The Munga is a 1,153 km, single-stage, semi-supported, gravel mountain bike race through the remote Karoo. Riders have 120 hours or five days to ride the distance, and the race takes place in the South African summer, so temperatures are boiling. There is also close to 6,500 metres of climbing just to drive the nail a little further. The race has been my end-of-year goal for the past five years, and with a stellar field entered, I took a late entry for this year’s event. Entering only two weeks before a race is a risky move, but I have enjoyed riding and felt in good shape, so why not. Also, having only two weeks to fret over everything seems to have been good, less time to overthink.
My strategy was simple: ride kind of hard for 600 km; sleep; ride kind of hard and catch everyone again and win. I always remember Jesse Carlsson saying you just have to ride 300 km a day, and you will win Race to the Rock, and I figured the same applied here: Ride 20 kph with stops, and you will probably win.
Before the race was always a seemingly endless array of non-issues, so I tried to keep things simple. I packed my bike the same as I would for a 500 km solo ride: Lots of food, plenty of water, essential spares, and enough clothes that I would not be cold at 4 am on the second morning when the temperature was expected to be 3 degrees. My race plan was to try and just ride on feel; treat it as I would a solo ride because, after the first 225 km, that is what it is; and most of all, enjoy myself along the way.
The race started with a big group of riders sticking together through the early gravel roads before the sketchy farm tracks punctuated the first 50 km. When we got close to the dodgy bits, I hit the front, taking some wind but keeping myself and my bike safe. This seemed to draw out the field a bit, and it dwindled slowly from a group of fifty to twelve when we reached the first water point at 60 km. Soon after, a few cross-wind accelerations left us as six upfront around 80 km in, which was how it would stay for the next 90 km. Eventually, the toll of racing in 40-degree temperatures was paid for two more riders, and then we were four up front as the night came, and we hit the first race village around 225 km in. I made marginally quicker work of that stop than last year’s winner Hansie Joubert and left around 30 seconds earlier, allowing me to pull us both out to a healthy lead in the next 30km. Hansie is an absolute beast, and I wanted to be riding around him for the stretch to the next race village at 400 km. However, I knew we would keep each other honest. We had managed to pull a near 15 minute lead, and rode into day two feeling confident that we had made the race ours to lose.
The tactics began, the weird half-wheeling type of tactics that only a really long bike race can create. At every opportunity I tried to be in front, we always kept at least 10m between us as this is a no-draft race, giving me the freedom to ride my pace, pick my lines and try to keep Hansie riding my race and not the other way around. He rode me into the ground last year, and I did not feel like that was happening again. Just before the next water point, I was able to get a small gap, getting there just ahead of him. Again, with a quick stop, I left with 3 or 4 minutes lead, which I knew he would work hard to chase back. I didn’t want that lead to stick, but I wanted him to spend the energy as it would all add up later on. We reached the next WP together again, and again I left early, maybe two minutes before him. This time I worked harder, pushed on the pedals, and kept myself at my talking limit. It was the heat of the day, but this is what I came for, and it was time to get into Hansie’s head and see if I could crack him a little. 20 km before the next race village, I still only had 3 minutes on him, but it was about to get scratchy as we rode a 13km single track section through tough Karoo vegetation that would cost you broken skin if you veered even slightly off the track. My lead had grown to 8 minutes at the RV, but it was my planned time to sleep. Hansie kept going.
After 2.5 hours of stopped time, which included about 1 hour of broken sleep, I moved on. My lungs had taken a beating in the wind, so much dust, so I had spent a bit of the downtime coughing up some Karoo, but when I left, I was ready to go. “Go win now.” Ingrid, the race village lead, told me. “I plan to.” I told her.
It was now a time trial between us, albeit a slow one. Hansie was still in the lead, Brian Brummer was about 30 minutes behind him, I was about an hour further back, and Dean Hopf was about an hour behind me when he left the race villiage; four racers were ready to empty their tanks. I held a steady pace to the following water point, where I learned that Hansie had taken a 30-minute nap and Brian was ‘flying’ to catch him. A short but good stop, including a quick chat with the Farmer Oom Dirk, who I have now known for five years and had to take the time to tell how happy seeing the green Karoo made me (his young son had never seen a flower on their farm until this year), refreshed me and I was off. Good old Coca-Cola does wonders for one’s motivation, doesn’t it?
The next stretch was a split: 50 km of gradually climbing corrugated district roads and then 35 km of XC style riding through farms and riverbeds. I had been determined that this would make my race; in past years it had broken it. So I set off, holding good speed and with legs that felt ready to roll. I was smooth through the rough stuff, feeling the flow and just letting my bike do its thing. It was getting cold too, but the 4 kgs of clothes I had carried for 700 km were doing their job, and I felt positively toasty. I hit the final short stretch of bumpy district road to the water point happy, confident that I had gotten closer to the other racers.
I was right: Hansie was now asleep, Brian just 30 minutes ahead of me, and I was still feeling strong. So a quick feed, some more Coke, and I was off. Time to shine; I could hear my friend Matt say in my head again and again.
The next stretch was climbing. We had a cross-tailwind blowing for the first time, and I took advantage of it. The night was coming to an end, but my sleep the previous day had done enough to keep the sleep monsters at bay. I felt I was flying (relatively), and when I arrived at the race village to see that Brian had barely been there and was trying to sleep on the couch, I knew it was my race to lose.
I was racing to win, not for time, and with Brian taking a nap and the following riders both asleep 60 km behind us, I took the chance for a final recharge of 30 minutes on the couch after having inhaled some food. Brian and I left the race village together, probably with the same idea. The first 6 km stretch of the last day, to the following water point, was up and down and had the Ouberg Pass descent, where I knew that my rigid bike was a disadvantage before a final 20 km mostly downhill district road stretch. After some shadow boxing, we reached Ouberg together, and then Brian pulled a 3-minute gap down Ouberg, which I closed before the water point. Phew. Some more food and ginger Rooibos to settle my tummy, and we were off again. I told Brian before we left that I was proud to race him and that if he beat me, he deserved it, and I would be happy for him. I meant it too, but it was racing time now, and I believed it was my turn to win this thing.
The following section was a new part of the route, and as it turned out, suited my riding style. It was 10 km or so of short rollers that came first. After two or three, I saw my opportunity: roll hard over the top and get good speed (yay for not a bouncy bike!) and then hold that over the next climb, repeat five times. Suddenly I had a minute, time to push on the pedals. A long drag came, as straight as a ruler too. I looked back at the end and couldn’t see Brian. I had 5 minutes, and it was time to seal this. I watched my speed and kept my average at around 24 kph. I know my body, and that just seemed at about the limit of what was sustainable. If Brian could ride faster, then good for him, and I would shake his hand and say, well done. Thankfully he couldn’t, and I reached the next water point at 180 km to go with a 30-minute lead. A few sandwiches and Coke later, I was out the door, crucially before Brian arrived.
The next stretch was the infamous R355, a dead straight broken gravel road with barely a line to speak of. It is a brutal 45 km stretch and invariably has a headwind. This time was no different. I kept on the pedals and did my best to maintain a steady effort. At the end of that road is a horrid 3 km climb at 10%+, a real leg breaker. I crawled up it, grateful that at the top, a trail fairy was waiting for us all with some Coke. It is amazing how slow you can climb after 1,000 km!
The following 40km was a grind, mentally frustrating as you can always see the next town, and it never gets closer. Finally, I reached the race village to news that my lead had stretched to an hour or a little more. Finally, I felt like I was going to win. A quick few sandwiches, more Coke, water, and I was off. A roaring tailwind pushed me to Tulbagh as dot watchers started appearing to offer their congratulations. The gees grew.
The route turned 180-degrees, and that gees did too. Urgh, 50 km of headwind to finish? So unfair. The grind continued slowly.
What seemed like a lifetime passed in the headwind, but the last 5 km finally came. Then, finally, I could relax, think, soft-pedal even.
As I reached the finish at Doolhof, the realisation that I had won the bloody thing came. A scream, a yelp even, some fist-pumping. I did it. Friends, fellow riders, and the family were at the finish for me. My Mom-in-law had Mikayla, my wife, on video call for me. “We did it!” I told her. We did it, and she is every bit as part of the victory as I am. Supporter, adviser and enabler.
It feels silly to be so happy to win a bike race, and they don’t matter much in the grand scheme of things. But it’s not the winning that matters. For years we all work quietly, refining our riding and racing skills, learning about ourselves, our bodies, minds, strengths, and weaknesses. There are few times in life that we pull it all together, that we are for a moment the best version of our bike-rider selves. So rarely do things go smoothly, and we make no mistakes. So rarely does opportunity and form align. On the bike, I live to be the very best I can be, to find the magical meeting point of happiness and form where I can indeed be my best. For the first time, I am happy, motivated, solid, relaxed, and comfortable with just doing my best and letting the rest be what it is. I knew I would have no excuses if I lost, none of the dreaded ‘but’ to type. The moment of me being my best coincided with me winning is excellent. However, this journey made me reach a point where winning resulted from many more important things.
I am genuinely proud and happy to be becoming who I can be on a bike finally, and now I want more of it.
Buff x 2
Gore Rain jacket (not used)
Quick link x 2
Head stem bolts
Seat clamp bolt
Spare valve stem
Spare cleat bolts
Multi tool - with chain breaker
Tyre levers (x2)
Valve core remover
30 x Bars
10 x Gels (5 with Caffeine)
4 litres of water capacity at a time