2010 Freedom Challenge: Tales from the trail

“Western Cape boundary/grens” reads the sign that many of the 2010 Freedom Challenge racers are looking for as they ride the sandy track between Willowmore and Prince Albert.

Starting in Pietermaritzburg in KwaZulu-Natal, rolling through the Eastern Cape and finishing at Diemersfontein Wine Estate outside Cape Town in the Western Cape, the annual Freedom Challenge takes participants across the breadth of South Africa. Despite riding 1 764km, by the time they reach the sign near the farm Rondawel they still have many kilometres and some serious climbing remaining but they know they are on the home stretch. 

Leading the field, Freedom Challenge veterans Trevor Ball and Ugene Nel left the Damsedrif support station in the Baviaanskloof on Friday morning.

They rode through Willowmore and alongside the Droeberge (dry mountains), passing the provincial boundary sign in the evening, and continuing on to the village of Prince Albert where they arrived well after midnight—a big day of riding both in terms of time (22 hours) and distance (257km).

On Saturday morning they took on the 800m ascent up the historic Swartberg Pass before riding though the botanically rich mountains of the Swartsberg Nature Reserve and into the isolated Gamkaskloof, also known as or “Die Hel”.

Following in the footsteps of Denys Reitz and generations of travellers, Trevor and Ugene then carried their bikes up the historic mule track known as up The Ladder, which runs out of the Gamkaskloof. They rode into the hamlet of Vleiland before continuing to Rouxpos where they arrived shortly before midnight.

On Sunday morning the two headed out towards the Anysberg Nature Reserve and the town of Montagu.

The two may forego further sleep in an effort to arrive at the Diemersfontein finish by Monday night and ahead of chasing rider Alex Harris.

Coming into this home stretch, polar adventurer Alex Harris appeared to have established an effective lead over the rest of the field.

Dark horse
Leaving the Toekomst support station in the Darlington Dam section of the Addo Elephant National Park on Thursday, Harris rode hard through the Groot Rivier section of the trail and the Goede Hoop area of the Baviaanskloof Wilderness Area, arriving at the Cambria support station at midnight.

This is normally covered in two days and this effort moved Harris to the front of the field.

On Friday morning Harris looked to consolidate the lead and made very fast progress up the valley of the Baviaanskloof, stopping only to enjoy some of the famous chocolate pudding at Damsedrif before continuing to arrive at Willowmore in the evening. 

On Saturday he too passed the provincial boundary sign as he rode alongside the Droeberge from Willowmore to Prince Albert before climbing the Swartberg Pass and then descending down into the Gamkaskloof. Sunday saw him climbing—heading up the Ladder and on to Rouxpos—before riding out towards Anysberg and Montagu.

Harris has looked to build a lead based on fast riding and good sleep. Many race followers have been surprised by his riding speed along the trail. Whilst many assumed that he had the mental determination for this extremely taxing race, it can now be revealed that Freedom Challange’s dark horse is a national track cycling champion.

He began track cycling in 2005. Despite never previously riding a track bike, within five months Alex became the new South African track champion for the 1 000m time trial and the 1 500m in the 35-to 39 years category. Five months later he won a silver and a bronze medal at the World Masters Track Cycling Championships in Manchester in 2006. He may prove very tough to beat.

Lost on the Perdeberg
Giant 29er single-speed rider Glen Harrison has been battling gamely to stay in contact with Harris. When Harris left Toekomst, Harrison was only three hours behind him. However, Harrison is now more than five hours behind Harris after getting lost on the Perdeberg in the approach to the Baviaanskloof.

At 3am on Saturday he left Cambria and rode up the length of the Baviaanskloof, stopped to sleep briefly at Willowmore, before heading out towards Prince Albert. Battling the rutted surface on his rigid frame 29er and slowed by rain and a headwind, Harrison was forced to stop riding and sleep under a tree.

Shortly before dawn he arrived at the farm Rondawel, within spitting distance of the Western Cape boundary sign.

He then continued to Prince Albert, arriving in the early afternoon and promptly slept until 10pm when he left to ride up the Swartberg Pass and on to Gamkaskloof. He has not been heard from since.

Great distances, remarkable feats
The most recent shake up of the race occurred further back in the field with the separation of “Commander” Carl Crous, Marnitz “sponsored by PG Glass and riding for Miles for Smiles” Nienaber and August “Boskind” Carstens.

This unlikely trio have been able to push each other great distances and achieve remarkable feats, including summiting Lehana’s Pass at night.

They arrived in the Swaershoek Mountains above Cradock, enjoying an effective six hour lead over the rest of the field.

However, above the Coetzerspruit the trio were unable to agree on the direction and went their separate ways.

As a result they surrendered their effective lead to Harris.

However, since then, Crous has been storming ahead.

On Saturday he rode across the Camdeboo Plains and past Toekomst. Crous stopped to sleep briefly at the Kleinpoort farm stall and arrived at the Bucklands support station on the Groot River just before dawn.

Refreshed by a meal and shower he continued on towards Cambria, arriving in the early evening having regained the lapsed time. If he is to win he will need to ride long hours and great distances over the next few days. He also carries a 24-hour-penalty incurred by replacing his bike in the Stormberg.

Following Crous across the Camdeboo Plains on Saturday, Nienaber and Carstens were unable to match his relentless pace and slowly fell behind.

They too arrived at the Bucklands support station early on Sunday morning. However, as they had not slept at all since the previous morning, they opted to stop.

Reports later in the day were that they were still sleeping.

Elsewhere on the trail other dramas continued to play themselves out.

Greda Gruner fell behind her riding companions in the Stormberg and for the last four days she has been riding alone, the first woman in the history of the race to do so.

The only interruption in her solitary journey came when she was joined for an hour by chasing rider Justin “Big Blade” Bouwer who started in the last group to leave Pietermaritzburg and has now been working his way up through the field.

The big E’s, female rider, Estelle Labuschange and riding partner Errol Derrick, were forced to sleep for the night in a shed when they got lost near Seekoeigat in the Stormberg.

Broken wrist
Coming through the same section four days later, extreme triathletes Leon van der Nest and Keith Little also looked to have lost their way in the darkness. After retracing their tracks they were able to work their way through to the Romansfonte in support station where they arrived after midnight.

School principal David Bell continues to ride on with a broken wrist while a number of other riders are battling stomach complaints.

Headwinds caused by the latest approaching cold front are also slowing their progress as they endeavour to make the race finish at Diemersfontein outside Cape Town within the 26 day cut-off.

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