After a restless night at the Sleeping Bao B&B, the Freedom Challenge’s home in Petermaritzburg, we got up early to begin our Race to Rhodes. Our fellow batch members were also stirring.. checking bikes, packing backpacks and contemplating how much or how little clothing was needed for the day. It is the beginning of winter in South Africa and the Race has a reputation for putting its riders in sub zero temperatures, so we all had a variety of “winter woollies” to choose from. A check on AccuWeather seemed to tell us we were in for a warm day in the valley, so the back packs got a little bulkier as we settled for thin rather than thermal.
The 6 other riders in our batch all had their own agendas and strategies. I was surprised to find that only two had trail experience (Leon and Ollie) while the rest of us were journeying into the unknown. All of the riders with us looked fit and strong. Sean and I didn’t rate our chances of being able to hang on to their pace, so we made peace with the fact that we would be doing a lot of our own navigation. To add to that, Leon told us he was aiming for a 5 day finish with his son Dave, and Ollie and Lee were also planning to skip a couple of support station overnight stops. The other trail virgins, Dave and John, had the look of seasoned endurance athletes about them. Conversation over dinner last night led to where we ride and what we have done – we soon learnt that these two loved to hone their skills at Giba Gorge, this told me they were going to be flying over the technical sections where I would probably be walking!
So it was with more than a little trepidation that we started off that morning. We had to ride the short distance through town to the famous Town Hall which sees the start of the Down Run of the Comrades Marathon. We managed this without too much trouble and waited in a neat photo line for the iconic clock to chime the hour at 6am. The bell tolled and Meryl (the Trail Mum) and Johan (Race Director and issuer of yellow and red cards) set us on our way. They escorted us to the entrance of Bisley Nature Reserve (6km away) where our adventure began.
In the first few hours of our ride we managed to stay together as a group. I calmed down when I realised we weren’t going to be dropped straight away and started to get to know a little more about the rest of the riders. The scenery through the reserve was lovely and I was excited to find that I recognised a few of the landmarks on the narrative. We quickly turned onto narrower tracks as we made our way towards Minerva. There was a lovely forest section that saw Ollie and Lee speed away into the distance. A few kms later, they rejoined us from another direction having taken a wrong turn. A faint alarm bell rang in my mind… Ollie has trail knowledge, he’s done this before and he’s already getting lost!
One of the most difficult things about this ride is the lack of measurements. Normally when I ride, I have my Garmin GPS device sitting in the middle of my handlebars. This tells me how far I have ridden, what speed I am going, my heart rate, the temperature, the meters ascended, the time of day and many, many other wonderful titbits of data. I LOVE data. I usually upload my riding file as soon as I am finished and analyse every km, every heart beat and rate my performance. We are not allowed GPS devices on the trail for many good reasons (for more info see the Freedom Challenge website). So where my Garmin usually sits, I had a mapboard with the maps and route narrative for that particular day (cannot be read while moving by the way!!) and a very simple bike computer giving distance and speed. I had a heart rate monitor on, but after a couple of days I didn’t even use that as I couldn’t be bothered.. So, here comes the first epic shift in behaviour for me. I actually had to pay attention to my surroundings. I could not chat to the others and zone out. I needed to know where I was and where I wanted to go. It sounds pretty simple, but think about it. How often do we really take notice of our surroundings? Most of us are on auto pilot or in sheep mode in many of our travels. There are some stretches of my commute to Rustenburg that I struggle to remember because I don’t need to. Now I need to focus on the next 500m or the next 6km or where there is a gate or a dam. When you are new to navigation, this is a time consuming process. You literally have to stop and check at every turn. While we were still riding with Leon it wasn’t too much of an issue as he knew where he was going, however, not long into our morning ride, Leon, Dave, Ollie and Lee dropped us…
We came to a field which was rutted and grassy and pretty difficult to ride through. Then we came to tall thick grass, which was even more difficult to ride through. Then we came to a rocky climb underneath the thick tall grass.. time to get off and push. Big wake up call for me – I am a slow bike walker pusher!! So, much to my distress, I was quickly at the back and seeing the gap between me and the rest of the batch grow. It was brutally hard work. I was panting and my legs were in pain. This was not fair. Not only am I bike fit, I do strength training twice a week and I had recently done some long fast hikes to prepare my legs for this kind of thing. I am not very happy about being at the back, but there was nothing I could do but plod on and get to the top. The group in front took the “Tiger Line” (I was going to find out lots more about Tiger lines in the days to come!) but Sean saw a track which looked almost rideable going to the right and curling up to the top. We took that one and managed to catch up with Dave and John who had stopped to take some photos. Thank goodness.
We decided to ride together and so off we pedalled, the newbies with their maps and brand new compasses to see if we could make it to Allendale, our first support station. We did well. We got to the soup stop at the Oaks hotel (very nice) and then managed to take all of the correct routes to the infamous Umkomaas Valley.
Today was Umko Valley Day….the Valley and I have a history. During Sani2C in 2014, I successfully rode all the tricky tracks down to the end of the valley section on Day 2. After this amazing feat, I promptly fell and broke my leg on a very tame twist in the track. I was helivaced out which allowed me to see this wondrous valley in all its glory from the air. Now I was back to see it from the bottom.. in my mind I would soon have the full 3D visuals. Job done.
As we were on the rim of the valley on a nice fast section of rocky track, my rear tyre burst. Sean was a little ahead of me, so I had to call him back as he had taken the responsibility for all of our tools. It wasn’t good news. I had a large sidewall cut so after some debate, we decided to put a tube in the tyre topped up with some extra slime to help prevent punctures. My amazing man took less than 10 minutes to sort it all out and then we were back on the trail again.
Getting down to the Umkomaas river on the freedom trail, involves a treacherously steep concrete road. We were warned about this – it has been known for riders to end their race right there with a high speed crash. Needless to say, when it got so steep that my brakes started to burn, I got off and walked. At the bottom, we caught up with Dave and John and we started to work our way through the track next to the river.
The river and the valley were stunningly beautiful. The sunlight was sparkling off the water and the sky was a deep azure blue. I managed to take a few photos between our map reading stops but as with all the photos that we took, the camera could not capture the intensity of the scenery. As we pedalled through the overgrown track, we could hear the river flowing over the rocks – just the sound made me feel cooler and more alive. After quite a bit of worrying as to whether we were on the right track, we were very excited to see the Freedom Challenge bokkie sign on a tree. There are only a few of them on the way to Rhodes and I’m not quite sure what the criteria is for their placing, but wow, this one meant we were nailing the nav!! We scrambled through the undergrowth to find a track which was studded with evil vicious thorn bushes. In no time at all, our legs were scratched to bits and bleeding. We looked like we had been in an alley cat fight with a tiger and to add insult to injury the larger bushes were having a go at our arms, hands and even faces. It was horrible and very sore. One particularly vicious bush managed to tear a hole in my Mio watch! During this thorny run, we lost Dave and John and were riding on our own again. The track improved and then (thank you Murphy) my rear tyre went flat again. Not surprisingly, the tube had not stood up to the million thorns that lined the track. We decided that as we were pretty close to the Hela Hela climb on a district road, we would push the bikes until we got there and fix it. This is the point at which Sean and I gained some fame as “dots of the day”. We were being tracked by our friends and unbeknown to us several “Freedom Trail Junkies” who are glued to their PCs and delight in providing a running commentary on social media like Twitter and the Hub bike forum. Instead of taking the relatively easy to find Jeep track to the Hela Hela bridge, we decided that we were going to see if we could cross the river. We went down to the river, but it was not looking at all crossable. We then decided to go along it to find the bridge. The forest at that point, became one of those Lord of the Rings forests. Thick, gnarled low, thorny branches literally jumped out at us and dragged us backwards into their clutches. The trees got lower and denser until we had to leopard crawl under them.. (not easy to do with a bike and a backpack) – at this point we decided we were probably not on the trail and should make our way back to the last place where we knew we were. So after a two hour or so loop through the undergrowth we got back to the track and voila… there it was a few meters up to our right, the beautiful jeep track that had been described in the narrative!
We pushed to Hela Hela bridge and then Sean set about putting a new tube in my tyre.. (our last one). After another half an hour or so, we were finally ready to tackle the Hela Hela Climb. We stopped at the Highover campsite to fill our water bottles and in the diminishing daylight, clicked ourselves into Granny Gears for the grind to the top.
I love climbing. Its my favourite. I can even boast that I managed to ride the whole way up the incredibly steep Rooiberg climb at the 360-1 after riding for 17 hours or so. This made me confident that I could conquer Hela Hela. This happened to be my second big wake up call for the day. Hela Hela climb was the steepest and longest climb that I have ever attempted. We walked quite a bit of it. Just as you thought you were at the top because it teasingly flattened out a little, there would be another switch back and yet another climb. It was soul destroying! Eventually when we got to the top, it was dark. We switched on our lights and enjoyed a few kilometres of fast rolling hill riding. We sped through the township detailed on the map and eagerly turned onto the road that would take us to Allendale and our first support station. With only 3 or so kms to go, guess what? Yep. Back tyre went down again. Sean pumped it and we carried on riding for a few meters then it went flat again. After repeating this three times, I made the call to just walk and push the bike. In a normal race or event, this would have been a disaster… the last straw even. However, it dawned on me that I still had a maximum of 7 days to get to Rhodes and I was about to pull into an overnight stop anyway. So what if we got there late? yes we would lose a little sleep, but it wasn’t the end of the world. I was experiencing a new mindset – moulding myself little by little into a proper freedom rider. No data, no rush to get to a point before they packed away the tables, no fancy mechanical support, no GPS and as it was increasingly becoming apparent, no worries!
We strolled into the Allendale farm at about 7pm and found the rest of our batch getting ready for bed. A good meal, a hot shower, a borrowed tube from Ian the owner and a good chat to everyone, saw us turning in for a good nights sleep to prepare us for the next day of adventure.
Oh yes, I am, quite literally, living the dream Baby!