The Mystery of the Race Boxes

The race boxes are in. It represents a special milestone in the lead up to the race. Something of me will be on the trail long before I get there, waiting patiently for my arrival, ready to provide a much needed physical and mental boost when I eventually catch up.

I found this quite an intriguing concept when I first started following the Freedom Challenge. My first race boxes were loaded to the brim, the result of meticulous planning and providing for many scenarios, needs and consequences. I have now packed race boxes 4 times and every time the content has reduced, my boxes have over the past few years been generous donors to support station hosts. The question is always what to pack and what not.

In the end it depends on what one will require along the route. Racing snakes carry very little and pretty much just need to supplement their base supplies from a nutrition and hydration perspective. Some even go very light on race boxes and live off the remains of boxes from previous days. I have been told of of race boxes containing as little as a Coke, a Sterri-Stumpi and a box of custard. Those on a longer race strategy tend to add a few extras to cater for overnight stay situations and perhaps some snacks and treats for the evening. There have been stories of shampoo and lubricants spoiling carefully selected snacks and RASA riders may add clothing and spares into their boxes. It’s pretty much about personal preferences and on-trail needs.

Last but not least on the packing list of most is the precious maps. The first time round I had my maps lined up pretty neatly until I realized they were lined up one support station too late. Luckily this was realized in time and the alignment problem was rectified. The race boxes are one of several little nuances that make the Freedom Trail races special and unique.

There are probably some riders who return year after year only for the fun of packing a lucky packet type race box just to look forward to opening it up a month later while on the trail. ūüôā

Decisions, Decisions. What to take and what to leave.

On the evening before the start of Race to Cradock I lifted my backpack to compare it with that of Fiona Coward, a seasoned Freedom Challenge and Multiday mountain biker. Despite having taken pride in significantly reducing my pack weight since Race to Rhodes the previous year, mine was still a bit heavier. Coincidentally Glenn walked in and a very valuable discussion followed around weight and necessities, the lessons of which I’m sharing in this post so I don’t forget them :-).

A few principles.

  • Liquids are heavy.
  • Metal is heavy.
  • Cotton cloth can absorb moisture and becomes heavy.
  • Unnecessary clothing is weight.
  • If you didn’t take that item, can you make another plan.


Maybe a car load is too much to fit onto your bicycle.


Weight On-Bike vs On-Back. There are two schools of thought even among the top riders on where to carry weight most efficiently. Some prefer a lighter pack (on-bike) while others prefer a lighter bike (on-back). The primary benefit of the lighter pack is reduce weight on the saddle and the resulting benefits of comfort. In addition, Alex Harris believes carrying weight on the back may be inefficient due to the required use of back and shoulder muscles to continuously stabilize the pack. Furthermore, he feels the upper body can be sufficiently conditioned to cope with lifting and portaging the heavier bike during portage and gate sections. Alex and Tim James rode Race to Cradock non-stop without back packs, all weight on-bike. On the flip side is the on-back school of thought, the simple reasoning here is that a road bike weighing 20% less than a mountain bike could be, under similar rider conditions, possibly 20% faster than the mountain bike and therefore a lighter bike will always trump a heavier bike. There are also the benefits of lifting or portaging a lighter bike. One could reason that on-bike makes sense on flatter roads but not for the undulating nature of the Freedom Trail. I have tried a method of splitting weight between my back pack and my Revelate saddle bag, more weight on the back for big climbing and portage days and then moving weight to the saddle bag for flatter days, of which there are not many. In the end it may be personal preference based on various factors but some interesting food for thought.

Spare tubes and tyres. Some ride with no spare tube, just a 60ml serving of sealant to top-up a soft tubeless tyre. If you take a spare tube it MUST be filled with slime or don’t bother, in some places a “dry” tube will flat within 100m. If you decide not to carry a spare tyre, you need to make provision to fix a nasty sidewall by using duct tape, gators, needles and nylon, etc to prevent a spare tube from peeling out the cut tyre. In future my preferred option will be a dry tube and a small 60ml sealant to top-up either the tubeless tyre or to fill the “dry” tube. I also carry a couple of lightweight sidewall repair options.

Pumps and CO2 canisters. My shock pump got dumped on the evening of departure. I was convinced that a shock pump is a luxury, you can make a plan or ride with a deflated fork of rear shock until a plan can be found. CO2 canisters are metal and are heavy, they can however help seal a fresh tubeless setup (as we needed to on Race to Cradock). A good pump is like gold, a non-negotiable. In future I’ll ride with one CO2 and my Blackburn pump.

Clothing. Clothing is heavy and bulky. There are two considerations here, ie hygiene and weather. Hygiene is a personal preference and some may also feel a risk to be managed. I have always opted for two sets of clothing allowing me to ride in a clean set every day, most if not all support stations do offer for a fee a clothes washing option, it may be challenge though to dry clothes during the damp and cold winter months. Once again personal preference how long you want to ride in a single set of riding clothes but my lesson is that it’s very possible to get away with a single set of riding clothes. Evening clothes is also a personal choice but you can be sure every person sharing space with you on the Freedom Trail is in a minimalist and non-fashion mindset, no matter what you wear you won’t feel odd. Glenn Harrison did a very helpful write-up of his clothing strategy on his 2010 ride which I have used as a guideline. (

Then there is weather based clothes. Once again Glenn’s blog above has some very good pointers, the key being layering and multi-use of clothing. On Race to Cradock I had a small bag with gloves, buff, leg warmers that I never once opened and only would have required in extreme weather. For Race to Rhodes this little bag is packed with a few more items and is used every day. There will be a weight penalty for winter riding but a short cut could cost your life if you get caught in a snow blizzard. In winter rather pay the weight penalty and be safe.

Race Boxes. For Race to Cradock I left behind probably 50% of what I had packed into my race boxes. Also the more you pack the longer it will take to figure out what to use during your support station stop. On Race to Rhodes food variety is a bit limited after Allendale so you may want to add a few sweet and savory snacks to your boxes. On Race to Cradock the farm food is superb and there are always sandwich and snack options to take along. Race boxes for this 600km section require less than for the first 600km. I tend to lose my sweet tooth on multiday events and crave more for proper food. Treat yourself with some vacuum packed items, the thought of vacuum packed crispy bacon was raised, not sure if it’s been tested yet :-). Beer, sodas and Sterri Stumpies have been spotted in race boxes. In the end pack what you will really need and crave for. Lastly but most important … make sure the right maps go into the right boxes, you won’t be the first nor the last person to find the wrong maps in your race box.


Make sure the right maps are in the right boxes!


Summary. Everyone has the same story, the more they ride on the Freedom Trail the lighter their packs become, the fewer their tools become, the fewer clothes they carry and the fewer items they pack in their race boxes. If you want to accelerate the learning curve, be brave, be bold and be light.

Contrasting ABSA Cape Epic with Race to Cradock

It’s 3 more sleeps until we drive down to Rhodes. One half of my computer screen is tracking Tweets and news from the ABSA Cape Epic and all my friends riding there, the other half is browsing Race to Cradock Google Earth tracks. I have been thinking a lot about the Epic as I have put in similar training to what one would have for Cape Epic, perhaps a touch less quality, but certainly the hours. The two events could not be more contrasted.

  • The Epic has around 1200 participants that all start in one day, R2C has only 28 and we start over 4 days.
  • The Epic covers 739km over 8 days, we’ll cover 600km over around 4-5 days.
  • R2C is non-stop. At the Epic the clock starts and stops every day, at R2C the clock starts in Rhodes and stops in Cradock.
  • The Epic has marked and manicured routes, R2C is self-navigated on 1:50,000 maps using compass, stars and the sun. No planning is required for the Epic, for R2C I spent as much time on navigation as I did on riding my bicycle.
  • At the Epic you sleep in tents with Woolies food, at R2C you hardly sleep but you do get spoiled with farm hospitality. R2C has no waterpoints, just rivers, spaza shops and shebeens.
  • The Epic has big bunches, we’ll be lucky if we see any of our fellow riders over 600km.
  • At R2C we scale big mountains portaging our bicycles on our backs, at the Epic you only ride in the saddle. At R2C there is no race bag, you carry what you need on your back or on your bicycle or it stays at home.
  • The two races are remotely similar yet could not be more different.

At R2C we go places where few will ever go, we see vistas that few will ever see, we ride and portage like few will ever do, we experience freedom like few will ever do. Riding on the Freedom Trail is unlike any other experience you will ever have and few get the privilege.¬†At the Swazi Frontier 2014 I wore my Freedom Challenge Race to Rhodes race shirt with pride on the final night, hoping to secure some admiration :-). I asked fellow R2R riding mate¬†Brad van der Westhuizen why he wasn’t also wearing his so we could show off in numbers. His reply has stuck in my head. He said those who weren’t there wouldn’t understand.

Only 3 more sleeps.

Northwards or Westwards or Northwestwards?

Navigation on the Freedom Trail is no simple matter.

I have¬†learnt, unsurprisingly, that riding in a North-westerly direction and then making a South-easterly turn … takes me back to where I just came from, so I have tried to eliminate these maneuvers from my route plan.

At the 2014 Race to Rhodes I had the privilege of ending up in a group with many person days worth of route experience which did two things for me. Firstly, it made the journey a bit easier and meant I ended up enjoying the surrounds¬†and the group’s company a lot and secondly, it made me realize how much time can be lost¬†on navigation without proper preparation or route knowledge. In retrospect I figured that Glenn and Meryl had put me in this group as a preventative measure rather than a random draw. The challenge is not at¬†the obvious turn that happen 2.5km from a previous T-junction, but rather to pick up the path heading Northwards from the river crossing or the tricky drop off Mpharane Ridge or to pick the correct track from the myriad cattle tracks running in random directions. I realized in 2014 that I would have spent many¬†additional hours every day on navigation if I had been riding alone. Only prior route knowledge or pin sharp navigation would have helped.

So for Race to Cradock 2015, I have tried to take these lessons into account and have prepared for pin sharp navigation :-).

  • I have spent more time going through the maps and narratives rather than just enjoying Google Earth flyovers, which btw I still find very insightful. The maps are what I’ll have with me rather than my laptop and Samsung color monitor.
  • I made lots of notes on the maps themselves as it is really difficult to try and read a map and narratives at the same time while riding down a rutted farm road … as my scarred knees can attest.
  • I have made a couple of aerial Google Earth prints with paths plotted to help my mind at least have some kind of familiar 3D image when I hopefully get there.
  • The race dates have CLEARLY been carefully selected to coincide with New Moon, rendering night navigation incompatible with route narratives and maps that reference invisible objects like spurs, necks and rocky outcrops. I have plotted some of these sections in 300-500m sections to try and help find my way, if not forwards, at least backwards.
  • I have browsed over many Strava tracks of previous riders (thank you!) to try and spot risky sections or route opportunities. I may have perhaps spent more time (too much!) on the Strava tracks of others than on generating my own training tracks.
  • Several previous riders have volunteered advice generously without hesitation, such is the spirit and camaraderie of this race and its participants.

I may have overdone the navigation preparation this time round but at least it was fun and I do actually enjoy the route planning part of adventure riding. I also know that despite all of this preparation, the actual scenes and landscape I will encounter will look different and fortunately so much more spectacular than it does on Google Earth. I am also pretty sure I will make many navigational mistakes along the way and learn some things about myself, my patience and my tenacity at the same time.

It is after all what the Freedom Trail is all about, testing ourselves against ourselves and overcoming ourselves despite ourselves.

New Shoes and Shin Splints

Four weeks to Race to Cradock.

Cycling training has gone well, I think I’ll make Day One to Slaapkrantz. So with that settled, I’ve started paying attention to a few loose ends, ie shoes and portaging.

I’ve been through two pairs of Shimanos. The MT71’s got here by online order too small and then the MT44’s caught on the seat stay during pedal action. I have now settled on a pair of Specialized Rime Elites. Saw my friend Ernst hike these up the Magaliesberg like he was trail running. The fit is still settling but they feel fine on my feet. Holding thumbs!

The few portages I’ve done the last few weeks I realized … again … my weakness when on my feet, so this week, better late than never, the hiking started. My shins are protesting now, more so than the rest of my anatomy, which appears to be making peace with saddle time. Guess the dog is in for a treat the next fee weeks, lots of walks coming up!


Aintree Lodge – It’s Time!

Safe in Pietermaritzburg and when arriving at Aintree Lodge reality quickly sets in when we meet up with Dave and Meryl. There are maps, notebooks, phones around, its the race office, the race is already underway and riders are out there as we settle in.

Time to tweak, organise and do race briefing. I am really nervous about this ride yet as excited as a child.

Race to Rhodes here we go!




Nerves and Last Minute Stuff

I have done probably 100’s of races of various kinds over the years but on the eve of driving down to Pietermaritzburg the nerves are tugging. Perhaps its all the war talk by the blanket bearers and whip carriers about wrong routes, getting lost in the dark and big climbs, do we portage the Umko or ride around, maybe its the cold weather and pictures of snow on the route.

Maybe its the last minute details, my Goretex shoes got lost from the UK so its normal MTB shoes for me, bit disappointing. Maybe its only having a single bike computer, maybe not having a two-stage valve in the spare tube. Maybe I’m just like an ou tannie met n nat broek!

For now its time to settle, shake off work mode, clear the head and sit back to enjoy the opportunity, life is an adventure after all, we cant get everything perfect every time so sometimes we just need to breathe in and smell the roses.

Tomorrow we start a fresh day, with no nerves!