The Road to Freedom.
Bruce Hughes is way too young to be called a veteran, but in the endurance cycling sphere, he is just that. A regular Freedom Challenge contender, this time he tackled the shorter, but no less arduous, Races to Willowmore and Cradock.
In Toekomst Lodge, on the border of Addo Elephant Park I lay awake in the 2am darkness of my creaking cabin. My thoughts were divided three ways. The first two streams were locked in an internal debate weighing up the relative advantages and disadvantages of donning my chamois and heading into the pre-dawn dark against those in favour of or against resetting my alarm for a later 7am start.
The third stream of consciousness watched the debate dispassionately, noting the familiarity of this morning ritual. It was this third stream that reduced my actions to automation and guided my body from bed into cycling gear, to the kitchen area and through my first and second bowls of Weetbix, all while the battle between determination and desire raged on. Finished with my coffee, all that was left to do was wheel the trusty stallion out into the crisp windless morning and set about doing what needed to be done; and I knew what needed to be done. If I left then, I could make it around Darlington Dam and up the dreaded Gwaars Valley to the next checkpoint 130km away by 10am. That would leave me with enough time to make the tough 90km trek over the side of the Baviaanskloof and through the notoriously slow and navigationally challenging Grootrivier Poort portage section before dark.
With ample time in hand I could then take a relaxed ride up the fairly untechnical route through the Baviaanskloof Reserve to finish in Willowmore six or seven hours in front of the route record. Sitting alone listening to the roar of the noiseless night, staring at the bottom of the empty coffee cup, knowing what I could do but unable to make myself do it, I reflected upon the relative merits of this internal debate in the context of the previous 700km already ridden and the near 500km still to be ridden.
I say this debate is familiar because in the approximately 15 000km of self-supported ultra-endurance racing that I have participated in, the mornings in which the debate has not taken place have been few and far between. I think it is to be expected in self-supported and self-regulated events where the aim is to push your limits and the reward is entirely internal (that is, there is little to no external recognition or reward for time or position). I have found that this debate is hardest to ignore on the Freedom Trail and I formulated a theory as to why.
The Freedom Challenge, and more particularly the shorter events on the Freedom Trail; the races to Rhodes, Cradock and Willowmore (the Freedom Lites) are unique offerings lying somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between your everyday fully supported multiday stage races like the Cape Epic, and hardcore entirely self-supported racing like the Tour Divide, the Transcontinental, and he Tour Aotearoa. The latter cover distances in excess of 2 000km, charge minimal or no entrance fee and in turn offer no pretence at organisation apart from access to route maps, tracking devices and websites. There is an entrance fee to the Freedom Lites and with it comes assorted freebies, a loaned tracker and an awesome locally made finishers trophy (of sorts).
However, that is where the similarity with your staged races ends. On the flipside, while these events are self-supported bikepacking events, with support stations at which competitors must check in and out of and at which food and a bed can be obtained (if required or desired), and the requirement that all navigation must be done by map and race narrative ‒ separate these events from entirely self-supported events which require that you locate your own food and shelter but allow for GPS navigation. This structure attracts not only those who seek to push the bounds of their physical capabilities by riding non-stop for two to three days on little to no sleep, but increasingly to those who simply seek an alternative riding experience. Riders who band together in groups of new and old friends to assist each other with difficult navigation or to share in the sights and sounds of the truly breathtaking trail while also enjoying the exceptional hospitality provided at the various support stations. These riders make up the majority of the small field and divide their five to six days on the trail into support stations, riding each day one station further, or as Freedom Trail legend Mike Woolnough puts it, riding “from kitchen table to kitchen table”.
It is this unique and disparate offering, where racer and weekend warrior share dinner tables, which stoked the embers of my familiar internal debate into a full-blown firestorm. It had me with one foot out of the Toekomst door but unable to move the other.
THE RACE TO CRADOCK
I had entered both the 575km Race to Cradock and the 600km Race to Willowmore with the idea of testing my limits over an intermediate distance I had not yet raced, and with one eye on the route records for both. I had established a malleable plan to take me within reach of the record, bar any navigational, mechanical or weather problems – admittedly a big ask ‒ and from the start in the idyllic hamlet of Rhodes I had set about working within the bounds of that plan. For the first 290km and 17 hours from Rhodes to the emergency support station at Brosterlea Farm I had maintained a pace that I believed could be held to the finish. The body felt reasonably good despite my own best efforts to sabotage my race by misjudging my water intake, and then compounding my mistake by forgetting both refilled waterbottles at the second Support Station (FYI – Bonaqua bottles make perfectly suitable cycling bottles).
On the other hand, I was not in a good headspace. The plan was to lie down and rest for a couple hours at Brosterlea and push on for the final 300km at 2am. However, earlier that night at support station 2, I had run into the batch who had started a day ahead (participants are grouped in reverse order, with your intended number of days on the trail determining your batch).
While I aimed for a 20-minute layover at Kranskop Farm (support station 2), the batch ahead had stopped for the night and were already well into their second helping of dinner and beers, sharing in the triumphs and travails of that day’s journey. Tired and not particularly excited about a potentially cold night out on the trail, stopping up for the night to enjoy the hospitality and fellowship of the trail seemed like bliss. I love adventuring solo, but as I put my feet up in Brosterlea I could not stop myself from feeling the tug of envy of their shared experience. That, combined with a cloying mist which had set in while I rested, added substantial fuel to the fire of my indecision. Determination won the debate that night and, after my allotted two hours, I headed out into a blanket of mist, I knew the fire would not be put out easily. From Brosterlea it was a wet and navigationally tricky ride to the fabled support station at Romansfontein. Third placed Mike Woolnough had slipped past Jacques Tattersall and I while we rested at Brosterlea. Mike is well known for his tendency not to sleep or rest at all.
I suspect that in his eyes a ride without sleep demons is not a ride at all. This was fortunate as Mike’s trail knowledge is second-to-none and the conditions being what they were I could not see my front wheel never mind the shadow of the hills that assist with night navigation. ‘spoor tracking’ the wet trail Mike left in the long grass over Stormberg I caught him at daybreak and Jacques, Mike and I arrived for breakfast at Romansfontein minutes apart. While Mike took a five-minute powernap, Jacques and I pushed on to the next portage section at Asvoelberg where, on the descent, my general gung-ho attitude to technical trails forced a gap that would hold for the rest of the race.
At midday, I reached the fabled Hofmeyr Pie Shop and caught up with another batch of riders who had taken an extended lunch stop to purchase meat from the local butchery. Their plan was to carry the meat some 35km down the road to the next support station in order treat the hosts for a braai. Without money or time, I stopped only to fill my water bottles in the bathroom and glare enviously at their lunch setup.
Oh, to just stop for a minute and enjoy an ice cream and a nap. From Hofmeyr the route through Elandsfontein to the final support station at Newlands Farm is comprised by and large of lonely district roads. At 400km into the race and with the heat ratcheting up, although this section is neither navigationally tough nor particularly physically challenging, the discomfort of having been almost uninterruptedly in the saddle for 30 hours can quite easily wear down your spirit and average speed.
It helped to focus on milestones to pass the time. I would never think past the next line on the narrative sheet and for each line I would aim to keep my average speed consistent until eventually the line I was on told me that I was about to enter Newlands. Awaiting me at Newlands was another batch of riders and extremely enthusiastic hosts. It was 5pm and the riders had taken a short 50km day from Elandsfontein in order to enjoy what Newlands had to offer.
By this time, I was well ahead of record and needed only to avoid making navigational errors over the last 90km, which I would do at night. Without the motivation of knowing I had but one more hurdle to overcome, I doubt I would have left. The hosts were planning to take the competitors down to the river for sundowners and commence the task of finishing Cradock’s supply of brandy and Coke as quickly and as noisily as possible. It was with great difficulty that I tore myself away from Newlands and set out into the fading light. The finish line beckoned.
THE RACE TO WILLOWMORE
I had a four-day break in between the Race to Cradock and the Race to Willowmore. It was a good opportunity to rest and recover from what had ultimately been an incredibly tough ride.
Although I’d had a faultless trip from Newlands to the finish at Cradock; I’d felt strong for almost the entire latter part of the race and had broken the route record by some four-and-a-bit hours, I couldn’t help mulling over the contrasting experiences I had witnessed on the trail. By all accounts my ride was a noteworthy achievement. That being said, much of it was a fight against myself, as it always is when pushing at perceived limits, and if I was to be honest, it was an incredibly instructive but not particularly enjoyable struggle.
It was with these thoughts playing on repeat that I started the Race to Willowmore from the very spot we had just finished the Race to Cradock. I left my batch behind shortly after the start and as I settled into my usual rhythm my mind drifted off in search of a train of thought to engage with while my body did its thing. 180km later I rolled into the emergency support station at Koedoeskop Private Nature Reserve. It was 4:30pm and besides being chased by an ostrich for a couple of kilometres it had been an uneventful day of grinding over the now rocky and barren terrain. For the first time ever, solitude had at times felt lonely.
My calculations told me that I could feasibly stop 10km down the road at Toekomst Lodge for six hours and do the next 200km the following day. This gave me time to enjoy a leisurely chat with the Koedoeskop hosts before continuing to Toekomst. At Toekomst, as in the Race to Cradock, I caught up with the batch who had started the day ahead of me. Bryn, Richard, Jason and Don had taken a short day, mostly spent at the Koedoskop pool beer-in-hand. The beer and whiskey drinking had continued at Toekomst and they were setting up for a braai to close out a very social day on the trail. Declining their offer to join in on the braai I headed to my tent with the intention of an early night and an early 2am start the following morning.
So, there I was the next morning, eyeball deep in the bottom of my empty coffee mug and having an existential crisis about the meaning of success. Beyond the little I had learnt about my own ability to persevere, the Race to Cradock had inspired no great feeling of achievement and I suspected that if I pushed on to Willowmore in pursuit of another record I would not find success there either.
Success is subjective construct and I realised that in this time and this place to choose to slow down and experience all that this unique event offered was not to fail. With that in mind, I went back to my creaking tent and slept. I am a naturally competitive person and to choose to take it easy was hard. However, sitting on the balcony of the lodge sipping my second coffee and clasping my third bowl of Weetbix, watching the sun rise over the vast flatlands of the Elephant Park, I felt no regret that I had let the record go.
For the first time I relaxed. I would leave when I was ready and stop when I wanted to for as long as I wanted to. Even setting an easy pace through Addo and up the Gwaars Valley, I arrived at the Bucklands support station just after lunch. I did not rush to unpack my race box and shove down whatever food I could find to be back on the trail in as short order as possible.
I enjoyed a leisurely lunch, an afternoon nap and some beers with Bryn, Richard, Don and Jason when they arrived.
My first proper supper on the trail was shared with the hosts in their kitchen, another unique element of these races. Hannes regaled us with stories of the local farmers’ plight to save their sheep – their livelihood – and combat the drought plaguing the southern half of our country. It was an eye-opening discussion that added depth to the trail experience and context to the route itself. After you have been told, it is difficult not to see the signs of hardship dotted along the trail.
It is people like Hannes and Rini Horn who provide more than just food and a bed to weary participants passing through. They open their homes and hearts to the riders, many of whom have lived their entire life in urban areas. Sharing their dinner table and living their experiences, however briefly, is undoubtedly intimate. It removes the barrier that so often separates us cyclists from the routes we pay to ride. It is these families, spread out from Pietermaritzburg to Paarl that give the trail so much of its character. It is the friendships formed not just between riders combatting the adversity of the trail, but between the hosts and the riders that keep us returning for more.
The final 300km and two days into and up the length of the Baviaanskloof were a highlight of the ride. With no pressure to push I took every opportunity to stop, sit down next to the trail and absorb the remarkable vistas pressing in from all sides. I have been privileged enough to race in numerous countries on four different continents and have yet to find anything quite like that found on the Freedom Trail. I finished the Race to Willowmore in a leisurely three days and 10 hours and with plenty to reflect upon. I had to admit to myself that I was very glad I chose to eat fully from the buffet of trail experiences offered by the race organisers.
I had pushed my limits, fought with my mind, body and the trail itself. During the Race to Cradock, hills, portages and tricky navigation sections had been adversaries to be conquered and support stations were beacons of brief respite but also an opportunity to gain minutes on competitors who dawdled. Later, during the Race to Cradock, the hills had been a curtain opening to fantastic panoramas to be absorbed and remembered and support stations were far more than a chance to rest and refuel.
They were immersive experiences integral to a proper understanding of the trail.
In my nearly 19 years of cycling I found no other event that offers quite the panacea to cure my desire for new and exciting cycling experiences, and I encourage anyone who shares my desire to get onto the trail and live it yourself.
All the information you could ever want, and more, on both these races and the Freedom Challenge itself can be found at www.freedomchallenge.org.za