The first two days of the Freedom are notoriously challenging. It’s 200km/5600m ascent day with tricky navigation, multiple big climbs and requires riding into a cold night. When Tim James did “The Double” the first time several years ago it was hailed as quite incredible, pushing the boundaries of what had been deemed possible. Since then several more riders have achieved this feat but it remains a serious challenge. In 2016 only 11 of the 120 riders managed this feat, perhaps the largest number to date.
My race strategy did not include “The Double”. I had my mind set on a sub-4 which would require me to get to Centacow (1.5 days) on the first day. Rain was forecast for our 6h00 start and it started dripping in the early hours of Saturday morning. We rode down to the traditional start at the City Hall in pouring rain. I was in the last Race to Rhodes (RTR) racing batch grouped with Martin Dreyer, Eddie Stafford and Arno Crous, these guys were hard core, they were all planning a non-stop sub 3-day ride to Rhodes, I was pretty much out of my depth but it did not bother me much to be honest, I was going to ride to my plan which would be to try and get to the top of Hela-Hela without cramping and to Allendale (first support station) feeling like I was able to continue. Our batch also included Werner, Gary, Caren and Tony, all doing RASA and perhaps on a more conservative riding strategy for day one. I knew riding cautiously like this meant I would not break any records to Allendale and that I would need to ride the tricky Donnybrook and Centacow approaches in the dark. I had prepared well for this scenario and was up for it.
Martin Dreyer went on to win RTR in a record time of just under 50 hours. It is testament to his personality and character that he rode the neutral zone into Bisley Reserve together with the rest of the group at a easy pace, having a chat with everyone. Once we entered Bisley he got into his rhythm and gently paced away. I settled into my own low effort rhythm falling behind Eddie and Arno. Gary rode a few hundred meters in front of me pretty much all the way to the top of the Cunninghams Castle radio towers, where I was surprised to see Eddie and Arno just ahead. I had paced carefully up the big climb and was feeling great. Dropping into Byrne we somehow missed the soup stop turn-off and I did not want to go back to find it so Gary and I decided to push through to the Umkomaas Valley and find water at Highover. I had half a bottle of water left but decided to try and find water at one of the villages along the way. Fortunately we found a dripping overhead forestry water chute where we could fill our bottles. I decided this year to ride with two 750ml bottles as opposed to the normal Camelbak, I was comfortable this would be fine to Highover but I would need to top up before Allendale.
Gary and I rode together to the Umkomaas. It’s a deceptive stretch, there is more elevation gain to the top of the Umkomaas Valley that one expects and its easy to burn too many pennies on this stretch. Several riders had cramped up in previous days going up Hela-Hela and I believe its because of too hard an effort on these deceptive rises. The steep drop down to the river was intimidating as always with the ever present smell of hot brakes, we made good time through the bush and arrived at the river just as Eddie and Arno were exiting the opposite bank, I was very surprised to be so close to them. I crossed the river without incident while Gary was still busy prepping his shoes and clothes for the crossing. I decided to ride up to Highover to fill up my bottles and would catch up with him up Hela-Hela. I could not find the water at Highover and decided to press through to Allendale with the bottle I had left.
Hela-Hela as always was a challenge. I rode up to the S-bend which is around halfway up at a pace my legs were comfortable with. I had not cramped yet but I had fallen a bit behind what I thought a good schedule would be. I had decided upfront that I would sacrifice speed in order to protect my legs and give me a solid chance of reaching Centacow on the first night. Many riders have gone too hard into Allendale and then abandoned Centacow plans due to cramped up legs. I did not want this to happen. The stretch of road from the S-bend to the top of Hela-Hela is very steep and I often wonder if the top riders ride up there, I suspect everyone pushes their bikes for some sections. I certainly was pushing quite a bit and I could feel my muscles being uncomfortable every time I tried to push the pedals a bit harder, at one point a calf muscle gave a slight twitch and I immediately jumped off the bike. I kept going on the rolling hills into Allendale and arrived around 14h40, 40 minutes behind my expected 14h00 schedule, but my legs were good and I was satisfied. I ran out of water on the top of Hela-Hela and had used 4 water bottles for the more than 8 hour ride, it was way less than what I should have drank but I seemed to be fine.
Dana was welcoming as always and it was good to see Arno and Eddie inside. Trying to achieve a quick support station turnaround is pretty overwhelming for the tired mind. I found myself with several half completed tasks on the table and floor in front of me and Eddie/Arno were not much better off. Half a sarmie and a bowl of soup on the table, empty water bottles at the tap, maps folded open, ice cream tub turned over, back pack gaping open. Getting organised is a difficult as riding. I was happy to leave 20 minutes later but felt for Dana who was so hospitable and yet we rush in and out chasing the sun. She is an experienced and I think she understood.
I was feeling a bit tired after the punishment up Hela-Hela but my legs were good. I was pushing through to Centacow and felt pretty chuffed with myself. I left Allendale at 15h00.