24 May 2021
The Freedom Circuit
The Freedom Circuit is a semi-supported bike packing race taking riders across the foothills of the Southern Drakensberg in South Africa. It spends almost its entire distance traversing rural land and as such the experience that one gets from riding it is truly unique. Words by Kevin Benkenstein (@kevinbenky)
The Freedom Circuit race is born from the Freedom Challenge family of rides, the Doyenne of which is the Race Across South Africa - a 2,000km+ non-GPS race that originated as a running event. The route of the Freedom Circuit is taken from this and as such is unlike any other bike packing race I know: 50% gravel roads and 50% point-and-shoot. The gravel roads are a never-ending series of stunning, sweeping descents and rollers through farmlands and forests that are punctuated by leg breaking climbs to get you back out of the valleys you have entered. The route has over 13,000m of vertical gain and much of that is on climbs longer than 5km, the hardest of which averages easily more than 10%. Pedalling the climbs is a major benefit to your race time, if you can manage it. The point-and-shoot nature of much of the route is the more challenging aspect, though. Check out the Full & Shorter Routes!
While many wonderful gravel roads form a spider web across the area many times these are short-cutted by riding as the crow flies between points. To do this you often find yourself crossing grazing fields in deep cattle tracks, traversing marshland on walking paths or just plain riding over grass for what seems like an eternity in your exhausted state. There are a good few portages too, to keep you honest, that take you over sheer cliffs and through crevasses that my XL bike had no business trying to get through, but it did somehow. This route will push any rider to the limits of their ability, and in my case it forced me to extend that ability to new skills too.
I purposefully did a bare minimum of route research. I enquired about the volume of portages for shoe choice, and then promptly forgot my walking shoes when packing for the race, and made sure I know how much water I needed to carry but that was about it. On a personal level I wanted the experience to be as new and real and ‘in the moment’ as could be so that I had no expectations to ruin what was happening in the moment. The semi-supported nature of the race meant that I know there would be food to buy and a bed, if I needed it, at reasonable intervals and most else was left to chance. I am so glad that I did that! The places, the people, the views, the terrain, the difficulties, the personal successes, the smiles, the frustrations, the small wins and the new skills all felt so pure, so earned and had such richness to them because I had no expectations and could live each one with nothing clouding them.
I felt such joy being able to appreciate where I was and what I was doing (and overcoming) in the moment rather than having it all be compared to some pre-race expectation or plan. I was better for it, am better for it, and raced better because of it. I gave my all at all times and was happy simply to do that. I experienced it all with no comparison and loved it for what it was, a journey to a different world where life is taken more slowly and simply and where our, very first-world, problems have no meaning and can be forgotten. How simple is a life of subsistence? How much contentment you can see on the faces of Children who need only play and fetch water or Gogo’s who live a life of service to their families. Perspective matters and this ride will give it to you in spades. Returning to the hustle and bustle of daily life is not easy afterwards, decompression from the bubble of the ride has taken that little bit longer than normal.
The Freedom Circuit taught me a lot, reminded me of much, and gave me a chance to rediscover my happy place on a bike. Chief of these reminders was to keep things simple, both in life and in riding or racing. In a world designed to make everything more complicated and intense it is good to slow down, to enjoy the moment for what it is and to just do your very best in that moment. A collection of moments in which you do your best will, always, give you your best outcome.
For anyone looking for something different, for an adventure, for a break from the daily, for a chance to reconnect with themselves this ride is an incredible chance to do just that. I cannot recommend it enough and, for the first time in a long time, time say “10 Stars, would do it again.”.
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