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Freedom Circuit 2021 Race Report #3 (final report)

Tuesday 12 May 2021

Ntafufu River, Transkei

It is over a week since the first edition of the Freedom Circuit was done and dusted. Riders, supporters and Race Office are back where they came from, other than the Buffalo Herders who are having a post-race debrief in the Transkei. The mouth of the Ntafufu River is so exquisitely beautiful the Buffalo Herders have found it nigh impossible to finish the last report. The inability to charge anything hasn’t helped. The delay hasn’t necessarily been a bad thing as there has been time to reflect on the event.

We caught plenty of bluefish (bronze bream) and ate every single one. I am aware that this might offend those that would prefer that we release our catches back into their natural environment, but we just couldn’t help ourselves. Something had to go with all the crayfish we ate, in a way the bluefish were our vegetables.

We met some interesting people on the river. One family, all outstanding fishermen, asked if we had experienced any unusual dreams after having eaten so many bluefish. They explained that bluefish are apparently full of DMT, PCP or AWB or whatever the active ingredient is in some of those exciting hallucinogenic drugs that Freedom Riders are so fond of. This news came as somewhat of a relief as, armed with this knowledge, I could now look John the Geologist in the eye and not worry at all about what I thought had happened the night before.

The Freedom Circuit broke new ground. For the first time GPS was permitted. The circular route (also a first) covered some terrain that has not yet seen the Freedom Challenge. In reality everything was “new”, even the familiar Freedom Trail route was done in the reverse direction. There is a big difference between climbing up to Ntsikeni during RASA and going downhill on the same route during Freedom Circuit. In theory riders could stay where they wished but practically there were “support stations” that pretty much played the same role as they normally do during regular Freedom Challenge events. The only real difference was that riders arranged and paid for their own accommodation. Two new stations made their presence felt, Flitwick and Makulong. The other traditional venues that contributed were Centacow, Masakala, Vuvu, Malekonyane, Glen Edward and Ntsikeni. Our thanks to all of you, as always an integral part of the Freedom Challenge family.

Perhaps opportune to reflect for a while on Glen Edward support station. Charles and Sheila Raven have hosted riders for as long as anyone can remember. They are officially classified as an interim station on Freedom Challenge. In reality the warmth and hospitality experienced at Glen Edward, coupled with the fact that the first two days of RASA and RTR are particularly challenging, mean that many riders choose to sleep at Glen Edward. It only takes one night there to prompt future strategizing to return in future races.

Last year our thoughts were with Sheila who was fighting (and continues to fight) some serious health challenges. As a consequence Glen Edward was a no-go support station, particularly in COVID conditions. Notwithstanding, this year the station was open again and a number of riders chose to stay there. Sheila tells us that they are looking forward to RASA and RTR and are ready to handle the large combined field that is expected. The Buffalo Herders have offered to lend a helping hand. Charles manages much of the farming operations of the family who own Glen Edward and Banchory. Those of you with long memories will remember that Banchory itself used to be a support station, up until around 2008 when Glen Edward took over. Charles spent 32 years working for the South African railways, initially as a fireman (the technical term for the person who keeps the steam engines fired up) and then as a driver. Glen Edward is full of photos and memorabilia from his SAR days. I have attached a few photos to this report, including one of his original shovel from his firemen days.

Charles and Sheila both hail from the Eastern Cape and hope to retire one day to the East London area. We can only hope that this event isn’t about to happen anytime soon. Glen Edward is close to all of us in the Freedom Challenge community and we thank Charles and Sheila for the impact that they have had over the years.

On the race front I am not going to go into too much detail on the results. These have been well covered elsewhere. For the record however the following are the highlights:

• 42 riders started one or other of the 400 (and 700km events. Ultimately 33 riders (11 for the 700km, 22 for the 400km) finished, not necessarily the event they originally started given that there was an option during the race for the 700km entrants to switch to the 400km category.

• The 700k event was won by Kevin Benkenstein in an outstanding time of 53h 55m. Second and third place were taken up by Timothy Calitz from Mpumalanga and Mike Woolnough respectively. We hope to see both Kevin and Timothy back to test themselves in other Freedom Challenge events. There is obviously no doubt Mike will be back.

• Sandy Maytham-Bailey took first place amongst the women riders in 108h 55m. I suspect we are going to be seeing plenty more of Sandy at the sharp end of FC events. This is a good thing, more competition for Janine, Ingrid and others. Kim Brearley took second place, scraping in just under the 120 hour cut-off, a great ride nevertheless.

• Anthony Avidon had an excellent ride to win the 400km event, with Roger Nicholson (on a single speed) taking second place. Father and son duo Merak and Oliver Greaves took joint third place.

• Estelle Labschagne was the first woman home for the 400km. Claire Walker and Gill Graaf took the remaining positions on the podium.

I asked a few riders to give of their impressions:

From Kevin Benkenstein:

“Freedom Circuit was everything it was billed to be and that much more. VAT was added to the beauty, the climbs and the hard work along the way, but we were paid back in spades with experiences and memories that won’t soon leave our mind’s eye. Personally I had no idea what to expect but there is no way I would expected what I found. While the difficulty overcame me at times it was an absolute privilege to be where we were and to see it from the most honest seat in the house.

There is no better way to learn a land than by the power of your own two legs. To pick a best moment would be unwise but sunset and sunrise never cease to be special, as those moments when are truly alone are special too. To ask for change would be to belittle the experience and from where I experienced it only minor fine tuning would be beneficial. I truly believe this is a race (and format) that can bring the Freedom Trail to the world by bringing local and even international riders together for what is a truly unique experience.”

From Leon Erasmus:

“I entered the FC Circuit more out of a urge to spend time in my favourite playground almost like a grade 1 laaitie that needed to get out. What I experienced was a next level realisation that it has been way too long. I missed my fellow “males” I missed the mountains, the solitude, the simplicity of the area and mostly the trail. If I could I would want to avoid the 3 T’s of the rural lands : Tar, Towns and Taverns.. although I have frequented the later during my tenure they could be an obstacle to the weary. Also making the route 500km I think would be more suitable with at least 10000m of climbing. That would make an average of 3 days easy to attain”

From Mike Woolnough:

“The race was tough. Out of interest my finishing time for the race was slower than most of my Munga times including over 8 hours slower than my best Munga time. The route was proper tough. Once out of Flitwick, apart from a garage shop in Matatiele, it’s a 200km effort to get to the next point of refuge, being Vuvu. While it is nicer riding through the populated rural parts then through commercial farmland it does come with the risks associated with criminal sorts that we may encounter. It’s a pity. I think it would be better to move the event to a part of the country/Freedom Trail where the risks are reduced. Unfortunately that would mean we miss out on the geographic splendour of KZN and the adjacent Eastern Cape but rider safety needs to be paramount.

The GPS component was interesting as it meant that anyone and everyone could keep moving day and night. It meant that pinch point knowledge and strategy was out of play but it did mean the new comers were on a level playing field. It may have been a level playing field but it was incredibly challenging given the terrain and vertical ascent.

Obviously the weather had a hand to play toward the end. It’s an exciting addition to the Freedom family of races.”

From the vantage point of the Buffalo Herders, the best seat in the stadium, some observations from us:

• This was a tough event. Having a GPS did not seem to make it any easier. Many riders had problems with using their GPS and trying to charge all their many power-hungry gadgets. Riders would sit for hours at spaza shops trying to get some power from, in many cases, sources that were themselves short on power. Ingrid Avidon suspects that her phone was used to power up more than one inverter during the race.

• The rain was brutal. It has been a while since a Freedom event has seen such muddy conditions. Kevin Benkenstein rode a perfect race to finish before the rain hit. Those behind him had to dig deep.

• Our personal highlight was the time we spent with Gavin Robinson and Leon Erasmus. Gavin regrouped from a potentially race ending incident and kudos to Leon for offering to ride with him for the rest of their 500km “Leeuloop”. John the Geologist and I will forever remember waiting for these two riders under the willow trees on the floodplain before Masakala and enjoying a couple of Black Labels (not usual Race Office assistance) with them when they arrived. In the circumstances it was the right thing to do. These are good guys, two buds in true FC spirit. I’m quite chuffed with my new name – “Rooi Buffel”.

In conclusion a resounding success. Well done to Chris Fisher the Race Director. We all look forward to the future growth of the Freedom Circuit.

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