Words and photos by Erik Vermeulen (@erikmvermeulen)
Buoyed by the record-setting performances for riders in the 2019 edition of The Munga, a 1,070km non-stop mountain bike race from Bloemfontein to Doolhof Wine Estate in Wellington, 150 riders set off at noon on Wednesday, November 27th. In its fifth year, this record field proved that the Munga offers a compelling, albeit tough, riding challenge to participants of all skill levels.
While the route remains constant year to year, the weather and road conditions are a mystery every year, and riders’ obsessions with weather reports consume almost unheard of amounts of data in the week leading up to the race. And rightly so, because 2019 produced the hottest race in the event’s history. Riders set off in temperatures that confined the region’s sheep to huddling under shrubs and trees, causing a heavy toll on the field. Only 83 finisher’s medals were awarded this year, and one of the first casualties was defending champion and record holder Ramses Bekkenk, who pulled the plug after suffering dehydration and heatstroke late on the first afternoon.
Behind him, WP1 and the police station at Steunmekaar resembled an army field hospital, with riders strewn over lush lawns attempting to recover from the heat and dehydration. It was evident that a record wouldn’t be on the cards this year, and that self-preservation would be a higher priority than racing. The winner would be the rider who best managed the conditions. Even race director Alex Harris was heard saying that the best strategy off the start line would have been to go back to the hotel pool for three hours, then set off late in the afternoon!
As it turned out, two riders best managed the challenging conditions and separated themselves from the rest of the field, with 2017 winner Marco Martins managing to overcome initial difficulties to settle into third position on the road. It meant that Thinus Redelinghuys and Kevin Benkenstein left Tankwa Padstal (WP10) together with about 100km of racing left. Kevin gapped his rival as they headed down towards the tough gravel climb of Ou Swaarmoed, with Kevin in the lead by himself. But by the time RV5 loomed in Ceres, Thinus had yet again closed the gap.
It was here that the riders called a truce, realizing that if 1030km of racing could not separate them, the last 40km on tar would most likely not break the tether either. They rode together like old friends on a coffee ride to cross the finish at Doolhof together in 58hours 46mins. Kevin said at the finish, “Once we reached RV5 together we realized that friendship is more important than the win.”
Since the race’s inception, it has catered for Development Riders in equal measure, allowing previously disadvantaged riders an opportunity to possibly change their lives. Sithembiso Masango recorded his fourth consecutive win in this category. Proof of the importance of this category lies in the fact that his winnings over the previous years have allowed him to buy a car and build his family a house. But through the race’s relationship with BitStamp, all racers’ prize money in Bitcoin means that their prize has exciting potential for growth. The inaugural Munga champ John Ntuli, also racing the colours of FNB Change a Life, finished second behind Sithembiso, with Daniel Alikisente in third.
The women’s race was led by defending champion Janine Stewart until she scratched with numb, cramping hands. After her win with a broken vertebra in 2018, she was the definite favourite this year, and her withdrawal left the door open for Namibian rider Anri Parker to hold off Elaine Beytel for a win. Munga veteran Nicky Booyens claimed her first podium, making her the proud owner of 7 Munga medals: 4 in the MTB event and 3 in the Trail Run. No-one has more Munga Medals!
The heatwave conditions, fierce racing at the front of the field, and inexperience to manage the balance between exertion and the environmental condition meant that this edition of the race had the highest attrition rate of all five events – with 68 riders scratching or not reaching Doolhof inside the 120 hour time limit. Only 82 medals were awarded, the last one being to Psychologist Danie Hoffman.
The Munga 2020 registration is already open, and next year’s event is scheduled for December 2nd, 2020. Head over to the event listing to learn more.
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