Anyone who enters the freedom challenge will spend a lot of time considering the appropriate equipment to take on the journey across the country.
Much thought and energy will be expended considering the different options.
Foremost amongst these is which bike to take and how to equip it. The Bike is the central focus of the challenge and is the vehicle which will hopefully carry the aspiring racer over 2300km of varying terrain.
The choices one faces are dizzying, as are the factors which need to be considered and weighed against one another.: 1) For a race which has a lot of hills to ride up, as well as plenty to carry ones bike on, Carbon would seem to be a clear favorite versus Aluminium or steel. A broken carbon frame would, however, mean an instant end to the challenge, whereas Aluminium or Steel one might be able to repair the bike with the help of a friendly local and a welding machine
2) Components need to be robust- Sacrificing too much weight could mean a less robust bicycle and given that the bike will have to endure river crossings, icy temperatures and little maintenance for 2-3 weeks, a RASA entrant has to consider how this might factor in. Components should be designed to be sturdy and resilient. Often the most expensive components were designed for tour pros with unlimited access to spares. Often these are not the best choice when tested against the African Countryside.
3)Full suspension versus Hardtail versus No suspension (or even a fat bike): A Full suspension bike will provide extra comfort on the washboard roads and will be more assured on the technical descents. They will however be slower on the longer gravel sections and will be heavier. They have more components and moving parts which equates to more stuff that can go wrong. A gravel bike on the other end of the spectrum will be light and will whip through the non technical stuff, but a rider will need to be careful, especially when tired, when negotiating some of the trickier descents. Failure to do so could end ones race even faster than a broken rear suspension.
4) Straight versus drop bars. Those who like drop bars believe them to have more places to put ones hands which should, in theory, allow for less problems in the long run. Those who like flat bars claim they have better control when riding through technical sections. Aero Bars are also often a feature of some bikes.
5)Single Speed versus “One by” versus “two by” versus internal gear hubs. SIngle speed bikes have less stuff to go wrong- interestingly, many who start the freedom challenge with a multi speed bike will, half way down the trail, give the Single speed set up a try. This is not recommended as anyone taking on the freedom challenge would do well to train with the bike set up they feel most comfortable with. Internal gear hubs are reportedly robust, but are heavy. For most, multi speed bikes are the norm.
6) Tires: Gravel or MTB,tread pattern, width, what pressures to run them at, inserts or not all are guaranteed to provoke debate.
As with many things in life, there is no right answer and any bike on the trail will be perfect for parts of it, but will be either over biked or underbiked for others.
Most bikes have seen their day on the trail and all have a devoted evangelical following. The Freedom Trail Whatsapp group will erupt with strong opinions with any thought of drop bars, gravel bikes, single speed and Rhoeloff Hubs. Each opinion more strongly held than the previous.
At the end of the day, after all the deliberations, any racer should heed the advice of one of the veterans of the trail and not over think it. Taking the bike one is the most comfortable riding for 12 hours a day is likely to be the best choice.
In the end, the bike, although material to the pursuit of the trail, has very little to do with how successful one will be on the trail. The person sitting on the bike is far more likely to determine the final result.
When considering which bike to take, perspective can be gained when one realises that some have intentionally left Pietermaritzburg without a bike and finished the Freedom Trail with only their two feet to carry them.
Heres hoping this years racers bikes hold up to the rigours of the trail. For those that dont, heres hoping those riding them are willing to share the story.