The Freedom Challenge is a strange beast. For most it’s a journey physically, mentally and philosophically. It’s hard, very hard but somehow it’s still not widely known by the general public. Upon hearing that you’re a cyclist, a stranger will be more impressed by your Argus time (or number of finishes) than a Freedom Challenge endeavour. That’s mostly ok by me, because it attracts the right type of people. They don’t seem to do it to stroke their egos, (they do it for a blanket) but for their own experience and personal achievement.
It's said that the first bike race happened the moment the second bicycle was built, and while most entrants are pitting themselves against the course (and the weather, their own limitations, navigational challenges, bicycle mechanicals, the cycling gods and sometimes even the race director), the final batch has traditionally been those going for the actual elapsed time win. They boldly put the R in Race Across South Africa, and normally overtake the entire field with a nine day head start.
It is always possible that the winner (and line honors as first in to the finish at Diemersfontein) comes from one of the earlier batches. If a combination of variable weather windows and undercover training from a dark horse coincides, then we could see this scenario (for a first time ever). A lot can go wrong for someone pushing the limits and recent events have seen more cautious riders taking the victory.
I don’t have to write anything about Dreyer and Harris, they have lit up the race course that traverses the country and hold the records for winter and summer respectively. Those stories have been widely reported in our niche world, but they can be ignored today most of all because they’re not on the startline. While we have a “reduced” field of 4 in this final batch, there’s plenty to look forward to here.
I put some queries to them all and can report a little bit on what they revealed (and hid!).
I’m going to kick off with Roger Nicholson and Mike Woolnough, mainly because they are riding singlespeed bikes. They also ride a lot together and the mutual banter between them is taking this argument to the fencelines and dirtroads. The current score on the shorter events between them stands at 2 each too. The first SS bike at Freedom was Andre Britz in 2007 – he liked the simplicity of the setup and quite a few have followed for probably the same reason. It’s a separate classification because enough people have gone with it. I looked at Andre and then Glenn Harrison (SS) taking this ride on with raised eyebrows, then I built one up myself and half understood the attraction. Roger is a firm believer and Mike is now in the curious camp (having done RTC and RTW on one). They are on a custom steel Mercer (made in CT) and an unbranded chinese carbon frame respectively which reveals quite a lot already.
Mike is really a special guy and an asset to the community. This will be his 25th FC event finish, with a freedom circuit and 2 RASA DNFs too. He wasn’t planning on riding this year, but some gentle banter twisted his rubber arm recently so stay tuned in hear for that full story in the days to come. He doesn’t come into the race in peak condition, but some frantic last minute training and the wiley old fox is on the startline with a genuine urge to race as hard as he can (and the rumour is a purple smurf beard too, you read it here first!). He did win the Summer event in 2022, fitting for someone with plenty of podiums and who pushed his own boundaries for so long, yet being so generous in helping others with his knowledge. I won’t embarrass him by giving away his age, but he’s way too fast for the category his ID number puts him in. The winter record of Glenn Harrison(13days 10h) is now 12 years old, and if the conditions are right, we could see this being the carrot that spurs him on in the back end of the race.
This will be Roger’s second go at a blanket for the full route. He said he’s going for 14 days, while that sounds quite a bit quicker than his 20 day finish on a geared bike in 2021, he’s done 10 of the shorter events so knows what he’s talking about. He’s got the experience to pace his efforts and it will be interesting to see if/when he and Mike ride together. I expect their sleep strategies will not concur and they might well yoyo from day to day as Mike is well known for riding steadily on 40winks and not much more. This could well be the race within the race and entertaining to boot. SS aficionados will notice I have not divulged the crucial factor of the all important chosen gear ratio for these riders. I’m smart enough to know that they were unlikely to tell me the truth (and might not have decided themselves too. We’ll wait for the startline before confirming that!)
This brings us to the geared riders and Gavin Horton. Here’s a quick stat - of the 250+ people who have finished RASA, he has the second ever fastest time as a novice rider (12 days 12h). A box of smarties if you can work out the quickest (hint : she did it as part of her “honeymoon”). He did ride in a good finishing “bunch” in 2019, but it shows that he was incredibly well prepared for the event. His return outing in 2021 was actually 2 days slower, and he’ll have done his homework on perfecting the nav intricacies to get a perfect run through the scratchy bits. His gear highlights are a SOL bivvy bag and lightweight portage shoes. Clearly he’s not hanging around to chat about weather, biltong recipes, politics or the Bok’s RWC chances at the Support stations. He’s tough, 5 Munga finishes tough and will be one to watch all the way as he’s hoping to improve his personal best time.
Last but not least we have Bruce Hughes lining up to take on the route. Just like Mike, I don’t want to embarrass him by his age, but let’s just say he was only in nappies when the Berlin Wall fell. He has however crammed a lifetime of bucketlist cycling adventures into his few flips around the sun. Tour divide (4400km Canada to Mexico, with dad), tick. Transcontinental race (4000km Belgium to Greece), tick. Tour Aotearoa (whole NZ), Tour te Waiponamu(more NZ), Cape epic x 3, RTC (winner, record still stands 5 years later), RTW (winner) all ticked off. There’s RASA at sedate pace (with dad) and another RASA at the bleeding edge where he eventually conceded the win by pulling up short of the line and allowing Theo van Dyk to take it by a minute as an acknowledgment of the guiding through Stettyns (that’s how I remember it, and it’s a good enough story not to ruin with facts). Suffice to say, the return of Bruce has been long expected and since he now lives in New Zealand, the entry has rolled over a few times because, you know, stuff got in the way.
He's confident in his chances and was the only one to say he’s out and out going for the win (and even records if things fall into place). I believe he has the tools to do it too. With more of an endurance bikepacking focus since the last ride, he has clearly learned how far he can push himself, and will have a very well laid out plan to maximise daily distances and clear the Baviaans gate without delay. Hopefully he can ignore the enticing hospitalities of a Karoo farm kitchen.
As a final parting shot, I wondered what their favourite ice cream flavour was. Bruce was simple and practical, whatever he has in front of him. Mike goes for Woolworths Triple Caramel (which I must now clearly go and try myself). Roger and Gavin both got the correct answer, that slice of heaven that melts on top of a Rouxpos waffle. Now we can sit back and wonder who will get to taste that first.