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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)

 

13 June - the wheels keep turning

Another day on the trail, another start batch and more finishers in Rhodes.

The batch that left PMB today had some strong RASA and RTR riders with most of these guys having some experience of the route up to Rhodes - despite this, there was a slight nav hiccup going through Thorny Hill farm early on but maybe that was just due to the excitement of finally being on the trail. Their route knowledge was evident from the clean lines through the Umko Valley and with the exception of Mike Devereux, all crossed the river. They arrived at Allendale mid-afternoon and opted to stay. Mike Devereux fell off the pace early on but had a steady day of solo riding and arrived at Allendale in time for supper.

Mr Ngobo at Ntsikeni will be in his element tonight with an audience of 9 riders to listen to his legendary storytelling. Brad, Nicky and Nick, together with Joyce, Pierre, Gaeren and Paul as well as the Talbots, Mike and Ingrid all reached Ntsikeni with daylight to spare - a good effort on such a hard day. There’s some tricky navigation waiting for them on their way to Glen Edward but with experience in the group (Pierre is a Blanket Wearer), they have every chance of getting to Glen Edward for mid morning soup. Then its on to Masakala for night three.

Mike Ward and Andrew Hunt have been going along nicely - they left their group yesterday when they went through to Centocow for the night and stayed ahead by pushing through to Glen Edward today. They should have their sights set on Malekholonyane for tomorrow, which would put them a full day ahead of schedule on the way to Rhodes. Solid navigation and steady riding are the order of the day for these two.

Masakala saw plenty of action today - first there was the broken bike and time penalty for Gary Preston, he had to sit until 13h00 before leaving due to taking a replacement bike. The award for sportsmanship for today goes to Lee Fuller who opted to stay with Gary. Also there was Dave Gace, who took the chance to rest up today. After the bike switch, they left at 13h05, now chasing hard to get over Mpharane ridge before dark. Only five minutes out and Dave turned back, still struggling, so he stays in Masakala tonight. Joining him later were Gary Green, Kemsley Wood and Andrew Green. They made it comfortably in by mid afternoon. Following not too far behind were Beat and Liehann - the latter being quite chuffed to settle an old score getting out of Ntsikeni cleanly - good nav all day from these two. Also at Masakala are the PTA boys, Willie, Gerrit and Fanus - these guys are pretty solid, they make steady progress every day and if they happen to stray from the intended route, they self correct pretty quickly.

Getting back to Lee and GaryP - they hightailed it out of Masakala just after 13h00 and made haste in the direction of Malekholonyane. What would normally be a leisurely day, even a rest day for most, suddenly became a dash to get up and down Mpharane Ridge before The Dark. Well they made it, slicing crisp, clean tracks through the floodplains on the approach and scuttling off the ridge at last light. So that ends the broken bike saga for Gary Preston - hopefully he repays Lee in koeksisters.

Dave Telford’s day was spoiled by a broken seat post but he pressed on regardless. Turns out that the seat post on Gary Preston’s broken bike was a match, so he generously agreed to strip it off his bike and take it through to Malekholonyane for Dave - more koeksister debts to be paid? (No time penalty because nothing was brought in from outside.)

Malekholonyane is also busy tonight - Tracey has been resting up there all day following the unfortunate withdrawal of riding partner John Croasdale - he injured his knee in a fall and is unable to continue. Tracey has a big choice of riding partners for tomorrow: Steve, Ant, Jacques, Stu Brew, Neville, Des and Dane are all there tonight, as well as SS Pierre, who also corrected his earlier out-of-bounds excursion on the floodplains. His Rhodes cutoff is looming, so he’ll have to keep it tidy tomorrow to get to Vuvu.

Up the road at Vuvu tonight are John Loos, Gert, Anton and Tony and Maarten. Arriving at various times but all in daylight, they are sure to get to Rhodes tomorrow. Already in Vuvu before they arrived were Mike Roy and John Bowen. After a night in Setabalaba village, they got up the Vuvu valley without too much drama but the thought of pushing on towards Lehana in the late morning proved too daunting a thought - rather some famous chicken and a cosy bed in Vuvu to build the reserves before taking on the mountain tomorrow. 

Also in Vuvu, albeit briefly, were Arno and Eddie. At a time when most people would be thinking of a shower, food and a warm bed (18h50) these two have decided to take on Lehana, in The Dark…

Neil and Francois started their day at Tinana Mission, got through the Vuvu valley with only a small hiccup and arrived in Vuvu let in the morning. A quick refuel and they were off again - managing to get over Lehana’s just before the light went. After a long day,, they finally arrived in Rhodes just after 9pm, dinner first and then their whips.

11 June - the daily wrap

Up front Batch 2 reached Rhodes today with what appeared to be a brisk portage up Lehanas by the bulk of the group, excluding Rory Field who took the seldom used Mcambalala/Philipsrust option. Snow is falling at Afriski and a dusting of Lehanas cannot be excluded. 

Batch 3 ably led by experienced Leon Kruger and his Team GALA are safely in at Vuva and would have by now tested the new luxury shower facilities.  Sergio/Fabio and Shaun have been slowed by mechanicals with Fabio’s bike,  which cost them time today. Arriving at Tinana late, they elected to push on. Normally that would be unwise, given the late hour but they went anyway. They then avoided the dreaded Vuvu valley by taking the road - this used to be an optional route choice but for the last few years already has been out of bounds, so normally they would be given a time penalty. In this case though they have come up short and have notified the race office that they are stopping to sleep at the police station on the way to Vuvu. Depending on their departure time in the morning, they may still have to sit out a time penalty at Vuvu in the morning as they must wait until 10am before going on to Rhodes. If they leave early, they will have to wait in Vuvu until 10am but if they only arrive in Vuvu after 10am, the penalty will fall away.

Batch 4 into Malekholonyane

The group from Masakala all enjoyed the easier ride today and other than a glitch here and there across the Knira flood plains that were masterfully corrected, made good time and no doubt enjoyed the extra rest. Niel/Francois caused some entertainment by missing the tricky Mpharane turnoff and were heading  for the Kingdom of Lesotho before they fortunately realized the error and neatly made their way back to Gladstone Farm. It appears the Mariazell Mission late afternoon cool down ride has now become standard practice to enable a slightly simpler and earlier exit in the morning - all of which helps in getting to the Vuvu valley with enough daylight.

Batch 5

John seems to have a new found riding companion in Gert Peens and they again rode very well into Masakala today with Anton, Tony and Fatbike Maarten not far behind. Comeback Kid Tracey Lentin and John were doing great and tracking near the old house just after Shenxa village - they came a bit unstuck here in the wattle trees and needed a few calls to the nav office to get them back on track. They are expected at Masakala by 11pm tonight. After her rough 2014 ride she has been solid this year but with a fair bit of night riding in the last few days, and will no doubt be looking forward to the easier day tomorrow.

Batch 6

After a super effort yesterday, Arno and Eddie, slept at Centacow perhaps aiming for a push through to Masakala. It does however appear that they may have got tricked by the myriad tyre tracks leading into Politique and lost some valuable  time correcting a navigation error. They have to settle for Glen Edward stop tonight sharing the fireplace with the bearded legends, Stephen and Pierre. The rest of their group crossed the Ntsikeni fence and they will be delighted to be in time to hear one or even two of Mr Ncgobo’s famous stories.

Neville Higgs was good for some entertainment value for the desktop jockeys today with seldom seen manoeuvres. First he did a zig and a zag around the Donnybrook forrest, then he drew a  beautiful lizard head into Centacow and finally a fish hook manoeuvre into Boshelweni  forrest. Masterful. But seriously, he pulled himself together later in the afternoon and got to Ntsikeni without any further excitement - a relief for him.

Batch 7 today

Today’s start batch has been rock solid with hardly a navigation twitch and they set a fast pace into Minerva for a very early soup stop. They all reached Allendale with light to spare but it appears they have been seduced by Allendale koeksisters and toasted sarmies. Des and Dane followed through on their race plan and pushed on to Centocow, arriving at Centacow at 21h05 - surviving 2 hours of drizzle and a close encounter with a massive porcupine.

The story of the day/night undoubtedly belongs to the proudly bearded pairing of single speed Pierre and his latest best friend Steven Kellerman. (Described by Mr Ngobo at Ntsikeni as "Steve and Pierre, the look-like Sangoma men") They are both eccentric in a beautiful way and those observing would pay big money to see and hear the dynamics as these two larger than life individuals are fast turning themselves into FC legends. SS Pierre has now taken 4 days to complete 2 ½ days of the route but he appears less than bothered and this super attitude is what will probably result in a most memorable experience for both as well as their fast growing group of admirers and supporters.

 

Todays report from Whip Bearer/Windmill Keeper Carl Scholtz

 

 

12 June - the evening wrap

As the race settles into the routine of eat, sleep and ride, alliances  are forged and the comfort of having others to navigate with overcomes any need for speed. Today saw more forward progress, less walkabouts and more riders than ever on the trail.

It also saw some new and interesting routes being pioneered much to the dismay and amusement of the tracker watchers. Dismay because we've all been there and we desperately want to urge the rides back on track and amusement in the shared knowledge that no one on the trail escapes route meanderings.

By now, the race office phones should be ringing less as lost riders seek to verify where they are and more and more bike tracks head in the same confirming direction. But be wary, oh riders...check twice, navigate once.

Before we head into the day's wrap, there are the issues of penalties given out by the race office. Riders are notorious for not reading race rules and in an event like this, the rules are very different and often challenging when tired, hungry and cold. The common penalty is time and riders are required to serve out a time penalty at the next support station they get to - the length of penalty is dependent on the transgression.

Two penalties were issued today and it is worth clarifying. Three riders skipped the Vuvu valley section, mechanicals being a major reason for their decision. The road to Vuvu is out of bounds. The race office contacted the riders and informed them of the penalty which was to sit out at Vuvu until 10:am the next day. These riders did not make the village and instead were forced to sleep at a police station which nullified any advantage they may have gained but were still required to serve out the time.

The second penalty refers to Golden Rule #6 and is regarded in an extremely serious light. Abuse of support station staff, official and other riders is not be tolerated no matter the circumstances. The race depends on the commitment and generosity of these stations and their hosts who go out of their way to assist riders at all hours of the day and night. This rider behaved extremely badly and the while the support station did not report him, other riders were so discomfited by his behaviour, they contacted the race office. The rider has apologised and sat out a penalty at the next support station. 

So now onto the news of the day.

Team GALA (Gary, Andrew, Leon & Alex) arrived at Rhodes having cruised comfortably through the route under the experienced leadership of Leon. They left Vuvu early and were in Rhodes just after lunch. 
Behind them are Shaun T and the duo of Sergio, Fabio who were plagued by bike mechanicals and Vuvu road penalty. With the odds stacked against them, they set off for Lehana’s at 10am from Vuvu. By that time, most riders are half way up Lehana’s already. However, they soldiered on and eventually arrived in Rhodes at 20h40 to receive their well earned whips.

The Vuvu valley at the best of times is a scary prospect but with strength in numbers, the first of the RASA riders worked their way through tonight aiming for the red light on top of the cell phone mast which spells rest - except tonight the red light wasn’t burning tonight which made it really tricky. A few phone calls to the NightNavOffice kept them pointed in the right direction and Paul, Ian, Allen, Tessa, Johann, Merak and Rob eventually arrived at Vuvu at 20h50.  Mike Roy ended up riding with John Bowen when the group split up just after Tinana Mission. Approaching the Vuvu Valley with just after dark, they elected to sleep out in Setabalaba village. Tomorrow they will have daylight to help them up the valley but the longer day could mean a late finish in Rhodes for them.

Neil and Francois left Malekonyane at 10am and planned to get to Tinana Mission at the base of Black Fountain. Leaving the Lodge they took a detour to see the church at Mariazell but we're not sure if this was deliberate. They managed the Black Fountain section admirably but did a Mike Roy too coming off. Luckily their destination was not far. They are ensconced there and will no doubt make an early start for Vuvu then Rhodes.

Back at Malekonyane where the views of the Malutis are incredible, there is a group of RASA riders including the fat bike, Maarten Witters, the only one to complete the loop out of there to gain an advantage in the morning. It's a wise decision because the crossing of the small stream on that section in the early hours is guaranteed to freeze feet and bike parts. Tracey and John had a long day to here but will be pleased to have made it in the daylight. John Loos has tapped off his aspirations to get to Rhodes in record time and is keeping Gert Peens (RASA) company along with Anton Wood (RASA) and Tony Roche. The rest of this start group are scattered over the trail behind them.

The ride from Ntsikeni was less eventful until the wattles after Taylerville where Pierre O had us all watching in horror as he ploughed a new route on the wrong side of the river, the wrong side of the trees and probably the wrong side of the mountain. He masterfully regained the route (not without a little help from the race office) and is now on his way to Masakala along with a big group of riders. Jacques Tatersall, Lee Fuller, Gary Preston, Ant Jankovich, Dave Telford and Neville Higgs (who has had his fair share of forest exploration) got to share a candlelight dinner thanks to load shedding. Arriving later than the main bunch were Stu Brew, Steve Johnston and Dave Gace, so its a full house at Masakala tonight.

Arno Crous and Eddie Stafford who are surely going to be the fastest to Rhodes for now, had a good day today, going from Glen Edward to Malekholonyane. Des and Dane Warden however, may wrest that from them as they have had an excellent run and are at Glen Edward for the night along with Steve Kellerman who holed up for the day hoping to shake off his illness. That puts them only a half day behind and 2.5 supported stations in 36 hours.

A great day was had by overseas visitor Beat Jegerlehner riding with Liehann Loots. Willie Esterhuizen, Gerrit vd Merwe, Fanus Vorster, Gary Green, Kemsley Wood and Andrew Green all stormed their way to Ntsikeni depriving the couch watchers of any drama for the night - as Mr Ngobo from Ntsikeni remarked “my todays group is too early!"

Then the Starting Batch of the day of RASA riders, Andrew Hunt, Mike Ward, Ingrid and Michael Talbot were teamed up with a mix of experienced and  inexperienced riders taking on R2R, Pierre Singery, Brad van der Westhuizen, Paul Dumont, Joyce Benade, Nicky Nairn, Gaeren Wilkinson and Nick Taschner. They had a flawless run to Allendale and only Andrew and Mike persevered on to Centacow, eventually arriving at 20h05.

Tomorrow will bring more stories of the trail as these warriors take on an event that only if you've done it, can you fully understand it.

Thanks to Blanket Wearer/Windmill Keeper, Fiona Coward, for today's report.

RTR Batch 1 - some post ride comments

PJ Combrink: “Had an amazing ride. Still marvelling at the total make up of the race with the last 2 days' mountain biking superb and a reward for the first 3 days hard work, with Lehana’s the cherry. Loved the navigational challenges, learnt so much - I could carry on. What a complete package!”

Ernst Behrens: "Morning Meryl, I know you are already up so I can text you. Yes I had a SUPER ride and will be back, thanks again"

John Foord: "Thanks for a great life experience"

Page 10 of 13

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