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2022 Freedom Circuit 400: A naive novice’s reflection

Born and brought up in Johannesburg, South Africa, currently living in the Netherlands, which is extremely flat and mostly below sea level, I was mildly anxious but excited when I signed up for the Freedom Circuit 400km race around the Southern Drakensberg, which would take us off the beaten track and make us climb close to 8000m (pretty much an Everest summit on your mountain bike!). April came soon enough, I landed in Johannesburg and made my way to the Midlands of KwaZulu Natal, and finally to the beautiful Drakensberg. After many months of good rain, and unfortunately some major storms in the past few weeks, parts of the province suffered serious destruction, but the Midlands and the Drakensberg were lush, green and the usually small streams flowed like swollen rivers.

We rolled away from the start at Silverstreams clean, fresh, and optimistic that we would be asleep at the Masakala Guest Lodge (Checkpoint 3, 230 Km into the ride) by midnight of the first day. Reality hit harder than the first blotches of mud sticking to our drivetrains - it was going to be a longer first day than anticipated. A small group formed further up the road (a combination of riders participating in both the 400 and the 700km circuits) and we rolled on towards Underberg. The company and banter were good, with Shaun Knowles placing bets with the other riders for how long my bananas would remain in the outer pouches of my backpack. As the day wore on and the mud thickened, water, be it a stream or a small dam, as well as the odd stick, became your best friend, as they were used to dislodge mud from all parts of the bike, free up the wheels, and allow you to roll on for a few more meters, before the cleaning ritual was repeated. And repeated!

I expected to the be the biggest novice on course this year, as this was the first endurance mountain bike race that I took on. I was however relieved when within the first 40km I rolled up next to Philip Riggien on his beautiful Pyga. He looked at me with hunger in his face and expressed that he missed breakfast at Bushman’s Nek that morning and all he had to eat was a leftover sausage roll, which gave me hope - if Phil can do 700km on half of last night's sausage roll, surely I can complete the 400km circuit as I looked like an athlete sponsored by Maurten, Science in Sport and CLIF BAR with the amount of food I had stashed in my pockets and crammed into my CamelBak. I gladly shared a bar with Phil and we rolled on, only for me to see him midday on Wednesday back at the start/stop point and to find out that he is the uncle of the wonderful mechanic from Bike Guru Howick, Luke Dinkel, who has cared for my bike over the last year or so, a small world and a reminder to share the odd bar with your fellow riders (especially those with big smiles and that ride a Pyga).

Admittedly one tear was brought to my eye very early on during the race (I only expected to cry if I went 3 days without sleep, 'The Crossing' by Johnny Clegg were to come on from my downloaded playlist, or if I were to have a terrible crash, but this was not the case). Approaching Emakhuzeni, I guess the first real climb of the day, I was greeted by two beautiful children in the typical South African fashion that I have grown to miss so much now that I am based in Europe (and Europeans don't seem to like greeting strangers too much as it is, anyways). These youngsters (I would say between 3-5 years of age) pull out a big thumb ('sharp') and a sing song 'Sawubona', all whilst wearing face masks tucked from behind their ears and around their chins, which triggered something in me: Surely Covid cannot find its way to these remote locations, and why do 4-year old's have to wear face masks in the open, fresh air? Yet they seemed innately happy, and I was happy to see and greet them, so could roll on and tackle the next climb. No more tears Nic, ride on!

Seven and a half hours later I arrived at the impressive Centocow (Checkpoint 1, 110km), and unexpectedly in the lead of the 400km event. After being greeted by the most friendly hostess, I climbed the first flight of stairs to behold by a spread of food fit for royals, and at the corner of the table a very contented looking Enslin Uys, leading the 700Km event and tucking into a healthy portion of chicken and rice. Enslin left a few minutes ahead of me and we expected to meet up further down the road and ride on together to Flitwick Ranch (Checkpoint 2). Before leaving, Enslin gave me a minor scare. For an Ophthalmologist (eye specialist surgeon, he told me all about this later) his vision cannot be 20/20 as he missed the first step leaving the feeding area and continued to slide down the remaining 10 or so on his left buttock and ribs. Fortunately, he had his helmet on and shook off the steep fall! We did not meet up further down the road, as Enslin, only using his Garmin watch to guide him through the tricky trails took a few wrong turns, during which I unknowingly passed him and was left chasing an imaginary rider up the road. We eventually met up again at about 23:00, as I was not yet acquainted with Chris Fisher's style of designing routes, and spent a good while trying to figure out why my GPS wanted me to turn off a wonderful dirt road and into the wet, muddy grass, where no trail seemed to exist? I learnt that this was to be a recurring theme throughout the ride. Anyways, four hands are better than two when you have to carry heavily packed bikes over game fences in the dark and Enslin was good company on and off the bike. We made good progress and were the first riders to arrive at Flitwick. We were more excited to see a pressure hose than we were to hear that there was salad, lasagna, peanut butter sandwiches, and a hot shower waiting for us - says something about our first 14 hours on the bike! The support crew at Flitwick were phenomenal, and we spent more time chatting and enjoying each other's company by the fire when we maybe should have been catching up on sleep. Well worth it at the end of the day!

I slept from 1:30 - 4:00, and when I stepped out of our room for a toilet stop, I heard a poor soul hosing his bike down and felt for him to be doing so at this hour and hoped they would get some good rest after. This was not to be the case, as this poor rider was Greg Blackwell, a friend from Johannesburg, who does not believe in sleep and was happy to have a plate of lasagna for breakfast and roll on to Masakala (Checkpoint 3, 230km), leading the 400km event. This gave Enslin and I a good carrot to chase. We were not able to catch Greg on the road, but caught him for a cup of coffee and exchanged stories at Masakala around 10:00 that morning. This was when things started to fall apart for both me and my front wheel as the mud, rough terrain and potentially my style of riding with a heavily packed bike broke the bearings in my front hub. After looking at it from many angles, getting input from many a passing rider, rolling down the first grassy hill from Masakala 3 times only to have it fall apart on me every time, I thought I would be throwing in the towel halfway through this epic adventure. After some desperate phone calls to my father, mechanic Luke, a spare wheel was making its way to me from Howick (a long drive of close to 5 hours that I hoped my old man would not have to make), and to race director Chris who managed to salvage a wheel from a rider who scratched and from fellow cattle herder, Mike Roy. Chris and the 2 wheels were heading to Masakala with an ETA of 14:30. Mike's wheel was a good fit and I could hit the ground running after a second cup of coffee, delicious dombolo and a big bowel of Weet-Bix at around 15:30. Chris was positive I had made the right choice to push on to Ntsikeni (Checkpoint 4/7, 338km) that afternoon, but mentioned with a kind smile that I would most likely be out all night. I was up for the challenge although it took me close to 6 hours to cover the first 45km. As scenic and picturesque as they were, they were brutally hard, and I was tempted to book myself in for a restful night at St. Bernard Peak lodge (287km).

I eventually hit the dry district roads in the dark and made up good ground and was delighted to catch Greg before his first nap in over 36 hours - a neat bed of grass and twigs on the side of the road awaited him. We compared notes for the day and Greg told me politely to move on as he was tired and the leading group of Sarah van Heerden, Mark Basel, Shaun Knowles and Greg Lock were not too far up the road and within touching distance if I just stopped faffing! (of course, he did not word it so kindly!) Motivated, I cued the music and rolled on, catching the leading group at 01:00 as we all pushed our bikes up steep, wet, grassy embankments in the Ntsikeni Wildlife Reserve. I was aware of the fact that I had to serve a one-hour penalty for receiving external help (the wheel from Mike Roy that Chris provided) and pushed on eager to get to the final checkpoint ahead of the group. The lack of sleep and fatigue crept up on me as the shadows my light created all of a sudden became animals that were chasing me and I flinched too often for my own liking, and keeping the bike upright on a straight road became an immense challenge. Fortunately I was not far from Ntsikeni, and was greeted by a very friendly Mr. Daro who I woke from his sleep by the fire, as he dreamt of the tired and muddy riders making their way to his lodge. Within seconds the kettle was boiled, dombolo was served, potatoes were mashed and I had a big pot of the most delicious barley soup all to myself. Also, good to add that Mr. Daro generously gave me his shoes for my layover there, as I only had wet, muddy riding shoes, and one dry pair of socks left that I was hoping to save for the home stretch.

The one-hour penalty passed by quickly as I was able to shoot the breeze with fellow rider Mark Basel. Chris saved the best for last. The 80 km from Ntsikeni to Silverstreams were phenomenal. Far from flat, but gravel switchbacks, waterfalls, clear streams, beautiful villages, friendly faces, and impressive mountains surrounded us as we rolled home. The bearings of my borrowed wheel went at the 320km mark, and I descended some of the roads at 60kph with my heart in my mouth as I hoped the hub would hold together and the prospect of now placing first in this tough challenge started to materialise and I was hoping not to throw it away so close to the end.

Local is lekker, and I must say a part of me was proud to be rolling home in first place, on a beautiful bright green Pyga (a brand I got to know and love through riding the local Karkloof trails), through a beautiful country full of special people, and to be on the verge of completing what was a very tough challenge. I was greeted at the finish line by Julia and a cold beer, my father and old sausage roll Phil. I was ahead of schedule as predicted by my GPS tracker, and they made me loop back and ride through the finish shute again. The legs were tired but willing to obey, and it was well worth it!

Mini Basotho hat in hand, tired legs, sun kissed skin and scars from wire fences and thorns, I have returned to the Netherlands with a happy heart and am already preparing for the next Freedom Circuit, although on the fence (yes, like the ones Chris made us climb over when it was dark and we were tired!) as to whether it will be the 400km or 700km loop in 2023.

A big thank you to all the friendly strangers out on the route, fellow riders, Mike for his special wheel, Chris and Julia for organizing a phenomenal event, and the gracious and generous hosts at all the checkpoints who put the riders first no matter what time of day nor how tired and dirty we were.

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