A Final Word
The 2016 Freedom Challenge has come and gone. For riders in the Race to Rhodes and Race Across South Africa, some of the signs of their efforts are still fresh in mind, the vivid memories of places seen and people encountered along the way, the still familiar aches and pains for those that finished not too long ago. But as time slowly takes the edge off the hardships they experienced and bodies slowly heal and come back stronger, something more permanent comes to the fore.
After the blur of the finish and the sometimes rude awakening of getting back to normal life, the realisation of what they have been through slowly dawns on them and the overwhelming sense of achievement brings with it a new sense of pride. For some there will be unbridled excitement and wanting to share their stories with friends and family, for others it will be more of a sense of knowing, an inner smile that they carry forward with them. Either way, few are left unaffected by overcoming a great challenge and so to with the Freedom Challenge.
We would like to thank all the riders who set off along the trail this year, each facing their own particular challenge and overcoming it in their own special way. The Freedom Challenge leaves room for a person to test their own limits and to overcome many obstacles along the way - and long may it remain so. For all those new Whip Bearers and Blanket Wearers, welcome to the clan and well done for taking up the challenge and succeeding.
From the Race Office.
And in the end there were three - the trio of Neville Higgs, Clint le Roux and Gerald vd Merwe, who after a night out in Stettynskloof managed to regroup and get it done, crossing the finish line at 5pm this afternoon to a warm welcome from friends and family. For Gerald, the final cutoff had been beaten and he received his Blanket after finishing in 25d 11h. For Clint and Neville who started a day later, their finishing time was 24d 11h. The three of them have stuck together through thick and thin and will surely have many shared memories and stories to tell - for now though, all that matters is that they have finished and can wear their Blankets with pride.
As the sun sets on yet another day on the trail, the Race Office waits for the last three riders to arrive. The trio of Clint le Roux, Neville Higgs and Gerald vd Merwe left Trouthaven this morning to take on Stettynskloof, the final stage in their journey to Diemersfontien.
As first timers to Stettynskloof, they would only have known what to expect by the reputation of the place and the stories of those who have gone before. Any Blanket Wearer will confirm that it is a place not to be underestimated. Judging by the time they got going this morning, they may have underestimated it..
Having made fairly slow progress through the kloof all day, they found themselves about halfway with the light beginning to fade. It seems they have taken the decision to camp out for the night and are in for a cold and uncomfortable night in the kloof, waiting for daylight before they proceed further. If they get going at first light, they should get to the finish at Diemersfontein by late morning - where the Race Office will be waiting to welcome them home.
Brad vd Westhuizen set off from Trouthaven before sunrise this morning - a man on a mission. Having rested there yesterday, his first task was to locate his bike and then finish off what he had started by getting through Stettynskloof. His progress was hampered by swollen rivers after all the rain and the ubiquitous thick bush in his path but he steadily made his way up the valley, making it out just after dark. From there it was a slow ride through to the finish at Diemersfontein and he arrived at 22h30 to be greeted by the biggest crowd so far - all the riders and supporters at the FC Finisher’s Dinner. A fitting welcome from the many fellow Blanket Wearers and congratulations all around - well done Brad.
That leaves only the trio still out on the trail - Neville Higgs, Clint le Roux and Gerald vd Merwe are spending the night at Trouthaven, having arrived by lunch time from McGregor today. There will be a nervous anticipation in the air, the task is almost complete but the final obstacle still has to be conquered tomorrow. They should be well rested and up to the challenge - not much will stop them now.
In the early hours of this morning, Caren Henschel and Tony Wright crossed the finish line at Diemersfontein - after a very long day out for them which ended in the pouring rain - but nothing could dampen their spirits by then, they had persevered and finally earned their Blankets. Having ridden together from the start, they finished in 19d19h20min, a very good effort by both of them.
Catching up with the rest of the field today was a bit like watching a game of chess - one rider maintained his position while the others made a strategic move before their final assault.
Brad vd Westhuizen spent the day at Trouthaven, resting up and giving his injured back a chance to recover before his second attempt on Stettynskloof in the morning. He has used the time well, staying positive and is confident about his chances tomorrow.
The trio of Neville Higgs, Clint le Roux and Gerald vd Merwe completed the short hop to McGregor today, despite the wet weather. They arrived in time for lunch which meant they had the whole afternoon to rest and recover. Tomorrow they will move forward to Trouthaven and with the weather set to clear over the weekend, they look to have timed it well for a possible trip up Stettynskloof on Sunday.
For these four riders the end may be near but a finish is still not guaranteed - they still need to focus on the task at hand and continue in the same determined manner that has gotten them to this point - their Blankets await them.
The onslaught on Stettynskloof got underway early this morning as nine riders entered the valley at dawn. They worked their way steadily up towards the steep exit slope, beyond which lay a short ride to a warm Blanket. For the group of Hughes Clauser, Greg Perrett, Richard Cole and Gary Scoular, it was business as usual as they forged their way up the kloof and emerged by mid afternoon, then continued to the finish at Diemersfontein, arriving before dark. Apart from Gary, the other three have ridden together since before Rhodes, now their adventure has finally come to an end. For Frenchman Hughes, there will no doubt be many stories to tell back home. Well done to all of them for getting to the finish.
The next rider to emerge from the kloof was Fanus Vorster, who then continued to cross the finish line and receive his well deserved Blanket. His ride has been full of ups and downs and he went from the brink of withdrawing to completing a determined, mostly solo effort - well done for seeing it through.
Pierre Oosthuizen is another rider who had a tough ride - that was last year, when he got as far as Cambria. This time around, he was more determined than ever to get the Blanket and went out everyday, focussed and resolute, steadily making his way down the trail on his single speed. A few late night arrivals and early morning starts couldn’t break his rhythm and today the hard work paid off when he finally arrived at Diemersfontein and wrapped himself in his Blanket - well done Pierre.
Among the nine riders leaving Trouthaven this morning were Brad vd Westhuizen and Caren Henschel together with Tony Wright. Brad made it halfway up the kloof and then his tracker showed him making a u-turn and heading back. It turns out, he took a fall on the way up and hurt his back, badly enough to make it very painful to carry his bike - so he went back down, leaving his bike near the dam and seeking assistance from the manager there, who helped him back to Trouthaven. He’s not done yet as he will rest up tomorrow and try again. Tony and Caren have had a very long day in Stettynskloof but have made it out and are on their way to Diemersfontein, where the are expected later tonight.
The sweeps, Neville Higgs, Clint le Roux and Gerald vd Merwe, are in Montagu tonight, after a double stage from Rouxpos today. Neville had to take a detour to the local clinic to have his hand stitched up after he cut it coming out of Anysberg but he is on the mend and will continue with the others tomorrow. They are still hoping to finish over the weekend.
Rider disqualified for having GPS
Today saw the unfortunate disqualification and exit from the trail of a Race to Rhodes rider, Frank Bradford, for having a GPS with him - a clear violation of Golden Rule #5. The Race Rules are sent to riders prior to the event, so that any questions can be dealt with in advance. The rules are also covered again during the race briefing for each batch, so a rider has no excuse for not have read and understood the Race Rules. The debate about the use of GPS devices on Freedom Challenge events has evolved over the last few years and there are many strong opinions about the topic. The Race Office does not act on opinion but rather on the Race Rules. The Race Director has to ensure a fair and even contest for all participants and the only way to do so is by having one clear set of rules by which all participants must abide. The rules clearly state that you may not have a GPS.
An appeal on the grounds of ‘not using it for navigation,’ would be moot, since the violation is for having it in the first place - having the device makes it possible to use it for navigation and even though this rider may not have used it for navigation, another rider with the same or similar device might well attempt to do so if he was allowed to carry it. Allowing such devices onto the trail opens up the possibility of them being used for navigation. On a route of 500km length (over 2000km in the case of RASA), it is virtually impossible to check every rider’s device every day to ensure compliance, so it is left up to spot checks and the integrity of the riders themselves.
But what’s the big fuss over GPS anyway? Most other events are actively promoting their use, as an alternative to route marking, so why not the Freedom Challenge too? The answer should be self evident from the previous statement - following an arrow on a GPS screen is a lot like following an arrow on a signboard or an orange sticker on a fencepost - in other words it is easy and does not require the skill, effort, judgement and decision making needed when navigating by map, compass and narratives. Bear in mind the Freedom Trail is intended to be ridden as an unmarked route - riders need to find their way along the route each day. Using a GPS eliminates most of the challenge that is the ‘essence’ of events like the Freedom Challenge - it takes out the adventure and practically guarantees success. What makes the Freedom Challenge what it is, is precisely that element of the unknown, success is not guaranteed. So preparation needs to be thorough and riders need to take responsibility for themselves and make good decisions out on the trail - firstly to give themselves a better chance of success but also to avoid getting themselves into potentially dangerous situations. Engaging with your surroundings by navigating means paying attention to where you are and being more aware - the right attitude to have in a self-supported event. Using a GPS makes one totally dependant on the device - should it fail, you are left stranded, since you don’t know where you are on the map.
There is another argument that those ‘not racing’ or ‘touring’ should be given more leeway with regard to the rules, since they are not in any contention for line honours. The fact remains that all participants who willingly enter either the Race to Rhodes or Race Across South Africa sign up as solo entries for a race - and that race can only have one set of rules to keep it fair to those that are in fact racing. With all finishers receiving the same finisher’s item (a Blanket for RASA, a Whip for RTR), it is only reasonable to expect them to all earn it the same way and thus benchmark the value of that item - there are no ‘cheap’ blankets or whips.
The other issue with the use of GPS is a more recent development - that of saving track files and sharing them afterwards. Some background to this - more than half of the Freedom Trail currently goes through private land and managed conservation areas - traversing through these areas is governed by specific access agreements between the Freedom Challenge and the affected parties. The perception that it is a public route that follows public roads and public rights of way is outdated - it started out that way but has evolved away from that as the route has developed. Many landowners require prior notification of any riders wanting to come through and some parts of the trail are subject to seasonal closure (e.g. during hunting, fire season) or closed year round, with access only being granted during Freedom Challenge events. So how does track recording and sharing relate to this? It makes it very easy for someone to access the route - they simply download a .gpx file from a public platform like Strava, Endomondo and go out and ride the trail with no respect for the access agreements that are in place - instances of trespassing on private land and leaving gates open on farms are becoming more common and this puts strain on the relations between the Freedom Challenge and the landowners, since any cyclist seen on the trail is assumed to be a Freedom Challenge rider. It has also led to permanent closure of a part of the trail in the Western Cape and the Freedom Trail is definitely poorer for it. Once again it is left up to the integrity of the individual person when it comes to accessing the trail, since it cannot be effectively policed. Currently the only practical course of action to follow is to discourage riders from recording and sharing tracks as it only makes the problem worse. Apart from the already mentioned use for navigation, GPS devices are also banned from events in an attempt to minimise the negative impacts of track recording and sharing.
The GPS debate will no doubt rage on and there will always be strong opinions for or against the use of them. As far as the Freedom Challenge goes, there is no debate - the rules are very clear that GPS devices are not allowed.
The stable weather continues, which admittedly makes for rather boring commentary but fortunately some of the riders are making up for it with their creative interpretations of the maps and narratives. There were quite a few riders who went walkabout today but that’s fairly typical for a day out on the trail. Probably the most challenging part of the Freedom Challenge events is getting to grips with the navigation - most will make errors along the way but most eventually find their way back to the route and continue - and all will agree that the sense of achievement when they finally reach the finish line makes it all worth it - the harder they’ve had to work for it, the more that Finisher’s Whip or Blanket means to them.
Batch 1 of Rob, Murray, Dave, Steve, Colleen, Stuart and David tackled the tricky stage from Malekgalonyane to Vuvu today - since they had already successfully completed the exit yesterday, they were able to leave Malekgalonyane earlier, still in the dark and ride around on the dirt road to rejoin the route where they stopped yesterday. They made good early progress but hadn’t bargained on there being any mist - this lead to them overshooting a path down into a valley near Koebung village but they corrected fairly smartly and didn’t give away too much time. All went well from there but coming down off the ridge to Tinana Mission caused them a spot of bother and again a bit of time lost there. The last hurdle for the day was the tricky Vuvu valley but they got through cleanly and arrived in Vuvu with light to spare.
Batch 2 have been split since day 3, when Ollie and Lee gapped it to Glen Edward and left the rest at Ntsikeni. Leaving a bit later from Malekgalonyane this morning, having served out their time penalty from yesterday for going ‘out of bounds’ , Ollie and Lee eventually caught Batch 1 coming off the ridge at Tinana Mission - they opted for a different line which made all the difference. From there they raced ahead and were first into the Vuvu valley - well not quite, instead of following the Tina river up towards Vuvu, they followed the Khohlong river up to Makgwaseng - a mistake that ended with a huge climb out the valley to eventually reach the Mt. Fletcher district road. From there they had to pedal back along the road, past the start of tomorrow’s portage up Lehana’s, to reach Vuvu. Despite another long day and after dark arrival, they are still in great spirits and looking forward to tomorrow. The rest of Batch 2, Rebecca, Sean, Dave, John, Leon and David, all left Masakala this morning, with Leon and David aiming for Tinana Mission. despite flirting with disaster by nearly going ‘out of bounds’ in the dark near Queen’s Mercy, they made really good time today. In and out of Malekgalonyane by 11h00, they rode well and managed to get off the ridge to Tinana Mission with daylight to spare. As for the others, they had an interesting day, with many squiggles in their track, most notably near Mparane ridge - but they didn’t give up and soldiered on to reach Malekgalonyane before sunset.
Batch 3 left a frosty Ntsikeni this morning - Harry, Marais and Frank wandered around for a bit inspecting the southern boundary fences of the reserve before getting back. Gareth, Lloyd and Neil got through fairly cleanly though and from there the day unfolded fairly uneventfully - a brief stop at Glen Edward for refreshments before pushing on to Masakala, where they arrived by late afternoon - maybe the navigation is getting easier or they are just getting a bit more confident.
Batch 4 split yesterday with Bruce, Rich, Frank and Alan pushing through to Centocow. Today they rode through Ntsikeni to stop at Glen Edward, arriving by mid afternoon. Behind them we have Charl and Robert, who left Allandale in the dark and had a trouble-free ride through to Ntsikeni. Joining them a bit later were Phillip and Chiara, after a tough day with quite a few small nav errors, which cost them valuable time and effort. But credit to them for eventually getting there after another long day on the trail. Derik struggled yesterday and eventually had to take a lift through to Allendale well after dark. Feeling a bit better this morning, he was allowed to return to the trail where he left it and complete the route to Allendale. Johann was kind enough to wait for him and the two set of for Centocow just before midday. They will spent tonight there and do another short day to Ntsikeni tomorrow, in the hopes that Derik can recover further.
Batch 5 are a mixed lot but all made it through to Allendale quite comfortably today. Tony, on his single speed, was the first arrival, followed by Alan, Sean, Kobus, Juan and the brothers Greg, Rowan and Luke. it is interesting to note that all of them opted not to cross the Umko river early but to rather ride around on the bridge and all of them arrived at Allendale before dark today…
In addition to the next Race to Rhodes batch, tomorrow also sees the first of this year’s RASA batches on the start line - they are in it for the long haul, so there are not likely to be any heroics from the on day 1, just the steady, consistent pace that keeps the wheels turning. We look forward to following then on their adventure.
With four start batches already out on the trail, the action hots up steadily every day. The earlier batches already have the finish line in Rhodes in mind, while today’s starters had the luxury of a relatively traffic free exit out of Pietermaritzburg, thanks to it being weekend. With the majority of riders currently out on the trail being first timers, there were some interesting route choices and near misses for the dot watching spectators to follow but at the end of a very long day (for some), we now have all riders present and accounted for at the various support stations for the night.
Batch 1 are ‘over the hump’ with only two more days to go to Rhodes. They have merged into a large and fairly cohesive group, happy to ride together, share the navigation and stop for photos along the way. Rob, Murray, Dave, Stuart, David, Steve and Colleen all rode through from Masakala to Malekgalonyane, arriving just after one o’clock - after quickly signing in, they continued on to complete the ‘Stations of the Cross’ loop - this is the tricky exit that is usually done at first light the next morning - by arriving early, riders are able to get a headstart on the next day’s route by completing the tricky section in daylight and returning to Malekgalonyane via a different, dirt road route. They then get a good night’s rest and are allowed to leave via the same straightforward dirt road the next morning - which can now be done in the dark, long before sunrise. This puts them an hour or two further down the trail when the sun does actually rise and takes the pressure off for the last crux section of the day - the very tricky Vuvu valley - a place where nobody wants to run out of daylight. So that’s advantage to them ahead of one of the most enjoyable riding days on the trail. The other good news is that Dave’s brake troubles are over as he received a spare front brake from race office late this afternoon.
Batch 2 are spread across two different support stations tonight - the racers Ollie and Lee have jumped ahead to Malekgalonyane while the rest of their batch - Leon, David, Sean, Rebecca, John and Dave are all at Masakala tonight. They arrived comfortably by mid afternoon after a relatively uneventful ride through from Ntsikeni today. They are all pretty tired after the exertions of the last three days and looking forward to their first relatively ‘easy’ day to Malekgalonyane tomorrow, although Leon and David are considering a push through to Tinana Mission if all goes well. As for Lee and Ollie, after providing much entertainment for their tracker followers yesterday, they were at it again today, with a few squiggles here and there - some harmless, some not….they picked up a time penalty for ending up in an ‘Out of Bounds’ area just after Queen’s Mercy. This will delay their start slightly from Malekgalonyane in the morning - but how will it affect the rest of their day - we’ll have to wait and see.
Batch 3 had another steady day today and spent most of the day together as a group. Frank, Harry, Marais, Gareth, Lloyd and Neil seem to have all found their groove on day one already and are riding sensibly by leaving at first light in order to maximise daylight, which so far has enabled them to reach the support stations before dark. Also no major navigation errors yet, so clearly someone in the group can read a map. They are at Ntsikeni tonight and will be aiming for Masakala tomorrow.
Batch 4 were the lucky ones, leaving on a Saturday and enjoying the quieter and safer streets out of PMB this morning. The four who showed intent early on were Frank, Alan, Rich and Bruce. Bruce’s route knowledge from previous outings on the trail no doubt helped and they made good time to Allendale, then pushed on to Centocow, arriving just before dark. Charl also rode well today, a slightly more relaxed pace for him meant a mid-afternoon arrival at Allendale. Then came Robert, riding his single speed, who must have been pretty tired after all the big climbs on day one. Chiara and Phillip seem to like swimming - they pioneered a few new river crossings in the Umko river valley today before finally reaching the bridge - making an already tough day even harder, let’s hope they get a good night’s sleep and recover well before tomorrow. Derik and Johann were the last to arrive, well after dark, after a very long day out, which included a long rest at Highover, as Derik wasn’t feeling well. But they are all in at Allendale and tomorrow is another day with new challenges, so now all that matters is getting some rest.
So far the weather has been kind to these riders, with mild temperatures and no strong headwinds yet. Some morning starts have been cold though, with minus 4degC recorded coming out of Ntsikeni this morning but all things considered, they are having some of the best weather ever seen along this section of the trail - long may it last.
The first three days of the Freedom Trail are notoriously difficult and the first three batches of the 2016 season have covered themselves with pride so far over this section, the trail will be proud today. Indications suggest and images from the trail confirm that conditions have been good, conducive to enjoyable riding and supportive of good progress. Today again saw some navigational challenges and precious time was left out on the trail by some while others recovered quickly.
The Dot of the Day Award goes to Sean and Becky from Batch 2, both newcomers to the trail. They made some minor navigation errors yesterday and few more significant ones today which has cost them dearly and as a result they will have to approach Ntsikeni in the dark tonight, despite clawing back good time this afternoon. Their perseverance and ability to recover combined with the resulting spectator interest earns them the Dot of the Day award.
The Conversation of the Day took place on Bikehub (referencing Sean/Becky):
MTBeer: “yoh! Those two are really taking the 'scenic route'...”
Nancy Drew: “It's harrowing to watch!”
Dirt-rider: “Then you better get some pills to calm you from Tuesday onward”
Batch 1 appears to have warmed to one another and rode together as a group today, cutting clean and reliable tracks through Ntsikeni for those that follow, opened up the ever popular Glen Edward support station and as reward, they reached Masakala by late afternoon. rob, Murray, Dave, Colleen, Steve, Stuart and David have performed their trail opening duties amicably and deserve all the vetkoek they will be offered this evening.
Batch 2 got off to a shaky start out of Allendale with the Donnybrook forest gremlins striking for a second day in a row. Just like on Day 1, the Lee/Ollie pairing stormed ahead but dipped left when they should have swung right and then Sean/Becky followed them a while later. Both pairs ended up with a warning for route deviation. Sean/Becky are getting full value for money, after their Donnybrook manoeuvres and some Centacow manoeuvres, they made good progress and arrived at Ntsikeni at 18h30, well after dark but still in time for supper and to enjoy Mr Ngcobo’s infamous hospitality and gripping stories.
After their shaky start this morning, Lee/Ollie rode like champions and left Ntsikeni mid-afternoon to push through to Glen Edward. Their good work was undone by an incorrect left turn exiting Ntsikeni - they ran out of daylight at a critical point, taking a route that eventually spat them out on the Swartberg tar road far south of the actual route - adding an extra two hours to an already long day out on the trail. They were very happy to finally reach the emergency stop at Glen Edward just after 20h00. Leon/David/John/Dave made a brief left early in the day but with a stalwart like Leon in their group, they were always going to have another good day. A special story unfolding with a Leon/David (father/son) combo riding together.
Batch 3 comprising of Marais, Frank, Harry, Neil, Lloyd and Gareth started today and have rode a good first day. Gareth started without his tracker but a generous donation to the Scholarship Fund ensured an Aramex like speedily delivery before he had an opportunity to go missing. The group rode together up to the Minerva/Byrne stop and after dipping in to the Umko Valley they appeared to split up with Neil/Lloyd crossing the river while the rest of the batch rode around. In the end it appeared to be a dead heat to Highover. The remaining batches would have paid close attention to this drag race. After the customary crawl up Hella-Hella, they arrived with daylight to spare at Allendale. The biggest decision of their day may well be how many koeksisters to have.
By all accounts it has been a pearl of a day out on the trail with admirable performances by all. Let’s hope the good conditions last a while longer.
By Carl Scholtz
Today saw eight more riders entering the fray in the Race to Rhodes. Batch 2 comprises four neat partnerships of 2 riders apiece. They got off to a snappy start on their 105km dash from Pietermaritzburg to the support station at Allendale. They stuck close for the first 20 kilometres and were only separated once they started the big climb up the watershed to Minerva.
A quick stop once they reached Byrne had them heading down into the Umkomaas Valley. After following the antics of batch 1 yesterday we knew it wasn't going to be easy sailing making their way through the untamed bush. Ollie Burnett and riding partner Lee Hawkins set a brisk pace indicative of an intention to push through Allendale to get to the intermediate support station at Centocow. Father and son duo of Leon and Dave Kruger were hot on their heels and had us wondering if they also had Centocow in mind.
John Becker and Dave Lees took their time heading down to the water while Becky Sands and Sean Brown did duty as batch sweepers.
Ollie and Lee crossed the bridge over the Umko river at 12:10 which put them on track to get to Allendale before 14:30. Somewhere up the brutal climb of Hela Hela reality, and cramp in Lee's case, got a chokehold and an Allendale stop started to sound like a good idea. They rolled into Allendale at 15:11 and settled on the couch. Father and son arrived less than 10 minutes later and settled in for the night.
Meanwhile John and Dave pioneered a new crossing of the river and trickled along to Allendale arriving at 17:20. Dave's summary of the day; "Hella Hella needs to be bombed off the face of the earth."
Becky and Sean scribbled a little on the Umko but reset without any drama and had an uneventful but long day into Allendale, arriving just after 19:00
The real fun of the day was the early antics of Batch 1 as they tackled the 95 km stretch from Allendale to Ntsikeni. Colleen, Steve, Stewart and Dave H set off at 04:40 and scribbled around for hours until being joined by the other Rob, Murray and Dave J, who started hours later. The late starters knocked off the forest route to Donnybrook in 90 minutes while early starters Colleen, Stuart, David and Steve took over 4 hours.
The early arrivals had a "Pie Brake", swallowing pastries and fiddling with Dave J's brakes which had faltered. Photographic evidence showed that pies were successfully dispatched. We have yet to find out if the brake problem was adequately resolved.
After Donnybrook they all cruised along without incident and at the time of writing they are in the tracking dark zone heading into the Ntsikeni support station. The first lot arrived just before 7pm and Colleen and Steve rolled in at 7:30pm.
Batch 3 will start tomorrow, a total of 6 new riders all tackling the trail for their first time...
By Mike Woolnough