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2021 RASA Race Report #17 | Steven Burnett

13 July 19h00

The beast we know today as the Freedom Challenge wasn’t initially called that. Its origins go back to founder David Waddilove and Mari Ballot running from the finish of the Two Oceans marathon to the start of the Comrades marathon, and they dubbed it “the Transkaroo challenge”. For some reason this proved to be a tough sell as an annual event, so instead the Freedom Challenge extreme triathlon was tried the next year, linking the Comrades finish to the start of the Berg River canoe marathon using bicycles on the reverse of the transkaroo route – there’s a very select group who have done this, but the bike ride came to be known as the Race Across South Africa proved popular and it’s what now grips us every winter.

The reason for this considerably short history lesson is in the name. David chose to call it the Freedom Challenge in 2004 to celebrate a decade of our democracy, and also to signify the incredible tourism benefit it could bring to far flung corners off the beaten track. When I did RASA in 2008. it was a month after the xenophobic attacks that rocked us then. David made a point at race briefing about how the Freedom Challenge was his small contribution really to unite a diverse country that has a myriad of problems, and the race was a journey even more relevant because of it. The devastating news we saw on our tvs was a tiny group of troublemakers. You will travel across the beautiful country but will possibly remember the good people even more. The country is full of these good people, committed to improving the lives of themselves, their families and their communities.

I write this today as a backdrop to the depressing sights of civil unrest unfolding across our country to highlight that this event is such a vital but tiny part of our project of nation building. The riders who left Pietermaritzburg will be in a totally different headspace, unable to fathom what’s happening there now. They will have stories to share of the amazing people they’ve met across the country. Their optimism will be hard to contain and should be celebrated.

Back to the race and our peleton is now stretched over a smaller length, but all are engulfed in the grips of extreme winter weather. Riding in extreme cold is foreign to most South Africans and I bet all of our racers will have experienced their toughest of days on a bike recently. The combination of wind, rain, cold and difficult can make every kilometer forward that much harder. The weather is always a lottery in this race, and even though the high altitude of the Malutis from Rhodes to Cradock are traditionally the coldest, a thick cold front in the Western Cape can instantly deliver a tougher sting in the tail that the exhausted riders have to overcome. A convenient lift to the finish is now very enticing, and the riders stay out there to earn that blanket – it’s hard to describe (you just have to do it).

Coming from the east, Franci and Paul made it as the last riders through Mordor, they’ll be the final pair escorted by our Buffalo herders tomorrow, but will maybe want to push on to Willowmore to hook up with the big batch of Race to Paarl riders leaving from there on Thursday. Martin and Scott will be pushing through the evening to get to Willowmore.

There’s potentially a huge batch leaving there tomorrow. The 2 RTP starters will be joined by Casper (RASA batch 11), Gary (RASA8), Greg and Jan (RASA6), assuming no one sneaks out tonight. Not that much further ahead, the Payne bros are currently at Rondawel after leaving Willowmore this morning it has been slow going into a manic headwind. Carlo, Greg, Merak and Oliver find themselves with the RTP1 pair of Josh and Sally in Prince Albert at the base of the (snowtopped) Swartberg pass, the high thread count linen of Dennehof will be hard to leave tonight.

There’s a void of 250km to our next riders in Montagu, Greg, Richard, Charl and RG will be planning their final assault to Trouthaven which can be done in a day from there. Derrick, Brett, Pierre, Andrew and Sarah are in McGregor for the night – they did the relatively short 50km ride from Montagu aiming for Trouthaven but wisely chose to push it back a day. They are all clearly exhausted and presumably the collective decision was made to adjust plans and bite this final section off in chunks. Jason is pushing through to Trouthaven this evening. Derrick and Kevin had a 7 hour battle through the Stetteynskloof valley but will be done by the time this report hits the world, well done on a 16.5 day ride to them.

I have intentionally left three riders out, some would say the best for last. We have potentially three winners left in this race. Gavin Horton is now in Montagu, after leaving Rouxpos at 7am it has been a long day for him. He probably abandoned hopes of winning when he took a day off way back in Rhodes to overcome a chest cold. He’s probably sitting with the fastest time covering the distance since then, but only now has an outside chance of overhauling the front two. My feeling is he put that thought to bed last night arriving in Rouxpos looking at the gaps ahead and then went to bed for the first proper sleep since he was at Rhodes.

Fjord Jordaan has seemingly hitched a ride with Jason Wesson who left PMB 5 days ahead of him. It’s times like this that a riding buddy is worth gold, not just for the draft into a headwind but to get your mind onto other things than your aching body. Axel Poser is just 35km ahead. These three will all arrive at Trouthaven sometime tonight. There could be a truce and they traverse together, Axel could even leave and take it on in the dark? There is the defining prize of a RASA race win up for grabs, as well as a blanket. There is a good chance that all of these strategies are in play, but the most important thing currently is the next 30minutes, then next 4 kms and then take it from there.

There’s only one guarantee, all of our riders across the course are battling brutal conditions, and they are all to be revered and celebrated. Champions every one of them.

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