The Munga starts today. For those that don’t know what The Munga is, it’s a bicycle race that has a small field with big ambition. They will race as non-stop as they can over more than 1000km from Bloemfontein in the Free State, to Wellington in the Western Cape. They have 120 hours (five days) in which to complete the event, which is brutal.
By Sean Badenhorst
Photos: Erik Vermeulen
Brutal because it it’s so damn hot (37 deg C in Bloem yesterday). Brutal because they ride through the Karoo, an inhospitable semi-desert where the air is even drier than the ground. Brutal because they ride on gravel roads with kilometres and kilometres of corrugations. Brutal because the prevailing wind for much of the route is a headwind. Brutal because very few can actually relate to the enormity of the challenge, so it’s a lonely quest…
There are five support stations where riders can eat, drink, sleep and check in (via phone) with their loved ones. But it’s an unsupported race where you either use what you are carrying or try to make a plan…
Neither of last year’s winners are back on the start line. John Ntuli and Amy Beth McDougall will be watching the online rider tracker with interest though. They’ll know what the riders are going through when they go off course, but aren’t aware of it and have to double back to the route (it’s a self-navigation event, but GPS units aren’t allowed). They’ll know what it’s like to want to sleep under a tree in the heat of the day and push on through the cool of the night. They’ll know that the climbing only really starts after 720km.
Last year, Chris van Zyl led until halfway and then withdrew. He’s back this year, no doubt better prepared and wearing his unfinished-business attitude… But he’ll know that there are some high quality riders he’s up against in the quest to win what the organisers have called ‘The Toughest Race on Earth’.
Kevin Benkenstein, a former full-time road racer and semi-professional smiler (see his Instagram account @kevinbenky) must be one of the favourites. The Specialized South Africa employee is widely known for his Everesting projects, where he spends one ride (around 300km long) climbing an accumulated height of Mount Everest to raise awareness and funds for the Qhubeka bicycle enrichment initiative.
Benkenstein’s only weakness is that he’s a Munga novice. But many may argue that’s not necessarily a weakness. Benkenstein told us last night that his approach will be a cautious one.
“I have a pacing strategy for while I ride, but I’m trying to keen an open mind regarding sleep. I don’t want to be dragged into any ‘racing’ early on and will try keep that early pace easy – for the first 800km if I can. I believe being able to push later in the ride will be more beneficial than the early efforts,” said Benkenstein.
“Sleep-wise, you never know how your body will react and if I feel the need to sleep on Night 1 I will. I think you have to respect The Munga enough to know that it is boss, not you. But I will still try and do my best time possible and discover a limit or two along the way,” he smiled.
The women’s race favourite is also a Munga novice. Jeannie Dreyer’s reputation precedes her. She and husband Martin Dreyer used the 2013 Freedom Challenge, a 2300km non-stop mountain bike race across South Africa, as their honeymoon. Jeannie broke the women’s record by four days in the process.
But the honeymoon is long over and Dreyer, a mother of two, races mountain bikes as full time as motherhood allows. She’s known for her strong mind and will no doubt have followed her husband’s preparation advice and race strategy.
The Dreyers run the Change-a-Life Academy, a sports development initiative that gives rural youngsters opportunities and support to train properly and compete in a number of regional and national events. Ntuli, the 2015 Munga winner, crossed the finish line in his Change-a-Life branded jersey last year, confirming – again – that it’s one of the most successful sports development initiatives anywhere in the world.
But while Benkenstein and Dreyer are standouts on the start list, they still have to conquer the route, the conditions and their rivals. Last year, Grant Usher seemed certain to take the win, but fell victim to a stomach bug that forced him to stop and rest near the end, allowing Ntuli to claim the title.
The Munga is organised by Alex Harris, an extreme adventurer and keen ultra-distance mountain bike racer. He’s managed to secure a number of sponsors http://themunga.com/who-is-behind-it for what truly is one of the world’s toughest endurance tests, including eXtract Group and MCC Contract Mining & Services, the title sponsors.
The official distance is 1084km with an accumulated 6 500 metres of vertical ascent. The men’s record is 69 hours 10 minutes and the women’s record is 83 hours 56 minutes.
There are 85 starters, double the number from 2015. They’ll begin their quest at noon. Each rider will carry a tracking unit and you can keep track of the race in real time at http://trackleaders.com/munga16. For regular updates, follow @TheMungaMTB on twitter.
The Munga 2016 start list:
Freek van Tonder
Chris van Zyl
George van Maanen
Piet van der Linde
Pierre de Jager
Garth De Jager
Henning Janse van Rensburg
Pieter van Hoogdalem
Christo van den Heever
Jerrard Le Roux
Pieter Marius Blomerus
John de Bruyn
Siska van der Bijl