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Freedom Challenge 2023 Preview

The 21st edition of the Race Across South Africa starts next week from Pietermaritzburg on 13 June. Nineteen winter and two summer events. This is the 20th anniversary year of RASA, the original event being held in 2004.

46 riders aim to complete the 2150km journey within the 26 day cut-off. We wish them all the best. In the field 24 riders are blanket holders (the reward for having successfully completed a prior RASA event. One magnificent Basutho blanket , no matter where one finishes in the field).

Three riders have been unsuccessful in past RASA events and are giving it another go. 19 riders are riding RASA for the first time, although 10 of these riders have completed one or more of the shorter FC events. May the force be with them, one gets only one chance to do RASA for the first time. Best of luck. The 9 riders who be on the Trail for the first time are in for a very different experience.

This is a tough race, goes without saying. Perhaps best illustrated by the fact that in the last three or four events only two thirds or so of RASA starters have managed to get their blankets. Look around you in your batch at the start line. Hopefully all of you will get to Wellington. You can be guaranteed that each of the riders alongside you have a story to tell. Perseverance. Courage. Failure. Success (footnote: never judge a book by its cover, it is of particular relevance to the Freedom Trail, you’d be amazed as to what the most unlikely looking candidates are capable of).

In every rider’s eyes you will see hope. What would the point of life be without this elixir called hope. Maybe also some apprehension, perhaps even fear. Excitement for sure.

This is what riders voluntarily sign up for. The opportunity to feel truly alive, perhaps because in so doing one skirts not that far from the alternative.

The legends (“Legends”) of the trail yearn to further embellish their credentials. Who will win RASA? The epic Harris/Dreyer duels over the years come to mind. Neither have entered this year’s RASA. Martin and his equally accomplished wife Jeannie are in the Balkans cycling the Trans Balkan race. Alex’s focus is elsewhere right now. The racing batch nevertheless looks good. Woolnough. Nicholson. Horton. Hughes. Single speed tussle between Mike and Roger. Major interest in whether Bruce Hughes can threaten the winter race record set in 2017 by Martin Dreyer (10 days and 6hours) or the overall race record of 9 days and 22 hours set by Alex Harris in 2020 in the inaugural summer version of RASA. Bruce is an exceptionally talented rider as his epic (and chivalrous) ride in 2016 bore witness.

Amongst the women two former winners are riding, Sandy Maytham Bailey and Jeanette Scoular, holder of surely the most deserved Stone Saddle award (conspicuous bravery) for her ride in 2020. Mandy Joyce and Sarah Watermeyer are also past winners of the Stone Saddle award, along with Gary Scoular.

Janine Oosthuizen is probably the favorite for first woman home. She has been quietly piling on the kms in an impressive and sustained stint of training. Sorry Janine, we have blown your cover, you now have the weight of heavy expectation on your shoulders!

The Payne brothers continue their odyssey. This will be their seventh RASA together, Nigel’s eighth and Adrian’s seventh individually. Mike Woolnough will get his ninth blanket if he finishes. Gary Scoular and Brad van der Westhuizen their sixth. Mark Basel, Anton Wood, and Grant Hill their fourth. Estelle Labuschagne will get her fifth. Familiar names, all etched in the DNA of the Freedom Challenge.

Don Quixote is a literary character who comes to mind when one thinks of those who persist in chasing an ever elusive blanket (windmill). So close but so far. Try, try and try again. John Bowen lines up for his fifth RASA. Mike Roy for his third. So far no cigar, no blankets. But, like Don Quixote, these riders choose to live their lives in the only way they know how, with passion, as foolish as it may seem to others. There are two reasons as to why they persist. The first is it makes them happy. The second is for the same reason.

An upfront thanks to Race Director Chris Fisher and his wife Julia. The stewardship of the Freedom Challenge is not easy and they continue to steer us all in the right direction. Equally recognition should be given to the entire Freedom Challenge family. Seldom does one experience a bond as powerful as the one that exists in this community.

The squadron of Freedom Writers is at battalion strength for this event. New scribes have joined. Andrew Cromhout. Craig Bosenberg and Graham Denny. Many of the old hands are riding this year but even so are going to try and provide feedback from the field, so to speak.

The support stations (Freedom Trail Angels) are on standby. Inverters and generators are primed. The Buffalo Herder ranks are stretched a bit this year due to two Herders becoming the Herded but many old hands have stepped up to help out as and when required.

The Trail has had two or three years of well above average rainfall. As a consequence going will be slower. More lush vegetation, damage to roads. The strong likelihood of a cold and wet (snowy) RASA is whispered in the corridors.

Everything is set. Roll on Pietermaritzburg City Hall at 6am on Tuesday 13 June

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