Mad Dogs, Englishmen and The Munga
The 5th edition of the Munga, billed as the toughest mountain bike race in the world, is currently snaking its way across the blistering Karoo.
Some 149 riders – 11 women, 138 men, local and foreign – left Bloemfontein at noon, Wednesday 27 November, to tackle a 1076km route across some of the harshest, drought-wracked landscape in South Africa. The toughness of the Munga comes not from the climbing – there is only about 7 000m ascent over the entire distance – but in the conditions, and in the self-supported nature of the event; there are five Race Villages, in Vanderkloofdam, Britstown, Loxton, Sutherland and Ceres, and ten basic water stations before the riders finish in Wellington. That sounds like a lot, but with no climbs, you get no downhills – not a free meter in sight – and if the wind blows (which it always does, and from the front), tired legs and sleepy minds can turn a routine 50km trundle between water points into a four, five, six-hour survival test.
Sleep is the biggest enemy. Even in 45-degree-plus conditions, it is the monsters of the night that play havoc with riders’ energy levels and mental faculties. The founder of the Munga, Alex Harris, has crafted a perfect nightmare, in making the cutoff for the event just five days. This means that for the mortals (we will get back to the nutcases at the front in a moment), one good night’s sleep, maybe six hours, will put them in flirting distance of the cutoff times at each Race Village. The Munga quickly becomes a game of ten-minute power-naps and entertaining hallucinations.
The 2019 Munga saw three of the four previous winners set off in the 37-degree Bloemfontein heat; John Ntuli (2015), Marco Martin (2017) and defending champ Ramses Bekkenk were joined by Munga regular, and South African ultra-endurance legend Kevin Benkenstein, and as the temperature rose, so did the early pace. Catastrophically for Bekkenk, who withdrew just after sunset on day one, cramping in places he didn’t know he could, in spite of downing 15 bottles of fluid in the first five hours.
He and Benkenstein had gambled, and there was only one winner. As I write this, the field is 17 hours into the 2019 Munga, and Benkie still holds a slender lead over a charging Martin, with 600km covered. Now, the game of who will blink first starts – sleep calls, but you can’t if your foe keeps riding. He can’t take the risk, either. But, if you don’t, the fresher riders just an hour or two behind will close up, and fast. (Bicycling Top Tip: keep an eye on Mike Woolnough, arguably the wisest head in the race and ready to convert multiple top finishes in the big one should the tactics fail up front).
The best of the rest are currently 30 and more kilometers astern… but that means nothing in this race, where the fine line between on-point and overcooked becomes indiscernible and the weatherman has predicted 31-degree temperatures on the route at midnight tonight, so not even the ride-when-it’s-cool strategists will be happy. 23 starters didn’t make it through the first night – a healthy mix of seasoned Mungrels and eager novices – and more will likely call it quits before Monday’s cut-off.
There is no shame in scratching from this event; just starting the Munga is an achievement, given the preparation and training required. That Mothers’ Nature and Luck sometimes conspire, is unavoidable. That the human spirit can overcome their conspiracy, is fascinating, and behind the scenes at the Munga is an entire sub-culture called the Dot Watchers. These are the rest of us, not brave enough to tackle this crazy event, who live vicariously through the Benkies of this world, watching their trackers through the night, wondering and worrying as an ever-diminishing band of adventurers tackle purgatory.
WATCH THE MUNGA Consumer warning: this live tracking is addictive