It goes by the name, The Munga. It is a single-stage, 1000km mountain bike race across South Africa in the middle of summer. Temperatures can reach 50 °C, there will be wind, there will be wildlife and hallucinations are guaranteed. The event is wildly unreasonable and illogical. This is Bryan’s story:
“1683. That’s the number sitting in a red circle next to the envelope icon on my phone.
1684. I open the email app and scroll. Todos, reminders, alerts and spam. It doesn’t matter that it’s 02:33 AM on a Sunday morning, the admin of living in a civilized world is an insomniac. I sometimes wonder what happens to all this communication when I die. Will my Nigerian uncle still want to keep sending me $4,000,000? Will my neighbourhood Whatsapp group still send me messages about yet another lost dog? Life, as I have come to engage with it, is noisy.
What if there was a time, a place, a space so still, so quiet, that all of life suspended. That you could behold Blake’s visionary eternity in the palm of your hand, without distraction, for longer than just a glimmer? What if there was a realm where mystical experiences were first-class citizens and the dimensions of time and space were magnificently twisted into an unforgettable experience that breathes life? It turns out that the realm is a 1080 km trail of uncivilized groad, track and disheveled 4×4 path between Bloemfontein and Wellington. It responds to the name, The Munga. And you can only get there by bicycle.
Legend has it that The Munga was one of Hercules’ 13 (sic) tasks and the riddle can only be answered by riding into the Karoo constellations after being beaten all day, relentlessly by unfathomably hot dust. To get to the point where I could stand before the Sphinx took some intentional long term planning, accounting for the many unknowable curve-balls that got thrown in, and fueling that was the simple idea that I really wanted to be there. The desire to escape the noise and seek the unknowable was greater than the desire to sleep in on weekends; greater than the desire to Netflix and chill and go to bed late; greater than the desire to work more hours in the name of Busy; greater than the desire to carry on with life as normal, same as last year. But planning a full year’s training without a crystal ball?
Training data, like todos and emails, can blow away hours of life; hours better spent swimming with the kids on a summer’s day instead of poring over heart rate 45 seconds into the 6th interval of a workout compared with a similar one, two weeks ago. Am I improving? Well, is the relationship with my family also improving? If I gain an improvement of 2 points on my VO2 max but lose contact with my son, have I gained anything at all? No, I didn’t want to spend more time “away” so I focused on a set of guidelines. They’re rooted in science, mixed in with experience and peppered with some practical consideration. It has worked for me for a number of years, only with Munga it became more bicycle-oriented.
Make sure 80% of the training is spent in Zone 2. No seriously, for real, Zone 2. My average training speed across all my Munga rides was ~21km/h and 85% was spent in Zone 2. Practically, keeping tabs on that was simple. When I finished a ride, I glanced at the summary stats and made sure +80% was spent in zone 2. If it wasn’t, I made a mental note to ride the hills easier next time. Training analysis done. That also meant that if there was a group ride and they started charging, I just let them ride away. Simple, right? I wanted to be on the Munga more than a 5-year-old wants to be at a Christmas party, so some brief moments of glory weren’t worth risking that.
Be efficient in the setup and tear down of each training session. If I had a 2-hour window to get a ride in, I would make sure that 1 hour 45 minutes was spent pedaling. Practically, that meant avoiding roads with lots of stops and pauses. Thankfully, the Weskus is a Bleskus when it comes to continuous pedaling. Also, no coffee stops mid-ride.
An indoor session is arguably the most efficient way to squeeze a ride in but at the beginning of pulling The Munga trigger, I made a personal decision to not ride a single indoor session. I just didn’t want to. So I didn’t. For me, this journey was about being outside as much as possible so not a single Watt bike was harmed. Even in winter. By consistently aiming high at 4 rides or 300km per week, 1250 km per month (but happy to not always hit that goal and sometimes exceed it) I ended up with just over 10,000km of preparation inside of 10 months. Also, the organized Mini-Munga rides are a must-do.
Ignore the weather, except for muddy rain because that just wreaks havoc on your bike budget and the gnomes don’t appreciate trails getting wrecked. Wind? Get used to it because there is lots of it in The Tankwa. Even the sideways kind. Get used to the dark too. I remember my first-midnight training ride and after finishing it I couldn’t sleep for two hours because my senses were on fire. The buzz from following the light and GPS glow was dizzying, coupled with the wind in my ears which was deafening and it had been years since my last trance party so this was all new again.
Only burn every 10th ride or so if I was feeling invincible. It’s good for the training effect plus it’s a ton of fun. Racing your favourite loop, breaking Strava records, charging like a happy grom on a BMX, dropping TT bikes, feeling your raw fitness and power come through; there’s nothing quite like it. But don’t get addicted and do that too often (or for too long). As with all other rides, if I wasn’t feeling it, I just wouldn’t ride. Especially those hard ones. I did turn around on one or two rides after 20 minutes and just “go home to a cup of tea”. Best session ever.
My main training objective was to get to the start line happy, rested, conditioned, with my family totally un-frazzled and as excited to be there as I was. That meant that those unknowable and un-plannable life stresses were continuously factored in and sometimes sleeping an extra hour that day was way more beneficial than trying to squeeze in an extra 20km on the bike. In the long run, I knew that steady consistency would pay off exponentially rather than trying to chase goals at the risk of burnout, not just on the bike, but in life too.
Other than riding, the war stories and some limited experience told me that if anything was going to fail, it would be my wrists, hands, neck or mind. There was very little chance of the legs or heart failing. Not at a very safe Zone 2 and not after 11 months of steady riding. Oh, and my butt. That was the other Achilles heel. To combat joint fatigue, I spent about 3 hours per week shunting kettlebells and heavy objects around. Nothing too complicated, just a fun, sweaty 5×5 routine that took about 45–60 minutes to keep the hands and neck strong. It also helped with the variation of scenery and the endorphins.
For the mind, I used a basic mindfulness practice visualizing being out in the middle of the Karoo amidst relentless conditions, smiling and thriving. I would do that in winter out in the pool watching the last of the stars at sunrise. Other times, I would visualize during a ride, imagining that I wasn’t on the Weskus or the Drakenstein but in the Tankwa and tried to feel it. I can tell you my heart rate spiked during those moments I got so excited! The result of all this training helped me finish on a rigid gravel bike with little more than a sore butt and a slightly tingly pinky on the right hand. Wait, what? Rigid bike!
Weapon of Choice
On some of the group rides; my life choices were questioned with genuine concern. I got away with it by half-jesting “It’s my first rodeo so I’m allowed to make silly choices”. I also questioned my choices in the beginning.
When I started the Munga journey, I knew I needed a comfortable ride more than a fast one and my wife also wanted to spend some time riding with me, to catch up on some hangout time. These rides would eventually become one of my favourite events in the diary with regular date rides taking us to places all over the Cape (and country), but she needed a decent ride too. So we test rode a couple of different bicycles until one day, Kevin Benkenstein of BenkyRides.com dropped off a pair of GXRs for us to try on a long weekend.
He probably knew better than we did at the time that he would never see them again. The rest is history but even after that, I still wasn’t absolutely convinced this was my Munga solution. This was my date ride, my ride everywhere bicycle, my experience machine, the bike that made me feel like my 8-year-old self exploring the big wide wonderful world without any rules. After 3 months of groading on the GXR, I messaged Kevin and said: “I think this is my Munga bike”. He replied with something like: “Stop flirting and just do it”. When it got through TransBaviaans, the deal was sealed. Kevin of Ti, in full party mode, was my donkey of choice.
Titanium frame, carbon fork, 650b wheels and a Shimano Ultegra groupset with Easton EA70AX accessories. Kevin delivered it with Maxxis Ikon 27.5×2.25 tyres which lasted ~5000km of mixed surface riding with one front-and-back swop. So for the race itself, I just put on a new chain and a set of the same boots. Not one puncture nor mechanical, even after Munga over 8000km later. I serviced the bike myself, kept it clean and it’s everything I ever wanted in a bicycle: no fuss and it just wants to ride and not just on gravel. Kevin of Ti was all over those Tygerberg MTB trails like the wild and happy donkey it is.
The Mystical Pilgrim
It’s tricky to adequately capture in words or pictures, the ride in such a way that it will mean something to anyone who wasn’t there. The rational brain struggles with feeling yet all the while, even a month after the ride, there is still so much processing going on. Unsurprisingly, in hindsight, the start line for The Munga is marked “THE END” (of your life as you know it) and the finish line is marked “THE START” (of the rest of your life). Seeing the start line for the first time, I thought it was just clever marketing, I didn’t see it as prophetic. I also heard about The Munga being “a condensed version of your life” and once again, thought it was just a nice way to re-frame the concept of “tough”. I realize now just how authentic all the words behind The Munga really are. I guess I’ve become a little numb, thanks to all the motivational meme posters that have appropriated philosophic content that was, in it’s time, captured so eloquently and there are only so many ways you can say some things.
I was going on 36 hours of riding with only 34 minutes of napping. Earlier that evening, I left Britstown, headed into the dark, blustery night. The road was gloriously abandoned with potholes (although not quite the same dimensions as the Aardvark holes near Van der Kloof), sand, rock gardens, sandy rock gardens and multiple forks in the road so slight, that Garmin had a hard time choosing between the splits. As I granny-geared up the climb, I noticed some agitated scorpions. Little guys but feisty, attacking the wheel and then scurrying away. This continued for a while until 3AM.
The sky turned black with rain clouds and all the stars disappeared. My lights danced over rocks and bush as I bobbed and weaved flashing up half a trail every other moment. In the distance, the black night sporadically threw up frozen lightning dances. Parts of abandoned buildings would briefly illuminate in the drunk headlight. Below, to my horror, the rocks were suddenly teeming with hundreds of scorpions. I zigzagged madly, trying to avoid them but ended up crushing tens of tiny bodies under my wheels. The lightning dances started pulsating rhythmically as the weather-torn buildings flashed by. I looked to the side of the trail and there was my youngest daughter, in a bright red dress and running shoes, giggling. She looked at me and shouted: “I’ll race you. On your marks. Get set. Go!” Off she ran laughing until I caught up with her. “I’ll race you. On your marks. Get set. Go!” We were stuck in a time-loop racing each other through lightning dances and frenzied scorpions. My next vivid memory was the sky dawning so I could switch off my headlight and find a rock for a pillow, with no scorpions, and crash to sleep.
Hallucinations are real and so is the wind. The Tankwa is a place for legends to be born and it’s one of those sections of groad you simply must ride to feel for yourself. And then let’s not forget the heat. We had it pretty special this year with the second day seeing 50 degrees Celcius, and we thought day one was special at 48. The hospitality was lavish. I still miss the people at the water points and the race villages where we ate, drank and sometimes slept. Best moerkoffie ever. Best burger ever. Best chocolate milkshake ever. Best mattress ever! The memories remain clear. The journey has found its way into the deepest part of my spirit and dwells there, offering up flashbacks at different times during the day and night, reminding me of infinity and what everything means.
Of course, I had no idea of any of this before I started. All I knew was that I wanted to be there, that I loved riding a bicycle and that I adored the Karoo. It was the birthplace of that young man starting his journey into manhood many moons ago. The scratch of the scrub has not lost its charm and civilization has not stolen that young man’s heart. Being back on that trail was like sitting with the father I love, listening to the story of time unfold.
If The Munga calls you and you respond, go; just go and love the ride for all it has to offer. Make sure your bike has space for water; 4 litres of it. I chose to carry water on the bike, not a Camelbak. This was a personal preference. I saw many a happy rider with water on their backs. Whichever you go for, experiment with keeping water cold in 40-degree weather for longer than 15 minutes. Try thermos, try wrapping it up, try something, try everything. Fat tires make the world a lot smoother. 2.25 was perfect for me. I don’t think I would want to go any skinnier than that. A small bike bag under the saddle for a spare jacket, an electrical kit, medical kit and some odds and ends worked beautifully. You don’t need much. Even for 4 days on the bike, there is time to wash a bib and dry it out while you sleep. The heat and wind do their magic.
Beyond that; tri-bars, dual suspension, spring-loaded seat posts, saddles, road cleats, gravel bars and any other modification will work for you as long as you have trialed, tested and dialed that in at least 2 months before the start of the race. Keep in mind that in your last two months the time on your bike dwindles so if you dial in big changes, do that before October. One small extra I did that made life very comfortable, was wrapping parts of a pool noodle over the handlebars. The extra bar width allowed me to stretch my hands out, stopped me from death gripping and absorbed the vibration nicely. The rest I tried to keep as simple as possible, but no simpler.
Lastly, the one question I always get asked is: Would I do it again? Absolutely!” – Bryan // @bryanallott