24 June - the race is still on

Crunch time for Barnes as they drop into the Baviaanskloof and turn onto the “home straight”

The Race Across South Africa, one feels, is now a two horse race between the race leader Tim James and 2nd placed Andrew Barnes. The probability of both riders “blowing” becomes less as the race goes on, and one feels that the likes of Marnitz Nienaber and Ivor Jones, or Theo van Dyk and Fjord Jordaan, are a bit too far off James’ pace.

At time of writing, Tim James was down in the Grootrivier valley, and may just get out of this night navigation “hotspot” not long after dark. Barnes, however, was still up on the hill at Hadley halfway support station, and if he is going to make a race of it one would think that he is going to have to do the Osseberg Jeep Track down into the valley, and the Grootrivier, in darkness.

At time of writing, James had a lead over Barnes of about 5 hours and 30 minutes. This gap has been very much Barnes’ own doing. He’s the one that has followed the strategy of a good night’s sleep, while James has pushed on well into the nights, maintaining a far higher ride/rest ratio throughout the race.

The two differing strategies have been quietly debated by the armchair spectators, and now it appears that we are going to find out within the next few days which one was the most appropriate.

As anticipated, there was more of a sense of urgency in Barnes today. Often in recent days his departure time from his sleepover spot in the morning has been near to 05h00 (at Kranskop it was even after 7h00 a few days ago). This morning, a 2h20 start by Barnes from Toekomst support station signalled that it was now “game on”. About time, many of us are saying to ourselves as we sit glued to Tracker waiting for some excitement. But you’ve got to give him points for staying cool and calm under pressure.

But the higher sleep/ride ratio of Barnes is probably not only being questioned because of the lead its allowed James to build up. The timing of the drop into the Grootrivier Valley after dark, as a result of this strategy, will probably also be questioned. Barnes is known as one of the riders who knows the route extremely well, so maybe its all calculated. But we thought the same about James, until a few nights ago when he went around in circles for much of the evening in the Vuvu Valley. Yes, these valleys are a navigation hazard even to the top riders at night. So tonight is a crucial one for Barnes down in the valley, and no doubt many of us will be glued to the Tracker.

James wasn’t going to take the night gamble again in the Grootrivier, having paid some private school fees in the Vuvu Valley. He slept one support station ahead of Barnes last night, at Bucklands, making a daytime valley trip virtually a sure thing.

Barring a major navigation mishap, both riders will turn right onto the road up the Baviaans to Willowmore tonight in all probability. This is the start of the Home Straight of the RASA, with only 784 km left. From here, for the top riders, its probably about a 4 day trip to the finish at Diemersfontein. 

The winner is often the “guy who wants it more”. That isn’t an obvious answer. James has been trying without success since his 2ndvictory in 2010. Judging by some of his very long pushes on this year’s race, he’s determined. Barnes has ended 2nd to James on one occasion, but has never won it. This year he’s in with a great shout. He knows this.

So it remains tough to identify the likely winner, with 5 hours 30 minutes not a big lead in such a race. Much will depend on the 2 riders’ ability to deal with sleep deprivation. We know Barnes has been the faster rider during riding hours, but he has yet to be tested on that score. This year’s race is well off record pace, but it may become a slower replica of the 2012 Martin Dreyer-Alex Harris duel if Barnes can narrow the gap over the next 24 – 48 hours or so. A likely finishing day for the winner? Some time on Sunday for a sub- for a 13 day win.

By John Loos (Blanket/Whip)