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Reflecting on RASA 2017

How does anyone do justice to the three week orgy of pain, suffering and celebration. The ability for non-riders to watch friends, family and legends struggle, endure and enjoy makes this a parallel train track. Those on the trail and those on the website. Some have been there and re-live every twist and turn all over again, while others watch the colour streams inching their way from support station to the next and shake their heads. As Whip Bearer, Rob Collier said, “There were two extremes for me. Watching Martin Dreyer hit Rhodes in under 48 hours and watching Floris Botha struggling on a daily basis. Both extreme athletes in their own right.” And that, friends, is the RASA in a nutshell. It's not about genetics. It's about endurance, determination, bloody-mindedness and a will to get to the end.

However, even the best and most prepared fall prey to the whims of the trail and body. Heartbreak stories abound. John Meterlekamp reached Glen Edward only to hear he had lost his house in the Knysna fires. John Bowen put it all on the line to reach Hofmeyer before the cut-off only to withdraw because of his damaged ribs from an earlier fall. Philippa Crocker, all the way from England, won our hearts with her tenacity but in the end, withdrew as she struggled to make each day. The cumulative fatigue, the cold and the stresses around navigating make it tough on even the most experienced. Novice, Floris Botha, also made it to Hofmeyer before calling it a day. His own nemesis was navigation which made for long days but he hung on and hung on earning the dot watchers respect.

Leon van der Nest, one time RASA finisher, was also unable to collect his second blanket, leaving the race at Tenahead, just outside of Rhodes. Stewart Lombard and Annie Labuschagne, both experienced riders and Windmill and Whip owners, were also forced to withdraw at Chesneywold for injuries. Father and son combo from East London, Leon and David Kruger cruised their way down the trail until David (the son) had to return to work. He left the trail at Toekomst. One of the toughest calls was Derrick Bingham who reached Montagu, so close to the end, before withdrawing with a blown achilles tendon. And in the last start batch, where the rivalry between Alex Harris (two time winner) and Martin Dreyer (record holder) promised an extraordinary race but fizzled when Alex withdrew at Glen Edward with a chest infection.

So perhaps the rivalry fizzled, but riders and supporters were treated to some of the most remarkable efforts in the history of the race. Martin Dreyer scorched through the route, reaching Rhodes in an incredible sub-48 hours. This set him up for a record breaking ride despite many kilometres still to go. He did not disappoint. He charged through the field reaching Trouthaven (the last support station) with about 24 hours in hand to beat his record and about 12 hours to lower it to below 10 days. As the only rider to attempt Stettynskloof in the dark this year, he and all of us were reminded how there are always stings in the tail. Yet, his indefatigable attitude got him over the finish line, still lowering the record by 10 hours. A true champion.

Rounding out the podium places were Jacques Tattersall and Leon Erasmus. Apart from a short-lived separation in the Baviaanskloof due to a mechanical, these two pushed each other relentlessly in search of a good finish. For a while, they looked good for coming in under the old record as well, but tough riding conditions and a head wind from hell put paid to that. Their 11 days 14 hours still ranks among the top rides of all time.

This year also saw the awarding of a 7th blanket to Marnitz Nienaber, and also to the most decorated RASA rider, Tim James. That's quite incredible and we can expect to see them back again. Mention must be made of Fjord Jordaan and Mike Potgieter who were also challengers for a top five finish. They rode together until Willowmore when the bad weather hit. Fjord forged through it gaining time on his riding companion and finished in 13 days, one day ahead of Mike.

This year was also characterised by large groups sticking together. The last two days in Stettynskloof had twelve and thirteen riders respectively forging a path up it's gnarly banks. Strength in numbers perhaps? The race wouldn't be complete without someone sleeping rough. This year, that honour goes to Estelle Labuschagne, who slept out not once, but twice. (The third time was at a farm near Seweweekspoort) Accepting her third blanket, we get the feeling that she didn't think twice about it. It simply had to be done.

Collecting a second blanket is Ingrid Talbot who took line honours for the women this year. She and husband Michael (known as team Minky), crossed the line in under 18 days. Five women lined up at the start with three finishing. The other woman to finish was Ingrid Avidon who set about raising money for the Freedom Challenge Scholarship Fund. As she tweeted her way down the trail, she was also strongly motivated to collect her second blanket and support scholars at the Mariazell Secondary School near Malekgolonyane. 

Most groups combined experience with newcomers. Novices receiving their blankets this year are: Shane Little, Johnny Anderton, Kevin Meier, Jan van der Putte, Greg Simmons, Gary Preston, Alex March, Trevor Elliot, Gerhard Dreyer, Shaun Tischendorf, Andrew Ryan, George Oertel, Nigel Payne, Adrian Payne, , Adam Wood, Bruce McQueen, Mike Nixon and Dirk Botha. Congratulations on your achievement and may your blanket bring you many happy memories.

Having done the trail once before helps in the mental and physical preparation. Yet, riders never know what will be thrown at them, testing their mettle. Even the most battle hardened, will have to dig deep. To those who have achieved blankets a second time around or more, we salute your tenacity. Congratulations to Bugs du Toit, Gavin Robinson, Anton Wood, Leon Kruger (oldest man in the race at 64), Sean Privett, Andy Wonnacott, Francois du Toit and Brad van der Westhuizen.

You may think that's a wrap but it's not over, there are still the shorter versions of RASA to look forward to such as Spring Ride to Rhodes, Race to Cradock and Race to Willowmore. Plan your diaries and sign up for an adventure of your own.

Fiona Coward (Blanket Wearer)

 

                              

RASA 2017 Finishing times:

Martin Dreyer - 10d6h40min

Jacques Tattersall & Leon Erasmus - 11d15h5min

Tim James - 13d9h15min

Fjord Jordaan - 13h11h17min

Mike Potgieter - 14d9h45min

Marnitz Nienaber - 14d10h22min

Bugs du Toit & Andrew Ryan - 17d8h15min

Michael & Ingrid Talbot - 17d9h46min

Gavin Robinson - 17d10h9min

Francois du Toit & Dirk Botha - 17d11h26min

Leon Kruger - 17d12h36min

Ingrid Avidon - 17d12h36min

Andy Wonnacott & Sean Privett - 18d7h38min

Anton Wood, Adam Wood & Bruce McQueen - 18d8h

Mike Nixon - 18d12h36min

Gerhard Dreyer - 19d8h15min

Adrian Payne, Nigel Payne & George Oertel - 19d12h38min

Kevin Meier - 20d11h26min

Gary Preston & Alex March - 20d12h25min

Ray Sephton, Shaun Tischendorf & Jan vd Putte - 21d10h20min

Brad vd Westhuizen - 21d11h

Trevor Elliot & Greg Simmons - 21d11h

Estelle Labuschagne - 22d4h30min

Johnny Anderton - 22d12h2min

Shane Little - 23d12h2min

 

The Final Race Report for RASA 2017, but wait there’ll be more…

The final curtain comes down on RASA 2017 today and it was fitting that the weather was fine with clear blue skies for the final batch of 13 diverse and colourful riders who set out from Trouthaven to tackle Stettynskloof this morning.

In total, 14 riders are expected across the finish line into Diemersfontein today to claim their deserved blankets. Estelle Labushagne failed to complete her journey yesterday and was forced to spend her second night out rough during her adventure this year. Estelle was agonizingly no more than a hundred or so meters from the jeep track at the top of Stettyns gorge last night when she stopped and hunkered down for the night. Had she found the jeep track she would’ve been able to complete her journey last night, albeit that it would’ve been a late finish.  However, she couldn’t quite make the connection to the track at the top of the final scramble at the top of Stettyns and had to endure another night out in the cold. Ben de Lange quipped that she didn’t want to inconvenience the reception party by keeping them up unduly late. But, true to Estelle’s indomitable spirit, she merely picked up the pieces at first light this morning and simply got back on with the job on hand. Once Estelle got her early morning bearings, she made good progress and rolled into Diemersfontein, without any further ado, to a warm welcome at 10:30, having spent 30 hours on the mountain.

Setting out from Trouthaven sensibly at 5:00 this morning was Batch 3 brigade, comprising Trevor Elliot, Shaun Tischendorf, Greg Simmons, Ray Sephton, Jan van de Putte and Brad van der Westhuizen.

Joining the Batch 3’s on an early start was the other trail alliance merger of ABA and Minky, comprising Mike and Inky Talbot, Adam and Anton Wood as well as Bruce McQueen.

Appropriately, starting off a little later than the rest were the recent hedonistic pairing of Johnny Anderton and Shane Little. They were still shrugging off trail indulgence lethargy and other pleasantries and got off to a leisurely start to their last day on the trail.  They’ve eked out the gratifications of the trail, taking the philosophical approach that if you’re not racing, why make haste?  The pair made heavy weather early on and only cleared the head of the dam at 8:00.  They continued to lag just behind the pack throughout the day’s proceedings and rightfully laid claim this year’s RASA Lanterne Rouge jersey.

The early going up the valley was spearheaded by the ABA troika, followed by the Batch 3’ers with Minky in attendance in the mix just behind them.  The full group made steady headway, with ABA arriving at the base of the steep exit climb out of Stettyns gorge around 10:45. At about the same time Shane and Johnny arrived at the Avatar like, surreal, floating, self-supporting vegetation obstacle.  Whereas the rest of the pack had traversed the labyrinth up high, appropriately Shane and Johnny went low, skirting under Lady Stettyn’s petticoats.

ABA crested the climb, out of temptress Stettyn’s grasp in short shrift, and were onto the Jeep track home just before noon and got the finish at Diemersfontein at 14:00 for a pizza lunch.  A very good day’s work.

Meanwhile, back in the valley of sin, Ingrid and Mike had edged ahead of the Farmers who collectively went into laager mode through the maze muddle, but everyone regrouped at the base of the steep climb out.  Everyone, that is, barring Little Johnny who were still fighting the good fight a bit further back. Ingrid and Mike climbed out via the conventional route, but the Farmers went deeper into the kloof before scrambling up. The two groups emerged together just before the start of the Jeep track. The conclusion to be reached is that the better choice of line to take is inconclusive. Little Johnny crossed the river early, having stayed in touch with the two groups ahead, surreptitiously observing the good lines and discarding the minor blunders. They summited at 14:00 and, not being in a particular hurry, had a good rest before pressing on to the finish. What an adventure.

Ingrid and Mike stole away to cross the finish line at 15.46, putting Ingrid in first place in the women's race. The Batch 3 finally split with Ray Sephton, Jan van der Putte and Shaun Tischendorf crossing the line at 16.20.

Trevor Elliot, Greg Simmons and Brad van der Westhuizen followed them in at 17.00. Brad will be relieved to only take one day to conquer Stettynskloof this year. The Lanterne Rouge pair of Shane and Johnny closed this year’s RASA an hour later and will do the traditional celebration with pizza and a bottle of Diemersfontein's finest.

I gotta feeling that tonight’s gonna be a good night, that tonight’s gonna be a good, good night. There will be revelry, and no doubt Klein Khaki Shane won’t be a shrinking violet lurking in the background, but will be a prominent participant in the merriment. What a celebration it will be.

Peter Stephens (Blanket Wearer)

 

                               

Spotlight on the finish line

With multiple riders getting to the finish in the last few days, lets take a look at the recent arrivals:

Kevin Meier arrived on Tuesday in a finishing time of 20d11h26min. As a novice, he rode a steady race and particularly enjoyed the navigation aspect of the challenge. Riding with Derrick Bingham for most of the way, he was disappointed when Derrick had to withdraw in Montagu but was happy to complete his own ride and earn his first FC blanket.

Francois du Toit and Dirk Botha finished with Kevin, although having started in a later batch, their elapsed time was 17d11h26min. For Francois it was his second blanket and for Dirk his first. They rode the whole way together and also shared a few days on the trail with Dirk’s brother, Floris Botha, who sadly withdrew at Hofmeyr.

Andy Wonnacott and Sean Privett arrived at the finish yesterday afternoon after an early start from Trouthaven. For both of them this ride earned them a second blanket in a finishing time of   18d7h38min.

Next to arrive were Gary Preston and Alex March in a time of 20d12h25min. This was Gary’s second blanket, in a slightly quicker tie than his first and for Alex, his first FC blanket.

Crossing the line soon after them were a group of riders: Ingrid Avidon, who earned her second blanket in a time of 17d12h36min and did so in fine style, keeping followers entertained along the way with her humorous messages and photo and video updates - all in aid of charity as she managed to raise nearly R60k for the FC Schorlarship Fund in the process.

With her were Leon Erasmus and Mike Nixon. Leon started out with his son David, who unfortunately had to withdraw at Toekomst. Leon, the oldest competitor in this year’s field (64) put in another solid effort and also improved on his previous time, crossing the line in 17d12h36min for his second blanket. Mike earned his first blanket in a finishing time of 18d12h36min.

The remaining three riders had ridden together from the start and made sure they crossed the finish line in the same fashion: Nigel Payne, his brother Adrian Payne and George Oertel completed their ride in 19d12h38min and earned themselves their first FC blankets. They rode steadily and comfortably and thoroughly enjoyed the whole adventure together.

 

And then it was the penultimate day

Today’s report is relatively easy to write from the perspective of trying to see who is moving where. In essence, the riders are either leaving Trouthaven for Diemersfontein or are headed to Trouthaven – hopefully, you get the picture – it's focus time for the riders. So lets chat about some of the other interesting stuff – the people finishing this journey in the next few hours. Today I will take the liberty of using their race numbers (some permanent and some prospective), this is significant because for today’s finishers as they will from here on out be known by their permanent numbers. Those resting up at Trouthaven will be very aware of not just getting their blanket, but also putting their name on that leaderboard tomorrow.

Setting out early this morning amid the odd freezing rainshower into Stettyns were riders 19 and 64, Andy Wonnacott and Shaun Privett, both finishing their second RASA today. They made short work of the valley and then took the direct line-of-sight route up and out of the valley. They clearly meant business and scooted into Diemersfontein for lunch. Shaun will be pleased to get his blanket on the lawn in front of the homestead. In 2012 he received it on the banks of the Berg River a week later – he being one of the last to do the Extreme Triathlon. Andy and Shaun are great mates and have deep reverence for what the trail offers, they both make great riding partners being knowledgeable and unflappable. Great ride, guys.

At the time of writing and just about to start the exit out of the valley to the farm Phisantekraal above the N1 was permanent number holder rider 161, being Leon Kruger. Leon had hoped to finish the ride with his son David who had to return home early. While these setbacks might seem minor, many have quit in the past when their riding partners have had to leave the trail. Leon got on with the task and by all accounts, his trail experience has been invaluable to those who have ridden with him at various times during the past few weeks.

Estelle Labuschagne, rider number 55 will be remembered for her night out on the trail. It was at a time when riders were complaining of bitterly cold nights that Estelle found herself alone and lost just short of Toekomst. She settled down and waited for the sun to come up which it did. She didn’t quit, she didn’t throw her toys. Later that morning she had thawed out and was pictured smiling next to Martin Dreyer at one of the mid-morning support stations – showing that she is made of the right stuff and should serve as an inspiration of what to do when the going gets tough. At the time of writing, Estelle was still exiting the Stettynskloof while all the men and Ingrid Avidon were well on their way to the N1. She should find the track before dark, but as we know, that should not concern her, she’ll just be in a bit later tonight.

Next up are the inseparable Adrian (252) and Nigel Payne (251) and their mate George Oertel (255). These three took a break from corporate life and immersed themselves in the trail for three weeks. By all accounts, they have been rewarded with an experience which has suggested they will be back. From the bleakness of the state of South African business, they have seen another side of the breadth of South Africa which gives us hope. They will be remembered for their politeness and manners, which in a world of riders increasingly demanding much from their race organisers is a refreshing approach and one which is consistent with the ethos of the trail where one is hosted as a guest, rather than served as a racer. Well done gents on the manner you have gone about your business.

Leading the aforementioned group out of the valley via the traditional exit is Gary Preston, rider number 211, he’s also set to finish his second RASA. Gary will be finishing alongside his fellow start group rider and mate Alex March (245). Alex has had a very solid outing for his first time on the trail, hardly putting a foot wrong. They will be joined by rider number 52, Ingrid Avidon who is also getting her second blanket. Ingrid has, with a great sense of humour, photoblogged her way down the trail, clearly also enjoying the free spirit experience.

Gary Preston was a joint recipient of the Stone Saddle award in 2015. His efforts to finish and conquer Stettyns were described by fellow blanket wearer Stu Brew as follows, “The final day of RASA requires extended qualities of resilience, tenacity and resolve. In 2015, Gary Preston displayed an awe inspiring depth and the extent to which these attributes can be held within an individual; demonstrating to the rest of us mere mortals that in fact, Stettyns is easy.” Well done Gary for another remarkable effort.

Mike Nixon (224) is one of those riders who has finished every Cape Epic stage ever! – today he finishes another of the big challenges he has taken on in life. The great thing about what he achieves today, is that it is so incomparable to anything else he has ever done. I am sure the last thing on his mind will be comparisons as today will be all about finishing an incredible three week journey where he has met so many different riding mates and different experiences on his mtb. Well done Mike.

So those are the finishers today, a big group and I have no doubt, a very big welcoming party, Diemersfontein is set to celebrate tonight.

Back to Trouthaven. Getting in early were Trevor Elliot (280), Shaun Tischendorf (246), Greg Simmons (197), Ray Sephton aka Barkley Boy (123) and Jan van de Putte. They will have booked early beds at the Trouthaven cottages. Joining them is Brad van der Westhuizen, rider number 170, who will be looking to show the rest of aforementioned, the route to their permanent numbers. My guess is that with the predicted weather being good tomorrow, this group will be headed for a lunchtime finish at Diemersfontein tomorrow. (They have had data signal all afternoon so they will be reading this, please don’t disappoint me, guys. PS. Brad the beer is cold at the end and the Cape rivers just look like beer).

Mike and Inky Talbot as riders number 196 and 195 respectively have lost their sweeper tag today as they prepare to get their second blanket tomorrow. They got into Trouthaven just after lunch with a very brisk rider through from Montagu where they had an early start. Behind them are Johnny Anderton (201) and Shane Little (223). These lads teamed up a day or two ago and appear to have agreed that the Cape winelands and the Breede River Valley are worth taking in. Tomorrow they will go about working off some of the calories they have consumed over the last two days. It wouldn’t surprise me if there is more than energy drinks in their packs for a little pre-celebration in Trouthaven tonight. Well done Johnny, you are nearly 2300km done. I remember our chat earlier this year on a casual ride and you told me all about a thing called the Freedom Challenge that you were going to do.

Bringing it home into Trouthaven by mid-afternoon were the brothers Wood, Anton rider number 135 and Adam (301) along with their riding partner Bruce McQueen (239). Like the Talbots, they too got going very early from Montagu and didn’t spend too much time and effort making their way across the Breede River Valley.

Tomorrow, the final 13 riders should all finish in Diemersfontein. What a celebration that will be.

Charl van der Spuy (Blanket Wearer)



 

Warriors All

The racing snakes have cleared the decks and our attention is now on the average rider. Although, there are riders out there who are far from average but have chosen to ride day by day and relish the experience of the race. The closing sections of the Freedom Challenge Race Across South Africa invokes all manner of emotions for the participants, not to mention the lives of the dot watchers. The racing snakes crunch the numbers factoring distance and speed that allows their average speed to spike up before Stettynskloof damps it down. They are focussed on the end goal which is measured in days and hours and how they will stack up in the top 5 or 10.

Others are getting to the end of a multi-week journey that has in many cases reshaped the way they feel about riding a bike. It matters little if you finish in 10 days + Vat per Martin Dreyer or you take full advantage of the 26 days you are allowed to finish the race. Everyone who finishes gets the same reward - a blanket, a pizza, and the respect of your family and friends. I can assure you that every blanket wrapped around the shoulders of a Freedom Challenge finisher feels as special as the next. At the end of the day, the blanket is not the actual reward, it is merely a symbol of a journey travelled, of a special life experience centered around a bike.

Some people get to Prince Albert and put their heads down and push hard for Diemersfontein because they have been on the trail for weeks and long for the normalcy of their everyday lives. Others have settled into a new normal which they find refreshing and are in no hurry to shed.

Kevin Meier, Francois du Toit and Dirk Botha overnighted at Trouthaven getting on their way at 05h30 to tackle the Beast. They were at the dam wall by 06h30 to start their 7 km trek. Steady progress had them out the Kloof at 14h00. It seems the Rocky Scree is now playing off-Broadway and is no longer the show it once was. Most Kloof visitors opting to take a line that passes north of what used to be a main attraction. As interesting an experience as Stettynskloof is, I think most visitors can't wait for the final act that seems them topping out near the jeep track at the far end with a magical view of the valley below.

They arrived in Diemersfontein just before 5.30pm where Francois received his second blanket while Dirk and Kevin were stripped of their novice titles and formally inducted into the FC Blanket Clan.

Ingrid Avidon left McGregor 04h30 with Gary Preston and Alex March close behind. All three were taken in by the dead end Brandvlei quarry road but corrected quickly without significant loss of time. Alex and Gary arrived at Trouthaven at 11h20 with Ingrid forty minutes adrift. They figured it was safer to call it a day than risk tackling the Kloof in fading light. So it's a short day on the bike (nearly 8 hours - short day in FC speak) with plenty of time to think about what faces them tomorrow. Gary and Ingrid have memories to draw on while Alex will probably get to hear the odd tale or two while they wait.

Andy Wonnacott, Sean Privett and Estelle Labuschagne opted for a later start, heading out at 07h00. They had a clean run into Trouthaven arriving early afternoon adding to the numbers that swelled over the course of the day.

Leon Kruger and Mike Nixon got an early start out of Montagu and were through Ashton around 05h00. At 05h30 they were passing Van Loveren Wine Estate. In spite of a claim by one wine lover that everyone stops there, they didn't; besides, the bistro only opens at 10h00. They pushed on, crossing the Breede river over the steel bridge arriving at McGregor at 07h45. A quick turn around had them back on the road toward Trouthaven. They arrived late afternoon where they will overnight before the final bushwack in the morning.

George Oertel, Nigel and Adrian Payne got away from Montagu at 06h40. By 10h35 they had taken care of business at Pony Cottage in McGregor and headed to Trouthaven arriving at 17h00.

Shane Little and Johnny Anderton opted for leisurely start from Montagu heading out at 08h00 indicating their intention of going "all the way to McGregor", a mere 3-hour ride away if you don't get distracted along the way. They were distracted and timed their arrival at the Van Loveren Bistro perfectly and settled into some good coffee. They rolled into McGregor at noon announcing that they had arrived at Beer o'clock.

On reaching Anysberg, Greg Simmons and Trevor Elliot faced the choice of sharing a double bed or riding on. They left Anysberg at 21h30 and pushed through the night getting to Montagu just before 4am. They stopped to freshen up and catch some Zzz's, presumably in separate beds, and were out the door just after 10h00. An hour later their tracker dots came to a halt outside the seductive bistro. On the road to McGregor they zagged where they should have zigged and took the wrong road to McGregor arriving there at 14h00.

Ray Sephton, Jan van de Putte, Shaun Tischendorf and Brad van der Westhuizen got underway just after 06h00 and made good time arriving in Montagu at 10h30. Less than an hour later they had saddled up and pointed their steeds toward McGregor with nary a glance at the tempting Bistro as they passed. They arrived at Pony Cottage in time for afternoon tea. They called it a day and make up the party of 8 who are calling McGregor home tonight.

Michael and Ingrid Talbot, brothers Adam and Anton Wood and Bruce McQueen left Rouxpos 05h00. The ABA trio surged ahead with Minky rolling up the race trail behind them. It must be stressed that rumours of ABA having a morning habit of singing a tuneless version of Dancing McQueen are thus far unsubstantiated. Besides, what happens on the trail...

With their departure from Rouxpos, Ronel and Gerrit Roux have a stack of empty ice cream tubs and a well-used waffle machine. Rouxpos is known for its waffles and ice cream as much as Damsedrif is known for its Death by Chocolate pudding.

ABA and Minky made short work of the section to Anysberg and were there at 09h15. Just after 10h00 they continued their charge to Montagu. Mike And Ingrid had the bit between their teeth and arrived in Montagu a good thirty minutes ahead of the alleged minstrels. They will rest up tonight and probably head to Trouthaven tomorrow.

The season of dot watching is slowly drawing to a close.

Mike Woolnough (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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2017 Freedom Challenger Blogs

Mike Woolnough - Adventures of an Ordinary Cyclist

Carl Scholtz - Making Trackz

Clint le Roux - Afrivence

Bruce Hughes - East of Adventure

Phillip Fullaway - Race to Rhodes 2017 – My personal account

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