Battered riders battle on

Battered riders battle on

CradockWednesday 23 June 2009

As bad weather sweeps across South Africa riders in the the 2009 Freedom Challenge non-stop mountain bike race from Pietermaritzburg to Diemersfontein Wine Estate outside Paarl are experiencing mixed fortunes.

Freedom Challenge extreme triathlete, Andrew Barnes took the lead from early race leader Tim James of Team Squirt riding Scott when James slowed in the Stormberg. Barnes, who started from Pietermaritzburg 4 days ahead of James, then found his progress from Willowmore through the Moordenaars Karoo towards Prince Albert slowed by driving gale-force headwinds. Worn down by the previous day of riding through the Groot Rivier Poort and up the length of the Baviaanskloof, Barnes battled to cover 90 kms of flat riding directly into the wind. After 10 hours of joyless riding he stopped for the day at the farm Rondawel. On Wednesday morning, with a slight break in the weather, he rode on into Prince Albert and up the Swartberg Pass. By nightfall he was headed towards the Gamkaskloof in the Swartberg.

James, meanwhile, appears to have recovered from his difficult day in the Stormberg and has made good progress across the catchment of the Great Fish River. After stopping for the night at the farm Stuttgart on Tuesday he rode up into the Swaershoek before taking on the Struishoek descent and crossing into the plains of the Camdeboo. The following morning he followed the Voëlrivier down to the Toekomst support station on the banks of the Darlington Dam in the Steytlerville District. He left Toekomst in the late morning. This was 5 hours later than Barnes left there 4 days earlier. It must now be seen whether James can maintain his current pace and take advantage of Barnes’s slow day out of Willowmore to wipe out Barnes’s effective 5 hour lead.

Meanwhile, further back in the field, injuries and adverse weather have caused 20% of the riders to withdraw. Those remaining are soldiering on. Mike Roy, who started riding with his bird book and binoculars, cannot have seen much birdlife in the last few days. Most sensible birds have surely sought shelter from the current cold and cloud. He is accompanied by crocodile fighter, Tim van Coller. Tim, who beat off a crocodile attack when paddling alone down the length of the Zambezi River will surely not be daunted by a bit of rain, wind, cold or snow. On Wednesday they rode slowly up the valley of the Sterkspruit River, 2 days behind the rest of the field, but savouring the experience.

Ahead of them “Two bike” Derrick Baard spent the night in the Rossouw police station whilst not-so-fat Ixopo farmer, Eric Egeland, is riding with Esti du Plessis and Andre Eksteen towards Molteno. Fiona Coward, Doug Kennaugh and Gregg Donnagh left their wool bales on the farm Gouevlei to ride through Molteno and on to the next support station at Romansfontein.

Ahead of them North West mielie farmer and Freedom Challenge veteran Carl Crous has joined forces with Namibians Louis Wessels and Pierre le Roux and Mossel Bay wild man Mark Mitchell to help him hunt down his North West riding partner Marnitz Nienaber. Nienaber left Crous after the two had crossed the Umkomaas River shortly after leaving Pietermaritzburg and, since then, has maintained a consistent lead on Crous.

Nienaber was part of a large group that left Romansfontein on Wednesday morning to cross the Aasvoëlsberg and drop off the escarpment of the southern Drakensberg into the Fish River basin. Included in the group are Derek Hall-Jones, woman rider Estelle Labuschange, Errol Derrick who despite the poor weather is proceeding with far greater efficiency than was the case when taking on the race in 2008, Sean Woolnough and Brett Rheeders. They had joined GIANT rider Siceko Maraneni, a guide from the Maluti section of the Freedom Challenge who set a good pace through the Stormberg before falling back. Presumably they have left the worst of the cold behind them.

Riding well ahead of them are Freedom Challenge veteran Francois Riekert and the Snapper Display tandem duo of Mike Woolnough and Glenn Harrison. The charge of the tandem has slowed considerably in the last few days, partly as a result of the difficulty of hauling a 40 kg bike over the mountain portages of the Stormberg and partly as a result of the acute ITB that Woolnough has developed. As they move through the halfway point in the race, Harrison must be wondering, should Woolnough withdraw, how he can single-handedly get the tandem to the race finish at Diemersfontein outside Paarl.

Ahead of them, early race leader Australian Dave Barr not only seems to be benefiting from his orthopedic saddle but is relishing the sheepskin covering subsequently provided by Stormberg farmer Jim Stretton. Also benefiting from the sheepskin treatment are his co-riders and fellow Extreme Triathletes, Ugene Nel and Trevor Ball as well as big man Steve Honey.

With driving winds and more bad weather moving into the interior of the South Africa the 2009 Freedom Challenge is proving to be a test of physical and mental fortitude.

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