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And that's a wrap for 2015

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.   

The last two riders arrive at Diemersfontein

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.

5 July - the evening wrap up

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.

4 July - the daily wrap up

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.

3 July - the evening wrap up

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.


2 July - the evening wrap up

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.

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)

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.

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

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

Page 9 of 13

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