More than just cycling; this is ‘pilgrimage’


A grueling cycling trip that spans 2,150 kilometers of mountains, valleys, icy river streams, challenging mountain passes and the desolate plains of South Africa. This is what Michael Neser, together with 45 other determined cyclists, undertook this winter.

The athletes took part in the Freedom Challenge, an annual winter cycling ride that challenges cyclists not only to brave an icy environment, but to undertake a spiritual journey – a pilgrimage – through sometimes unknown parts of South Africa.

“Life revolves around screens these days. This challenge gives cyclists the chance to leave everything behind, enjoy nature and do something because it is pure enjoyment,” Julia Fisher, one of the organizers of the Freedom Challenge, told RNews.

This challenge is the longest ride offered by the Freedom Challenge and stretches over two thousand kilometers between Pietermaritzburg and Wellington. The route is also known as the Freedom Trail, and riders have 26 days to complete the challenge. There are also shorter challenges (less than a thousand kilometers) in which cyclists can participate if they are not ready for the full route.

Out of the 46 riders who signed up for the Freedom Challenge this year, 29 completed the ride. Neser, son of the famous youth novelist, Christien Neser, was one of those who could see through the journey.

“The circumstances are very tough. There were very cold days with wind and rain,” says Neser.

“There are parts of the route where you have to carry your bike and you may not use any technology at all for navigation.”

Neser started on June 15 and finally completed the route on July 4, a week before her time expired. He has taken part in numerous cycling challenges, including the Cape Epic and Munga route; however, the Freedom Challenge stands out as one of the toughest.

He candidly admits that he doesn’t know how people tackle the challenge without a formidable team of cycling friends. For Neser, these friends were Gert Peens and Anton Wood, both of whom already have a Freedom Challenge behind the page.

“I think it takes more willpower to tackle the route alone; I don’t think I could do it alone.

“Getting up with someone, getting ready and moving away in the dark helps a lot.”

The cyclists face a grueling environment, changing weather conditions and physical challenges every day for almost a month. Most of the riders who do not complete the trek have to call it quits due to injuries or damage to their bikes, Neser explained.

Gavin Horton completed the trek this year in the shortest time, 14 days and 10 hours.

Although a winner is named every year, a prize-giving, trophies and medals are not the focus of the journey: it is to challenge each cyclist in a new way.

And when they finally reach the final destination, they are rewarded with a blanket from the Basotho culture.

“There is a Basotho tradition during which boys go through a ritual to become men. When they are done, they get a blanket.

“The riders who complete the Freedom Challenge receive a blanket as a symbol of their spiritual journey,” explained Fisher.

The challenge was started by David Waddilove in 2003, and was initially planned as a running route. However, after a trial run, Waddilove realized that it is not suitable for joggers, but rather for cyclists.

Over the years, the challenge has become well-known in cycling circles, with many cyclists who today not only have one Basotho blanket in their closet, but a whole shelf full.

“This challenge is such a raw experience. Riders are on their bikes all day long, at the mercy of nature and weather. They drive through parts of South Africa that are completely unknown, visit the most remote places,” says Fisher.

“This ride is so much more than just cycling; it is a pilgrimage.”

  • For more information about the Freedom Challenge, visit the website.