Jarrod's Freedom Challenge Story

My Freedom Challenge Story
Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Jarrod Levenstein - 2010 Ride to Rhodes
The clock chimed. It took me a second or two to realize that something I had been training for and waiting in nervous anticipation for over seven months had suddenly just started. I pushed down on the pedal and we were away. The start of a six-day, five hundred kilometer mountain biking adventure. The scariest thing I had ever done in my life but also the greatest challenge of my life and I was absolutely determined to finish it.

We cycled down Pietermaritzburg’s main street, which was practically empty. We soon turned off the main road and started cycling through the outskirts of Pietermaritzburg. It was freezing, probably just above a zero degree’s Celsius. Soon the sun started coming up and it slowly started warming, but it was always cold along the route.The first few kilometers were fairly easy and slow as I got to know my fellow Freedom Challengers.

The first day was 106 km from Pietermaritzburg to Allendale. This would be the most distance I had ever ridden in one day. I had done other races like the 94,7 and various other cycling races but never as far. I had been training for this moment since January 2010 mostly doing spinning classes at gym and visiting Northern Farms, a farm in the north of Johannesburg that allows mountain bikers inside. My training was going very well until about the first week of April 2010. I was able to ride 90km by myself in Northern Farm by going around the same trails three or four times. Then the BIKE HIJACKINGS started. There was a bike hijacking the first week of April at Northern Farm but the people hijacked were in an area that was far away from the main trails and they weren’t meant to be there anyway so I wasn’t too concerned. I rode 90km the next day, which was a record for me and I was really getting very fit. Then a week later there was another bike hijacking at Northern Farm. This time it was on the main trials and the people had been assaulted. This was a tragedy. I stopped going to Northern Farms, which severely hampered my training. I remember being very, very depressed that I lived in a country were it wasn’t even safe to ride a bicycle.

The next day I was planning to cycle but sat at home doing nothing; I thought to myself that I wasn’t going to let loser thugs stop me from achieving my goal to FINSH THE FREEDOM CHALLENGE. I whipped out the map book and did research on the Internet to try find a safe place to cycle in Johannesburg/ Gauteng. I found a few places and went to Groenkloof Nature reserve in the south of Pretoria. It was busy and they had security, which in theory made things safer. In the meantime the bike hijackers were on a roll. They even hijacked a group of eight cyclists in Fourways and one night stole all the security bicycles at Northern Farm, which made headline news in Johannesburg. The good news was that eventually they were caught and the security at Northern Farm was beefed up.

Thankfully there haven’t been any more bike hijackings at Northern Farm and in August 2010 there was a fund raising race to raise money to replace the stolen bicycles which I very proudly participated in.Lunch Time – Day OneI reached the first the stop/lunch break at about 11h30. I was feeling very tired then and wondered how I was going to finish the day. We had cycled only thirty kilometers but it had taken nearly 5 hours. I tested my blood sugar and it was 8.7* which was fine, but I was feeling light headed. They had soup at the stop, which I forced down my throat. The last thing I wanted to do was eat. I was almost ready to give up at the first stop. Just to get to the first stop I had to carry my bike through thorny grass and climb a mountain and this was just the start. I knew a river crossing was coming later in the day and what next over the next few days?

After finishing the soup and waiting for the others to arrive I slowly got on my bike and cycled down a very steep hill. The adrenalin of going down the hill and something in the soup gave me renewed strength. I was feeling better and the terrain was slightly easier. I got to a T – Junction and I looked at my bicycle computer. We had done 40km and it was 13H00. I still had to do another 66km and the day was nearly half over. This was CRAZY. I can usually easily do about 16km/h without even trying and now I was doing 6km/h and my body couldn’t go any faster. We kept going, reaching the Umkomass River Valley and the bridge over the Umkomass river. This part of the route was absolutely exhilarating we cycled down into the river valley and along the river.

We reached the bridge at about 16H00 where we met Rodney, our guardian who was looking after us. From the bridge to our first night's stop was about 18km. I stocked up on drinks and ate some food and was feeling strong and ready for the mammoth climb I was about to do. I wanted to drink some coke but didn’t want the gas, as it is easier to drink coke quickly without the gas inside. I poured some coke into my water bottle and shook it very rigoursly. Suddenly there was a loud bang as the pressure of the escaping gas caused the coke to shoot out of the bottle. Coke gracefully shot about a meter into the air. After scaring the wildlife and my fellow riders we set off again.

This was the climb out of the Umkomaas river valley. This climb changed my life. We started pedaling up the hill, the road was a good dirt road and everything was going okay. I got into a good rhythm cycling up this hill and was doing well but there was one problem - it never ended. I looked at my watch. It was 17H30. I had been cycling for over an hour and a half and I was still climbing. I remember being infuriated that I had been climbing for so long and the climb was not yet over. Usually at the spinning classes the instructor lets you off the hook after ten minutes max and on all the hills I had trained on it never took an hour and a half to climb a hill. This is hill was indescribably tough. This hill made be think about all the challenges in my life and I was going to get over it no matter what. My legs had gone into cramp, my arms had given up and my body didn’t have any strength, but yet some how I kept going. I had never in my life put my body under such stress or had to face something so daunting. My body hadn’t given up and if I could just keep going I could finish the day. It had become very dark and very, very cold. I could only see about 10 meters in front of me and apart from Tumi, my other Freedom Challenge cycle mate, we were all alone. There were no people around and it was very quiet. The only sound was the sound of our bicycles on the road quietly and determinedly reaching the goal of finishing the first day.

I cycled into Allendale Farm at about 18H45, after spending more than twelve hours cycling. I was cold but also very relieved. I HAD MADE IT! DAY ONE OVER.I had some hot chocolate and put in ten spoonfuls of sugar just to try get back some energy and heat. I got changed ate lots of food and went to bed. That night South Africa was playing Uruguay in the Soccer World Cup, but we all just slept.


The next day we left early and cycled along well. We cycled through some very pretty forests and were doing well. I reached the lunch stop feeling strong. We left the stop and cycled along good dirt roads and up some very impressive mountains and in forests. At about 16h00 we were doing well and it looked like we would finish the day with some sun light but unfortunately one of our teammates was having a bad time on the bike.

We slowed down a lot and time ran away from us. Soon it was 19h00, it was pitch dark and with the headlight turned off you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. We were cycling through bumpy, rocky bush.I had been cycling now for over 13 hours during the course of the day. Fatigue was very bad and it was getting bitterly cold. My three layers of clothes, a beanie and two gloves didn’t seem to be making much dent against the cold weather. We reached the entrance to the Ntsikeni game reserve where we had to climb over a 2 meter high fence, while carrying our bicycles. Luckily we were all together and we all helped each other get over the fence.

I remember seeing this part on TV a few weeks before. Once over the fence we had to find a dirt road in the darkness and this road would take us to the finish of day two. Carefully searching in the dark we found the dirt road and slowly cycled along it. It was very rutted and bumpy and was very difficult to cycle on, never mind that we were cycling it at night.We had been cycling for about an hour on this dirt road and didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. Then we reached a fork in the road and didn’t know which way to go. We tried calling on our cell phones but there was no signal. It was complete darkness and we were all alone. The tiredness and cold that I was feeling was wearing me down. All I wanted to do was finish the day. We sat at the fork in the road for about five minutes not knowing where to go. Then suddenly car headlights started approaching us. This lifted my spirits immensely. It was Rodney our guardian. He told us that we had about 4km to go the finish of the day. He offered to put the bike in the back of the bakkie and give us a lift. Even though it was so cold I was shivering, my legs had gone numb from lactic acid, every body part was sore, I was going to finish on my bicycle.We cycled just in front of the bakkie, while the lights of the car shone on the road, which was a great help. We cycled through a few water crossings that had become icy puddles. After about half an hour we came across a light in the distance. That was our camp for the night. I cycled in feeling an immense amount of relief. After nearly 14 hours of cycling DAY TWO was over.


Day Three started off very badly. Because we had taken so long to finish day two we started late. It was only 8 AM before we left our camp and after only 4 kms we turned off the road and had to push our bike through an icy swamp. In the next three hours we covered only about 8km pushing through very thick grass and even when we could ride it was so bouncy it hurt.Time was running away again and we would probably finish at night again which I wasn’t looking forward to. But there was one thing that was happening to me that made this race change on day 3.

I WAS GETTING STRONGER. Even though I had cycled for nearly 26 hours in just two days and gone up the steepest mountains in South Africa, pushed through thick grass, carried my bike over rivers and fences. I WAS GETTING STRONGER. My body was learning to cope with the stress I was throwing at it. I had never done any of this before but I was coping well and the adventure was just getting started. Once the horrible swamp and thick grass was over, things started to look up for us. The road was good and I was starting to enjoy myself for the first time on this journey and I was having fun. We cycled along a dirt road to the village of Masakala where we finished at about 6 PM. The cycling that day was very good, it gave me hope after the really bad two days we had before.

Every muscle was hurting but I was still going. We stayed in a Zulu “Guest House” and ate some fantastic food. It was really warm inside and the people were really, really friendly. We were a million miles away from civilization and I loved it. I wondered why we stay in five star hotels when no five star hotel could ever come close to giving us the friendly hospitality we enjoyed in our Zulu “Guest House”.


Day 4 started off well, we left just after sunrise and cycled through the villages getting a real feel for how these people lived. The scenery was great and the weather was good. It was still cold but the skies were clear.I will remember day 4 because of the huge crash I had. We were going down a steep bumpy hill with lots of large rocks and stones then suddenly my front tyre got caught in one of the crevasses in the rock. My front tyre stopped dead and I flipped right over the front of the bicycle. I landed on my back which luckily had all my clothes inside which made for quite a soft landing. I got up straight away but was feeling dizzy from one moment being riding upright and then a second later flat on my back. I had broken my “map ruler” and the light attachment that Rodney had given me. I was very upset about breaking the light attachment as I am usually 100% reliable and somehow I felt that I had let Rodney down. I packed all the broken stuff in my bag and started riding again very quickly.

The rest of day 4 was nice slow riding; we went up some very scenic mountains and came down them in very remote areas. I remember seeing a dilapidated farm house that must have been over a hundred years old based on the architecture and thinking that no-one must be living in there. Suddenly a face popped out of the window and stared at us blankly. We must have been the only other people within 30km of this farmhouse. This farmhouse was really in the middle of nowhere and there wasn’t even a drivable road to get there. You had to use mountain bikes or walk. I felt a little bit sorry for the people living in the farmhouse and I realized how lucky I was. We finished day four at about 16h30. For the first time in 4 days that we had a little bit of sun. As we came into the village our hosts cheered for us, which lifted my spirits.


Day 5 started with some serious pain. Every part of my body was sore and riding on bumpy roads wasn’t doing it any favours. We kept going slowly. This day seemed to be particularly cold with a strong wind making it even colder. Day 5 is known for its very technical, challenging mountain biking. I sometimes found it frustrating as I wasn’t prepared to get hurt by tackling the technical sections which my team- mates seemed to be thriving on. I was soon getting left behind on the technical sections and had to try to catch up by riding faster on the easy sections. I remember just after lunch we went into a ravine and had to get out of it but there was a rock about shoulder height blocking my way. I thought that this would be impossible but in one swift motion I picked my bike up over my head, put one foot on the ledge and another on the rock, and climbed over it. I was very proud of myself for getting over that rock.

After a few more hours of technical riding we finally reached a good dirt road where we met Rodney again. We could choose to do the more technically challenging bits, which was shorter, or go on the dirt road option, which was longer but easier. I choose the dirt road option. The road was good with some monster hills. I was enjoying myself again, we were cycling quite fast with the aim of getting to Vuvu, our stop, before sunset.

This was a lot of fun. Vuvu is situated on top of a hill with a large cell phone tower hovering above it. The aim was to cycle along the road until we saw see the tower and you are nearly there but still have to cycle around the mountain before actually getting to Vuvu. We had been cycling for about an hour and a half when suddenly in the distance the cell phone tower appeared. As soon as I saw it I felt a surge of emotion and pushed hard on the pedals and rode faster and faster. This was the first time that I could see the finish of this incredible journey, I will even admit a tear or two came rolling down my cheeks. I realized that the finish was in sight and rode even faster.

I then looked up and realized that I was in one the most spectacular and remote places in the entire country and slowed down to admire the scenery which was incredible and to savour one of the greatest moments of my life. We rode into Vuvu at about 5pm I quickly had a shower or better described as I washed myself out of a bucket. Vuvu is a very special place. The villagers gave up their homes for us to sleep in which was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. THANK YOU VUVU. I had ridden for 5 days non- stop and had one more day to go.

DAY SIX - Lehana’s pass

The last day was a ride from Vuvu to the finish in Rhodes but between the two towns is one of the highest mountains in South Africa. We had to go over Lehana’s Pass which every Freedom Challenger fears. It is an 8km climb while carrying your bicycle on your back up some very treacherous rocks. We left early in the morning and cycled about 7kms to the start of Lehana’s Pass. Rodney met us there and showed us the way, which was marked by a little rock with the Freedom Challenge logo. We soon started walking up the mountain. This was going to be the greatest physical challenge of my life.

As the mountain got steeper every step got tougher and tougher soon you couldn’t push your bike anymore and had to carry it up very rocky dangerous steps. Every step was hell as my body was aching and I was grunting with pain. It didn’t help I had a bike to carry as well. This was sheer torture. I was just focusing on putting one step in front of the other. Soon we were walking in snow about ankle deep and still climbing. I was suffering and really thought I might not make it but every time I took one step I was closer to the finish. I was just focusing on one step at a time.

After about 3 hours we were nearly at the top. We took a break and had a little snow fight and we built a snowman. We made one final push to the summit and made it. We had to climb over a barbed wire fence and then we were on top of the country. The view was amazing, the snow was about shin deep and it was all around us. We were right at the top of South Africa. We pushed our bikes around a little knoppie and rode down to TenaHead lodge a ski resort in South Africa. We stopped to have some lunch at TenaHead and we all just sat in exhaustion admiring what we had just done. The next stop Rhodes. We left TenaHead lodge and rode down a dirt road and we stopped at a Sign that said “Highest mountain pass in South Africa 2500m above sea level.”

I quickly got back on my bike and rode off. Tumi had also ridden ahead but I couldn’t see him. The others were content to ride slowly towards Rhodes but I wanted to finish as quickly as possible. I was soon by myself on the final stretch. I was still about 2500 meters above sea level at the top of the mountain. The mountain was all white covered in snow. There was even a frozen waterfall. It was the most beautiful scenery I had ever seen in my life. I slowly and very cautiously started descending down the mountain.

It was very dangerous as there was ice on the road and if your tyres lose grip you could slide off the road and the mountain. I slowly with lots of concentration rode down the mountain. It had taken me six days to ride up to the very top of South Africa and now I was coming down. This was the happiest day of my life.Near the bottom of the mountain I met Rodney and David Wadilove the race director who gave me some encouragement.

I then met up with Tumi who had stopped to wait for me. We rode along knowing that Rhodes was just around the corner then Tumi said “Look, there is Rhodes”. I looked up and in the distance I could see a small town sandwiched between two huge mountains. There was the finish! We picked up some speed as fast as my lactic acid filled legs could carry me we raced towards Rhodes.We came into Rhodes and I remember it being very quiet. We found a man washing his car and I asked were do the bicycles go?** He pointed us round the corner and there in front of me was the Rhodes hotel. I HAD MADE IT. I got off my bike and a few people congratulated me. I waited patiently in the sun for my fellow riders to finish, which they did a few minutes later.


2011 Freedom Challenge Dates

Tuesday, 07 September 2010

“This has to be the holy grail of mountain biking” was the response of one of the finishers in the 2010 Freedom Challenge Race Across South Africa. “Don’t change anything” was the response of another. In keeping with these sentiments there is little that will change with the 2011 version of the Freedom Challenge flagship event.

The Race Across South Africa will again take place in the heart of the South African winter with weather that ranges from heavy snowstorms to warming sunshine. There will only be minor modifications to the 2300 km race route which includes a 1000 metre ascent up the face of the Drakensberg escarpment on Lehana’s Pass, following the route of Smuts and his commando through the Stormberg and riding through the Baviaanskloof Wilderness Area and the Cape Fold Mountains.

The event will continue to be non stop and unsupported with no GPS permitted Riders will again leave Pietermaritzburg in small batches spaced a day apart. The first batch will start on Saturday 11 June 2011. In order to retain the sense of isolation that is central to this event, batch sizes will again be limited. However, in order to accommodate the growing demand for places the event organizers have provided for additional batches. The last batch will start on Tuesday 22 June 2011. Riders must reach the race finish at Diemersfontein Wine Estate outside Cape Town within the 26 day cut off.

Leaving Pietermaritzburg with those doing the Race Across South Africa and making up part of each batch will be those mountain bikers participating in the 6 day staged Ride to Rhodes. Limited support is provided to those doing the Ride to Rhodes. However, it remains a very testing event. In the course of traveling the 500kms from Pietermartizburg to the remote village of Rhodes at the southern tip of Lesotho, riders climb 17000 metres. On most days they ride from sunrise to sunset. As a result, the Ride to Rhodes serves as a sound introduction to the Freedom Challenge generally and the Race Across South Africa in particular.

About 30% of the starters in the Freedom Challenge Race Across South Africa fail to finish and with the demand for places exceeding the availability, completing the 2011 Ride to Rhodes will afford automatic qualification for a future Race Across South Africa.Finally, rounding off these winter races, will be the Duzi Trail Run. Hosted in partnership with the Duzi Umgeni Conservation Trust, the 85km run follows dirt road and footpaths from Durban up the valley of the Umgeni and Umzimduzi Rivers to Pietermaritzburg. Now entering its third year, the Duzi Trail Run will take place on Saturday 18 June 2011.Amongst those lining up for start of the Duzi Trail Run are likely to be a hardened few who hope to complete the run, leave Pietermaritzburg the following morning to cycle the Freedom Challenge Race Across South Africa and arrive at Diemersfontein within 23 days in order to immediately go on to participate in the 50th Berg River Canoe Marathon. They will be participating in the Freedom Challenge Extreme Triathlon which is possibly the holy grail of endurance racing.To enter the 2011 Freedom Challenge Race Across South Africa, Ride to Rhodes, Duzi Trail Run or Extreme Triathlon enter online at http://www.freedomchallenge.org.za/

I am looking for a sponsorship for next year. I know 13 Days is possible, maybe a new record and I can promise the sponsor that I will be riding as hard and fast as possible. Feel free to contact me.