James in epic Freedom Challenge win

3 July 2009

4 – 3 – 2 – 1 – 1 … Add it up and you get 11. That’s the number of hours veteran mountain biker Tim James of Team Squirt slept on the last five days of the 2009 Freedom Challenge, on his way to setting a record for the non-stop mountain bike race across South Africa, which starts in Pietermaritzburg and ends at the Diemersfontein Wine Estate outside Cape Town.

Having left Pietermaritzburg on 16 June with the last batch of riders to start, James set the early pace in the race.

On the first day of riding he pushed through the first support station at McKenzie Country Club, situated on the watershed between the Umkomaas and Umzimkulu Rivers, and arrived at the second support station in the Ntsikeni Nature Reserve at midnight, having ridden 203 kilometres and climbed over 5 000 metres along the way.

Intimidating climb

He arrived at the village of Rhodes, 500 kilometres from the start, in three days – an achievement that was made possible when he took on the intimidating 1 000-metre climb up the escarpment of the Maluti Drakensberg on the footpath of Lehana’s Pass at night.

James’ massive early effort appeared to be taking its toll as his progress slowed over the next three days. By the end of the sixth day, the lead had shifted to Andrew Barnes. Barnes, who is 20 years younger than James, left Pietermaritzburg four days before him and was riding about 400 kilometres ahead of him.

For the next five days, the initiative lay with Barnes who appeared to be riding strongly and consistently. However, maintaining a punishing schedule of limited sleep James not only managed to hold to his own strategy for breaking the race record but also to keep in touch with the pace of Barnes.

Taking its toll

The effort, he admitted, was taking its toll. Approaching the town of Willowmore late at night on the eleventh day in the saddle, he was physically and mentally depleted and was tormenting himself with thoughts of withdrawal. Then came some news that buoyed him up; he learnt that Barnes, up ahead of him, had been delayed in the Swartberg by a snow storm. And so James continued onwards.

Rather than stopping at Willowmore, he began a really big push. He slept for two hours at Rondawel in the Moordenaars Karoo. After that short break, he rode for 22 hours and 237 kilometres through Prince Albert, up the Swartberg Pass, into the Gamkaskloof, and took on the portage up Ladder.

James arrived at Rouxpos on the slopes of the Swartberg after midnight. After catching two hours of sleep, he continued on to the Anysberg Nature Reserve, where he catnapped for an hour, before riding across the Little Karoo to Montagu.

James crossed the Breede River to reach MacGregor – which proudly proclaims on the town’s website that it has been described as “the best preserved and most complete example of mid-nineteenth century townscape in the Cape Province” – in the early evening. He then took on the Coenieskraal climb to arrive at the Oestervanger Guest House in the Agterkliphoogte Valley well after midnight.

On to the finish

After only one hour’s sleep, he rode past the Brandvlei Dam and up alongside the Holsloot River before taking on the eight-kilometre portage up the Stettynskloof in the mountains of Du Toit’s Kloof. From there he continued through to the finish at Diemersfontein, outside of Paarl.

James arrived at the finish at Diemersfontein at 21:45 on Monday, 29 June. His total riding time for the 2 350 kilometres from Pietermaritzburg was 13 days, 15 hours, and 45 minutes. It bettered by 21 hours the previous race record, which he had established in 2008.

After receiving the Basutho blanket given to all Freedom Challenge finishers, James spoke of the incredible effort that had been required and of how punishing it had been. However, apart from saddle sores, the only other ailment of which he spoke was a burnt tongue – the result of hurriedly drinking hot soup as he rushed through support stations.

Having completed the event for the third year in a row, James indicated that he had found this year’s ride particularly taxing. Whilst his record raises the bar, he pointed out that it serves also to show others what is possible; even if others are able to better his time, it remains to be seen whether any rider will be able to match his finishing places in successive years of second, first, and first.

SAinfo reporter

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