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Second Place heads for Diemersfontein

Today welcomes two more riders home. Jacques Tattersall and Leon Erasmus are expected to finish at between 8pm and 9pm this evening to finish in the stellar time of about 11 days 15 hours.

They rode together for almost the entire race, splitting only when Leon suffered a sidewall cut going through the Osseberg. He rode well to rejoin Jacques and it is fitting that they will cross the line together. After an early start from McGregor, they reached Trouthaven at 10am giving them plenty of time to tackle Stettynskloof in daylight hours. They did well in the kloof reaching the exit point at 6pm with no navigation problems. They finish in what is a 6th best all time finish!

Not far behind them is Fjord Jordaan. Riding through the night from Anysberg, he slept for a few hours in Montagu before pushing on to Trouthaven where he is expected by 7pm. We will have to wait and see if he decides to take on Stettyns at night or has a long overnight recovery to tackle Stettyns in the morning. He is on track to finish in roughly 13.5 days.

Mike Potgieter continues to make solid progress arriving at Montagu just after 6pm. He has several options and could continue on to McGregor which will set him up to pass through Trouthaven mid-morning tomorrow and on to the finish.

The remaining two competitive riders, Tim James and Marnitz Nienaber, were both at Anysberg by 6pm. Tim, starting in the last batch may still be eyeing 4th place overall while Marnitz is putting in a solid performance that could see him finishing in 14 days and change. Both are comfortable riding long into the night however and may decide for a big push to try and finish tomorrow.

Also at Anysberg are Bugs du Toit, Andrew Ryan, and Gavin Robinson from Batch 4, riding together from the start of the race. They are joined by Gerhard Dreyer from Batch 2. With Montagu only 4 hours further down the road they may decide to push on and set up an easier day to Trouthaven tomorrow.

Carrying on down the trail, Derrick Bingham and Kevin Meier from Batch 2 are closing in on Rouxpos and their famed waffles. They rode a good double from Prince Albert through Gamkaskloof. Also expected to reach Rouxpos tonight are Estelle Labuschagne from Batch 2 and Francois du Toit, and Dirk Botha from Batch 5. They are climbing the ladder as the light fades and will probably have a late night to Rouxpos.

The party has rolled in Gamkaskloof. Usually a lunch stop as riders opt to ride on to Rouxpos, tonight things will be different with 6 riders sleeping there. Andy Wonnacott, Sean Privett from Batch 5 join Alex March and Gary Preston from Batch 3, Johnny Anderton from Batch 2, and Shane Little from Batch 1.

Things are even more lively on the other side of the Swartberg Pass in Prince Albert with no fewer than 10 riders enjoying Dennehof’s hospitality. Also consisting of riders from across the spectrum, this large group contains Leon Kruger and Ingrid Avidon from Batch 6; Mike Nixon from Batch 5; Adrian Payne, Nigel Payne, and George Oertel from Batch 4; and Trevor Elliot, Shaun Tissendorf, Brad vd Westhuisen, Greg Simmons, Ray Sephton, and Jan vd Putte from Batch 3.

While many of these riders have been riding together from the start, for those riding alone it can be overwhelming to suddenly encounter a large group and be forced to dust off social skills. To those watching dots, riders may seem together, but even 10 minutes apart on the trail can put riders out of sight and make it feel like riding alone. It will be interesting to see if anyone sneaks out early if the party atmosphere is too much.

With all riders now safely through the Baviaanskloof, the back of the race moves on to Willowmore. Anton Wood, Adam Wood, Bruce McQueen of Batch 6 are joined by Michael and Ingrid Talbot of Batch 7. They will face the dreary 170km to Prince Albert tomorrow. For some this stretch is the worst part of the race as the landscape is featureless and there are no navigational challenges. It’s 170km of straight, slightly uphill drag, and there is often a strong headwind.

With the leaders crossing the finish line, excitement is high at Diemersfontein. Every finisher is celebrated whether they complete in 10 days or 25. Each has gone through their own challenge and reaching the finish line is a huge achievement. While the leaders trickle in over the next few days the party will really be going by Wednesday when the large groups finish.

Liehann Loots (Blanket Wearer)


 

                                 

Welkom in die Kaap

It’s somewhere just outside Prince Albert that you get that first whiff of a scent of home. By this stage most riders’ sense of smell has been forcibly jaded, and starting to smell home provides some welcome relief from smelling something other than yourself. I’m not sure if it’s the DWK’s roadside coffee and warm smile welcoming you to his quirky home town in the Karoo, or the distant sight of a snow capped Seweweekspoort Peak, the Western Cape’s highest mountain, but it certainly brings a renewed energy and a shift in gear. And with that you know without doubt you’re almost home.

Of course though, on the Freedom Challenge the words ‘almost home’ are all too relative… there are still many days of riding, many mountains to cross, and many tests to endure.

The nutshell version of highlights of those last days would read something like this: “Conquered the Swartberg Pass. Plunged to the depths of Die Hel. Survived die Leer portage. Rouxpos waffles. Blown away by the stark beauty of the Anysberg reserve, the epitome of Karoo riding. Loved the swift descent off the Ouberg Pass. Indulged in a long awaited beer in Montagu. Devoured the finest lamb shanks ever (for those of us fortunate enough to have overnighted at the old support station of Kasra). Stettyns, (which is in its own league of highlights and deservedly gets a whole chapter on its own below). And then you get your blanket.”

It’s seldom that simple though and riders will testify to going through a rollercoaster of up’s and downs during those last few days. Not just the landscape, but on all levels. Physically, emotionally, everything seems to start kicking in during those last few days and as the journey gradually starts drawing to an end it becomes less about the bike and more about yourself. For the racers it’s a game of watching starlit skies morph into fireworks displays and gliding past stalking night time creatures as the sleep monsters start properly taking over. For most riders it’s about taking stock of the memories made, the bonds formed on the trail and the friendships that will last a lifetime. It becomes a journey of the soul more than anything during that time. We start to look inwards, and its sometimes only years later we realise what we’ve learnt and taken out of the Freedom Challenge.

A description of the final stages of the Freedom Challenge wouldn’t be complete though without a mention of the infamous valley of Stettynskloof and its far-reaching consequences. A portage of some 10kms but one that takes well up to 8hours. 

Running through the mountains that form the final barrier between the outer reaches of the Karoo and the Cape Winelands, it is the last hurdle standing between riders and their blankets. 

It is no ordinary place and never to be underestimated, and it seems to be the home to every variety of barbed fynbos on the planet, a valley filled with every thorn known to mankind. Various words, mostly not appropriate to be in print here, have been used to try and describe to bystanders what it is like to travel through that valley but perhaps Kevin Davie summed it up best in his book “Freedom Rider”, with his words “We followed what seemed to be a path or a way through, then we ran out of a way forward, but getting back out the way we came was equally difficult. It was as if the plants and bushes were growing around us… You wonder why you are attempting such a hike with a bike when a panga would be a better implement.”

Adding a mysterious and sombre air to the silence that hangs over the valley is the remains of the SA Airforce Shackleton that went down in 1963. The wreckage is strewn far and wide in the valley, some riders will come across a few small pieces of it, a window or a wheel, while others may encounter the large section of the fuselage that lies adrift in the fynbos, slowly being swallowed up by the landscape around it. Regardless, one can’t help passing by with a sense of quiet respect for those who lost their lives in the sky that night, and in a way acknowledging and being grateful for the lives we have and the ability to be out there doing what we love doing, and not taking life for granted for a moment.

The valley has uprooted many a dream, leaving its scars on shredded limbs and torn clothes, and leaving in its wake memories haunted by vivid and recurring nightmares, of your feet disappearing into bottomless pits of fynbos, of your arms fighting to make one step forward and being pulled two back by the foliage that seems to cling onto bikes and bodies in a desperate bid to push our sense of humour to the absolute end. And true to form, just when you think you’re over the final rise, you catch sight of another in the distance. With another plantation of fynbos in-between.

It is a long, hard fought battle to the top of the final hill, to the end of the valley where the fynbos finally thins out and you can lift the bike from your shoulders and remove the chainring from your cheekbone and the handlebars from your eye socket, and start regaining some sense of dignity again.

In a way, the presence of Stettyns at the end of the race is truly fitting. It is a monumental test. A justified grand finale on an event that is for some riders, a life changing challenge.

From the end of the valley, the meandering road that winds it way to the N1 provides some welcome relief, though the presence of a gate, topped with razor wire, just shy of the freeway has caught some unsuspecting victims in the past. In 2013 Charles Mansfield came hurtling down there in the dark, chasing his own personal goals. His account is an entertaining example of sheer determination on the home straight - “…there’s a theory that if you can get your head through a gap, you can in all likelihood get the rest of your body through the same gap. Under the gate was a 30cm clearing.. I proceeded to dismantle my bike into parts, unpack my backpack, feed all of these parts under the gate one-by-one and then went down as flat as I could, head went through, and inch by inch the rest of my body followed. I was through. Now, at 10pm, here I was looking down on the Huguenot tunnel, doing a bike re-build…”

And then, after weeks of toil, you find yourself standing at the top of the Du Toits Kloof pass staring down at the final few kilometres. There are no words to describe that feeling but you stand there and take it in for a while and think of where you've come from, and then head home, through the forests and into the back entrance of Diemersfontein. Take your mind off the game for a second though, thinking its over before it really is, and you’ll find yourself on the wrong side of the outskirts of Paarl. The trackers on Tim James and Andrew Barnes, 1st and 2nd place with not even 10 minutes separating them, provided a nail-biting finish for the dot-watchers in 2015 as they both went touring through the vineyards, and you can only consider the Freedom in the bag when you are on the dam wall and rounding the final few hundred metres to the finish.

Eric Tollner (Blanket Wearer)

 

New Record: 10 Days 6 Hours and 40 minutes

What a ride! The accolades and congratulations have been pouring in. The day belongs to Martin Dreyer. 

After an incredible ride from Maritzburg to Cambria, a sub 10-day finish seemed possible, almost inevitable.  Then Martin rode headlong into ferocious winds that wore him down. However, he never relented or held back his efforts.  At 6pm yesterday evening, he arrived at Trouthaven, and with 12 hours on hand to traverse Stettyns, it still seemed that a sub 10-hour time was possible. But it ain’t over until the irascible mistress, Stettyns, says it’s over.

Even Martin’s subject to and affected by the caprices of the Freedom trail, and that’s what makes the Freedom Challenge unique – it’s no pushover.  It constantly reminds even the best of contenders that no one conquers the Freedom Challenge.  Martin knows this better than anyone. He’s had to test her every mood and whim to complete the race in 10 days, now twice.  His finishing effort and time this year is the real deal.

Martin dealt with Stettyns demons, endured a tough night in the rough, came through and improved on his own record time set in 2012 by 10 hours.  To achieve this, he averaged 19 hours a day in the saddle. He now joins Tim James as the only 3-time winners of RASA.  His finish time of 10d6h40m is a phenomenal endurance endeavour, a world class performance. Will his record stand for a long time? In my opinion, yes. Anyone with aspirations of bettering Martin’s performance will need to be incredibly talented, extremely well prepared, have extensive course knowledge and be prepared to endure and push his physical limits and personal endurance boundaries to the brink of exhaustion.  There can’t be many candidates with the attributes that fit the bill and who are prepared to go as deep into the hurt locker as Martin is prepared to go.

While the Freedom Challenge community was holding its breath, watching and absorbing Martin’s superman efforts, the rest of the field have been engaged in their own personal battles and difficulties.

Chief statistician, Carl Scholtz, reports that there were 48 starters this year and there have been 9 withdrawals thus far. All riders have now entered the Baviaanskloof or forged beyond. Most of those who get this far on the trail, persevere to the finish at Diemersfontein.

The Leon Erasmus and Jacques Tattersall partnership was reunited after a brief enforced split in Mordor due to a mechanical.  Although their race has been somewhat overshadowed by Martin’s solo efforts at the front, they’ve kept their heads down and are putting in a sterling performance. They are closing in on Diemersfontein, are in joint second place and are set for an impressive finishing time. They’ve passed through Anysberg and might not rest until they get to Trouthaven late tonight to get ready for the big push to the finish tomorrow.

The other long term relationship between Fjord Jordaan and Mike Potgieter also came to an end in the Baviaans with Fjord surging on ahead. Fjord is staying over at Anysberg and might try for Trouthaven tomorrow.  Mike is also riding impressively and they might well overnight together, or he might stop short at Rouxpos.

Tim James and Marnitz Nienaber have been putting in the hard yards for a few days now and are another pair chasing hard for top 5 positions. They’ve gone through Prince Albert, and Marnitz has hunkered down in Gamkaskloof for the night with an upset stomach. But that won’t stop him from soldiering on tomorrow. Will Tim stay over or take on The Ladder in the dark and overnight at Rouxpos? Waffles have a siren call.

Batch 4 breakaways, Andrew Ryan, Bugs du Toit and Gavin Robinson have been on the charge and by mid-afternoon found themselves with Batch 2 frontrunner Gerhard Dreyer at Prince Albert. All four of them have foregone the trappings of Dennehof and are headed into the mysterious valley of Gamkaskloof for the night.

Kevin Meier and Derrick Bingham have bedded down in Dennehof this evening. Joining them are the irrepressible and tenacious Estelle Labuschagne with Johnny Anderton in tow.  Sole Batch 1 survivor, Shane Little has grimly had his head down on the tough flat, sandy section and will also be in Prince Albert tonight.

Alex March, Gary Preston, Andy Wonnacott, Sean Preston, Dirk Botha and Francois du Toit are all on the long haul between Willowmore and Prince Albert.  It’s anybody’s guess where they’ll rest up tonight but they might elect to stop at Rondawel. As an overnight stop, Rondawel has never been as busy as it has been this year.

The Batch 3 train of Greg Simmons, Trevor Elliot, Ray Sephton, Shaun Tischendorf, Jan van der Putte and Brad van der Westhuizen have all made Willowmore and will enjoy the evening at The Willow. A few beers will be drunk in the quirky bar, no doubt. Also headed for The Willows tonight, but won’t make it for evening sundowners, are George Oertel, the brother’s Payne, Mike Nixon, Leon Kruger and Ingrid Avidon.

Bringing up the rear, enjoying themselves thoroughly and just starting their Baviaans journey are Bruce McQueen, Anton and Adam Wood as well as Michael and Ingrid Talbot. BAA and Minky are at Cambria tonight and will ride the Kloof tomorrow.

Martin has deservedly been crowned king, but there’s still a lot of racing and adventure left in this year’s RASA.  Each and every blanket must be earned, and that’s the way it should be.

Peter Stephens (Blanket Wearer)


 

                             

Spotlight on this year's winner
 
Martin Dreyer arrived at Diemersfontein in Wellington today, crossing the finish line at 12h40. He left Pietermaritzburg on Tuesday 13 June and his official finishing time this year is 10d6h40min, beating his own race record by exactly 10 hours.
 
From the moment the last racing batch hit the road through the Bisley Nature Reserve, it was clear that they all meant business and the initial pace was hot. Although things settled down during the course of the morning, Martin kept the pressure on - his first day ending at Glen Edward that night at 22h30. An impressive first day’s riding which saw him covering two and a half stages of the route in one push. This wasn’t the end of it though, as he put in a similar effort on his second day by reaching Vuvu soon after nightfall. A few hours sleep there and he was off to tackle Lehanas which meant he arriving in Rhodes just shy of 48h after he had left PMB. 
 
From there he built a gap of nearly 24h over both the current record and his closest rivals. Many will point to the good weather as a contributing factor for his sustained quick pace and this was indeed a help in the first 6 days of his ride but the mental and physical demands of those long sustained days on the bike are still enormous. 
 
Things changed when he turned west to start the journey up the Baviaanskloof. In what he described as his 'toughest day ever on a bike' he fought persistent headwinds and cold temperatures on the way to Willowmore. The trying conditions persisted for the next 2 days which meant his pace slowed gradually as he fought to maintain his momentum.  He was still able to keep moving forward and maintain his lead over his pursuers, as they were battling the same conditions out on the trail. 
 
Coming in to the last support station at Trouthaven, he was still on track for a possible sub 10 day finish and after a short stop there to refuel, he headed off to Stettynskloof in the darkness. What ensued was a night he would rather forget - his initial progress was swift but at the end of the new path, he found himself on unfamiliar terrain. Trying to find some recognisable features, he criss crossed the side of the valley with only his headlamp to light the way. A fall in a freezing river left him drenched and frozen but he kept moving to keep warm. After a few more hours of searching for a way out, he finally stopped to rest and wait for dawn, hoping that daylight would bring with it the solution. As is often the case, the sunlight brought clarity and he finally started making his way up and out of the kloof. The new day brought clear skies and the sun shone down on him as he pedalled the remaining kilometres to Diemersfontein. His arrival at the finish was an emotional reunion with his family and some friends - a mixture of excitement, relief and awe. 
 
One thing that became evident as Martin made his way down the trail this year, was the positive way in which he engaged with fellow riders he met along the way - as he caught up to and passed other riders, he took time to chat and was always encouraging and friendly. Many riders were buoyed by these interactions, helping them to continue with their respective journeys feeling renewed. A testament to the spirit of this event and the remarkable character of the man.
 
Well done Martin on a phenomenal ride and for inspiring others along the way.
 
 

                               

The Final Push

 

Normally when riders reach Trouthaven they stop for the night before the final push to Diemersfontein. Nothing is easy in the Freedom Challenge, and this is particularly true for the last day. Riders face the toughest challenge of the race in the 13km that is Stettynskloof. 
 
Just the name of the place can strike fear into even seasoned Blanker Wearers. What starts as a beautiful valley surrounded by epic craggy peaks quickly becomes a claustrophobic nightmare. After 1km the path becomes less distinct and riders are forced to battle their way through thick vegetation, across rivers, and over large boulders. Unrelenting, even the exit is a steep hike-a-bike up a precarious slope.
 
Martin Dreyer, however, is no normal rider. Already legend in Freedom Challenge circles as the current record holder of both RASA and RTR, fans and spectators of the race were hoping to witness something amazing when they saw his name on the roster. He has not disappointed.
 
Arriving at Trouthaven at 17h40 he stayed for only an hour before setting out at last light. Beating his previous record of 10d16h40m was almost a certainty but the real question had become - can finish under 10 days? He had his work cut out for him. He had 11h30, which under good conditions should be very doable (the author has managed 9h30), but at night and with light rains there was not much of a buffer. The river was high after recent rains but the drought had thinned the vegetation and the recent clearing of the original firebreak path about two thirds up the valley offered some respite (no doubt good news for those following). 
 
After a long night of dot watching, it was clear to see the impact of the newly cleared path, as he made good progress along the valley. But the last third of the valley has proven to be just a unrelenting as before - his dot tracing a sqiggly line as he fought to find a way through the thick bush. Realising that making it by 6am this morning was no longer possible, Martin appears to have stopped for a nap, possibly to wait for sunrise and the fresh perspective that it brings. In daylight it will be far easier to see a line through the bush towards the exit slope. There's no real rush now either, as he is comfortably within finishing before his current record time. After his relentless chase across the country for the last 10 days, he may finally be able to relax and really enjoy his last few hours on the trail.
 
Liehann Loots (Blanket Wearer)
 
 
 

 

The weather ups the ante

Hectic wind and rain played havoc with rider ambitions today. Up front, lone ranger, Martin Dreyer, has battled the elements which seem intent on spoiling his attempt to lower the record from 10 days 16 hours. However, as he takes on the notorious Stettyns Kloof tonight, he will be conscious of the finish line and nothing is going to stop him, not wind, rain, protea bushes or darkness.

Stettyns Kloof falls under Cape Nature and they have raised issues with riders camping out and hiking different routes in attempts to find easier/better lines. They have re-opened a firebreak (with the help of Theo van Dyk - Blanket Wearer) which will help with some of the bundu bashing. It doesn't make the kloof easier, especially when you're the first to traverse it in this year's race.

Behind Martin by some way but still on target for a magnificent result are Jacques Tattersall and Leon Erasmus. Leon missed the Baviaanskloof virtual gate but with the enforced rest, charged through to catch up with his riding partner. They have cleared Die Leer, and are on their way to Rouxpos despite rain and dark.

A few riders holed up today and have started late, hoping that the wind will die off. Another duo has split up with Fjord Jordaan holding steady and riding through Prince Albert and onto the Swartberg Pass. Mike Potgieter took some strain today with uncharacteristic navigational errors and a long haul to Rondavel. He spent the afternoon there, hoping the wind will die down this evening. He left for Prince Albert and if he is recovered enough, perhaps even on to Gamkaskloof (Die Hel).

Arriving at Rondavel this evening are Bugs du Toit, Gavin Robinson, Gerhard Dreyer and the unlucky Andrew Ryan. Andrew's rear thru' axle broke so they are hoping to make a bush fix until they can get to Prince Albert for a spare and a time penalty. They'll be hoping for better weather conditions tomorrow too.

Further back in Willowmore, similar strategies have evolved. Tim James left Damsedrif at about 11pm but also took strain getting to the small Karoo town. Marnitz Nienaber left at 3am, picking up Tim on the way and getting in around midday. They opted to take the time to sleep and left late afternoon to make use of less wind and a long final push to the finish.

Still ensconced in Willowmore are Shane Little, Kevin Meier and Derrick Bingham. They will be joined later tonight by Estelle Labuschagne and Johnny Anderton. These two may have made the right move, moving through the night while conditions are calmer.

Damsedrif is packed out tonight. The big group of Ray Sephton, Jan van der Putte, Greg Simmons, Andy Wonnacott, Sean Privett, Gary Preston, Alex March, Shaun Tischendorf and Trevor Elliot left Kudu Kaya at 5.30am but once again, weather curtailed any ambitions of reaching Willowmore in one go.

About to join them are Dirk Botha, Brad van der Westhuizen and Francois du Toit. Brad will be chuffed to reunite with his original group. They left Hadley at 3.30am and slipped through the Baviaanskloof gate after a quick turnaround at Kudu Kaya. A sterling effort.

Waiting their turn to tackle the Baviaanskloof are Mike Nixon, Leon Kruger, George Oertel, Nigel and Adrian Payne and the effervescent Ingrid Avidon. They'll be hoping for better weather as well in order to make the double up to Willowmore. However, the Death by Chocolate at Damsedrif might have another say in the matter.

Closing the support stations are the final group on the trail of Mike and Ingrid Talbot, Adam and Anton Wood and Bruce McQueen. Citing the cold wind as the reason for staying over at Bucklands, they'll have a big push to get through the Osseberg tomorrow. That is, if the hosts at Hadley, don't entice them to stay.

From the Baviaanskloof, it's possible to do double-up days all the way to Trouthaven...that is, if the weather is kind. Let's hope it is.

Fiona Coward (Blanket Wearer)

 

 

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