Thursday, 30 June 2011

Day 17 - Doubling up to Willowmore

Seems like Albert and John planned on jumping today's support station to put in a double shift. This makes the total distance traveled more than 170km since this morning. Their legs are not exactly "fresh" after the last 1500 odd kilometers traveled non-stop so far.

"Riding Teak Place's Black Route took me 2 hours", this is John's favorite training spot. "In this race, a six hour day feels like a break".

Some more bad luck with cellphone reception, but perhaps it may only be the network and not the reception on their side. The password on the GPS tracking site has been revoked for some reason as well, so we have no way of communicating or checking if they made it.

From their optimistic tone over the phone yesterday, it seems like they are really enjoying the trip. Perhaps it is a bit different to what they expected or planned for, but they have overcome the metal barriers and already and just hope that their bikes will last through the Western Cape to a glorious finish on Diemersfontein.

Some good news to report. John and Albert's colleagues in the FNB Home Loans IT team have been making progress collecting money for the Freedom Challenge Scholarship fund with their Coin Drive. This initiative is not just meant to raise money, but also to challenge other departments to join in. All the money collected by FirstRand staff members will be doubled by FirstRand before being handed over to the Freedom Challenge Scholarship Fund. Well done!

 Testing team: Veronica Mboweni & Margaret Thomas Infrastructure team: Shamiema Sallie Desktop Support team: Valentine Okuma Development team: Keaogile Matseliso

Profiles to Willowmore and Rondawel

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Day 16 - All downhill from here, till tomorrow

The FNB Home Loans Team had to navigate some really technical downhill sections to reach Cambria this afternoon. At 101km it was certainly not an easy day.

"Today the tour headed back into the mountains to the Baviaans. Its sort of like our version of the Tour de France heading into the Pyrenees, except without drugs."

John seemed to be a bit slower on the straights, but catch up quickly with the rough stuff. Eleven river crossings later, he was leading the pack.

They are still stuck with intermittent cellphone reception, and John's MTN phone could not send through his photos of the day. Hope to receive and post them tomorrow.

"Yesterday's ride took us past our first shop since Hofmeyr"

Albert, on Vodacom, took a picture of August Carstens as he came speeding by. He doubled up and left them at the support station. Craig and Joan phone them from a couple of kilometers back. They will not make the Support Station by nightfall and decided to camp out in the bush tonight.

The plan for tomorrow is to push through to Willowmore, doubling up on pace to finish a couple of days earlier. Cold weather and strong North Westerly winds could slow them down.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Day 15 - This race is all about people

We expected better signal as the riders approach the Western Cape. Sadly, they are still out of reach.

A good friend of the Team, Paul Erasmus phoned me from the trail last night. He got news from the support crew that Albert and John split up and that John almost got lost in the dark alone. He wanted to check if they were okay.

Paul Erasmus on the 2010 Ride to Rhodes

Paul started with the FNB Home Loans team, but left them around day three, carrying his bike up a mountain. Since then he has been making ground at a phenomenal pace. He spent four tough days alone on the road. Saturday and Sunday, he managed a 19 and 17 hour shift respectively with Martin Dreyer and John Croasdale. His current position is 8th, with only a handful of big names in front of him. Well done Paul, and good luck with the next couple of days.

Steve Burnett, a previous Freedom Challenger sent me this photo. It does not need any explanation.

Steve Burnett, Freedom Challenge 2008
This picture really captures what the Freedom Challenge is all about. Note the FNB logo on the water bottles. If it has not won a 2008 picture of the year award, I call dibs for this year. (Click to enlarge)

The FNB Home Loans Team travelled from Toekomst to Bucklands today, and will tackle the final section of the Karoo to Hadley tomorrow. Here are the profiles:

Monday, 27 June 2011

Day 14 – Stop to smell the roses

The FNB Home Loans Team had more time today to report back with their progress and feelings about the race. This is their reflections so far

FNB Home Loans Team at sunrise
Today's trip from Van de Venter's kraal to Toekomst farm was the shortest and most pleasant day of the race to date. It took a mere 6 hours and left us with a whole afternoon to relax and fix bikes. Brake pads for needed changing after a thousand odd kilometers and some big technical downhill riding.

"Coming from Stuttgard the morning is very cold. Climbing the Skuifteberg mountain in the snow"
"The 4 of us puching our bikes up the mountain. Note the road leading down to the right where we just came from"
"Gorillas in the mist? Or perhaps riders who just came down the mountain in the back"

If one has some weak point in your body the freedom challenge will find it. John never had achilles tendon trouble until this race, while Albert's ankles have been playing up. None of this seems to have anything to do with cycling. Rather, it is the walking over mountains carrying bikes and rucksacks that really hurt. So if you cycle because you can't run due to weak joints, think carefully about doing this one.
"Fence climbing has become an official sport."
Lots of good people in this country. Everyone is overly happy to help us with directions when we get lost (which was often in KZN and Transkei), and the hospitality at the support stations has been superb. In the town of Vuvu, we were farmed out for the night to the local residents of what is a very poor town. The sleepover was as good as any, and the pride in the homes was good to see. Then came the traditional guest houses of the Transkei, and as we move west it reverts to staying with farmers, where one has to avoid the temptation of being too sociable.

"We like our bikes so much that we sometimes bath with them"

Through the Eastern Cape, one goes past many abandoned farm homesteads, reflective of how many country areas have depopulated partially over decades as urbanization takes root. Sadly, farm murders are topical in parts. But also noticeable is a smaller group of farmers really excelling, and we've passed through some impressive game farming outfits.

Apartheid era borders still appear to determine infrastructure disparities to a great extent. The Freedom Challenge sticks to dirt roads and tracks. But the condition of the public dirt roads deteriorated noticeably as we moved towards the former Transkei region and away from KZN. Thereafter, the improvement in the roads as we headed to the Karoo was also noticeable.

"Sun rises on a beautiful Karoo morning. Who said the Karoo was flat?"
"Flat road across half the world. Now that's civilised cycling."

Some platteland towns are in a sorry state, none more so than Hofmeyr, where the established town appears almost dead, while the main life seems to be in the newer part where RDP homes have been built en masse. I always wonder what the occupants of new RDP homes in these small platteland towns will do for a living in years to come as economic activity moves increasingly to bigger cities. More and more government grants to people in these places?

"One of many derelict Karoo farmhouses. A sign of a few decades of urbanisation."
And of course, every so often we pass a (now derelict) railway station. The scaling down of the railways had a massive impact on the platteland. Small economies built around rural stations have collapsed. The old railways we knew was unsustainable, but its demise was painful for the platteland.

"Joan Louwrens, our new team doctor"
Finally, in this race the biggest need for most of us is people. There are a few individuals that race it alone. John and Albert agree that we would have dropped out on about the second day if we had been alone and bumbling around in the dark looking for our support station. That's life. Most of us need other people for support. But the middle and upper class sections of our society seem to think they can go it alone and outsource everything. No wonder stress and depression are out of control in suburbia.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Day 13 - Traveling light

Rain. Snow. The team had to battle the elements in the last two days. In the midst of the cold front, Albert struggled with yesterday's climb in the Snow. The extreme cold is yet another thing he could not train for in Bloem. Luckily he is a strong rider and catches up quickly when he is on the bike, and the bike is not on him. The pictures below show Albert carrying his bike through the snow, and John's bike full of mud.

Along the route, they join up with Tim James, former Freedom Challenge champion. They also teamed up with Craig and Joan. Having some company makes the hardship easier to endure. It’s not just the conversation- the team had to call on medical assistance and spare parts from fellow riders before.

For those of you that read John's Kit List on the blog site, note that his bike seems a lot lighter. That is because he removed the back and front carriers and reduced the number of items he has to carry up those mountains. Sounds like it was quite an easy decision to throw away the well-planned supplies and spares to travel a bit lighter.

They weren't able to cover additional ground yesterday, and kept to schedule to complete the race in a total of 26 days. The weather started clearing this afternoon and the cold front seems to be moving on. Let's hope that for their part it stays fair for the next couple of days as they make their way to Cape Town. Just 1000km to go.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Day 12 - Grootdam and beyond

No news from John and Albert as they lose cellphone reception again. Today they traveled south to Grootdam, 74km down the road. Struggling to update, it is difficult to tell from the GPS Tracking Device's location if they skipped Support Station 12 and continued another 86km to van de Venterskraal, The team needs to start doubling up on the planned days if they want to complete the trail in the targeted 21 days.

Profile to van de Venterskraal shows only 900km climb, however, the cold front and strong headwinds, similar to those faced in the last couple of day could slow them down.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Day 11 - Catching up to Stuttgard

Back on track, the riders reached the next support station. "We left Hofmeyer at 4h00 to finish yesterday's section and reached it by 9h30 this morning.". From there, they pushed through to reach Stuttgard, Support Station 11 at 17h00 this afternoon, battling through very strong north westerly winds.

"We have passed the 1000km mark. Morale is so-so. Need another 5 days before Cape Town will start feeling closer."

Albert managed to send through some snaps. Click on them to enlarge:

"A little Springbok, wanting to take us on when we got into the camp"
"At last he reached me after 5min ready to take on the next mountain"
"Yes John, we are on the right track - He can't believe the narratives and gets us lost time and time again"

"The message greeted us crossing Aasvoelberg. Needless to say, we walked"

Tomorrow, another relatively easy day. Only 74km to Support Station at Grootdam, with a climb under 1000m.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Day 10 - Stopping halfway at Hofmeyer

The last 10km yesterday was a nightmare. The riders got lost on confusing farm roads in the dark, and had to pedal/carry through mud for a couple of hours. They eventually reached the Kranzkop support station by 11h30 at night. Tired and cold. At this stage they have already traveled more than 820 km and climbed about 16km since the 14th of June.

"And there is the mountain we are going to"
In the last hour or so when all hope seemed to have been lost, the riders decided to split today and only aim for Hofmeyer. This half-way stop is still a massive 98km away with a climb over Aasvoelkop along the route. It means that they will have to catch up the lost time to reach the 26 day cut-off at the current pace.

"Another mountain we had to portage with Keith Scott having a break"
So far, the weather seems to be playing along. It is extremely cold, but luckily the riders have not hit any rain or snow. The sections that they battled with most was still very wet after recent rains. This seemed to be the only concern they had until the news of a cold front, due to hit them tomorrow.

They reached Hofmeyer at around 17h00 and already feel much better about their chances of finishing the race.

"Mr Loos with Hofmeyer in the background"

The next big section is the Karoo, which is much flatter than the last 10 days. So much so that tomorrow morning the team will already start catching up on the lost day and try to work in some extra trips to cut down on their total time. The team will have to get up at 3am and leave as quickly as possible to still finish way after dark.

Tomorrow they will tackle the last section to Support Station 10 at Elandsberg, and push through to Stuttgart. Total planned distance is more than 100kms away, but much flatter than what the guys are used to.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Day 9 - Kranzkop to Romansfontein

Albert managed to get hold of me during the day. He was standing on top of a mountain and we managed to squeeze though a couple of words before breaking up again. Cellphone reception is a bit of a luxury at this stage in the race.

We started talking while he was waiting for John, who sped past him mid-conversation and managed to throw a 'howzit' in the direction of the phone. Their spirits seem very high despite some new challenges.

The last two days was very tough with some huge portages. The team decided to start in daylight and only left the support stations around 6h30, facing 8 and 3 portage hours each day respectively. They reached Slaapkranz late, but made yesterday's Kranzkop by 18h00. On Monday it was so cold that Albert's front derailer (mechanism that shifts his front gear) froze and stop working completely. They had to stop and John managed to fix the problem with a tool he had in his kit. For those of you who read the post Day T-4 and counting, it is not what you think.

Carrying a mountain bike loaded with spares and supplies for so long unavoidably took its toll on both Albert and John's ankles and feet. Lucky for them, they are traveling with Keith Scott. He is a medical doctor and managed to doctor some aches and pains with anti-inflammatory medicine he carried with him. Thanks Keith!

I am hoping to get some pictures tomorrow, but we will have to wait for proper cellphone reception to send data over the network.

As always, tomorrow's profiles courtesy

Watching the race from home

Visit the Netstar Guardian site to track the FNB Home Loans Team's progress and exact location. To do this, click on the Netstar logo and log in with the Freedom Challenge username and password (User: freedom, password: password). Select John and Albert from the list (D_John_7275 and d_Albert_7279) and click on Latest Position button on the top left of the site. If you found them on the map, click on their arrows to check the last time that the signal was updated and to get their exact coordinates. You can use these coordinates in Google Maps to view their location if you prefer Google to the map on the Guardian site. If you need further instruction, or get stuck somewhere, please follow this link to the Freedom Challenge site where there is a detailed explanation of the Guardian service and how to use it to track the progress of the race.

At the time of writing, Albert and John were at Sun City next to the pool. Just kidding, they are somewhere in the middle of nowhere on their way to the next support station, about halfway between Cradock and Aliwal North.

In addition to the live tracking, the Freedom challenge site also has a rider progress table, that shows the check-in and checkout times at all the support stations along the route. This table is updated regularly and is a very useful view of the riders' progress.

Lucky for me, these tools help me to track them from the comfort of my living room and there is no need to follow them up those mountains.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Day 8 - Slaapkranz to Kranzkop

Still no news from the riders for the second day in a row. The only good news to report is that the Rider Progress table shows them checking in yesterday at the Slaapkranz Support Station at 18h30 and checking out of today's lunchtime stop at Moordenaarspoort. From the personal tracker site, it looks like they reached the support station already.

So far, they have traveled almost 700km in the last 8 days, climbing approximately 14km. If this sounds much like another big South African mountain bike race (Cape Epic), remember that this is only about a third of the way of the Freedom Trail!


Monday, 20 June 2011

Day 7 - Rhodes to Slaapkranz

WeatherSA Frost Map for 20 June 2011
Once again the riders do not have cellphone reception. A long day and 108km later, the FNB Home Loans Team should already have reached Slaapkranz to spend the night.

The closest town on WeatherSA I could find was Aliwal North, which recorded temperatures of -3 and 14 degrees today. Further to the freezing temperatures, WeatherSA also has a 'Frost' map on their site. Sooner rather than later, snow and ice will start slowing down the pace and make pedaling even more challenging.

Traveling to Kranzkop tomorrow, this is what they are in for:

For a good cause

Things are starting to heat up around the office as internal departments in FNB Home Loans challenge each other in raising money for the Freedom Challenge Scholarship Fund that sponsors deserving learners from the Mariazell High School. All of the money raised by FirstRand Staff Members will be doubled if the donation is made through the FirstRand match-funding initiative.

Our Information Technology team is currently leading the pack with their “Coin Drive”. They have identified champions in their area, handing each a bottle which they will try to fill with change by the 14th of July. These bottles will be visible in the area, to serve as a constant reminder of their progress.

Thank you to Andrew Watt and Anthony Miller from Lightstone, Pamela Lamoreaux and Johan Snyman for their generous contributions to the Freedom Challenge Scholarship fund. Remember that anyone can sponsor John or Albert by following the backabuddy on the right hand side of the site to John and Albert’s sponsorship pages.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Day 6 - Vuvu to Rhodes

The FNB Home Loans Team's spirit is exceptionally high today as the riders reach Rhodes and overcome a major psychological barrier. This is an important milestone as they bid farewell to their Ride-to-Rhodes comrades to continue the next 1800km to the finish. Getting here was not easy task.

Saterday's pictures:

Mr Loos looking great after a 4km hike from the mountains behind him.
Mr Humphries not looking so good after the same hike
Close to Malekholonyane, Albert's bike's BB (Bottom Bracket) started giving trouble. It is quite a scare when your bike's drive train starts packing up in the middle of nowhere. Luckily, he carried an extra one on in his backpack. This BB however, did not fit. Fellow riders offered to help by stripping their own bikes, but Albert needed to get to Rhodes first before they could take theirs apart for spares.

Today the riders climbed the pass in major headwinds. Halfway up the mountain, John made the call to go around, as the climb was too steep and the wind too strong. So, the riders split up. 
"We left the river down below two hours ago with a 5km hike up the mountain and a 1200 meter climb. This is where John and I parted."
Albert and some fellow riders stopped further up. According to the Free Stater, the drops were frighteningly dangerous in the windy conditions. All he could think about is that if something were to happen, they could not even send a medical helicopter to assist them. He would have to sleep up there, and wait for an entire crew to climb up the following day to help carry him down. Here are some of the views climbing up the Drakensberg:

Albert, tackling the mountain head-on, reached Rhodes at 14h30 and managed to get some rest. Hours later there was still no word from John. The rest of the group grew increasingly concerned as night set in. Eventually a support crew spotted him and guided him to reach the support station just after 18h00. He was exhausted from cycling into the wind the entire day.

From Albert, and the rest of the FNB Home Loans team, a big thank you to Andries Olivier from Malmesbury for stripping your bike to assist Albert in continuing the race. Your crank set will have some great stories to tell about the next three weeks. Also, thanks to Fiona and Derek (the bike boffin), for assisting with the repair and giving guidance to the team for when things go wrong.

As always, tomorrow's profiles courtesy of the Freedom Challenge Official Site: