Barnes draws 1st blood at Allendale

The Pietermaritzburg property developer Andrew Barnes took 1st honours in the Race Across South Africa by a narrow margin from SAA pilot and former RASA winner Tim James.

Barnes arrived at Allendale support station (end of “Stage” 1) at 13h15 to become the fastest rider over this stage as well as the 1st holder of the 2015 RASA Yellow Jersey Barnes was also the 1st to leave Allendale at 13h50, implying a 35 minute break at the station. James arrived only 10 minutes behind Barnes at 13h25, also had 35 minute break and headed out at 14h00. Both riders are now headed for Centocow and presumably Ntsikeni later tonight.

Lead riders just off record pace at Allendale Andrew Barnes’ arrival at Allendale support station was half an hour shy of RASA record pace. The RASA record of 10 days 16 hours and 40 minutes was set by Martin Dreyer back in 2014. In that race he arrived at Allendale at 12h45 on the 1st day, 30 minutes ahead of Barnes.

The current RASA title holder is Graham Bird, who is not defending it this year. Pierre Oosthuizen becomes the carrier of the Lantern Rouge after the 1st stage At the other end of the spectrum, with almost everyone through Allendale at time of writing, Pierre Oosthuizen becomes the 1st holder of RASA’s Lantern Rouge as at Allendale support station. The Lantern Rouge (or “Red Lantern”) emanates from the Tour de France, and is awarded to the slowest rider in the field, with the red lantern being deemed appropriate for that rider to hang on his/her bike so as to be visible to passing motorists in the black of night. In the RASA it is more likely to be passing horses and donkey carts.

Oosthuizen went through quite a bit of discomfort in order to earn the Lantern Rouge, having lost his way in the bush of the Umkomaas Valley as night fell, ultimately being forced to sleep the night out in the cold valley. He picked himself up the next morning to reach Allendale support station 1 day 7 hours and 15 minutes after the start.

Woolnough, Stewart lead the Race 2 Rhodes at Allendale

In the Race 2 Rhodes, Mike Woolnough and Janine Stewart, riding together at the moment, are the joint fastest Stage 1 riders and also Race 2 Rhodes leaders and Yellow Jersey holders as at Allendale support station. They arrived at 13h50 to clock 7 hours and 50 minutes over the stage, 1 hour ahead of Arno Crous and Eddie Stafford who came through in 8 hours and 50 minutes. Stewart and Woolnough departed at 14h28 in the direction of Centocow, but we would presume them to be heading for Ntsikeni before any sleep tonight.

The Pietermaritzburg to Rhodes record is also held by Martin Dreyer, set at 2 days 7 hours and 45 minutes in 2012 although it was as part of the RASA, with there not being a Race 2 Rhodes at that stage. The 2 are thus one hour and 5 minutes off record pace as at Allendale arrival. The current Race 2 Rhodes title holder is Graham Bird, who is not defending it this year.

Many hands make light work, as the 1st stage Race 2 Rhodes Lantern Rouge is carried by a foursome. They are John Foord, Chris Harburn, Russell Hanger and Jeremy Nel, who rode into Allendale support station together, not long after dark on the 1st day, in 13 hours and 20 minutes after starting in Maritzburg.

16 June - let the games begin...

The climax of the 2015 Freedom Challenge is upon us, as the “racing snakes” of Starting Batch J get underway.

Rider Batch J started at 6am this morning, the final starting batch of this year’s Freedom Challenge. It includes some of Freedom Challenge’s illustrious names. Two time former RASA winner Tim James is in the fray, bidding for his 3rd RASA title, having had some bad luck with illness and injury in recent years. With him at the start will be a former adversary, Andrew Barnes, who ended runner up to Tim in 2009. Marnitz Nienaber is there, a 5 time RASA finisher and 2014 3rd placed, and he intends to ride with Stuart Roos and Ivor Jones. These riders will be joined at the start by the final 3 Race to Rhodes starts, Ingrid Avidon, Janine Stewart and Mike Woolnough.

While batch J is the final and arguably strongest batch to leave Maritzburg, yesterday’s start group showed their intent, with Fjord Jordaan, Theo Van Dyk and Jacques Swart all skipping Allendale and ending at Centocow. Today’s riders though, are likely to be aiming for Ntsikeni later tonight, the second support station along the trail. There is only a small group of riders who skip Allendale and ride from the start to Ntsikeni, just over 200km into the race, in one long haul to arrive there well into the 1st night of their race – those that do are usually signaling their their intentions to race hard.

The weather forecast is looking good for Batch J
Weather Forecasts for Batch J, the Racing Snakes (starting at 06h00 Tuesday 16th June from Maritzburg):
The Maritzburg weather forecast for tomorrow is for the weather to be sunny, with a light 5 mph north-westerly breeze, nothing to trouble the riders. For Maritzburg weather forecast see link:
Up the road at Centocow Mission Station, half way between the Allendale and Ntsikeni support stations, there appears little to trouble the riders, with a mild West-South-Westerly wind of 9 mph. See link:
Race strategies can often be determined by weather
Given the potential for the weather at this time of year to turn really foul, the racing snakes often like to use a good weather window to push hard and far, even if it is early in the race, never knowing when the conditions may turn against them. The race strategy, therefore, is often very different from a standard Comrades Marathon one for instance, where the top runners may run according to some kind of pace schedule which often includes a slower 1st half of the race compared to the 2nd half.

So, while Allendale is the 1st overnight support station for most of the riders, it’s more likely to be the lunch stop for many of these racing snakes.
The 1st day's potential route:
With the top racers in the Race, it is difficult to define the 1st day of the route because we don't quite know where the 1st day will end for them. 2011 winner, Alex Harris decided to "cut his 1st day short" at Centacow, which he reached early on the 1st evening of the race. He slept there for a few hours before setting off in the middle of the night and rode all the way to Malekhalonyane by the 2nd evening of the race. However, since then, the “standard” for the top riders appears to have become Ntsikeni support station on the 1st night, stopping for a quick sleep.

I should, however, cover myself by including the detail of the route as far as Glen Edward, which for the social riders represents the 3rd day lunch time stopover.
Total kms of the various stages to Glen Edward (Official race distances)
Pietermaritzburg to Allendale - 99.5km
Allendale to Centacow - 49km
Centacow to Ntsikeni - 48.5km
Ntsikeni to Glen Edward - 34km
During this stretch from Maritzburg to Glen Edward, the total cumulative ascent (climbing) over this 232 km stretch is recorded at 5497 metres, while the cumulative descent is recorded at -4428 metres. The bulk of this climbing is done before the 212km mark, whereafter it is generally downhill to Glen Edward.

So it's a big climbing stage on Day 1. The big hills include:
From near the 30km mark to around 45km, there's the 1st big climb up to Cunningham Castle, an ascent of near 800m. From Cunningham Castle there’s a lot of downhill into the Umkomaas River valley where one hits the 1st real bushy part with a bit of “portaging”. Fortunately it's winter, because I suspect the valley is full of slithery reptiles in summer. At the Umkomaas portage there is some decision making to be done. You can gain 20 minutes or so by crossing through the river early and joining a small dirt road which climbs the hill to Highover, where one joins the (in-)famous Hella Hella climb a little way up. Alternatively, one can ride on down the valley to Hella Hella Bridge and cycle this huge hill from the bottom. Either way, you take on what is probably the sharpest and toughest ascent of the day, that is Hella Hella. This rises approximately 650 metres over about 5kms whereafter it is undulating to the first support station of Allendale for, in these riders' case, lunch.
It is most likely that these top riders will elect to cross the river early, with the water level very low this year.
Two more big climbs follow between Centacow and Ntsikeni, as the riders ascend to near 1916 metres above sea level at the 212km mark, after having been as low as 555 metres above sea level just before the start of the Hella Hella climb.
Navigation challenges?
Whilst this part of the race can present major navigational challenges to the lesser riders, the top racers have normally recce’d the route well, and don’t normally get badly lost. The race changes in this regard when the racing snakes get going, with less “entertainment value” to be had by the Twitterati due to navigation problems. But never say never, as there have been moments for some of them in the past. Race organiser Glenn Harrison, the 2011 race runner up, reportedly slept a night in the forest just before Donnybrook (just after leaving Allendale) in earlier years. But given the experience that these top riders now have, the tricky navigation sections through the forests from just before Donnybrook to Centacow are well-rehearsed and will pose no problem, especially given that they will be negotiated in daytime in all likelihood.

The other tricky part, which could come in the darkness for some, is Gxalangene Forest about 16km up the hill from Centacow on the trip to Ntsikeni. After crossing the Gungugunu River, the relatively short forest section up to Bosholweni Peak can become very confusing to navigate through in the dark.
So the race climax approaches. The countdown to the start of the much vaunted Batch J, the final batch of riders, is under way. It will be interesting to see how each one approaches it, and how far each will go before the 1st rest. It is a day (and night) of big climbing, but should not offer any significant navigation difficulties to these top riders. Ntsikeni should be a key target for today.
By Blanket Wearer/Whip Bearer and ex-racing snake John Loos

14 June - the evening wrap up

Two thoughts consume me today. The first is that RASA only really begins when one leaves Rhodes and the second is how so many navigational mistakes can be avoided.

The art of navigation is precision: Always know where you are on the map at any time and use the tools at your disposal (maps, narrative and compass). So many of the wayward route choices over the past few days and especially today could have been avoided by constant checking against features (rivers, mountains, gullies) and extremely importantly, measuring the distance travelled accurately. The narrative is hugely helpful in this regard but if you don't know where you are on the map, you won't know how far to travel. Knowing where north is, is another imperative.

One hopes that as the race goes on and the navigation becomes somewhat easier, riders will develop the concentration and attention to detail to get them to their destination in the quickest time. For the couch watchers, it will mean the end of schadenfreude.

The first group of RASA riders left Rhodes this morning. It's a strange situation as one leaves behind many of the friends and comrades with whom you've shared a tough week, One can feel anxiety and not a little envy as they put up their feet, job well done. For others, there is impatience to get on with the trip. The group pared down to one or two who face a long arduous journey to Wellington hoping for a blanket. Leading RASA out of Rhodes are Johann Rissik (a staunch supporter of riders as they get close to Prince Albert) accompanied by the Where's Wally group of Ian Verwayen, Alan Haupt and Paul Dalton. Despite the early start they hit Kapokraal portage as it got dark which makes for a very sketchy descent to the farm road which is 10kms from the incredible hospitality of Slaapkrantz. They eventually arrived at 8pm

A mere half day behind are the chasing triplet of Maarten Witters (fat bike), Anton Wood and Gert Peens. They flew into Rhodes just after midday and set off for Chesneywold which sets them up for a very long day as they will probably try and get to Moordenaarspoort if not Kranskop, skipping Slaapkrantz.

John Loos and Tony Roche finished off their R2R and behind them, Mike Roy and John Bowen took the long way around Lehanas but got into Rhodes in time for a late supper. Both of these are going all the way and will have to keep moving at a steady pace to make up for time lost over the week.

There is a big group at Vuvu who will make the assault on Lehana Pass. Only Dane and Des Warden took the classic route out of the valley. The rest...well let's say it was an interesting route choice born out of miscalculating how far they had to go and how many river crossings had to be made. But they are all safely ensconced in the village. Dane and Des have set a fast time to this point in their Race2Rhodes, so it will be interesting to see what time they leave.

It's a relief that they are all there as Jacques Tatersall, Neville Higgs, Gary Preston and Lee Fuller took a major detour after Koareng which used up valuable daylight hours. They heroically caught up with the group in front and joined Ant Jankovich, Pierre Oosthuizen, Stu Brew, Steve Johnston 
and Tracey Lentin. The group should all make Rhodes comfortably tomorrow and make use of the extra rest time before the RASA guys set off on the next leg. Pierre is the only remaining RASA member of Batch B when Tessa Heese pulled out with chest issues and Rob Alexander, her riding partner, chose to stop as well. Spare a thought for them both as they were only 15km from Rhodes.

Further back down the valley, Gary Green, his brother Andrew Green and Kemsley Wood broke away from their group with a strong ride along Black Fountain to hole up at Tinana Mission. They are hoping to make Rhodes tomorrow as well. Gary is nursing an ailing rear hub which could hamper them but he may be able to find spares in Rhodes - there possibly off the bike of a Race to Rhodes finisher.

Back at Malekolonyane, his companions have settled in and will most likely leave extremely early for Vuvu which seems to be the trend. Liehann Loots, Beat Jegerlehner, Willie Esterhuizen, Gerrit van der Merwe, Fanus Vorster and Dave Gace make up the rest of the group. It should be quite cosy there. 

Hopefully there is enough space for RASA riders Andrew Hunt and Mike Ward who are on a mission and arrived in time for supper. They started a day behind this group so are riding very comfortably with only a slight deviation to entertain us through the town of Hebron before Masakala. Andrew has a broken seat post and is hoping to get a replacement in Rhodes.

Hoping to make it across the plains to Queens Mercy tomorrow is another mixed group of RASA and R2R riders. Navigation in this group has been rock solid so there should be no issues for them. At Masakala, near Matatiele, are Joyce Benade, Mike and Ingrid Talbot, Pierre Singery, Brad van der Westhuizen, Nicky Nairn, Nick Taschner, Gaeren Wilkinson and Paul Dumont. This group has stuck together from the beginning and some strong bonds will be forged.

Glen Edward has been busy this year with riders overnighting. Usually a soup stop, a number of riders have made use of the hospitality of Sheila and her husband Charles. Andrew Blackburn, Nick Jordan and Mark Jason and Mike Potgieter had an incredible ride to Ntsikeni forgoing the luxury chalets and pushing on making their serious intentions known.

The other member of this start group going to Wellington is about a day behind having struggled terribly in the forests before Centacow. Mike Devereaux just could not find his way, toing and froing and back tracking to consternation of the tracker watchers. He finally found his way to Centacow where he will lick his wounds and try again tomorrow for Ntsikeni.

The R2R riders of this batch, Steve Kitto, Sean Marsh, John Buchanan and Richard Erasmus are all enjoying Mr Ngcobo's hospitality and warm whistling welcome at Ntsikeni Lodge.

Today's start batch cruised comfortably into Allendale. John Exley, Mike Glover, Nick van Zyl (all RASA), Alan Rainnie, Andy Wonnacott, Mark Smuts and Ian Privett make up this group who had a brief mind lapse losing their way through the farms before reaching Baynesfield but made a good recovery. Nico was later plagued by a bent derailleur hanger which meant he was the last to arrive.

Other riders not mentioned here have unfortunately withdrawn to illness. They are Stephen Kellerman, Jeremy Nel, John Croasdale, Paul Erasmus, Rob Alexander and Tessa Heese. We wish them a speedy recovery.

One final comment: Those leaving Rhodes heading out on the long journey to Wellington - the hospitality you'll encounter is out of this world - enjoy the lamb.

By Blanket Wearer/Whip Bearer/Windmill Keeper Fiona Coward

15 June - quiet before the storm

By all accounts today was a great day on the trail. The weather was good, if a little windy, the navigation was pin sharp though rather boring  from a spectator’s perspective and several riders pushed through Support Stations to make up time towards their respective race goals. Riders are tonight spread over a distance of 700km along the Freedom Trail, from Pietermaritzburg all the way to Krantzkop. David Waddilove must be proud tonight.

First business is to congratulate today’s Race to Rhodes finishers and new Whip Bearers.  A special mention to Comeback Kid Tracey Lentin who, after a rather challenging 2014 came back to complete unfinished business and did so in style today. There will be no bigger smile at Rubicon tonight.

At the sharp end of matters, the fastest time to Rhodes so far has been just over 4 days. In today’s starting batch, RASA riders Fjord Jordaan and Theo van Dyk ripped through the trail, arriving at Centacow at around 18h30, the fastest time this year. In order to capitalize on this good start they should be aiming for an early start to try and push through to Masakala tomorrow. It may not be enough to avert the onslaught likely to follow from tomorrow’s final starting batch, but it will position him well for the coming days. Expect to see a 24 hour push through to Ntsikeni from tomorrow’s batch - will Charles and Sheila at Glen Edward need to be on standby for a brunch surprise?

Leading the field today and opening up the Support Stations has been Kommandant Johann Rissik who put in a solid effort from Slaapkrantz today, arriving at Moordenaarspoort just after dark and then deciding to push on to Krantzkop, a relatively short and easy section to navigate at night. He caused some stress when he zigged and zagged just before Rossouw.

Shortly behind Johann are Anton Wood and Gert Peens who appear to have teamed up and Maarten Witters on the fatbike. All 3 of them  left Chesneywold this morning and arrived at Moordenaarspoort early evening to succumb to the warm beds and hot showers at the guest house. Maarten got his North and South confused for a moment on top of the Slaapkrantz portage, almost missing out on the thrilling and humpy downhill into Loutebron. Fortunately sanity prevailed and he got his North back.

Mike Roy and John Bowen left Rhodes this morning and by early evening were struggling to find the right line down the Kappokkraal portage. The dark night conditions no doubt making it difficult and they were heading for a very tricky decent down some steep sections. Dinner will be waiting at Slaapkrantz so they can rest up for a difficult portages tomorrow morning. They resorted to numerous calls to the NightNavHotline so when they finally dropped out of signal into the Spitskop valley, they were at least headed in the right direction again.

Jacques Tatersall and Gary Preston made a charge today from Vuvu up the alternative route to Naudes Nek to get to Rhodes. There they split, with Jacques pushing on solo to Chesneywold, reaching the turnoff on top of the steep Bottlenek climb just after dark, so was well on track. Gary Preston elected to stop in Rhodes for the night. 

They will need extra fires at Rubicon in Rhodes tonight where a full house of riders has gathered with some having arrived from Vuvu and others like Gary Green, Kemsley Wood and Andrew Green having pushed through from Tinana Mission. Pretty much everyone will have something to celebrate as reaching Rhodes has a special significance and is an achievement to proud of for all. It marks a key point in the race journey and also signals the start of slightly easier navigation and riding conditions. If you can make it to Rhodes you have a good chance of making it to Diemersfontein.

Vuvu has been in the thick of it the last few days, with many sleepovers and a few ride throughs. The approach up the valley saw many variations today, the high line, low line, get out early and the overshoot - no matter, all roads eventually lead to Vuvu. Staying over tonight are Liehann and Beat, Gerrit, Willie, Fanus and Dave Gace, as well as Mike Ward and Andrew Hunt.

Whilst it appears that Tinana will have a quiet evening for a change, the same cannot be said for Malekholonyane where its full house. The batch has ridden together pretty much all of the past 4 days and no doubt enjoyed their early arrival today. Brad and Nicky van der Westhuizen, stalwarts of the trail, no doubt had a lot to do with the pin sharp navigation today, their experience and trail knowledge coming through. Their batch was joined by Andrew Blackburn, Nic Jordan and Mark Jason who started a day behind them and have completed 4 trail days in 3 days of riding.

John, Richard, Steve and Sean are the only riders heading for Masakala tonight but their challenging day is not over yet. They got caught by the sharp left in Ntsikeni, then got into big trouble at the crossing of the Little Mzimvubu and after a neat recovery were struggling to find the old house in the neck just after Shenxa. The dark night conditions made it extra difficult for them but once they are through that section they should be good for a late Masakala arrival. Fortunately tomorrow is a short day to help them recover.

The Ntsikeni arrivals appear to be home safely and will enjoy the hospitality and rest after one of the trails’ most difficult days. Those enjoying story time with Mr Ngobo tonight are: Mike Roy and John Exley, Alan, Andy, Mark and Ian, together with Nico van Zyl and Mike Devereux, who fortunately seems to have reset his internal compass after yesterday’s wanderings around Centocow.

Today’s batch took off like lightning and made quick time to Minerva and Allendale with Fjord Jordaan and Theo van Dyk pushing through to Centacow by early evening. The hot conditions seem to have caught up with the legendary Jack Black who also pushed past Allendale but was finding the going a bit more challenging. Being tough and experienced, he stuck to his plan and eventually arrived at Centocow at 22h15. After starting with Theo, Ann Harrison opted to jump off the bus at Allendale and hop onto a slightly more rational one - she joins Tony and Caren now for a slower cruise to Rhodes.

A long day,  lots of riders on the trail and a long day report. The real racing will start tomorrow and although there won’t be many squiggles from these guys, the pace will be hot and the daily goals ambitious.

Final thought: Blanket Wearer Alex Harris is currently racing the Tour Divide. To give some comparison between Tour Divide and Freedom Challenge, Martin Dreyer’s record into Rhodes (first 500km) is 2d7h45m. The TD leaders are tracking faster than Jay Petervary’s existing record pace and passed the 500km mark in 1d7h. Whilst it is not fair to try and compare two of the world’s toughest events, the first 500km into Rhodes is as tough a race as you will find and anyone making it there, no matter how long it takes, can be very proud!

By Whip Bearer/Windmill Keeper Carl Scholtz

When the racing snakes come out to play

The last day or two of a Freedom Challenge event is generally reserved for the riders who are considered to be podium contenders. That is not to say the eventual race winners will come from this group but it's more likely as they are strong riders and have previous experience on the trail. You cannot overestimate the advantage of knowing the route. The degree of route knowledge runs from a fairly good idea to highly detailed film strips that run through their heads. This intimate knowledge means that sunset doesn't signal the end of the day, it merely raises the stakes slightly and makes the snakes relish the challenge. It used to be that there were certain parts of the race that were considered too difficult to attempt at night. Those doors were kicked in years ago.

To be honest, watching the snakes is boring. In most places their tracker scribbles will merge into a single track overlaid on the official race line. There will be nuances but they will be few and far between. Two or three visits to the website every day to monitor their progress will suffice. In truth it is a different race with a completely different dynamic. It's more a case of how far and how long rather than where did they ride.

Day one is generally a huge day for the non-snake. They arrive at Allendale late in the afternoon with a sense of achievement overlaid with a new respect for the race. One or two stronger riders might push through and are pleased with getting to Centocow, a further 45 km's down the trail, well after dark. For some of the racing snakes Allendale is a quick pit stop and Centocow a place to change kit before it gets dark. They then push on through the night. It's cool to watch but it is the experiences, tales and personal growth of the rookie sitting next to the fire at Allendale that intrigues me.

To extract and understand the true essence of this race rather focus on the antics of the less experienced rider or the rookie. Their journeys are rich with experiences that will delight you or have you sitting on the edge of your chair. The race is actually more about them. They are having to deal with uncertainty every day and it's debilitating. That process however has a transforming effect on them as people.

The snakes might emerge victorious but the rest of the field experience a deep transformation of their being and emerge triumphant.

(by Mike Woolnough, a man with a few whips and blankets and a self confessed racing snake)


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