Setting Records at the Freedom Challenge Race to Rhodes

Words: Glenn Harrison ǀ Photos: Jerrard Le Roux and Charles Mansfield

Mountain Biking

This year's Race to Rhodes generated a lot of interest and seems set to become a popular introduction to the iconic annual Freedom Challenge Race Across South Africa. It offers bags of adventure and a totally different mountain biking experience to many of the typical multi-day events in South Africa.



This event is, in essence, the sprint version of the Freedom Challenge and covers the first 500 km from Pietermaritzburg to Rhodes, in the same non-stop, unsupported format. The route follows roads, tracks, and paths that are ideal for mountain biking, and success depends on a combination of physical fitness, good navigation skills, and the right mental approach to dealing with the sometimes trying winter weather.


Riders make use of support stations along the way, which offer a warm bed, shower, and meals. In addition, they may also send a 2-litre container to each station with whatever they think they may need along the way - typically food, snacks, bike spares, and so on. Anything else that might be needed has to be carried in a backpack by the rider, as no outside support is allowed.


The current Race to Rhodes record stands at 56 hours and this was set during last year’s Freedom Challenge by Martin Dreyer, en route to Wellington where the longer event finishes. As the two events run concurrently, the eventual winner of the Race to Rhodes could be a participant from the Race Across South Africa, since it’s the fastest overall time that matters.
Riding in the Race to Rhodes


On Friday, 14 June, I left Pietermaritzburg on my bike at 06h00, and the plan was to ride to Rhodes as quickly as possible, non-stop if it came down to that. The incentive was to try and get as close to the record of 56 hours. I chose to ride a single speed, hoping that a lighter, simpler bike would help. Sitting in front of a warm fireplace in Rhodes, after the race, and how I got there is all still a bit of a blur.


I started off well, cruising along with Oliver Burnett, to the first support station at Allendale (110 km). Unfortunately, Ollie felt a bit off colour by the time we arrived, so he decided to stop and rest there for a while. After making sure he was happy to stay behind, I pressed on towards Centocow (150 km), an interim stop, where I grabbed some soup for supper before continuing to Ntsikeni (200 km), the second support station. Along the way, the light turned from dusk to darkness and it was cold, very cold. It also got increasingly difficult as nausea had set in and my stomach wasn't happy. I began to suspect the soup may have been the culprit. Battling on, I eventually crawled into Ntsikeni at 00h30.


At first, I just lay down on the floor and after about 10 minutes I started to feel better. My next task was to try and get some food in and the only thing I managed was a few more spoons of soup! No choice really, I needed some nourishment. An hour later, I felt ok, so I put on all my layers of clothing and slowly headed back out into the cold again.


There's a portage section out of Ntsikeni, which involves a grassy jeep track and a trek across the open grasslands. Now this is not too bad in daylight, but at night it's very tricky. A mistake here cost me more than an hour, which was very frustrating because of the time lost and energy wasted. At this stage, I was battling to stay awake, despite it being well after sunrise. When I arrived at the next interim stop at Glen Edward (235 km), I needed to rest again. Another snooze, this time for 20 minutes in front of the fireplace, a few more sips of soup, and I felt a bit better.


Back in the saddle, I set off for Masakala, enjoying the warm sun. The riding was good, but I still couldn't eat anything on the bike, so I just sipped on a very diluted energy drink and kept the pedals turning as best I could - with plenty of walking up the steep hills along the way. I made it to Masakala (285 km) later than intended and managed to eat some bread and drink a cup of tea before heading out the door once more.


The next section to Queen's Mercy involved some fast single track across the floodplains and into the fading light. I guess you can only ride so far on bread because after two fun hours of smooth, fast riding, the tank was empty. I was feeling grim again and on the point of vomiting. Up ahead lay the tricky Mparane Ridge, more great riding but it was really difficult to find the right paths in the dark. I pedalled on into my second sunset of the ride still alert, but now very low on energy. Just before the turn-off to the start of the climb up to Mparane, I had to pull off in a hurry as the nausea overcame me and I started to vomit. I was in no shape to continue, so I made a call to Race Director David Waddilove, to discuss my options. I didn't want to throw in the towel, but I had to stop and recover before carrying on. The decision was made to proceed along the shorter touring route to the next support station at Malekhalonyane (345 km), with the proviso that the next morning I return to the point I had left off and rejoin the route from there.



After the initial push of 38 hours, I felt disappointed at having to stop because I was still within striking distance of the record. However, my decision was the only realistic choice, as I was in no shape to continue. Arriving at the support station, it was a full house with most of the other riders already asleep. I chatted to some of the riders who were still awake while I sipped tea and nibbled on some rice, and then I found a bed, set my alarm for 04h00 and (literally) crashed.


Six hours of sleep felt like a luxury. I dressed up warmly and as I still had no appetite, enjoyed a warm cup of tea before packing up and retracing my steps from the previous night. I rejoined the route at Mparane Ridge and by the time I reached the tricky navigation section, first light was approaching. The setting was beautiful, so I snapped a few pictures and then found the right path down without too much trouble.


Once back at the Malekhalonyane support station, I bravely asked for breakfast and, for a change, ate it all with glee. My appetite was back, which meant there would be fuel in the tank for a good day's riding. I made up my mind to get going and keep going until the end in Rhodes. The weather looked good and barring any major catastrophes, I had a chance of finishing before midnight and at least improving on the current single speed record to Rhodes. The route took me over the brilliant single track ridgeline called Black Fountain, where I passed some of the riders from the night before, down to Tinana Mission and across to Setabataba, where I stopped at a spaza for a Coke before heading up the valley portage to Vuvu village. Stopping briefly to refuel again, I set my sights on the final hurdle, the big climb up Lehana's Pass.


Starting at the last portage in fading light had enabled me to at least scan the ridgelines above and trace out an intended route. For the rest, it was just a case of putting my head down and one foot in front of the other, while paying enough attention so as not to wander off track and into one of the deep adjacent valleys. The night was cold and clear and the stars and moonlight bright enough to see without the need for a headlamp. As I rode slowly in the dark, I enjoyed the peace and quiet and had time to reflect back on the mad dash that had started in Pietermaritzburg the previous day.


As I climbed higher, the temperature steadily dropped and despite having all my warm layers on, I couldn't stop for more than a few minutes at a time before I started to shiver. Once over the mountain, it was after 21h00 and there was still 35 km to Rhodes. I thought it had been cold going up the mountain, but the added wind chill on the way down had me looking forward to every uphill climb just so that I could get off and walk a little to warm up! On the way down, the bit of water left in my bottle had frozen solid, the dreaded nausea returned, and my stomach started going into a knot. But none of it mattered because I knew I was close to home.


And home appeared out of the dark, almost by surprise, when my lights lit up the signboard to the village of Rhodes. It was just before midnight and the Freedom Challenge sign on the gate signalled the end of my ride after 65 hours and 55 minutes - the single speed record - about 500 km, not quite non-stop, but a cracking adventure nonetheless.


As I sipped warm tea in front of a crackling fire, I was tired, stiff, and sore. My mind was a bit fuzzy and my stomach still tight, but I was happy and already playing back through some of the highs and lows of the ride. It had felt like one long ride and despite the setbacks and breaks along the way, all the different stages had merged into one. If there was a message in there, it was really quite simple: no matter what, just get back on and ride.