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Freedom Circuit 2021 Race Report #1

Sunday 25 April 2021


Mike Roy (with plenty of input from Mike Woolnough)

No sooner have we finished with the March FC events (Race to Cradock and Race to Willowmore) than the next FC event is upon us. This time it is a new event, the Freedom Circuit (“FCirc”), bringing the number of unique FC events each year to six, five shorter events and the marque event, the Race Across South Africa.

FC season is now firmly established as the four month period between the middle of March and the end of July. Outside that period riders, dot watchers, Race Office (including the Buffalo Herders) rest and ponder on how to do things better next year. Just a reminder this is the 18th season of FC, two more years and the 20th anniversary will be here, a humbling thought.

The Freedom Circuit is FC style but with a difference. These differences are as follows:

• The route is circular, unlike the normal point-to-point FC events. The race starts and finishes in Bushman’s Neck in KZN.

• GPS is allowed. Yes, you read this correctly. Traditionalists need not panic, there is no intention of doing the same for other FC events.

• The entry fee does not include accommodation. Riders elect to stay and pay as they wish and as their pocket dictates. A consequence of this is that the slower one rides, the more costly the race will be.

• The rules encourage (but do not reward) attempts to ride in fancy dress. The opening theme is small bovine Walt Disney characters. Given the limitations of this theme the organizers do not expect many riders to go down this route. For my sake I am also hoping that this is the case, although secretly I’d be delighted (in a Gary Larson kind of way) if a Disneyesque rider/cow appears at the start.

Riders have a choice between 400km and 700km. Each of these distances have to be completed in five days. The race starts on Tuesday 27 April at 09:00, ending at the same time on Sunday morning, 2 May. Five days. Riders who have entered the 700km event can switch to the 400km on route. In fact they may have no choice as there are cut-off times along the way. The Buffalo Herders will be officiating this cut-off and are hoping we aren’t faced with any difficult decisions, similar to the agony of the gate at Cambria or the twelve hour cutoff guy at Comrades.

Race Director Chris Fisher tells me there is a field of around 50 riders, split roughly between the two events. There was some debate on WhatsApp on the expected winning time for each of the events. Chris Fisher is sticking to his original prediction of 32 hours for the 400km event and 60 hours for the 700km event. A brief glance at the race profile tends to support this estimate. It is typical FC country, much of the Race to Rhodes rout (but in the reverse direction). No easy kilometers in the lee of the Drakensberg.

I asked Mike Woolnough if he could give me his thoughts on how he saw the race unfolding. Mike has done a sterling job and has had a chat with a number of the leading contenders for the 700km event on what their ambitions are. I’m going to quote directly from what Mike fed back to me:

From Mike Woolnough himself:

“The Freedom Circuit is going to be interesting. The first half of the ride should be relatively fast before the route turns back on itself and enters the more challenging texture-rich domain of the Freedom Trail where fast flowing district roads give way to sections of single track and farm roads linked together with rugged district road.

Personally I’m hoping to finish inside of 60 hours which I think should be achievable with one good sleep along the way. I think a winning time will be in the order of 54 to 56 hours. I imagine Benky will get off to a fast start and young Oliver Greaves may well stick to him for a while. Benky is a seasoned competitor so will pace himself well. Oliver could get sucked in until Benky’s experience outpaces Oliver’s ambition.

Leon Erasmus is a wild card. The first time I came across Leon he was all racing snake. Over the last few years he has started to appreciate the journey more than the thought of winning. If he has a mind for it he could well be out front. We will have to see how he feels when he wakes up on race day.

Having ridden HeidelBay with Merak Greaves I know he has the pace and the endurance to push hard. He is however nursing a knee injury which might have him holding back.

Then there’s Carlo Gonzaga for whom this race presents the perfect platform for him to show his mettle. He did the recce ride earlier this year so he knows what to expect. He will go into the race with a strategy that suits the particular demands of the event”

From Leon Erasmus:

“I would like to see how fast I can push with no navigational pressures and the ever present beep if you got oops. I am willing to state that I am going to test the field and push for a sub 48h to a certain point on the route (might even be possible to make it to the end). Unless "Zamalek" and hospitality wins my heart over.

The favourites for me will be Oliver Greaves with his youth and experience of the trail on his side so if he does not get pulled into a brawl with ballies like me or a newbie to the trail like Benky he will be difficult to beat. The winner will be the person that sleeps the least I think (is it possible to not sleep at all.... now that's to be tested...)”

From Kevin Benkenstein:

“I believe sub 48hrs is a reasonable goal, based upon previous rides in KZN where I've been able to do 500km/10,000m in 24-28hrs. I am just ignorant on the volume and difficulty of the portage sections so that might be very fluid.

My shape is a bit of an unknown to me, post Covid in January I have never really been able to dedicate a month to put the foundation that I like to have in place, but then my legs were mostly good last weekend...they probably depend a lot on how many snacks I can get in my belly! I think that my head is in a good place though, I want to ride (and push hard) and that will carry me through I am sure. Mostly I just look forward to two days of peace and quiet in a beautiful place that is, largely, new to me...the things we do to be able to turn off our cellphones!”

From Carlo Gonzaga:

“I've managed to maintain a semblance of fitness going into the race and my excel spreadsheet seems convinced that if can keep sleep monsters at bay I could drag my bike over the line 71 hours 23 minutes after Chris waves us off. I'll cheerfully state that should I manage to drag said bike over the line in under 72hours I will ride it straight into the pool and buy everyone at the bar at 7pm on Friday night a drink. My version of a hole in one on a par five.”

From Gavin Robinson:

“My expectation is to finish in the top 30. Obviously that’s a joke. I’m aiming for 96 hours. I should mention that this is bit of a training ride for me ahead of a possible RASA. That said I’m always racing even if it doesn’t look like it.

As for the rest of the field. Oliver Greaves is definitely a rider for the future who is in the process of building endurance experience. I rate him to do well for the first 360km up to Vuvu. Beyond that is a bit grey. Merak is an impressive rider and knows how to ride hard and long. I hear he is nursing an injury and that’s a pity because he can put pressure up front.

Kevin Benkenstein is an outstanding top rider. From Vuvu onwards it’s going to be interesting to see how he copes with the change of terrain. There are no tech zones on this race so hopefully he is carrying the right spares to keep him in the race.

Leon Erasmus is racing in his back yard. Tough and gnarly. Always a contender. If he put his mind to it he can do whatever he wants but he has found the ability to chill and take his foot off the pedal and enjoy the journey.

Mike Woolnough has some good results and is also racing in his back yard. If I was a fellow competitor I’d be concerned because as he demonstrated recently in RTW he has the ability to keep pace deep into the race.”

From Thubalethu Shange:

“I am honestly expecting something that will blow my mind away, *something new”. All in all I'm coming to Freedom Circuit to do some corrections of the recent hush race I took on. I definitely thanks Chris Fisher for complimentary entry, for sure Kevin Benky would surprise many but ANYTHING can happen. Lastly ROUTE IS READY, LOADED and JUST waiting for the day.”

Sarah van Eerden and Ingrid Avidon appear to be the leading women contenders for the 700km title. Ingrid tells me that they are planning on riding together but that she expects Sarah to pull ahead as Ingrid thinks Sarah is faster than her. That she may be but Ingrid’s tenacity and endurance is out of the top drawer, so we could see a keen race between the two.

Only two Buffalo Herders for this event, John the Geologist and myself. Elton is riding the 400km FCirc event and Avocado Pretorius is resting up, building his strength for his Buffalo herding duties for RASA later in the year. We are looking forward, as I am sure the riders are as well, to some new terrain. Virginal post offices await, unsuspectingly. I think we are going to be working our butts off.

On a wider front there are two developments that I draw your attention to. One concerns the rumblings about a possible reemergence of the Freedom Challenge XTC, the punishing triathlon that incorporates the Comrades Marathon, RASA and the Berg River Canoe Marathon. Recent changes in the Comrades date have made this possible. Watch this space.

The second development concerns one of those who have expressed interest in doing the Freedom XTC, Ingrid Avidon. We all know that Ingrid can write, she is after all one of the Freedom Writers. Over and above that she is destined to become a proper author. Her first book, “Never Eat Silk Worms” (NESW, the points of a compass, get it?) is due to be released just before RASA. The book is all about endurance riding and is fiction wrapped around fact with the Race to Rhodes as the straw man. We all look forward to it. We know for sure it will be funny.

On that note we end this first FCirc report. I imagine I’ll get three reports out, one in the middle of the race and one after the event.

Hopefully I’ll get a feel for the 400km event by then!

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