First rider finishes 2009 Freedom Challenge

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Diemersfontein, WellingtonSaturday 27 June 2009In the fading light of Saturday Andrew Barnes of Pietermaritzburg crested the Du Toits Kloof Pass and started the last 10 km descent down through the Hawekwas forest to the finish of the 2009 Freedom Challenge non-stop mountain bike race from Pietermaritzburg to Diemersfontein Wine Estate outside Paarl.

By the time Barnes reached the finish darkness had set in. However, the mood amongst family and friends who were there to meet him was one of levity. He had completed the 2300 km cycle race in 14 days and 13 hours. Although he had narrowly missed the record set in 2008 his ride was quite remarkable. 10 days into the ride and emerging from the Baviaanskloof he was two days ahead of the 2008 record pace. However, the next day as he rode alongside the Droƫberge from Willowmore towards Prince Albert he was slowed by gale force headwinds and two days later as he climbed from the Gamkaskloof into the foothills of the Swartberg he was forced to stop riding by a snowstorm. Despite a hard 240 kms of riding the following day that took him through the Anysberg Nature Reserve and on through Montagu and MacGregor to the Agterkliphoogte Valley he was not able to recover the lost time.

Nevertheless, arriving at Diemersfontein where he received the Basutho blanket given to every Freedom Challenge finisher he said of his ride "It was great. My preparation paid off. Until I hit the bad weather I rode to plan. I really enjoyed the riding and I also really enjoyed the people that I met along the route. This race is gold".With Barnes now settled in at Diemersfontein all eyes now turn to 2008 record holder Tim James of Team Squirt riding Scott.

James, who started from Pietermaritzburg four days after Barnes, set the early pace and led the race until a difficult day in the Stormberg saw him lose the initiative to Barnes. When James left Willowmore on Thursday afternoon Barnes still held an effective 7 hour lead over him. After stopping for the night at Rondawel, on Friday, the day that Barnes was finishing in Diemersfontein, James rode through Prince Albert, climbed the Swartberg Pass and descended into the Gamkaskloof. In the early evening he then took on the climb up the Ladder and rode through Vleiland to Rouxpos where, after 237 kms and 20 hours of continuous riding, he finally slept. In the process he moved a day ahead of Barnes.

It must now be seen whether James is able to match Barnes's pace from Rouxpos through to the finish at Diemersfontein. If so he will not only win the 2009 Freedom Challenge but will better his 2008 record by at least a day. However, James will be mindful of the fact that it was at this late stage of the 2008 race that he experienced technical difficulties that slowed his further progress.

Further back on the South Africa's Freedom Trail Marnitz Nienaber from the North West remains settled into third place. Nienaber, who is currently headed for the Baviaanskloof, has been keeping race followers entertained with his tales of daily hardship and splendour. Riders have experienced extreme cold, driving rain and knee deep snow but, as rider Esti du Plessis said, "Every day has brought something incredible". On Thursday night, riding towards Toekomst and the Darlington Dam section of the Addo Elephant National Park, Ugene Nel, who is riding with fellow Freedom Challenge Extreme Triathletes, Trevor Ball and Australian Dave Barr, was charged by a bush pig.

With the worst of the current spate of bad weather now passed, riders in the 2009 Freedom Challenge can now look forward to a few days of good riding.

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