The Freedom Challenge winter events of 2023 have come to a close. They comprised, Race Across South Africa (RASA), Race to Rhodes (RTR) and Race to Paarl (RTP).
For some it culminated in ambitions being fulfilled while for others dreams were left in tatters.
The weather along the length of the Freedom Trail for the last number of years has been fairly benign and rider friendly. There have been some cold snaps in recent years but photos of riders plodding through snow haven’t been seen for a while. This year the harsh conditions of a South African winter were on display. There wasn’t snow but unseasonal rain was not in short supply. The word from the farming community is that it’s the first time in 15 years that they had experienced this much precipitation. Fields that have stood empty are going back under the plough.
This year the weather played havoc with riders getting rerouted in a number of places. Iconic sections of the race were left out including Gamkaskloof (Die Hel) and the challenging scramble up Die Leer.
The race director had his work cut out figuring out the rerouting and making plans for pop-up support stations. To add to the weather challenges a random buffalo encounter, on a section of the race where it was believed the biggest risk was being charged down by a meerkat, added to the mayhem. A situation with a few lucky riders and one unlucky bicycle resulted in the race route pushing north to avoid similar encounters.
As always some riders experienced mechanical issues, no doubt exacerbated by the rain, mud and washed out sections of road. The road conditions claimed a number of wheels and ended at least one persons ride when they didn’t get away with just a damaged bike.
The Buffalo Herders — initially formed to escort riders through the buffalo infested Baviaanskloof Reserve, more recently also serving as the race directors extra set of hands — did sterling work on getting riders back on bikes when disaster struck.
The drop out rate in RASA and RTP was just over one third of entrants while RTR recorded a drop out of only 20%. The RTR section is generally regarded as the toughest section of the Freedom Trail but the weather hadn’t turned particularly ugly while riders were busy making their way through that section. The ever present wind and cold were in play but it was fairly dry. The rain came later and when it came I didn’t hold back.
Riders discovered rivers in the most unexpected places. Bits that were previously just sandy bits of roads revealed themselves as rivers now swollen requiring riders to pay attention when crossing. The Grootrivier at Bucklands, normally a couple of sandy river crossings, was flowing strong and deep. Later on the same river had to be crossed at the Grootrivierpoort. Over the last few years that crossing—used by cars—has varied from mid calf to ankle deep. This year is was chest high for some and only bellybutton deep for others. Either way it was totally impassable for any make of car. The river being that full made the passage through the Osseberg jeep track - AKA Mordor - risky. Four riders did manage to get through. That in itself was a remarkable achievement. The rest of the following mob were redirected around through Patensie. The reroute was at least an hour faster and very scenic but still not a soft option. The rerouting further down the trail added both distance and time to an already long race.
The drop out rate this year seems high but it’s typical of years where the weather has a hand in making a tough race even tougher. Racing snakes and those taking a more cautious approach were equally affected.
Leon Erasmus riding a curly bar single speed contraption that wouldn’t have been out of place at Afrikaburn - overseas readers think Burning Man - was in pursuit of the single speed record on Race to Rhodes. Owing to poor maths as a result of a sleep deprived addled mind, instead of rolling in nearly an hour ahead of the existing record be arrived at the finish 2 minutes behind the current record. Record attempt aside he had done enough to secure the win in 2 days 15 hours and some minutes. Ingrid Avidon and Sarah Van Heerden finished at the top of the woman’s category in 3 days 10 hours, taking 15 minutes off of Ingrid's previous record.
The Race to Paarl riders had to deal with mass rerouting due to the aforementioned buffalo incident as well as the rerouting around Gamkaskloof because of the flooded Gamka river. That said, the reports from riders is that the ride over the Swartberg Pass to Calitzdorp was spectacular. Rowan Matthews managed line honours in 3 days 9 hours with Ingrid Avidon, who had just complete RTR, not far behind finishing in 3 days 11 hours, also a new record.
The Race Across South Africa was an interesting affair, particularly amongst the so-called race snakes. Of the four slitherers who started only one made it to the finish. Gavin Horton went the distance and was crowned the RASA 2023 winner. Ernesta Meintjes did enough to secure the woman’s race.
RASA is a huge undertaking and for many it is a multi year dream. The planning and execution it takes to just get to the finish within the cutoff time is huge. To the uninformed the distances on some sections don’t look particularly impressive or difficult. That’s until you understand the terrain that needs to be covered and then add in the effects of multi day and multi week fatigue. Being on your bike all day for 2 to 3 weeks takes dedication and focus. When trouble befalls riders by way of health issues, weather conditions or bike mechanical issues it takes a large measure of resolve to keep pushing on. Martin Victor has been an outstanding example of the grit it takes to finish the event in the face of a number of setbacks. He came into the event intent on riding with someone else. That alliance unravelled quickly. He then joined up with some other riders and mechanical problems spelt the end of that loose alliance. He had a fall coming off the Swarberg that had him walking forward to a farm. He required bike repairs as well as a medical check up. Even though days behind schedule he got back on his bike and pressed on. The man has grit and he has it in abundance.
Every rider who lines up at the start of a Freedom event expects to finish. The sad reality is that every year a large number of riders don’t realise that expectation. There are a multitude of reasons for riders to pull up short. It’s hard to stop. It’s hard to make the decision that your race is over. Don’t judge anyone for quitting. You weren’t there in the moments when they processed their options and made the decision to stop.
It’s a tough race and it’s real life unlike the Oprah Winfrey show—not everyone gets a blanket.