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Freedom Circuit 700km 2023: No longer naive but still a novice

A year had come and gone since April 2022 and I was back on a plane leaving the cold, flatlands of the Netherlands, returning home to South Africa for the Freedom Circuit 700km (FC700).


In April of 2022 I participated in the Freedom Circuit 400 km (FC400), which left a long-lasting impression and prompted me to write about the event when my flights were delayed and I had a few hours to kill at Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris. I was also secretly looking to hold onto the memories for a little while longer by putting pen to paper: 2022 Freedom Circuit 400: A naive novice’s reflection. As soon as the slots for 2023 opened, I registered for the 700km loop thinking it would be a natural progression from the 400km loop, and that in a year's time I would have the physical and mental condition to complete 700km. I cannot tell whether it was excitement or ignorance, but I may have slightly underestimated how tough this challenge would be.



Unlike last year’s rain and mud, we had pristine weather: blue skies, dry roads and dust lay ahead of us. We left the starting point of Silver Streams at 09:00 on the 24th of April, and within seconds Eduan Viljoen was off in front and soon thereafter we could only see his dust in the distance. A few of us assumed he went out too hard, and maybe we found some consolation in telling ourselves that, but at the time we were not aware of how strong this man is. A smaller group formed close behind him, and this included Marc Adam (a phenomenal man who can really push the pedals and who went on to win the FC700), Chaunce Slabbert (who I learnt shares a birthday with me, 6th November, which I mentioned to Marc and his response was simply: "what are the chances?". I knew we would get along), and myself. I was wary of Marc as he mentioned that he was from Pietermaritzburg, and I know PMB has a reputation for producing some serious athletes (take good old Greg Minnaar, Martin Dryer, and Enslin Uys who won RASA and FC700 in 2022 and was very much missed at this event. Must be something in the water in PMB). Chaunce had about 10m of parachute cord tied to his backpack and we made him promise that he would use it to tow Marc and I up all the climbs, which he politely agreed to. However, by the time we got to the first major climb, Chaunce was no longer with us. I believe the heat and the pace set by Marc was maybe a bit too intense (they were most certainly for me). Marc and I rolled on nicely and made good progress. I wish I had stronger legs and could have kept up with Marc as I thoroughly enjoyed the first few hours of easy conversation.


In the 2022 FC400 I learnt a valuable lesson: Practice a bit more with the gear you intend to ride with – the 2 km stretch from your hotel room to the race start is not sufficient (I soon learnt that half the bags fitted to my bike did not fit that well). This year I learnt another good lesson: do not ride the first 85 km of a 700 km race, like it is an 85 km race. I got carried away, pushed a bit too hard, ran out of water and coming from European winter to a warm and sunny day in SA (my one valid excuse, I hope) meant that I did not respond to well to the heat. At the 85 km mark, empty water bottles and the big climb out of Makhuzeni, I felt like a shadow of myself and rather pessimistic. It was going to be a character building next few kilometers.


The stretch from CP 1 (Centocow) to CP 2 (Flitwick) is only 60 km, but pretty much all uphill with an elevation gain of 1600m (not the section you want to do feeling nauseous and semi-defeated). When the wheels eventually came off (fortunately just the metaphorical wheels: my legs) and some wonderful cramps set in, I was forced to switch between pushing my bike and pedalling, simply to allow different parts of my legs to cramp and so that I could continue to move forward, albeit very slowly. 50m walking so my calves and tops of thighs took the brunt of the cramping; 50m pedalling so that my inner thighs took the brunt of the cramping. I repeated this until we got close to the start of Ntsikeni and was then joined by Martinus Victor. We stopped for a Coke at a local shebeen just before sunset, and then took a sharp right entering the Ntsikeni forest. As we reached the big river crossing at the 142km mark, we caught the Du Plessis brothers, Willem and Gawie. I know Willem from the 2022 FC400 and we had been keeping tabs on each other over the year via Strava. Willem saw the pain I was in with the cramps and kindly offered me a slow mag (magnesium tablet) and some rehydrate, which went down well and I was slowly able to ride my bike a bit more normally. I was glad to be in touch with the Du Plessis brothers. This was the case for most of the 700km, as it was very assuring to know that two such calm, composed and knowledgeable men were never too far behind or ahead of me. Martinus and I reached Flitwick together, with Martinus opting to have a couple of hours rest here. A side note on old Martinus: in my last week in the Netherlands before leaving for SA, I called up a local bike shop in Utrecht, Horizon Cycles, and asked them if they would not mind me coming past after hours as I could not get off work early and really wanted a new pair of bib-shorts for the circuit. They kindly obliged. When I told them the shorts were a treat for a long MTB race in SA the following week, they mentioned that earlier that day another South African had come to collect bike bags for a friend back home who was also doing a mountain bike race in SA. Those bags from Utrecht found their way on to Martinus's bike, small world? I was by now pretty nauseous and could not stomach the wonderful vegetarian lasagne that was prepared for me, so I settled for some fruit juice and oranges. I rolled into the darkness on my own at around 22:00 and made my way to CP 3 (Masakala). Fortunately, this is an undulating stretch on district gravel roads, and I could move forward without putting too much pressure on the pedals and cramping up again. Riding into the night is interesting and something I have learnt to enjoy. Over the next few hours I came across 2 owls, 3 porcupine and a reed buck, and no, I was not tired enough to have hallucinated these friendly animals, yet. I got into Masakala at 02:30, just as the riders at the pointy end of the race (both FC400 and FC700) were waking up after their short naps and getting ready to head out.


I had not met Leon Erasmus before. The first time I had seen him was about 65km into the race as we exited the forest above the impressive Mzimkhulu river and valley and started the descent through a few small villages towards Makhuzeni. At this point Marc Adam and I were chased by four dogs. I was in the front and Marc was close behind me. No matter how fast we pedalled or how loudly we shouted 'VOETSEK!', the dogs would not back off and two were very close to nipping Marc's heels. This is when Leon arrived, and without hesitation he rode up to the dogs and in what looked like a hybrid move between a basketball slam-dunk and a WWE smack-down, he pretended to leap off his bike and throw something at the dogs, which scattered them instantly. I simply remember thinking to myself at the time: "this man knows what he is doing". Leon later passed me on the climb out of Makhuzeni, and we only caught up and had some conversation in the early hours of Tuesday morning at the Masakala check point. By now Leon had decided to short circuit to the 400km loop given some time constraints and holiday commitments, and no longer needed both of his 2 litre resupply boxes. He very generously donated crackers, wine gums, peanuts, raisins and some very suspicious ziplock bags with white powder and 4 tablets in each (not the stuff I would recommend taking from strangers in the early hours of the morning). As Leon watched me selectively put together my breakfast, he grasped that I was vegan, and very promptly said: "Don't worry Nic, these sachets are vegan and my wife prepared them, they will be good for you". I was a bit desperate, so I took them and they turned out to be a real life saver. I learnt three things from Leon in the early hours of that morning:

  1. If you can smell yourself, you have been standing still for too long and it is time to move on. Neither of us were particularly fresh that morning.

  2. You cannot overdose on salts and magnesium - which is why I jumped at his dodgy white sachets and proceeded to mix them in my water bottles with some extra electrolytes, which I believe saved me from the heat and cramps experienced on day one.

  3. Simply go out there and have fun! (He reiterated this to me a few times, so it stuck).

I left Masakala around 07:30 on Tuesday morning, after about 2 hours of sleep and lots of faffing. This departure started the additional 300km loop compared to the FC400 I completed in 2022 and would all be new for me. The weather was perfect and I thoroughly enjoyed riding deeper into the Eastern Cape, seeing how the people and the landscapes gradually changed. It was a long day on the bike and I made sure to stop at every water tap, reservoir and spaza shop as there was not much between Masakala and Vuvu school (140 km stretch). Just before sunset I started the climb towards Vuvu, which takes you from the small village of Makuatlan, above the Tina River, to Zwelitsha. This starts off with a 750m or so steep and rocky section which you cannot ride and must hike. I was very fortunate to have some company for this stretch, in the form of a local Shepherd, Itlhompho (which means 'respect' in Sesotho), and his small dog. They were following the same path as I, as they heard jackals and wanted to go and check on their 45 sheep towards the top of the mountain. I found it very impressive that this little dog was able to fend off a jackal, sometimes it is not about the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog. Itlhompho spoke perfect English and I cherished his company as we slowly made our way up the climb, and he also very kindly took a few pictures of me and my bike halfway up the hike. Once the rocky stretch is over you can then ride through the grasslands on cattle trail, and I did so as the sun was setting. It felt like I had this mountain and the sky all to myself and was a major highlight for me on this route.



Leaving Vuvu at 02:30 on Wednesday morning, I was still very much half asleep as I hopped on my bike and rolled out of the school yard. That night I simply ate dinner (which was delicious as usual: atchar, potatoes, rice and beetroot, magwinya), took my cycling shoes off and crashed on two mattresses and a warm blanket, still wearing the attire I had been riding in for the day. I arrived at 21:30 and was able to sleep between 23:00 and 02:00 the next morning. As we were expecting three other riders over the course of the evening, I asked our hosts if I could please sleep in a separate room, so as not to be disturbed when the other riders arrived and would eat and sleep in the classroom dedicated to us. I was fortunate enough to score the headmaster's office, and for someone who did not enjoy school growing up, I had mixed feelings about this location. Too exhausted to overthink things I was out as soon as my head hit the pillow and three hours later my alarms went off and I had to convince myself to get up and get moving. Less than two km from Vuvu school there was a small river that needed to be crossed. Being still half asleep and maybe a little too confident, I thought I should be able to ride through it. Midway through my front wheel banged against a large loose rock and I found myself heading for the cold fresh water. A slow and simple tumble, only damaging my pride, and unfortunately my mobile phone! As I came off the bike my right knee hooked the cover of my top-tube bag which housed my primary mobile phone, battery bank, Leatherman and some snacks. My phone was flung into the river with a very depressing plonk. The water was not deep, below knee height, but in the dark and with only my head torch it took at least a minute to locate the drowning device. I was now worried, as most of the days were spent on my own and my phone provided some relief through a playlist of 1800 songs which I downloaded leading up to the race: my biggest fear was that my phone was completely dead and in the dark early morning hours I would have to resort to singing to myself for entertainment and to stay awake, which I feared would only rouse the village dogs who were not always that happy to see me when I was quiet. Fortunately, the phone survived, with some damage, but could still play a tune or two, and I could let the local dogs sleep in peace that night.


The ride from CP 4 Vuvu School to Mrs Kibi's House/Tinana is only 45 km but done in the dark and with one serious climb it was slow and hard going. My bicycle computer was overreading by 4 km or so compared to the GPS units from Chris and our little cue sheets with kilometre readings per stop and checkpoint. At the 371 km mark I was worried that I had missed Mrs Kibi's house, and I was in desperate need for some breakfast. Luckily, the granddaughter of Mrs Kibi was waiting for me on the bend just below their house and called out after me: "Are you not stopping for breakfast?". I slammed on the brakes and made a sharp U-turn. I had the home to myself and was surrounded by cute puppies as Z (the Granddaughter) prepared my breakfast which included mashed potatoes, spinach, carrots, beetroot and lots of coffee. It was delicious. The Kibi's house is a landmark on the Freedom Trail and I was delighted I could stop by (the plan was to sleep there the previous night, but when I realised I was too tired to do the math and calculate how far I had to ride to get there, I figured it would be wise to sleep for a bit at Vuvu School). With a few take-away lettuce, cucumber and tomato sandwiches stuffed into my jersey pockets, I was ready to tackle the day.


Tinana to CP 5 (Makhulong Chalet) had the most challenging terrain. The 65 km included two large hike-a-bike sections: the climb up to Black Fountain, and what felt like a sheer wall of rock coming out of Koebung village, just past the Morulane river. Hiking with a bike is hard, and I take my hat off to the Freedom Challenge riders who tackle some serious portages. I opted to take on the circuit in fancy carbon soled, double-BOA, Specialized cycling shoes. Great for putting power to the pedal when on the bike, not so good for walking in. I soon learnt that wet socks, filled with river sand, and a stiff carbon sole are not a match made in heaven. The soles of my feet were sand papered over the course of these hikes and by the end of the day were the most painful part of my body. I was saved by Gordon Belton later on at Ntsikeni who had some magic cream. Actually, I feel I was saved many times on the circuit by the generosity of fellow riders and friendly strangers). I made it to CP 5 (Makhulong Chalet) for an early dinner, a quick hello to the Du Plessis brothers, and pushed on to get to CP 6 (Masakala) for some rest.


A real highlight for me was meeting Ron Smythe, affectionately known to many as 'Rocket Ron'. We crossed paths at CP 7, Ntsikeni. 3 km out from CP 6 (Two Springs) I cycled past a through axle lying on the side of the district dirt road and did not think much of it initially. I decided to circle back and collect it, thinking that only Freedom riders pass this way and maybe someone is stranded somewhere without a through axle. I learnt at Two Springs that this belonged to Ron, but Chris had made a plan with a spare and he was on his way to Ntsikeni. I caught up with Ron at Ntsikeni and handed over the through axle, and to my amazement his response was: “oh this is wonderful, did you find this at Flitwick?", which I found very amusing as this meant Ron would have had to have ridden over 150 km without a through axle (a critical part of the bike), as for him this is when he started experiencing shifting issues and thought something might not be quite right. He did manage to ride 3 or so km without one, which is still very impressive. Later that night we sat together to enjoy a delicious dinner which included the famous barley soup from Mr Dalu Ngcobo. I really would have loved to have got to bed sooner but listening to stories from Ron were so entertaining and had me glued to the chair. I hope he writes a book one day on his Freedom adventures and I was very glad to learn that he finished the circuit within the time cut this year.


In 2022 I passed through Ntsikeni in the dark and mist, so had no real feel for the landscape I was riding through. This year I was able to ride through the reserve as the sun was setting and it was spectacular. I had Gordon Belton (FC400) for company and we made light work of a very challenging 30 km stretch. Gordon was the first companion I had on the bike in 2 days, and it was much needed. We had a friendly bet going for our time of arrival at CP 7 and were quite similar as we both believed that every climb was 'the last' climb and it would be downhill from here onwards. After about the 8th climb, we actually started to believe ourselves. We took our time and stopped to watch a Secretary bird (one of my all-time favourites and a rare sighting for me) and 3 Wattled Cranes. We also did not rush our little food stops, laid the bikes down, sat in the grass and watched Black Wildebeest, Blesbok and Hartebeest roam in the sunset and golden grass, whilst we munched on sweets and salted nuts. Ntsikeni is a special place, and the host there, Dalu Ngcobo, even more so (in 2022 he lent me his shoes in the early hours of the morning when my last pair of socks and shoes were soaking wet). It was great to see him again and to enjoy one of his home cooked feasts.


I spent 500km of the 700km loop on my own (well not entirely, I had some big spiders, snakes, other wildlife and the friendliest locals every few kilometers for company) but at least no other riders to share the road with. I even found myself excited to see Chris, hear the hum of his drone or see his Toyota on the horizon, even though he is the mastermind behind some of the suffering that we all had to endure at some stage of this event. I grew to enjoy riding in darkness in the very early hours of the morning and often found myself switching off all my lights, pausing the music, and letting myself disappear into the night and simply listening to what was around me: owls, running water, wind through the leaves. It was therapeutic, and although I felt invincible there was a slight sense that I was always being watched, most likely by a nearby bushbaby or reedbuck. The initial two days were the hardest for me. I was on my own and either had my thighs cramp or were continuously on the verge of cramping. The heat and running out of water early on day one also meant I felt quite nauseous most of the time and struggled to take on solid food and more calories at the checkpoints and felt a bit weaker than I should have. I randomly found two mantras that came to mind during these more testing times and repeated them often: 1) you have one gear and that is forward; 2) you are never alone when you have pain for company. A third item which came to mind often was Tyler Hamilton (former American road cyclist). A friend of mine who I ride with in JHB lent me a book by Tyler Hamilton, The Secret Race, a week before the Circuit started, and the story of Tyler crashing on day one of the Tour de France and breaking his collarbone but continuing to ride all three weeks of the tour and grinding 11 of his teeth down to the root out of sheer agony, left an impression. Cycling, and specifically Tyler, may have had some dark days in the past and was far from perfect, but regardless of what went on in that era, these athletes still pushed their bodies and mind and achieved some amazing feats. If Tyler could suffer so much for 3 weeks, I told myself you cannot give cramps and nausea a second thought, and must move on.


Shortly after the ride finished, mini Basotho hat in hand, stiff legs and heavy eyes, I experienced some serious post-race blues. As tough as it was out there, I loved every second of it. You learn a lot about yourself in testing moments and are able to bank strength that you can draw upon in the future for cycling and non-cycling related events. The generosity from the fellow riders was heart-warming this year, and I most certainly would not have made it to the finish line if it were not for extra wine gums, dodgy plastic bags with white powder and tablets in them, slow-mags, rehydrate, cream for raw feet and most importantly company (be it suffering up a climb in silence, or stopping to sit in the long grass of Ntsikeni for a few minutes and watch herds of wildebeest roam freely in front of you). The hosts at the various checkpoints along the way were incredibly warm, welcoming, prepared meals for us at odd hours of the night and morning and always lifted our spirits.



A big thank you to Chris and Julia for organising such an event - I would not be able to experience a country I love so much in this manner if it were not for you and your dedication. And to the 'buffalo herders', who are always on standby and ready to go the extra mile for us tired, drained, and fatigued riders. I believe it is now time for me to switch off the bike computer and try to navigate one of these challenges with a map and compass, which given how confused I got in wattle forests and mealie fields with a GPS, will be interesting.


Until then. Nic

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Leon Erasmus
Leon Erasmus
May 08, 2023

Well done Nic your friendly demeanor was intoxicating!!

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Nicolas Stathoulis
Nicolas Stathoulis
May 10, 2023
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Thank you very much! I do not pick up a name in the comment but thank you for the kind words!

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