Blazing saddles in the Drakensberg

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Things are hotting up in the 2300 km 2009 Freedom Challenge non-stop mountain bike race from Pietermaritzburg to Diemersfontein Wine Estate outside Cape Town.

Over the weekend early race leader, Andrew Barnes from Pietermaritzburg, followed up his 85km run in the inaugural Duzi Trail Run from Durban to Pietermaritzburg by then setting out into the interior of southern Kwa Zulu Natal with Australian ironman Dave Barr.

Three days later, approaching the escarpment of the Maluti Drakensberg Barnes broke away. Since then he has not let up. Riding alone through the settlement of Rhodes he then headed up the valleys of the Sterkspruit. The following day he took on the portages of Kapokkraal, Slaapkranz and Bonthoek before picking up the track ridden by General Jan Smuts and his commando when they entered the Cape Colony in 1901.

Rather than pushing on deep into the night, as was expected, early on Thursday evening he stopped for the night in the shadow of the Hangberg, near Jamestown. "Whilst my head wants to push on my legs simply will not", he said. Whilst Barnes is experiencing considerable fatigue he has not had to endure the hardships of that commando which battled through sleet and extreme cold. It has been sunny weather in the Stormberg. Barnes is now headed off the Drakensberg escarpment and into the Great Karoo. At this stage he is a day ahead of the schedule maintained by 2008 winner Tim James in his record-breaking ride.

Tim James himself was part of the last group of riders to leave Pietermaritzburg, departing on Tuesday morning. Since then he has shown every intention of bettering his own record and beating Barnes.He reached the Ntsikeni Nature Reserve after riding continuously for 16 hours in the process covering 206 kilometres and climbing 5600 kilometres. After sleeping he then pushed on off Swartberg and into the valley of the Umzimvubu, arriving at the Masakala lodge 3 hours faster than Barnes did. From there he pushed on into the night to arrive at the Malekhalonyane lodge near midnight.

From there it now must be seen whether he can take on the 4 kilometre ascent of Lehana’s Pass that climbs 1000 metres up the face of the Maluti Drakensberg escarpment to arrive at Rhodes in day. If so it will put him ahead of Barnes’ early pace.

Whilst the main drama of the 2009 Freedom Challenge is currently centred on the race leaders, others are playing themselves out in the valleys and mountains of southern Kwa Zulu Natal and the Eastern Cape.. The difficulties of Australian Dave Barr, who is battling with saddle sores, has captured the attention of South African inventor Graeme Murray who has freighted one of his customized "Tour de Force" orthoped saddles to Rhodes for collection by Barr, hopefully bring some relief to his blazing backside.

The demanding climbs and difficult terrain of the trail has taken its toll on other riders. Having left Pietermaritzburg on Tuesday morning, by the afternoon, Mike Roy and Andy Masters, were lost in the dense thicket of a remote valley of the UmkomaasRiver. By nightfall they had become separated. Roy spent the night under the stars whilst Masters was more fortunate, obtaining refuge for the night in a local hut.

Speaking the next morning Masters, who is from the UK, was unusually upbeat. Explaining his mood he said "There I was a complete stranger knocking on someone’s door in the middle of nowhere and I was given a bed for the night. I simply love this country and its people."

Other riders who have gone astray or failed to reach designated overnight stops have similarly benefited from the hospitality and genorisity of rural villagers who have been willing to give them a bed late at night. The oldest rider in the field, 66 year old Gavin Greig, was forced to seek a bed in a local hut when he had failed to make Ntsikeni by midnight.

The progress of the riders in what some are now calling "the Everest of mountain biking" is undoubtedly being made easier by the good weather in the eastern part but with the testing climbs that now lie behind Barnes.

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