Veteran rider breaks Freedom Challenge record

Tuesday 30 June 2009

4…3…2…1…1 – the hours of sleep that veteran mountain biker Tim James of Team Squirt riding Scott had over the last 5 nights of his record-breaking ride to the finish of the 2009 Freedom Challenge non-stop mountain bike race across South Africa at Diemersfontein Wine Estate outside Cape Town.

Having left Pietermaritzburg on 16 June 2009 with the last batch of riders to start, James set the early pace in the race. On the first day of riding he pushed through the initial support station at Mc Kenzie Country Club situated on the watershed between the Umkomaas and Umzimkulu Rivers and arrived at the second support station in the Ntsikeni Nature Reserve at midnight, having ridden 203 kms and climbed over 5000 metres. He arrived at the village of Rhodes 500 kms from the start in 3 days – an achievement that was only made possible when he took on the 1000 metre climb up the escarpment of the Maluti Drakensberg on the footpath of Lehana’s Pass at night.

This initial effort appeared to be taking its toll as James’ progress then slowed over the next three days. By the end of the sixth day of riding the lead shifted to Andrew Barnes. Barnes, who is 20 years younger than James, left Pietermaritzburg four days before him and was riding about 400 kilometres ahead of him. For the next five days the initiative lay with Barnes who appeared to be riding strongly and consistently. Maintaining a punishing schedule of limited sleep James not only managed to hold to his own strategy for breaking the race record but also to keep in touch with the pace of Barnes. However, he admits that the effort was taking its toll.

Approaching the town of Willowmore late at night on the 11th day of the riding he was physically and mentally depleted and was tormenting himself with thoughts of withdrawal. However, he was then buoyed by the news that Barnes up ahead of him had been delayed in the Swartberg by a snowstorm and he continued onwards.

Rather than stopping at Willowmore James’ began a really big push. He slept for two hours at Rondawel in the Moordenaars Karoo. He then rode for 22 hours and 237 kms through Prince Albert, up the Swartberg Pass, into the Gamkaskloof and took on the portage up Ladder. He arrive at Rouxpos on the slopes of the Swartberg after midnight. After sleeping at Rouxpos for 2 hours, James continued on to the Anysberg Nature Reserve, where he catnapped for an hour, before riding across the Little Karoo to Montagu. He crossed the Breede River to reach Macgregor in the early evening and then took on the Coenieskraal climb to arrive at the Oestervanger Guest House in the Agterkliphoogte Valley well after midnight. After sleeping for an hour he then rode past the Brandvlei Dam and up alongside the Holsloot River before taking on the 8 km portage up the Stettynskloof in the Du Toits Kloof mountains and continued through to the finish at Diemersfontein.

James arrived at the finish at Deimersfontein on 9.45 pm on Monday night. His total riding time for the 2350 kms from Pietermaritzburg was 13 days 15 hours and 45 minutes. He broke the previous race record by 21 hours.

Talking at the finish, where he received the Basutho blanket given to all Freedom Challenge finishers, James spoke of the incredible effort that had been required and how punishing it had been. However, apart from saddle sores the only other ailment of which he spoke was a burnt tongue – the result of hurriedly drinking hot soup as he rushed through support stations.

Having completed the event for the third year in a row, James indicated that he had found this year’s ride particularly taxing. Whilst his record raises the bar he pointed out that it serves also to show others what is possible. However, even if others are able to better his time it remains to be seen whether any rider will be able to match his finishing places in successive years of 2nd, 1st and 1st.

With James having claimed first place and Barnes confirmed in second, attention now turns to the race for third place where Freedom Challenge veteran Francois Riekert has been riding with the tandem of Mike Woolnough and Glenn Harrison of Snapper Display. Whilst the tandem have been battling with bike problems and injuries they have also had to try to fend off the chase of Marnitz Nienaber of the North West.

Nienaber, in turn, is doing his best to not only secure third place but, in the process, beat his North West riding partner, mielie farmer Carl Crous. By Monday night the Riekert and the tandem had arrived in Prince Albert, Nienaber, who started in Pietermaritzburg 2 days later, had arrived in Willowmore.

Crous, in the meantime, appears to be putting in an incredible charge – on Sunday he rode from the support station at Toekomst on the banks of the Darlington Dam, through Bucklands above the Groot Rivier Poort and down the Osseberg jeep track into Cambria. On Monday he left Cambria, rode up the length Baviaanskloof and, arriving at Willowmore well after midnight, found Nienaber sleeping. Whilst the two will ride together into Tuesday it remains to be seen how far this will continue.

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