possibly even to Elandsberg.

Already at Elandsberg is Jacques Tattersall, who slept in Hofmeyr last night. He had a close shave when he got lost on the Aasvoelberg portage in fading light yesterday but was saved when he spotted some other rider’s tracks and decided to follow them down in the darkness - fortunately for him, those tracks were on the right route and he avoided a cold night out on the mountain. He’s going well and has been riding solo since Rhodes but he may be able to hook up with other riders soon if he can double up on some of the shorter stages that lie ahead of him.

Stuttgart support station opened with a bang yesterday when the first group arrived after doubling through from Hofmeyr. Reports coming through from the riders are that they’ve taken it to the next level in hospitality this year, with everyone raving about the food and friendliness. Johann Rissik, Ian Verwayen, Paul Dalton and Alan Haupt are heading to Grootdam today and they will be joined later by Maarten Witters, who had a bit of a lie-in this morning. The early birds Anton Wood and Gert Peens left at 05h30 with plans to double up through Grootdam to Gegun. that’s a big day which includes the tricky Struishoek portage and the possibility of the infamous headwinds around Pearston - fortunately they are strong and going well and the weather looks kind for now. That will make them this year’s trailblazers and it will be interesting to see how long they can keep their noses out front before the racing snakes reel them in.

19 June - morning movements on the way to Rhodes

With some riders going deep into the night, the picture of progress that emerges this morning is as follows:

Ingrid Avidon was on her way to Malekholonyane last night but decided to sleep for the night in a village near Queen’s Mercy. This morning she left early but then took a wrong turn and was heading back towards Masakala. Fortunately she realised, corrected and is now back on track to Mpharane ridge. Once over that, she’ll head to Malekholonyane for brunch and then press on to Tinana.

The guys who left Malekholonyane this morning are riding together as a group: RTR riders Tony Wright, Caren Henschel and Ann Harrison are joined by RASA riders Marnitz Nienaber, Stuart Roos and Ivor Jones and are making good progress this morning, already nearing the Black Fountain ridge. This means they should comfortably get to Vuvu before dark today and avoid some of the frustrations of the riders who got lost there last night.

Leaving from Tinana this morning were Mike Woolnough, Janine Stewart, Gawie du Plessis (RTR) and Andrew Barnes (RASA) - they made swift progress up the Vuvu valley in daylight and were surprised to find Tim there but they all tucked into breakfast nonetheless. Mike, Janine, Gawie and Andrew then left for Rhodes. Andrew may decide to carry on to Chesneywold but the others will end their journey in Rhodes.

Vuvu was the scene of much late night activity: the group of Andy Wonnacott, Alan Rainnie, Mark Smuts and Ian Privett (RTR) together with RASA riders Mike Devereux and Nico van Zyl, arrived at 23h00 after taking on the Vuvu valley in fading light - a risky move which they got wrong, ending up with a huge portage up the northern side of the valley. When they phoned for assistance, they were given the option of linking up with the district road and riding around, a long ride but easy navigation. Although the road is technically out of bounds with a possible time penalty, their mistake cost them more than the required 3h time penalty, so they were not penalised further. Today they left Vuvu fairly late but their goal will be Rhodes by mid afternoon and then some rest. The other RASA riders Mike Glover and John Exley avoided the horror show of a dark Vuvu valley by arriving at sunset. They headed off this morning to take on Lehana but promptly missed the turn off at the start. It didn’t take too long for them to realise before they corrected and got back on track.

The other Vuvu tale is that of Tim James: pushing on from Tinana late yesterday afternoon, he arrived at the start of the Vuvu valley just after dark. Then began a night of wandering around trying to find his way up the valley in the dark. Tim’s determination has to be mentioned - by that stage he was already tired from effectively riding all the way from PMB with only a few hours of sleep, so too take this section in the dark with tired legs and fuzzy brain is a bold move. Unfortunately for Tim, he spent the rest of the night bashing around in the valley and only reached Vuvu at 05h30 this morning. After regrouping in Rhodes, he will be making his way to Rhodes - depending on his arrival time, he too may push on to Chesneywold. 

17 June - the evening wrap up

Today the Freedom Challenge lived up to it’s reputation as one of the tougher events out there when the weather arrived. Overnight snow in the Rhodes area left a frosty white carpet on the high mountains. The wind blew incessantly throughout the day, a fierce headwind that blunted the efforts of all the riders, the racers included. The last few years have seen relatively mild weather but this year is proving to be different.

 The racers who left Ntsikeni early this morning, did so in a snow storm, which then gave way to the blasting headwind that lasted most of the day. 

Here’s how the field lies spread after a challenging day out on the trail:

At Glen Edward we have Ingrid Avidon, Marnitz, Stuart and Ivor. Ingrid rode well yesterday, eventually reaching Ntsikeni and although she arrived at Glen Edward today with enough time to push on, decided to stay. Joined by the other three later, they could end up riding together tomorrow.

Up ahead at Masakala are RTR riders Tony, Caren and Ann, who arrived late doing some tricky night navigation, which is always slow - they are making steady progress though, so no cause for concern. Also there is Gawie, who arrived in daylight.

Also at Masakala are Mike and Janine, current leaders in the RTR. Although they had hoped to push on tonight, the day had taken it’s toll, so they elected to sleep and go early tomorrow. Also there is Andre Barnes (RASA) who rode through from Centocow - he’s looking strong and riding well, one to watch.

Tim James (RASA) was also at Masakala this evening, where he had a short sleep before pushing on into the night - Tim is used to night riding so will probably go to Malekholonyane for breakfast before pushing on tomorrow.

At Malekholonyane tonight are Mike Glover, John Exley, Mike Devereux and Nico van Zyl (RASA) who all made it with time to spare on the relatively short day. Next stop Vuvu for these guys. Andy, Alan, Mark and Ian (RTR) also arrived, although quite a bit later - this seems to be the pattern with this group.

Just a few hours up the road at Tinana are Theo and Fjord (RASA), who seem to have formed a strong pairing - they spoke of strong wind and snowfall going over Mpharane ridge, which ultimately held them back from getting all the way to Vuvu but these two are well positioned and definitely in the mix.

Tonight saw the later than planned arrival in Vuvu of John, Steve, Richard and Sean. They went into the Vuvu valley in fading light, a brave move and emerged somewhat bewildered a few dark hours later - but they did it, which is no mean feat.

Rhodes was once again busy this evening - the RTR riders Pierre, Joyce, Brad, Nicky, Nick, Gaeren, Paul and Mark Jason all reaching the end of their journey. They had overcome strong, icy winds on the detour around Lehana and ridden in falling snow at the top of Naudes Nek - a real adventure and a fitting way to close out their ride. With them today were RASA riders Nic Jordan, Mike Poygieter and Andrew Blackburn - Andrew had a particularly long and hard day after walking and pushing most of the way due to his busted free hub. He has fortunately picked up a wheel left by Dave Gace, who withdrew yesterday, so tomorrow will be riding out of Rhodes.

Andrew Hunt sleeps at Chesneywold tonight. Up ahead are Beat and Liehann, who went through to Slaapkranz despite the ‘death mud’ they encountered over Kappokraal and on the way in to Slaapkranz. This seems to have fought Pierre Oosthuizen out too and slowed his progress over the Slaapkranz portage, forcing him to sleep on a farm on the other side.

Jump ahead to Moordenaarspoort and we find Mike Ward, a late arrival but thoroughly enjoying himself in the snow out there today.

Not far away at Kranskop are Gary Green, Gary Preston, Lee, Dave, Stu Brew and Ant. They left Slaapkranz this morning and had a great day, despite the trying conditions - strength in numbers.

There’s something of a reunion in Hofmeyr tonight, with Johann Rissik catching up to Ian, Alan and Paul. The rest of the group, consists of Maarten, Anton and Gert. Good riding from these guys today and they are the first riders to drop out of the high mountains and into the karoo. The landscape changes dramatically and hopefully the weather too.

The worst of the weather seems to have past and the forecasts for the next week hold the promise of clear skies and light winds, something all of these riders will be looking forward to.

18 June - the race up front

We now have a four way RASA, and some widely divergent sleep strategies

Another interesting day was had up front in the Race Across South Africa (RASA) today, but still it is extremely tough to see any signs of a potential winner emerging. Last night, race leader Tim James followed an interesting strategy. He arrived at Masakala support station first at 17h25 to retain the Yellow Jersey for the 2nd successive stage. 2nd placed Andrew Barnes arrived there about an hour after him at about 18h30. Barnes decided to take a night’s rest at Masakala, only leaving at around 05h00 this morning. James had a short sleep on arrival at Masakala, woke up for supper, and then took off at 21h30 only to take a sleep in the bush somewhere between Masakala and Malekhalonyane support stations. It is an interesting strategy because, although James carries a lightweight but warm sleeping bag and bivvy sack, sleeping in the bush can’t be nearly as comfortable as at the support stations, and one gets the feeling that Barnes with his longer rests may possibly be better off for it. 

Certainly, on each of the days, we have seen Barnes riding faster, and today was no different. James retained the Yellow Jersey yet again at Malekhalonyane by reaching this support station at 9h10 this morning. Barnes arrived a little later at about 10h55. The gap as at Malekhalonyane arrival between James and Barnes was therefore about 1 hour and 45 minutes. Barnes left Tinana at 11h30 to give chase, and by the time he had arrived at Tinana Mission, a “halfway support station”, the gap between him and James was a mere 16 minutes. They would have seen each other up on the top of the mountain and on the  approach down to Tinana.

But once again the Twitter spectators would have to be patient and wait for a change of leader, with Barnes continuing with his strategy of stopping early in the evening for a good night’s rest. He pulled into the Tinana halfway support station for the evening, while James pushed on to the Vuvu Valley and towards the Vuvu support station on the other side.

In the mean time, two other riders have been making a race of it, namely Theo van Dyk and Fjord Jordaan. They started  a day earlier, and arrived at Malekhalonyane support station after 2 days and 5 hours, working as a team which may have been beneficial in yesterday’s strong headwinds. With James arriving at Malekhalonyane in 2 days 3 hours and 30 minutes, and Barnes in 2 days 4 hours and 55 minutes approximately, it meant that these 2 were getting closer all the time to the leading pair, now having reduced the lead of James and Barnes to insignificant levels.

We now have a four way race, and Jordaan and van Dyk’s team work could be especially beneficial on the district roads of the Eastern Cape past Rhodes should westerly headwinds once again be the order of the next few days.

The Jordaan and van Dyk pairing, however, slept over last night at Tinana Mission, and only arrived at Vuvu this morning at 10h10, i.e. in 3 days 4 hours and 10 minutes. With James on his way to Vuvu this evening, therefore, it appears unlikely at time of writing that the Yellow Jersey would change hands just yet. It appears that James will hold the Yellow Jersey for the 4th consecutive stage as at Vuvu, with Barnes having initially held it on Day 1  at Alendale.

So that’s where we are at present. Four riders are very much in the mix at the moment, and two different strategies appear to be followed. Jordaan, van Dyk and Barnes seem to be in favour of longer sleep and faster riding over less hours, while James goes for the less sleep option, but seems to be the slower rider over what is a longer day for him.

In previous years many of us have debated which sleep/ride strategy is best. Maybe this year we are about to find out.

At the other end of the RASA, Pierre Oosthuizen retained his stranglehold on the Lantern Rouge, having taken 5 days 12 hours 20 minutes to get to Malekhalonyane support station.

By John Loos (Blanket/Whip)

What's happening in the Race to Rhodes?

Woolnough/Stewart take a strong grip on proceedings in the Race 2 Rhodes, and could still finish it off in under 3 days

Riding together, Janine Stewart and Mike Woolnough are now in firm control of the Race 2 Rhodes, and despite poor weather conditions, a sub-3 day finish is still a possibility. They had to battle headwinds today, and this may have scuppered their probable plan which was possibly to reach Masakala this evening (as Woolnough did last year)

The two arrived at Ntsikeni at 01h20 this morning with RASA leader Tim James, and left with him at 4h33. That meant they jointly retained the Yellow Jersey at Ntsikeni, with their nearest rivals Eddie Stafford and Arno Crous arriving at Ntsikeni in 1 day 3 hours, 7 hours 40 minutes behind them. They battled the headwinds all day to reach Masakala support station at around 18h20 in a slowish 13h hours 45 minutes, perhaps a reflection of just how tough the elements were. 

Nevertheless, at Ntsikeni they had increased their lead over Crous and Stafford to 17 hours and 30 minutes, meaning that something will have to go terribly wrong for the winner not to come from this pair. While they will be experiencing the same bodily hardships as the lead RASA riders at this stage, they are getting near enough to Rhodes to be able to “guts it out” should they not necessarily be 100% strong. In addition, their joint lead over Crous and Stafford is so large as to allow a long rest should something go wrong health-wise. Stewart is a tough lady. Can old man Woolnough hang in there?

The riders’ times at this stage are significantly off record pace. Martin Dreyer, in his 2012 record ride through Rhodes, arrived at Ntsikeni 3 hours and 20 minutes earlier than Woolnough and Stewart at 22h00 on the 1st evening, whilst around 17h00 on the 2nd day Dreyer was already 1 support station further than the two, having just arrived at Malekhalonyane. So, while a sub-3 day Race 2 Rhodes is still a distinct possibility, should they get to Malekhalonyane support station by early in the morning, a record appears off the table.

Strong competition for the Lantern Rouge in Race to Rhodes

At the other end of the Race to Rhodes field, the Lantern Rouge changed hands at Masakala, with Shaun Tischendorf, Sergio Maraschin and Fabio Maraschin now the carriers, having taken 3 days and 3 hours to reach Masakala. They take it over from Tracey Lentin, who carried it from Ntsikeni.


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