In the bitterly cold kitchen of Pony Cottage – the penultimate checkpoint of the Freedom Challenge – I cursed my ignorance and the lack of cellphone signal for the umpteenth time.
On the counter in front of me I had lined up the necessary ingredients to make the uber cup of plunger coffee I had been so craving for the past 60km. I had the milk, sugar, plunger, boiled water and coffee beans ready to go. The only thing missing was the requisite knowledge to turn these ingredients into a potable cup of coffee. One I sorely needed. I knew the interweb could enlighten me on the proper technique for brewing plunger coffee but not surprisingly, signal was as sparse as the instructions on the coffee packet. It was an appalling time to stumble upon an realisation of my own knowledge gaps. Despite my best efforts to manage my energy stores over the 130km from Rouxpos to Montagu my legs had decided to go walkabout on the rolling district road to Mcgregor, the end result of which was a lot more walking about and a lot less cycling than I like to admit. With 110km still to go to the next checkpoint at Trouthaven, on any other day I would have called it quits and gone in search of food and a bed. A further 6 hours in the saddle was neither enticing nor smart. However, this was not any other day. Trouthaven was the final checkpoint before the finish and I knew that all I had to do in order to finish in under 12 days, a time I had previously thought of as existing only within reach of the legends of the sport, was to get there before sunrise the next morning, even if that meant walking every climb between the two checkpoints.
It is trite to say, but I am going to say it anyway; the mind and body are strange things indeed. The smallest change to the state of the former can have immeasurable effects upon the state of the latter. Start your next ride at 2AM, feel your legs disintegrate as the morning wears on you, then notice the change in mind and body as the sunrise creeps over the horizon and warmth leaching out of your very bones is slowly restored. This day was no different. One small cup of coffee so bad it would have made a barista cry, a 5 minute nap, the tiniest adjustment to my seat height, and I veritably flew over the stretch to Trouthaven. I had not been looking forward to the new route between the final checkpoints, dominated as it is by district road, but I could not help but smile as I soaked up the sunset which shaded the jagged Winterberg mountains orange and purple as I waved it farewell one last time.
10km from my Trouthaven I took a few minutes to myself on the side of the road. I lent my bike against a signpost and collapsed into the soft roadside grass facing the familiar lights of Rawsonville. It was a surprisingly warm night for winter, the stars were out in force and the wind had long since retreated around Brandvlei Dam in search of the next group of participants to frustrate. I thought about that day, and the 9 before it. I thought about my goals at the beginning of the race and everything that had been condensed into the short period between then and now. I had entered the race with the vague notion of testing my own limits. Whatever that meant I had hoped it would result in a sub 14 day finish time. Now, staring down the barrel of a sub-12 day finish I could not deny that I had achieved everything I had set out to. I had by my own admission coped admirably with the solitude; I had faced up to multiple time penalties, broken frames, a broken body, and once or twice a broken mind, and yet I had persevered. If the race finished right then and there, in the dark somewhere outside of Rawsonville, 10km short of the lead, I would have had no regrets.
Without going into the nitty gritty, this is largely why the final day played out as it did. I was more than happy with the race I had ridden. Chasing Theo over Stettynskloof or sneaking past him in the dead of night, did not appeal to me in the least, less so if I had actually beaten him (which was by no means certain). He had ridden a fantastic race, had selflessly helped me out when my own navigation had let me down, and though I had rarely seen him since Rhodes, the knowledge that he was somewhere up the road had often been enough to force me back onto the bike to log a few more hours than I thought possible.
These are a couple of the reasons I made the decision I did; to stop Theo as he walked out of the door of Trouthaven and propose we share the trail on the last day. To tackle the beast that is Stettynskloof together. I do not regret that decision for a second.
Stettyns cannot be described, it can only be experienced. It is a place where you begin to understand what it means for something to be both beautiful and cruel. It is the kind of place that will take your breath away, then kick you in the crown jewels whilst you’re gasping on the ground. It is on the face of it a beautiful kloof and we should thank our lucky stars for the privilege of experiencing it, and we would, but for the malice hidden under the surface. It strews a million rocks under thick fynbos, forcing a stumbling gait as you trip on alternate steps just avoiding the clutches of its spiky fynbos arms that threaten to retain you in their grasp for all eternity. Without an existing path there are multiple navigational options but each harbours its own challenges and it is a fortunate participant that is released from Stettyns in fewer than 8 hours. This year a number of participants spent more than 24 hours in her bosum. Theo and I were lucky to escape onto the final kilometres in 8 hours.
Finally exiting Stettyns via the concrete strips of Fisantekraal onto DuToits Kloof Pass, we separated briefly, each setting our own pace up the twisting climb. It was an opportunity for one last exercise in introspection; to reminisce about all the moments that had lead to this one. I don’t think Theo doubted that I would wait for him at the top – where regrouping amidst high-fives we paused to take in the view of a Cape Peninsula blanketed in an unusual afternoon fog. It was a brief but emotionally charged moment before we started the plunge into Wellington where family and friends awaited our arrival.
Circumnavigating the Diemersfontein Dam, the finishing flags in view off to our left, I applied the brakes and gave Theo the 30 second lead I had promised him. As I inched my way along the alleyway of trees lining the final approaches to the finish I listened to the cheers as Theo crossed the line – and I smiled. I was just about ready for that blanket and Pizza.