Nearly a month after the first riders left Pietermaritzburg for Rhodes and Wellington, the 2015 Freedom Challenge finally draws to a close. In an event with a drop out rate as high as 30-40%, this was a really good year, with that rate falling closer to 20%. In the end 59 riders completed the RTR and 33 completed RASA. Factors contributing to this success were better levels of preparedness of the riders before they started - many riders had attended rider briefings and quite a few had scouted and pre-ridden sections of the trail beforehand. With so much information available online nowadays, riders were also kitted out with lighter equipment (average backpack weight was 7-8kg). Add to that the good conditions, although there was snow and strong wind in the early stages, most riders enjoyed stable, dry weather for a large part of their journey and this undoubtedly made the going easier. But let’s not take anything away from their efforts as this year’s crop of ‘newbies’ were a determined bunch and they proved that the pull of the finisher’s blanket is as strong as ever.
Up front we had a close race between Tim James and Andrew Barnes and it was interesting to watch their respective strategies play out: Tim rode long hours on little sleep while Andrew’s slightly faster speed was offset by his longer sleeping times. With only hours separating them as they went into Stettynskloof, the race came down to the wire, at one point on the approach into Diemersfontein, a navigational error by Tim allowed Andrew to close the gap to within 5min before he too made a similar error. The eventual winning margin of 30min is perhaps the closest yet and is a testament to the competitive nature of them both.
At the back of the field there were a few riders who ended up behind schedule due to mechanical or navigational issues. This immediately put them on the back foot and the pressure was upon them to make the various interim cut offs along the route. They put in a brave effort but it proved a bridge too far and it was unfortunate that riders like Pierre Oosthuizen, John Bowen and Mike Roy all ended up withdrawing after having come so far. But they don’t go away empty handed as their experiences this year will be invaluable if they decide to return in future years.
This year could be fondly referred to as the 'Year of the Squiggles’ - with the rider tracking working well, it was possible to follow them on their respective journeys and see where they went wrong. As a navigation race where GPS is not allowed, the number of navigational errors was proof that navigation is the great leveller and is not to be underestimated. Being a strong rider is no guarantee of success since it doesn’t help to be riding fast in the wrong direction. Even the more experienced campaigners with good route knowledge still found the navigation challenging, especially at night, as was the case with Tim in the Vuvu valley or both Tim and Andrew going through Stettynskloof in the dark and taking longer than the first timers did in daylight.
Most riders got to grips with it as the race progressed though and it also became apparent that they were realising and correcting their errors sooner and moving more efficiently in the latter stages. Finding the route is one of the defining elements of the Freedom Challenge and riders taking responsibility for themselves in doing so is the very essence of the challenge. Herein lies the attraction of the event for many - an uncertain outcome and the promise of adventure.
There were a few standout performances this year which bear special mention:
Ingrid Avidon’s solo ride from Pietermaritzburg to Ntsikeni in one push places her among only a handful or riders to have done so in this event - the fact that she is the only women so far to have done this on her own is a remarkable achievement.
Andrew Blackburn's long walk from Tinana to Rhodes after his freewheel hub packed up is also worth a mention. While his riding companions went ahead, he endured many hours of solo walking up the hills and freewheeling down in his determined quest to keep moving forward to Rhodes where he could get spares. His efforts caused him severe shin splints which later nearly derailed his ride but he overcome those too and proved that the body will follow where the mind goes first.
Johann Rissik was well known to many of this year’s riders as the Prince Albert local who has always been a huge supporter of the event. This year he got his chance to ride it and did so in exemplary style. Riding with the three ‘Wallys’ (Ian Paul and Alan) he took on the role of guardian and patiently helped Alan through many tough sections of the route.
In similar fashion, Stu Brew was also no stranger to RASA, having completed it before. He rode with various groups throughout this year as he moved through the field but he ended up with a very determined Gary Preston in Stettynskloof and together they slogged through the infamous kloof for over 16 hours on the final stage. Stu was blown away by Gary’s tenacity but Gary had great respect and gratitude for Stu’s patience.
The Stone Saddle Award went to two riders this year - Alan Haupt and Gary Preston. They both came into RASA knowing that it would be even tougher for them due to their own physical challenges but this did not deter them. Although they had the support of other riders around them, they still had to go out every day and face the demands of the day and this they did without complaint. The other riders were often inspired by the determination and tenacity of these two, the way they got up after countless falls and just quietly got back to the job at hand. Their efforts are a true reflection of courage and self confidence and we can all learn something from them.
As the tyre tracks along the trail slowly start to fade and life slowly returns to normal for the riders, the stories from this year’s event will live on - in the hearts and minds of all who took part and in all those who followed their progress every day. The memories that make the Freedom Challenge such a rich and diverse experience are also part of the reason we keep coming back for more - the seeds of adventure lie in curiosity and out on the trail those seeds always find fertile ground.
Nic van Zyl and Mike Devereux crossed the finish line at Diemersfontein tonight, after a long, hard day in Stettynskloof. Having started in some of the later batches, they were always likely to miss the finisher’s dinner but were well within their allowable 26 day cut off. Mike Devereux finished in 23d 16h and Nic van Zyl finished in 22d 16h Having ridden together for many days during the event, splitting up for a while and eventually meeting up again at Trouthaven to take on Stettynskloof together, their 2015 RASA has had no shortage of adventure. The two riders were elated after finishing and were proud to receive their coveted finsher's blankets.
The two remaining riders in RASA2015 are both staying at Trouthaven tonight. Reunited after a few days apart on the trail, Mike Devereux and Nic van Zyl will take on Stetynskloof together in the morning. Mike rode through from Good Hope today while Nic came all the way from Montagu. Due to their late start dates, they are in no danger of missing any cut offs but they still have to complete the last stage to earn their blankets.
The weather still looks good for tomorrow and they should enjoy a bright sunny day in the kloof - we look forward to welcoming them across the finish line at Diemersfontein.
With only two riders left on course, today’s report is short and sweet.
Nic van Zyl will spend the night in Montagu, after riding through from Anysberg today. He’s charging phones and trackers, doing laundry and resting up for a big push to Trouthaven tomorrow. After that its just Stettynskloof and a short ride between him and the finish at Diemersfontein.
Mike Devereux will stay at Good Hope tonight, he rode through from Montagu and took a few wrong turns on the way in to GoodHope which meant he then left there a bit late for the remaining portages on the way to Trouthaven - so he opted to return to Good Hope and stay there tonight. Having started in a much later start batch, he is under no pressure to make the cut off, so can afford to cruise into the finish. He will ride through to Trouthaven tomorrow and if Nic manages to come through all the way from Montagu, then they can head up Stettynskloof together on Monday.
Mike Roy spent last night in Stettynskloof and only emerged after midday today. He called in from the bottom of Du Toits Kloof pass announcing his withdrawal. His night out had taken its toll and he was also struggling with bike issues. On top of that he did not have any narratives or maps for the last section into Diemersfontein, so a vehicle was despatched to collect him.
Diemersfontein will play host to the finishers’ dinner tonight, with riders already arriving - time for them to catch up on all the stories from this year’s race and to meet their fellow riders face to face.
Today was another glorious day in the Cape, the sun shone brightly and there was only a gentle breeze - perfect conditions for a hike in the mountains.
Mike Glover and John Exley made the most of the great weather and hiked up Stettynskloof today to complete their Freedom Challenge journey. Although the last day is tough and uncompromising, they went about things in their steady and persistent way, much like the rest of their ride. Having ridden together from the start, it was fitting for them to cross the line together and they can be proud of their achievement. Their finishing time was 19days 11hours 55min.
Stettynskloof had another visitor today, Mike Roy - he started out with John and Mike but was soon on his own. Riding unofficially after missing his 26 day cut off, Mike is expected at Diemersfontein later tonight.
Staying in Montagu tonight is Mike Devereux, he rode through from Rouxpos today which was a good double stage for him. Riding solo for the last two days, he seems to have sufficient momentum going now and is accelerating toward the finish. Another double tomorrow would mean a finish on Sunday.
Nic van Zyl made good progress today, riding from Gamkaskloof via Rouxpos to Anysberg - his first double stage. It seems his bike troubles are over for now and he too seems to be going well. He may be able to catch up with Mike Devereux and come up Stettynskloof with him but to do that he will have to keep the pace up tomorrow and get all the way to Trouthaven.
More riders across the finish line today and the rest keep closing in on Diemersfontein.
The first riders out of Stettynskloof today were Marnitz Nienaber and Ivor Jones who arrived just after 2pm this afternoon. They opted to try a different exit out of Stettynskloof, by going out early on the left hand side. This seemed to have saved them from the worst of the bushwhacking and they made good time through the kloof. With 5 blankets to his name, Marnitz has the route saved in his head and Ivor was amazed that they never had to use maps at any stage of the journey. Today Marnitz received blanket number 6 and for Ivor it was his first - their finishing time was 16days 8hours 5min.
The next three riders came over the line together a while later - Andrew Blackburn, Nic Jordan and Mike Potgieter had ridden together since the start and had a good solid ride. Andrew had to put up with a failing freewheel hub, which meant a long walk from Tinana to Rhodes and later on a serious case of shin splints but he showed real determination and pressed on regardless. They all received their coveted blankets to the applause and cheers of their friends and families. Their finishing time was 19days 10hours 45min.
Of the remaining riders for this year, we have four still in the race and two more who are not.
John Bowen has been riding with Mike Roy since Tinana and the two have been under pressure to chase cut offs from an early stage - after missing their Willowmore cut off they were allowed to continue to the finish but have not managed to keep up with the required pace. In a last ditch attempt, the pair left Good Hope just after midnight this morning on their way to Trouthaven and then the finish. By mid morning they had not reached Trouthaven and it was becoming clear that there was very little chance of getting through Stettynskloof in the dark and still finishing before 6am tomorrow morning, the 26 day cut off. On realising this, John decided to withdraw at Trouthaven. At peace with his decision, he said he had learnt a lot about himself on this journey and pushed himself further than he thought possible. Mike Roy ended up in a similar situation, realising that the clock was against him. He opted to carry on to Trouthaven and spend the night there - he will go up Stettynskloof tomorrow and finish the route to Diemersfontein.
Also at Trouthaven tonight are Mike Glover and John Exley, they rode through from Montagu today. They have been steady and consistent the whole way and now its just Stettynskloof between them and their blankets.
Jumping back to Rouxpos, where Mike Devereux is expected later tonight, after a big double from Prince Albert. He will be happy to have an easier day tomorrow and is now closing in on the finish.
Sweeping behind tonight is Nic van Zyl, who left Prince Albert after serving his time penalty (for a new bike) and arrived at Gamkaskloof for supper. Tomorrow he takes on the Ladder and then its Rouxpos and beyond, he can surely smell the finish now too.
Created on Wednesday, 17 June 2015 20:50
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.
Created on Wednesday, 17 June 2015 19:18
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)
Created on Tuesday, 16 June 2015 20:32
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)
Created on Wednesday, 17 June 2015 10:33
Created on Tuesday, 16 June 2015 20:25
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)