17 June - what's happening up front

James takes over the Yellow Jersey at Ntsikeni, and retains it at Masakala, but Barnes closes the gap through the day

After a divergence of sleeping plans last night, with the Allendale race leader Andrew Barnes electing to pull up short and sleep at Centocow Mission, the Yellow Jersey changed hands at Ntsikeni last night, with Tim James taking it over at that point from Barnes. James arrived at Ntsikeni support station at 01h20 in the early hours of this morning for some well earned sleep.

It wasn’t a very long sleep, and he departed Ntsikeni at 04h33 this morning. Barnes, meanwhile, departed Centocow at about 01h10, arrived at Ntsikeni at 8h00 and departed at 8h20. On departure of Ntsikeni, therefore, James had around a  3 hour 45 minute lead on Barnes. But Barnes has ridden stronger through the day than James, steadily reducing James lead. By the Little Umzimvubu River crossing, the gap was down to about 1 hour and 50 minutes, a great effort given that they’ve been battling strong headwinds through the day.

However. Barnes’ efforts were not enough to prevent James from retaining the Yellow Jersey as at Masakala support station, which he arrived at around 17h25. Barnes arrived later at around 18h30, having reduced James’ lead to around 1 hour and 5 minutes as at Masakala arrival. At time of writing we were waiting to see if anyone would move on into the cold night, or whether they will remain put for some sleep.

Barnes’ 10 hours and 20 minutes, while significantly faster than James’ 12 hours and 50 minutes, was not the fastest time for the Ntsikeni to Masakala stage. This honour goes to Gert Peens, who started in better weather conditions last week and rode the stage in 9 hours and 45 minutes. Perhaps James’ and Barnes’ relatively slow times give one an idea of the weather conditions today.

Today is also where big questions start to get asked of riders’ bodies. If there’s a weakness, or of one of them isn’t 100% fit and healthy, this is where they can start to get found out. Is James tiring? Or is Barnes going too fast in order to catch up? Time will tell, but it is at this time where the body’s digestive system can start to shut down, eating can become more difficult in some instances, and that raises the risk of a rider “blowing”. These are the type of things that the riders experience whilst out there on the trail, well into the 2nd day, and having only had a few hours sleep quite a long time ago. Its never as smooth as what it appears to be when watching from our couch via Tracker. In short, we are at a crucial time in the race. If they get through the next few days intact, the chances are that they are 100% and aren’t easily going to blow. What are the chances of “health” issues? James has had a few in recent races, most recently being forced to withdraw from the Dash to Durban race in April, but also in the past 2 year’s Race 2 Rhodes and RASA. Barnes’ “constitution”, on the other hand, is relatively unknown, as he hasn’t raced much in recent years.

 The riders’ times at this stage are significantly off record pace. Martin Dreyer, in his 2012 record ride, arrived at Ntsikeni 3 hours and 20 minutes earlier than James at 22h00 on the 1st evening, whilst around 17h00 on the 2nd day Dreyer was already 1 support station further than James, having just arrived at Malekholonyane. However, they are still very much on track for a sub-3-day Rhodes arrival before Friday morning 06h00 despite poor weather conditions and reported snow on Lehanas Pass portage. But at the current rate, the iconic Lehanas portage may well be done into tomorrow night.

 Is there any other close competition to Barnes and James as at Masakala? Marnitz Nienaber, Ivor Jones and Stuart Roos are the “next best thing”, and they were still at Glenn Edward as James and Barnes reached Masakala, putting them perhaps as much as 5 hours behind the 2 lead riders. So the gap between these 2 and the rest is starting to become more noticeable.

Oosthuizen cements his grip on the Lantern Rouge

At the other end of the RASA race spectrum, the Lantern Rouge remained firmly with Pierre Oosthuizen at Ntsikeni arrival, which took him 3 days and 3 hours, and he looks set to retain it at Masakala, which took him 4 days 10 hours and 15 minutes to reach. Pierre man is certainly getting his money’s worth.

By John Loos (Blanket/Whip)

Carry Forth Thy Whip With Pride

In many races there is an Ultra or a Marathon and then a “Half” or a “Lite”. Somehow the latter signalling something  easier and for beginners. On the Freedom Trail there is RASA and then Race to Rhodes (R2R) or Race to Cradock (R2C) and given the above context one can be forgiven for thinking R2R/R2C are easier and for beginners, but one cannot be more wrong.
The final day of R2R represents a case in point. After 5 days on the trail one wakes up on the final morning in a warm blanket covered bed of a local hut that has been vacated for your privilege. It is made so much more special by the striking balance between poverty and friendliness of the people of the trail one had experienced along the trail. Vuvu represents the final frontier of this experience as from here on the trail flows into a completely different and remote farming landscape. Few realize that the pre-dawn ride down to the start of the legendary Lehanas Pass will present a last glimpse of these rural villages which are so typical of the first section of the trail.
Lehanas Pass is the biggest portage along the route and with an elevation difference of almost 1000m over 3.5km it is the one that can explained most understandably to outsiders. It is almost incomprehensible to fathom carrying your bicycle on your shoulders up this pass and the task is made so much more real by being able to see pretty much the whole pass all the way to the top from the moment one starts at the river at the bottom. The blue container way up high in the sky patiently awaits its next visitors as it slowly but surely becomes bigger in size as one makes the ascent step by step. There are few experiences as rewarding as reaching the top of the pass and taking a few minutes to look back in awe down the pass and the breathtaking vista it presents. Strangely enough, celebrations as deserved as they are, are short lived and one is overcome with an incredible sense of humility and respect for the journey that one has completed over the past few days. For many this reflection represents a realization that one has the physical and emotional ability to overcome any challenge no matter how big. You just know that from this moment your life will never be the same again, you have been changed forever.
There is however still work to be done before one can celebrate in Rhodes and the ride past Tena Head and down Naudes Nek is perhaps a final reminder that the trail will not give any inch for free, every meter has to be earned. The final ride into Rhodes to the waiting smiles and hugs from the Race Office and fellow riders plays out almost as an anti-climax, the significance of the achievement of the past 6 days, far outweighing the social celebrations. The previous 6 days touch and impact us in ways we could never have anticipated, physically and emotionally, not even in our wildest dreams. We learn about ourselves and experience our deepest highs and lows along the journey. 
The final day from Vuvu to Rhodes is wonderfully representative of the Freedom Trail experience and the Herdsman Whip represents so many special things that can only be understood if you were there yourself. Saying congratulations is a much appreciated social gesture but seeing that Whip on your wall brings back deep emotions and special memories that are only understood by those that have completed the journey.
Welcome to the tribe.

16 June - news from the sharp end

In the early evening on Day 1 for the “Racing Snakes”, Tim James overtakes Andrew Barnes as race strategies start to diverge

In the early evening on the 1st day’s racing for the racing snakes of Batch J, the paths of the 2 early RASA favourites, Tim James and Andrew Barnes began to diverge. Barnes had earlier taken the Yellow Jersey at Allendale, arriving there slightly ahead of James. Both riders headed out within short succession, seemingly headed for the long climb to Ntsikeni overnight support station. But it was not to be. Barnes surprised us with an “early” sleepover stop at Centocow “halfway station”, or at least we assume its a sleepover, as he has remained there since just before 17h00. James appeared to go straight past Centocow at about 17h40, hurtling off up the big climb beyond to Ntsikeni.

With James, too, nothing is that obvious. He traditionally follows a different race strategy to most of the racing snakes, packing sleeping kit on his bike and often sleeping out in the bush in between stations. In last year’s race he took a sleepout on the 1st night, but this was only after Ntsikeni support station. So at the current stage he appears to be the favourite to get to Ntsikeni 1st, and indeed to be the 1stRASA rider to get to Ntsikeni support station within the 1st 24 hours. Should he achieve this, it is looking likely that he will take over the Yellow Jersey from Barnes.

But of course at some point James will need to sleep, and so we wait to see what time Barnes will leave Centocow. He’s shown the ability to more than match James on the bike, so it is quite possible that the lead could once again change hands while James sleeps. That, of course, is the beauty of such a non-stop race. It is often quite difficult to judge exactly who is REALLY in front, because of often vastly differing race plans, which often include sleeping at very different times.

Now what the sleepover does is it also brings the trio of Marnitz Nienaber, Stuart Roos and Ivor Jones back nto the RASA picture. They are “level pegging” with Barnes having reached Centocow for an apparent sleepover too. They have been noticeably slower than Barnes and James all day, but can they get by with less sleep to compensate for this? That question will be answered later in the night or tomorrow morning when we see what time everyone departs.

In the Race 2 Rhodes, Woolnough and Stewart remain firmly in control. Will they do a 36 hour push or more?

Riding together, Mike Woolnough and Janine Stewart appeared reasonably in control of proceedings on Day 1 of the Race 2 Rhodes. They took the Yellow Jersey jointly at Allendale, headed on shortly afterwards, and have since steamed on through Centocow on the road to Ntsikeni. They left Centocow at around 18h43 after a short break. But they are not without any threats, being chased by Ingrid Avidon, who left Centocow at 20h17. Their other nearest rivals, though, Arno Crous and Eddie Stafford only arrived at 21h20 on their 1st evening, and slept over. Whereas their lead over Stafford and Crous was about 1 hour at Allendale, it appears that they plan to increase the lead dramatically overnight. But Avidon’s move past Centocow on the 1st evening keeps it interesting.

Given that the Race 2 Rhodes is a lot shorter than the RASA, it is conceivable that the race plan of Woolnough, Stewart and Avidon could be significantly different to that of James and Barnes. Their target for the 1st sleepover may well be far beyond Ntsikeni, at Malekhalonyane 154km further down the track. Should this be their plan, they could reach Malekhalonyane some time late tomorrowafternoon or early evening. They could then take a short sleep tomorrow night before finishing off the Race 2 Rhodes on the 3rd day, i.e. on Thursday

Time will tell, but the Race 2 Rhodes is made for a very different race strategy to RASA, and it is even conceivable that someone may some day go all the way to Rhodes without sleeping.

Key results to date:

At Allendale Support Station (Support Station 1)

- RASA Yellow Jersey: Andrew Barnes

- Race 2 Rhodes Yellow Jersey: Mike Woolnough/Janine Stewart

- Fastest time for RASA “Stage 1” from Pietermaritzburg to Allendale: Andrew Barnes: 7 hours 15 minutes

- Fastest time for Race 2 Rhodes “Stage 1” from Pietermaritzburg to Allendale: Mike Woolnough/Janine Stewart : 7 hours 50 minutes

- RASA Lantern Rouge: Pierre Oosthuizen

- Race 2 Rhodes Lantern Rouge: Johan Foord, Chris Harburn, Russell Hanger and Jeremy Nel

By John Loos (Blanket/Whip)

16 June - what can the racers expect tomorrow

Race Across South Africa - Route Profile for Tomorrow for Batch J's Racing Snakes

The next stages profiles:

Tomorrow is set to be less net ascent for the lead riders of the racing snakes, at least for those moving to Ntsikeni tonight, with near 2000m altitude being reached at Ntsikeni after huge climbing today.

While in the RASA, Tim James looks set to pass Ntsikeni Lodge tonight (the 2nd overnight support station for a regulation ride), Andrew Barnes, Marnitz Nienaber, Stuart Roos and Ivor Jones still need to undertake the climb to Ntsikeni from Centocow later tonight or in the early morning, however. The route profile is a stiff one out of Centacow. The 1st 12 kms out of Centocow involve a climb of near 600m. Thereafter a tricky little night navigation section through Gxalangene Forest before the 2nd big climb of around 650m from around the 27km to the 37km mark. Thereafter the route rises more gradually - its 52.8km to Ntsikeni Lodge in total, and a cumulative ascent of 1,802 m with a cumulative descent of -997metres.

In Ntsikeni Reserve, the altitude is above 1,800 metres, which must surely have some effect on coastal-based riders who are not acclimatised to similar levels as are Joburg-based riders.

The Race 2 Rhodes leading pack may decide to move on from Ntsikeni Lodge tonight towards Glenn Edward (Banchory). This is a relatively easy section once the riders have exited Ntsikeni Reserve, and is a net descent stage. It is a 36.2km section, but don't be fooled by the short distance. It can be slow going out of Ntsikeni Reserve as you're not exactly on one of those Joburg ETolled freeways. The net descent for the stretch is -741 metres, but there is still some ascent, especially in the initial stages, and the cumulative ascent is +628m.

Sheila at Glen Edward may have to burn some midnight oil waiting for Mike Woolnough and the 2 ladies. Glen Edward is the 3rd day midday stop for the social riders.

The following stage will be to Masakala from Glen Edward and is 59.5km. This section also involves a net descent. But there are many ups and downs, with cumulative +1,205m ascent and -1343m descent.

From Masakala, the next stage is to Malekhalonyane 56.4kms away. This is the 4th night stop for the slow pokes. Cumulative ascent is +1029 metres and cumulative descent is -1003 metres, so a very slight net ascent. The navigation near to Malekhalonyane can get tricky at night, coming off Mpharane Ridge. 

And do I dare speculate about the possibility of riders moving past Malekhalonyane by tomorrow afternoon/evening??? More possible for the Race 2 Rhodes leaders. From Malekhalonyane the next stage takes the riders to Tinana Mission a cumulative ascent of +1226m and cumulative descent of -1380 metres, and a distance of 42.2km. If they come into Tinana during the dark hours of tomorrow night, the navigation off the ridge above Tinana Mission could make for the 1st bit of interesting navigation for the racing snakes.

If a rider does get as far as Tinana tomorrow night at some stage, the scene will be set to get to Rhodes during daylight on the 3rd day of the race, and to go past Rhodes before the 3rd day is out. It has been done by some of the race leaders in recent years.

By John Loos (Blanket/Whip)

16 June - the race for RASA and RTR begins to develop

It took the last start batch to set the race alight with no riders staying on at Allendale and a number of them pushing to Ntisikeni (a 200km first stage for them). Allendale is now the first SS to close down for the year and Ntsikeni will also have an early pack up at the rate this group are flying through.

Currently, Andrew Barnes who flew through to Centacow is having a few hours sleep then will push on to Masakala (SS3). Ahead of him are legend Tim James who is known for his ability to go without sleep and is making short work of the hills after the Centocow mission station. Not far behind is Mike Woolnough (R2R) who calls himself an ordinary cyclist yet is anything but ordinary. He has inspired countless "ordinary riders" by his feats in tackling R2R. A last minute entry to the race, he is hoping to take Janine Stewart (R2R) with him on an adventure of no sleep and hard riding. Mental toughness of note.

Heading for Centacow is another legend of the trail, Marnitz Nienaber who prides himself on bivvying out no matter how cold it is, eschewing the comfort of the support stations. Perhaps this year he'll be a little more sane as he has the company of Ingrid Avignon (R2R) who will decide on sleep or ride when they arrive at Centacow. Also in this group are Stuart Roos and Ivor Jones. 

Further up the route, there was still drama as riders sought to correct mistakes in navigation whilst others forged ahead riding strongly and accurately.

At Nsikeni tonight is the small group of Gawie du Plessis (who is on a single speed and still making excellent time on the route) Anne Harrison, Caren Henschel and Tony Wright. Let's hope they aren't disturbed too much by the late arrivals coming from Pietermaritzburg.

John Exley and Mike Glover once again followed a deviation out of Ntsikeni Reserve before Politique kraal while a new route was pioneered by the constantly wandering Mike Devereaux. In both cases, their wanderings cost them time, the recommended route is still the quickest. It didn't end there for Mike as he led Nic van Zyl, Andy Wonnacott, Alan Rainnie, Mark Smuts and Ian Privett astray after Taylerville. This has been a particulary gnarly bit of navigation for many riders this year. However, they corrected quite easily and were soon back on track, eventually to be caught by a storming Fjord Jordaan and Theo van Dyk who had ridden all the way from Centacow. They reached Masakala just before sunset with the others arriving in the early evening. Andy, Alan, Mark and Ian arrived much later, getting in just before 21h30

Malekolonyane is quiet tonight with only R2R riders John Buchanan, Richard Erasmus, Steve Kitto and Shaun Marsh there after a solid ride from Masakala.

Vuvu is packed with a number of riders catching up to each other. There were some interesting route choices out of the lodge for Mike and Ingrid Talbot but they made up for the lost time and were well in front when they hit the Vuvu valley. Also in the valley were Mike Potgieter, Paul Dumont, Pierre Singery, Joyce Benade, Braad van der Westhuizen, Nic Taschner, Nicky Nairn, Gaeren Wilkinson, Mark Jason and Nick Jordan. Andrew Blackburn arrived later than the rest as a result of having to walk most of the way from Tinana to Vuvu - this due a stripped freehub. He is hoping to be able to sort it out in Rhodes tomorrow. He's done exceptionally well in the valley after dark.

Rhodes - so near, yet so far for Andrew Hunt. The group that left this morning from Vuvu did a perfect ascent of Lehana Pass but unfortunately for Andrew, he turned left at Naudes Nek instead of right, sending him flying down the road to Mount Fletcher. He only realised the mistake by the time he got to the Phillipsrust turn off so it was a huge climb back up to get back on track but he eventually made it into Rhodes - was that a red face?

Tracker watchers were confused by Steve Johnston going the wrong up up the pass from Rhodes side but it transpired he was getting a lift back to where he had "paused" his race for an injury. After recieving treatment from a local physio in Rhodes, he restarted from the same point and rode back into Rhodes, so he's now back on track for RASA. Also still in Rhodes is Neville Higgs who opted to take a rest day there today.

Rhodes is busy again tonight with some R2R finishers and some RASA riders staying whilst others kept moving. Neville Higgs, Liehann Loots, Beat Jegenlehner, Willie Esterhuizen, Gerrit van der Merwe, Fanus Vorster and Dave Gace should be enjoying the hospitality of Rubicon and Meryl around a large fire. Dave Gace will unfortunately be withdrawing tomorrow on the medical advice of a doctor he saw at Tenahead Lodge.

The race has begun to string out after Rhodes with the front runners - the Where's Wally group of Ian Haupt, Ian Verwayen and Paul Dalton - heading towards Romansfontein. A brave effort considering the 50km/h plus gusts of wind that have hammered the riders all day. Johann Rissik opted to do a half day and stayed at Brosterlea. He was joined there by Anton Wood, Gert Peens and Maarten Witters. They will have to consider pushing to Hofmeyer to stack on track.

Laying over at Moordenaarspoort is Jacques Tatersall who had a tough ride from Chesneywold managing to scale all three portages in the daylight. Not so lucky were the duo of Mike Roy and John Bowen who lost an entire day trying to find their way off the Slaapkrantz portage a mere couple of kilometers into the stage. Last word was that they were holed up in a friendly farmhouse but they have effectively lost another day putting them further behind schedule.

Slaapkrantz is full with Gary Green, Lee Fuller, Gary Preston, Dave Telford, Anthony Jankovich-Besan and Stu Brew. Pierre Oosthuizen who flirted with the 8 day Rhodes cut-off has stopped at Chesneywold for the night. Hopefully he'll be able to stay with Mike Ward who is on track to join him tonight - maybe the two of them can team up and get over the three portages tomorrow without incident.

With the weather starting to look iffy, riders need to push on. Snow and rain add hours to the route and make it much harder than it already is. With light snow predicted to fall in the Rhodes area tonight, things could get interesting tomorrow. There's still a chance of strong winds in the morning but after that things should improve - calm claer conditions could be expected, so it's worth putting in the extra effort to make use of good weather windows.

By Fiona Coward (Blanket/Whip/Windmill)

Page 8 of 12

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