16 June - let the games begin...

The climax of the 2015 Freedom Challenge is upon us, as the “racing snakes” of Starting Batch J get underway.

Rider Batch J started at 6am this morning, the final starting batch of this year’s Freedom Challenge. It includes some of Freedom Challenge’s illustrious names. Two time former RASA winner Tim James is in the fray, bidding for his 3rd RASA title, having had some bad luck with illness and injury in recent years. With him at the start will be a former adversary, Andrew Barnes, who ended runner up to Tim in 2009. Marnitz Nienaber is there, a 5 time RASA finisher and 2014 3rd placed, and he intends to ride with Stuart Roos and Ivor Jones. These riders will be joined at the start by the final 3 Race to Rhodes starts, Ingrid Avidon, Janine Stewart and Mike Woolnough.

While batch J is the final and arguably strongest batch to leave Maritzburg, yesterday’s start group showed their intent, with Fjord Jordaan, Theo Van Dyk and Jacques Swart all skipping Allendale and ending at Centocow. Today’s riders though, are likely to be aiming for Ntsikeni later tonight, the second support station along the trail. There is only a small group of riders who skip Allendale and ride from the start to Ntsikeni, just over 200km into the race, in one long haul to arrive there well into the 1st night of their race – those that do are usually signaling their their intentions to race hard.

The weather forecast is looking good for Batch J
Weather Forecasts for Batch J, the Racing Snakes (starting at 06h00 Tuesday 16th June from Maritzburg):
The Maritzburg weather forecast for tomorrow is for the weather to be sunny, with a light 5 mph north-westerly breeze, nothing to trouble the riders. For Maritzburg weather forecast see link:
http://www.accuweather.com/en/za/pietermaritzburg/305606/daily-weather-forecast/305606?day=2
Up the road at Centocow Mission Station, half way between the Allendale and Ntsikeni support stations, there appears little to trouble the riders, with a mild West-South-Westerly wind of 9 mph. See link:
http://www.accuweather.com/en/za/centocow/298976/daily-weather-forecast/298976?day=2
Race strategies can often be determined by weather
Given the potential for the weather at this time of year to turn really foul, the racing snakes often like to use a good weather window to push hard and far, even if it is early in the race, never knowing when the conditions may turn against them. The race strategy, therefore, is often very different from a standard Comrades Marathon one for instance, where the top runners may run according to some kind of pace schedule which often includes a slower 1st half of the race compared to the 2nd half.

So, while Allendale is the 1st overnight support station for most of the riders, it’s more likely to be the lunch stop for many of these racing snakes.
The 1st day's potential route:
With the top racers in the Race, it is difficult to define the 1st day of the route because we don't quite know where the 1st day will end for them. 2011 winner, Alex Harris decided to "cut his 1st day short" at Centacow, which he reached early on the 1st evening of the race. He slept there for a few hours before setting off in the middle of the night and rode all the way to Malekhalonyane by the 2nd evening of the race. However, since then, the “standard” for the top riders appears to have become Ntsikeni support station on the 1st night, stopping for a quick sleep.

I should, however, cover myself by including the detail of the route as far as Glen Edward, which for the social riders represents the 3rd day lunch time stopover.
Total kms of the various stages to Glen Edward (Official race distances)
Pietermaritzburg to Allendale - 99.5km
Allendale to Centacow - 49km
Centacow to Ntsikeni - 48.5km
Ntsikeni to Glen Edward - 34km
During this stretch from Maritzburg to Glen Edward, the total cumulative ascent (climbing) over this 232 km stretch is recorded at 5497 metres, while the cumulative descent is recorded at -4428 metres. The bulk of this climbing is done before the 212km mark, whereafter it is generally downhill to Glen Edward.

So it's a big climbing stage on Day 1. The big hills include:
From near the 30km mark to around 45km, there's the 1st big climb up to Cunningham Castle, an ascent of near 800m. From Cunningham Castle there’s a lot of downhill into the Umkomaas River valley where one hits the 1st real bushy part with a bit of “portaging”. Fortunately it's winter, because I suspect the valley is full of slithery reptiles in summer. At the Umkomaas portage there is some decision making to be done. You can gain 20 minutes or so by crossing through the river early and joining a small dirt road which climbs the hill to Highover, where one joins the (in-)famous Hella Hella climb a little way up. Alternatively, one can ride on down the valley to Hella Hella Bridge and cycle this huge hill from the bottom. Either way, you take on what is probably the sharpest and toughest ascent of the day, that is Hella Hella. This rises approximately 650 metres over about 5kms whereafter it is undulating to the first support station of Allendale for, in these riders' case, lunch.
It is most likely that these top riders will elect to cross the river early, with the water level very low this year.
Two more big climbs follow between Centacow and Ntsikeni, as the riders ascend to near 1916 metres above sea level at the 212km mark, after having been as low as 555 metres above sea level just before the start of the Hella Hella climb.
Navigation challenges?
Whilst this part of the race can present major navigational challenges to the lesser riders, the top racers have normally recce’d the route well, and don’t normally get badly lost. The race changes in this regard when the racing snakes get going, with less “entertainment value” to be had by the Twitterati due to navigation problems. But never say never, as there have been moments for some of them in the past. Race organiser Glenn Harrison, the 2011 race runner up, reportedly slept a night in the forest just before Donnybrook (just after leaving Allendale) in earlier years. But given the experience that these top riders now have, the tricky navigation sections through the forests from just before Donnybrook to Centacow are well-rehearsed and will pose no problem, especially given that they will be negotiated in daytime in all likelihood.

The other tricky part, which could come in the darkness for some, is Gxalangene Forest about 16km up the hill from Centacow on the trip to Ntsikeni. After crossing the Gungugunu River, the relatively short forest section up to Bosholweni Peak can become very confusing to navigate through in the dark.
So the race climax approaches. The countdown to the start of the much vaunted Batch J, the final batch of riders, is under way. It will be interesting to see how each one approaches it, and how far each will go before the 1st rest. It is a day (and night) of big climbing, but should not offer any significant navigation difficulties to these top riders. Ntsikeni should be a key target for today.
By Blanket Wearer/Whip Bearer and ex-racing snake John Loos

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