Race to Rhodes – Part 1

What is Race to Rhodes? A mountain bike race? A ride? A hike? A challenge? A journey? Tag all these labels and add #addictive says Caren Henschel.

On the Freedomechallenge.org.za website Race to Rhodes is described as a “500km, non-stop, self-navigated mountain bike race starting in Pietermaritzburg, KZN and ending in Rhodes, Eastern Cape. Riders are allowed a maximum of seven days to complete the ride. It is a non-stop event, so riders are not required to stop every day/night as in other stage races. Riders are required to be self-sufficient and carry all their own personal belongings with them.”

Second RR picture four
470km down, just 30 to go!

To me, this informative description makes the event sound appealing but also a little similar to a normal stage race. This is potentially dangerous! The Race to Rhodes is all but a normal mountain bike race. 500km seems quite a distance to cover, but riders have seven days to complete it, averaging 71km per day. Does that sound fairly relaxed to you? Trust me: whether you choose to do the ride in three days or in seven days: it is not relaxed at all!

But despite the hard work, the long hours, the riding in the dark, getting lost, portaging my bike for longer than I imagined possible, and enduring the freezing cold temperatures, I had the most gripping and memorable journey of my life! The close contact with unspoilt nature, the discovery of beautiful countryside, engaging with people I met on the trail, and the huge challenge of self-navigation made the ride an unforgettable experience for me.

Second RR picture two

My race started on 15 June along with seven other riders. The night before the start I repacked my lightweight backpack very carefully; selecting my all-weather wardrobe, my navigation system, and bike spares and tools for the next six days. Only accommodation, food and the luxury of 2-liter ice-cream tubs are provided at certain check-points along the route. These tubs had been pre-packed by the riders (after force feeding the family with ice-cream) with extra goodies like socks, hand warmers, caffeine, special muties and other little secrets. My sparsely packed backpack weighed as little as 5kg, but felt like a boulder after a couple of hours in the saddle!

Some riders use their bikes as a mule to carry their load in fancy aerodynamic saddle bags but I chose to keep my bike as light as possible in order to be able to lift it over gates and fences and schlepp it for five hours over Lehana’s pass.

My personal ‘race-strategy’ was to ride for six days. Some riders do three days (which means ‘non-stop’ and little sleep), others do more. But well-made plans can change at any time during the ride due to unforeseen challenges.

Second RR picture

A rather casual gathering at the City Hall in Pietermaritzburg turned into our pre-dawn race start. Despite the intimate group size the ‘field’ of eight riders spread quickly. Each rider has their own strategy about how to tackle this race, but all agree good navigation skills are absolutely key!

I had meticulously planned the ride at home, had studied the 1:50 000 topographical maps, narratives and routes for hours and went to all the race briefings by previous finishers who shared knowledge generously. I had been advised about the steep descent into Umkomaas Valley, some white stones at some corner before turning at some other corner… and some other essential information but – How? What? My memory was taxed to its limit.

Snow in the Berg, making for chilly but memorable riding conditions.
Snow in the Berg, making for chilly but memorable riding conditions.

I was out there in the ‘bundu’ on my way to Rhodes, equipped with my compass and my maps, which I thought I had studied well. But it soon turned out that landmarks, paths and tracks often look different to what the maps show. Also, structures change: a house is re-painted, a plantation is harvested and water tanks are moved. I also found it difficult to read the contour lines of the many mountains around. And on top of all I realized that I couldn’t ride and navigate at the same time but had to stop countless times to study the map and my surroundings and then try to match them!

But I succeeded. I went through the most amazing, hidden, untouched countryside. I met amazing people and found remains of South Africa’s past and experienced the present. I woke up in Ntsikeni Nature Reserve and found my bike covered in snow, I rode in snow, I endured the icy wind, I carried my bike for five hours up Lehana’s Pass and I mastered the biggest challenge of my life: I self-navigated my way to Rhodes! I got lost, I got anxious and I was worried, but I succeeded and arrived in Rhodes after six days of riding, carrying, walking and climbing for 12 hours per day on average…

Stay tuned for the details in the October issue of Full Sus!


Where are we?

Ride to Rhodes is part of the greater Freedom Challenge, and challenges riders to self-navigate from Pietermaritzburg to Rhodes. If you’re not up for the cold, unsupported Ride to Rhodes you can enter the Spring Ride to Rhodes which offers a guided ride, with fully catered overnight accommodation and vehicle support along the route. Find out more at www.freedomchallenge.org.za.

[author image=”https://fullsus.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/P-Picture.jpg” ]Caren Henschel has been a cycling enthusiast since her childhood in Germany. In South Africa she found the perfect match for cycling with her love for nature. Her next big adventure will be 2016 Freedom Challenge.[/author]

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