Mountain bikers approach half way on Freedom Challenge
As it approaches the half way stage, the 2010 Freedom Challenge Race Across South Africa that sees participants mountain biking 2400km from Pietermaritzburg to Diemersfontein Wine Estate outside Cape Town has seen its fair share of incidents.
The heavy snow falls of last week slowed the progress of the first batches to leave Pietermaritzburg as they headed through the deep river valleys of Southern Kwa-Zulu Natal and into the communal lands of the southern Drakensberg. Heading up to the village of Rhodes, race front runners Ugene Nel and Trevor Ball were forced by ice and snow to walk for six hours down the Naude’s Nek Pass, a part of the trail that can normally be ridden in two. Since then Nel and Ball have maintained a consistent pace as they headed through the Stormberg before dropping into the Fish River Basin and then heading over the Swaershoek Mountains near the Mountain Zebra National Park. They are now riding across the Cambeboo Plains as they head towards the Baviaanskloof.
Behind Trevor and Ugene is adventurer Alex Harris who started from Pietermaritzburg two days after them. Over the first three days Harris made quick progress but was slowed when he reached the support station at Vuvu village below the Drakensberg escarpment in the mid afternoon and had to sit out a 45 minute time penalty for a route deviation. Unwilling to then start up Lehana’s Pass with the mountain still covered in snow, the cattle tracks hidden and the light fading he called it a day. Since then however, he has progressed efficiently and has been gradually closing the gap on Trevor and Ugene. It is anticipated that he will catch up to them in the Baviaanskloof.
Matching the moves of Alex Harris is GIANT rider Glen Harrison who is riding a Giant 29er single speed. Harrison left Pietermaritzburg in the same group as Harris. However, he battled with fatigue in the early stages. Since then he has managed to stay on the pace by starting very early and riding late into the night. He is currently riding through the Fish River valley and into the Swaershoek. A big push may seem him through the mountains in a day and back into the Karoo.
Behind these three are “Mechanical” Ray Farronkothen, Mauritian Scott James and Gawie du Plessis who flew out from Australia to participate in this event. They in turn are followed by school principal David Bell, who appears to be riding with a cracked wrist sustained in the Stormberg, and Chris Morris who is battling with a knee injury. Early race leaders, Zane and Jethro de Decker battled with the navigation leaving the Ntsikeni Nature Reserve, spending five hours at night trying to find a track off the Swartberg that was only a few hundred metres away they then lost further time crossing the Knira River flood plains heading towards the Drakensberg escarpment.
The real movement has come in the last groups to leave Pietermaritzburg. Andrew Barnes, participating in his third Freedom Challenge Race Across South Africa ran the 85km Duzi Trail on Friday 18 June, finishing a credible fourth in 10:35 minutes. The following morning he left Pietermaritzburg with the last batch of cyclists and pushed through the Allendale support station and went on to Centocow Mission. On Sunday morning he rode through the Ntsikeni Nature Reserve and on to the Masakala community guest house at the start of the Knira River flood plain where he stopped for the night, being the first rider in the entire field to reach this point within two days. The following morning he headed out over the flood plain and up to the Malekhalonyane Community Lodge on the Mehloding Hiking Trail where he arrived in the late morning, only to retire from the race.
As if spurred by Barnes’ withdrawal, the group ahead of him which included Freedom Challenge veterans Carl Crous and Marnitz “sponsored by PG Glass and riding for Miles for Smiles” and their young recruit August Carstens made what could prove to be the decisive move of the 2010 Freedom Challenge Race Across South Africa. On the day of Barnes’ withdrawal the three left the Malekhalonyane lodge in the early morning and arrived at Vuvu village at 4pm. After an hour break they left the village and with the light going they commenced a 1, 000m ascent up the Lehana’s Pass cattle track. Nienaber described the evening as follows ‘We began climbing Lehana’s at 6pm with a string of Angels and a whole lot of prayers. The moonlight was so bright that we could climb without lights into the havens; the stars were so close and bright; the fairy like snow stared back at us’. Elated by their achievement they arrived in Rhodes after midnight. Every race has its defining moments. By taking on the seemingly impossible Tops Needle in the annual Dusi Canoe marathon the late Graham Pope-Ellis and his partner were able to win the race and open the way for those who came after. The same holds true of Lehana’s Pass and Freedom Challenge. It was first done at night by 2009 winner Tim James in his record-breaking ride and fellow riders Andre Britz and Francois Reikert. It may well prove to be the difference between Harris and this following group.
Arriving in Rhodes, the Crous “commando” met up with Freedom Challenge veterans Mark Mtichell and Allen Sharpe as well as Travis Saunders, who started a day ahead of them and had spent the night before at the Tinana Mission station before heading through Vuvu to Rhodes. Also at Rhodes were Australians Tim James (no relation) and woman rider Bec Caskie as well as Paddy Veenstra, all of who are riding consistently from one support station to the next. On Tuesday morning this group of riders went from Rhodes through to the next support station at the farm Slaapkranz in the Vaalhoek valley. Crous and company may have plans of pushing further but were clearly fatigued by their efforts of the previous evening – the three were reportedly seen around midday asleep in a roadside hayloft.
At Slaapkranz this large group met up with Capetownian Blackie Swart who made steady progress through to Malekhlonyane. However, a knee injury then slowed his progress. The following day he rode past the Tinana Mission around midday and into the valley of the Vuvu river. Unable to find his way through the head high grass and up to the support station by nightfall he opted to bed down for the night, making a small fire and good use of the space blanket that all riders are obliged to carry. Speaking afterwards of his experience Blackie said “it was just the river, the grass, the stars and me. Life at its most basic and most beautiful”. Blackie battled on through Rhodes to sleep the next night with young farmer Christo Swart on the farm Kapokkraal, trying to establish their common ancestry.
Also making good progress along the trail are women riders Estelle Labuschagne and Gerda Gruner who arrived in Rhodes on Tuesday night with local farmer, Ray Sephton and Freedom Challenge veteran Errol Derrick. Following a day behind them are the other two women riders still in the race, Ingrid Avidnon and Nicole du Toit and their partners, Anthony Avidnon and Jannie Gerber.
The last group approaching Rhodes, which they will reach on Thursday, includes Justin Bouwer and extreme triathletes Leon van der Nest and Keith Little who, with Barnes did the trail run.
With the race moving out of the mountains of the Drakensberg much of the hard climbing, difficult navigation and portaging comes to an end. Passing through the Karoo, the Baviaanskloof, the Swartberg and the Breede River, those riders looking to win the race will be helped by the good weather window and full moon as they start riding deep into the night. Those other riders just looking to complete the race will need to maintain a regular pattern of riding from before sunrise until sunset if they are to reach Diemersfontein before the 26-day cut off.