And that's a wrap for 2015

Nearly a month after the first riders left Pietermaritzburg for Rhodes and Wellington, the 2015 Freedom Challenge finally draws to a close. In an event with a drop out rate as high as 30-40%, this was a really good year, with that rate falling closer to 20%. In the end 59 riders completed the RTR and 33 completed RASA. Factors contributing to this success were better levels of preparedness of the riders before they started - many riders had attended rider briefings and quite a few had scouted and pre-ridden sections of the trail beforehand. With so much information available online nowadays, riders were also kitted out with lighter equipment (average backpack weight was 7-8kg). Add to that the good conditions, although there was snow and strong wind in the early stages, most riders enjoyed stable, dry weather for a large part of their journey and this undoubtedly made the going easier. But let’s not take anything away from their efforts as this year’s crop of ‘newbies’ were a determined bunch and they proved that the pull of the finisher’s blanket is as strong as ever.

Up front we had a close race between Tim James and Andrew Barnes and it was interesting to watch their respective strategies play out: Tim rode long hours on little sleep while Andrew’s slightly faster speed was offset by his longer sleeping times. With only hours separating them as they went into Stettynskloof, the race came down to the wire, at one point on the approach into Diemersfontein, a navigational error by Tim allowed Andrew to close the gap to within 5min before he too made a similar error. The eventual winning margin of 30min is perhaps the closest yet and is a testament to the competitive nature of them both.

At the back of the field there were a few riders who ended up behind schedule due to mechanical or navigational issues. This immediately put them on the back foot and the pressure was upon them to make the various interim cut offs along the route. They put in a brave effort but it proved a bridge too far and it was unfortunate that riders like Pierre Oosthuizen, John Bowen and Mike Roy all ended up withdrawing after having come so far. But they don’t go away empty handed as their experiences this year will be invaluable if they decide to return in future years.

This year could be fondly referred to as the 'Year of the Squiggles’ - with the rider tracking working well, it was possible to follow them on their respective journeys and see where they went wrong. As a navigation race where GPS is not allowed, the number of navigational errors was proof that navigation is the great leveller and is not to be underestimated. Being a strong rider is no guarantee of success since it doesn’t help to be riding fast in the wrong direction. Even the more experienced campaigners with good route knowledge still found the navigation challenging, especially at night, as was the case with Tim in the Vuvu valley or both Tim and Andrew going through Stettynskloof in the dark and taking longer than the first timers did in daylight.

Most riders got to grips with it as the race progressed though and it also became apparent that they were realising and correcting their errors sooner and moving more efficiently in the latter stages. Finding the route is one of the defining elements of the Freedom Challenge and riders taking responsibility for themselves in doing so is the very essence of the challenge. Herein lies the attraction of the event for many - an uncertain outcome and the promise of adventure. 

There were a few standout performances this year which bear special mention: 

Ingrid Avidon’s solo ride from Pietermaritzburg to Ntsikeni in one push places her among only a handful or riders to have done so in this event - the fact that she is the only women so far to have done this on her own is a remarkable achievement. 

Andrew Blackburn's long walk from Tinana to Rhodes after his freewheel hub packed up is also worth a mention. While his riding companions went ahead, he endured many hours of solo walking up the hills and freewheeling down in his determined quest to keep moving forward to Rhodes where he could get spares. His efforts caused him severe shin splints which later nearly derailed his ride but he overcome those too and proved that the body will follow where the mind goes first.

Johann Rissik was well known to many of this year’s riders as the Prince Albert local who has always been a huge supporter of the event. This year he got his chance to ride it and did so in exemplary style. Riding with the three ‘Wallys’ (Ian Paul and Alan) he took on the role of guardian and patiently helped Alan through many tough sections of the route.

In similar fashion, Stu Brew was also no stranger to RASA, having completed it before. He rode with various groups throughout this year as he moved through the field but he ended up with a very determined Gary Preston in Stettynskloof and together they slogged through the infamous kloof for over 16 hours on the final stage. Stu was blown away by Gary’s tenacity but Gary had great respect and gratitude for Stu’s patience.

The Stone Saddle Award went to two riders this year - Alan Haupt and Gary Preston. They both came into RASA knowing that it would be even tougher for them due to their own physical challenges but this did not deter them. Although they had the support of other riders around them, they still had to go out every day and face the demands of the day and this they did without complaint. The other riders were often inspired by the determination and tenacity of these two, the way they got up after countless falls and just quietly got back to the job at hand. Their efforts are a true reflection of courage and self confidence and we can all learn something from them.

As the tyre tracks along the trail slowly start to fade and life slowly returns to normal for the riders, the stories from this year’s event will live on - in the hearts and minds of all who took part and in all those who followed their progress every day. The memories that make the Freedom Challenge such a rich and diverse experience are also part of the reason we keep coming back for more - the seeds of adventure lie in curiosity and out on the trail those seeds always find fertile ground.