- It’s one of the world’s most brutal races: 1000km with minimal sleep.
- Munga riders go to some very dark places of the mind, as they battle winds in the Karoo.
- The winner managed his astonishing ride on only a single power nap.
The South African mountain biking psyche is competitive, and no event encapsulates the ability to suffer through isolation, quite like the Munga.
It routes from Bloemfontein to Wellington and although your elementary geography would identify that route as being mostly downhill, it ranks a brutal endeavour, by any measure.
Alex Harris is the event organiser. An experienced climber, extreme adventure racer and explorer, Harris wished to create a uniquely South African endurance cycling challenge, through the Karoo. Since 2015 he has been routing South Africa’s hardiest mountain bikers through 1000km of unforgiving gravel riding.
The Munga is deceptively simple in principle: riders have five days to get from Bloemfontein to Doolhof farm, in the Bainskloof. And none of that 1000km route includes the fast-rolling N1’s tarred surface.
Very little sleep - or help from others
With the benefit of a plotted GPS route and the latest navigational bike computer guidance, it all sounds deceptively unassuming, but nobody can prepare riders for the misery of those Karoo headwinds. Or being alone, at 02:00, on a corrugated gravel road climb, without energy or motivation.
Although the Munga is a test of the self for most of the riders, some race it with intent. Sleep is minimal, with riders often power napping at the five mandatory checkpoints along the route. The longer you sleep, the more unlikely your Munga is to continue.
The Munga rules are strict. Riders must finish the race with the same bicycle frame. If your frame cracks, you had better be a genius with cable ties and insulation tape, because nobody can borrow you another frame to finish with. All other components can be replaced during the race, if they fail.
Despite being a solo race, similarly paced riders do form groups, but they must adhere to strict drafting rules. As such, riders who are travelling inline stay 5m apart to prevent anyone from enjoying an aerodynamic advantage.
If you run low on energy or motivation in the dark, somewhere in the Karoo, nobody is allowed to tow you. Those who suffer a huge mechanical failure, are allowed to cross the finish line carrying their bike, but it must have both wheels still attached.
Superhuman ride for the win
The 2020 Munga was won by Hansie Joubert, who rode the testing 1000km from Bloemfontein to Wellington in only 56h:50m. What makes his achievement even more remarkable, is that he did that with only 20 minutes of sleep.
Hansie rode a 29er hardtail mountain bike, equipped with a unique fork. To save weight, whilst retaining some suspension function on those badly corrugated Karoo gravel roads, Hansie opted for an Icelandic Lauf fork.
These carbon-fibre mountain bike forks don’t have a traditional air spring or damper, but use glass fibre leaf springs to absorb the terrain you are riding over.
The Lauf fork is light and perfect at smoothing over corrugated surfaces and preventing numbness of the hands – which is a very real issue when you are riding for nearly three days, nonstop, on South African gravel roads.
Some of the Munga’s most inspiring stories are those riders finish toward the back of the pack, on Monday morning, long after the likes of Hansie Joubert had slept and recovered. They suffer through nearly five days and nights of the Karoo’s windiness, absence of shade and unforgiving loneliness.