Thursday, 6 December 2018

The Munga 2018 - The race that’s almost great.

I've promoted The Munga since competing in the inaugural race in 2015 and I still believe that it's a race that's worth doing if you want to expand your riding boundaries. It's a hard race that rewards you with a deep sense of achievement. 

I didn't finish this year, pulling up short 140km shy of the finish but it was the best and most rewarding of the four Munga races that I've entered. It was tough but tough is what we came to do battle with. It is a race that should be on everyone's bucket list. 

I had fun mixing it up with proper race snakes but there was some weird stuff going on (again) this year. This blog isn't intended to be a whinge but rather to ventilate some of the issues that need attention. 

The first obvious issue is that of drafting. It's a term used to describe someone riding behind another cyclist. In road cycling the power saving approaches 30%. In mountain biking the effect of being pulled along in the wake of the bike ahead is far lower because it's impractical to sit that close to the rider in front of you not to mention the reduced speed across imperfect surfaces. But there is huge benefit in sheltering from a headwind. 

The Munga rules per the website are as follows: 


  1. Drafting of a competitor is only allowed up to the first Race station.
  2. Drafting is defined as a position five meters or closer behind another rider.

That looks clear. Allowing drafting up to the first Race station (RV1 - Vanderkloof 220km) gives the field time to shake out. Except, at race briefing, no sooner had the race commissaire mentioned that he was going to keep an eye on drafting the Race Director immediately contradicted him by stating that if you chose to draft after RV1 you would simply be ineligible for prize money. In one simple sentence he took one of the iconic rewards of the race and devalued it. 

It appears the Race Director was focussed of the winners cheques and didn't appreciate the greater reward  of a rider holding a medal with their personalised finishers number cast in iron. The Race Director missed the point that riders attach great prestige to finishing in the top XX of the race, be it 10, 20, 50 or 100.  

I've spoken to a midfield rider who was frustrated by a group of riders who rode past him in tight formation. They settled down ahead of him for a good nights sleep. He cut his sleep short and left ahead of them only to have them power past him the next day. Did the guys in the bunch cheat? No, they had been given the mandate to draft if they weren't going to finish in the top 3. The lone rider chose to embrace the rules and spirit of the race. Even if he had chosen to join the bunch as they went past he didn't have the power to do so as he hadn't had the advantage of resting up in the bunch. 

The drafting rules as they appear on the website are clear and practical and I am baffled that the Race Director chose to mess with it again this year. I have sympathy for those not racing at the sharp end of the race but the upshot of the rule relaxation is that even top 10 riders took advantage of it much to the frustration of their competitors. This was from another rider:

"We had someone in our group while on the road to Britstown stating aloud to all of us that he was going to draft us for the rest of the event, knowing the only penalty would be no prize money (that's a 20 to 30% energy saving). He drafted my wheel for around 700km's (not exaggerating there!) all within the gambit of the rules, still receiving his finishers medal at the end. No transgression of the rules but I do feel sorry for the 11th placed finisher who missed out on a top 10. If it was me I wouldn't be happy."

Drafting like that wasn't cheating as it was enabled through a thoughtless change to the rules. 

Surely it's not that difficult to simply state, "All the rules apply to all the riders all the time."

I saw other stuff that clearly violated the spirit of an unsupported race which would fall within the definition of gaining an unfair advantage except for poorly worded rules, bad communication or an unwillingness to upset people and sponsors. The cracks in the rules are gaping and the grey "run off areas" painted wide. 

Here's a good example. This from communication I received from the Race Director:

"There is no rule that specifically states family, friends or random public may not be at the waterpoints. While rule 19:14 states that: Riders may receive emotional and psychological support in the form of encouragement from friends and family in these towns, in the five Race stations and at pre-designated areas on the route only..   it is natural for these people and riders to believe that Waterpoints are some of these pre-designated areas. WPx (number removed) is a private farm and I cannot dictate to them who they may or may not allow on their own property. I can only ask them to discourage random public from dropping in." 

My, and many others people's interpretation, is that Race Villages (based in towns) were the only place supporters could interact with riders. In the absence of a race office issued list of pre-designated areas I believe it's fair to assume there were no other permitted meeting points. If you squint and close one eye you might just be able to see that differently—that's a questionable grey area writ large.   

I had to deal with dust kicked up by supporters in follow cars. I saw riders getting assistance. I heard of riders who were woken by their supporters as a competitor closed in on their position. That same approaching rider running behind schedule because they had overslept as they fell asleep in the process of setting an alarm. They had no one to wake them up. That sounds like one of those riders had beneficial outside assistance.  

Since I started writing this blog I have heard from the Race Director that they are looking to amend the rules around water point support and these  will be welcomed changes that will go a long way to levelling the playing field. Even so, I think the race should simply be out of bounds to supporters between the start and finish lines. Stories are filtering through of massive support throughout the field which includes people being met with food and drink. I would have loved to have had the food I wanted instead of food that burnt my chapped lips and mouth. 

The fault lies partly with the rules and partly with the competitors who simply ignore the rules I don't want to go so far as to suggest they do it it deliberately. It's more of case of riders not understanding the concept of the unsupported genre. If you say "No drafting and No supporters" it's easier to get those concepts to stick. 

The Munga as it stands is a curious mix of stick and gun fight. Its like being invited to a stick fight and on arrival you are confronted with people with guns and you know somethings not fair especially when the fight coordinator deems the guns acceptable as they are fabricated from wood.

It's not my place to tell the race organisers how to run their race but they should at least be clear about the rules of engagement. When I enter an unsupported race I expect it to be just that. 

It's not they don't understand the imperative of a clear set of rules. 

From The Munga website:


In an ideal world we could simply just show up and race and the fastest team to make it to the end would win. But the world is not ideal and so we have to come up with a set of criteria to level the playing field and make things as even as we could. Thus we have Rules. In addition, there are some unique elements to the Race. This means the parameters and rules need to be clearly defined, appreciated and understood by all riders. It is the rider's responsibility to make sure he is familiar with and understands all of the Rules and the implications thereof. If a rider is unclear about any of the Rules, the onus is on the rider to contact the Race organizer and seek clarity. 

You can see from the communication earlier in this post from the Race Director that rules clarity didn't pass the 20/20 vision test.  

They need to tidy up the rules to get rid of the so called grey areas and seal up the cracks and then be seen to be enforcing the rules. The other option is to drop the unsupported tag and allow hundreds of supporters and vehicles to tag along. I don't support the latter idea.  

It's been 4 years and there are still too many recurring issues that can't simply be brushed off as teething problems. There is so much that is right about the format but the few wrong things become irritations that will keep serious riders from coming back. 

Having shaken my stick at the organisers I want to address my fellow competitors. The Munga is not a nanny race like the Epic. There isn't a marshall at every gate to usher you through, there isn't someone to tell you how and where to park your bike. There isn't someone checking up on you every second of the day. There are rules and the nature of unsupported racing is that you are responsible for upholding the rules yourself. Personal integrity is what holds the event together.

At race briefing the Race Director mentioned the importance of closing farm gates and yet people still left gates open. On one farm alone I closed no fewer than 6 gates. If a gate is open just enough for a bicycle to pass through then it's obvious that it should be closed. At all the gates I closed I could see at least 1 set of cycling footmarks which means someone opened the gate. There were other gates that were pulled closed but not latched. 

City folk apparently don't understand the purpose of a gate. In a landscape where you can watch your dog run away for a week no farmer wants his sheep or horses to do just that. It takes just one open gate to upset a farmer and seriously affect future routing of the race. 

I believe the outside support and gate issues are related. There are people so fixated on getting their hands on a Munga medal that their focus is on getting to the finish. They would serve themselves and the race better if they respected the craft and became better informed in what constitutes unsupported racing and what it means to tread carefully over and respect other peoples property. 

Gate issues are a recurring theme in endurance racing like The Munga and Freedom Challenge. Perhaps organisers need to come up with a better plan. One idea is to tie a red ribbon on every gate that must be left closed and latched. 

To end with, a few examples of what unsupported is not

Unsupported is not someone other than a race approved official touching your bike, clothing, food or even water bottles. 

Unsupported is not you phoning a friend in the next town and asking them to buy you KFC.

Unsupported is not family or supporters waking you after you've gone for a sleep.

Unsupported is not family/supporters waiting on the outskirts of town to feed you and have extra water for your water bottles. 

Unsupported is not someone tailing you in a vehicle along most of the route in case you run into trouble. 

Unsupported is not family/friends meeting you at a race village with a Tupperware full of your favourite food. 

Friday, 23 November 2018

Munga 2018 - The Art of Tapering.

During the course of the day with banter flowing between riders doing the Munga next week I have come to realise that many people don't understand what constitutes an effective pre-race taper. 

Tapering is the period leading up to a race when you back off from a hard training regime so as to rest out the fatigue of training while maintaining fitness and race condition. It's not something I have mastered but I'm getting better at it. It's more art than science as we all respond differently to exercise and rest. Even so, there are good guidelines that can be followed that will get you to the start line in good shape. 

Owing to my lack of mastery I got hold of Benky and asked him to share his hard gained experience. He has done just that. Read, digest and enjoy. 

Guest post by Kevin Benkenstein. 

The mysterious taper. Barely understood, including by myself, hard to get right but oh so good when you nail it. I won't profess to have a coaching background but I listen to those who do, trial and error on myself and do my best to listen to my body along the way too. So this is what I have learned and what I think will help you. 

1. Keep riding! The biggest mistake I see people make is to stop riding, for fear of being tired. This however only allows your body to click into holiday mode, making it that much harder to get going on race day. It is very important that you keep your normal riding schedule in the week before a race. 

2. Maintain the intensity. The taper is slightly different to a rest period in that you are not slowing down to build back up so much as letting your body absorb the training that you've done to take advantage of it on race day(s). You should maintain your normal riding intensity but at a lower volume, as per my next point. 

3. Lower your volume but not too much. I have found that 75-80% of my normal training volume allows me to keep fitness while also developing enough freshness to get 'fast' again. So I do everything to that margin: Rides become 1/4 shorter and I do 1/4 less intervals. 

4. Keep the intervals. If you've been doing intervals you'll want to keep doing so so that your body remembers how to hurt a little and also 'stays awake' as I like to out it. Moderate the volume and intensity but keep doing them and make sure that you remind your body that it's not sleep time just recover time. 

5. It's not just about riding. In this time it's important to focus on sleep, stretching, nutrition and even stress levels so that you can recover in every way. Each of these factors will have an effect on your race performance and that must be considered. 

6. Mental preparation. Racing is as much if not more mental and so I like to spend the extra time I have from not riding to preparing my mind for what is to come. I run over race scenarios, expected and known events in the race and remind myself what I will do at those times. This allows me to be calm in the race as everything I do feels touring. This is an important extra to the traditional taper. 

7. Last but not least is listening to your body. You need to give your body your full attention and focus to get the best out of it. This includes trusting it even though it will feel 'different' not being constantly fatigued and letting it tell you what you need to do. Learning to listen to your body is the greatest skill of this all. 

The length of the taper is proportional to the length and needs of the event. An 'A' event that you work towards all year deserves a proper 7-10 day taper, such as for Munga. The same applies to any truly long event that will take a lot of physical and mental effort. For some shorter 'building events' I might just take 3-4 easier days beforehand to freshen up but when your whole year or 6 months has built up to the day a little more time should be invested. 

At the end of a taper you should feel energetic, motivated and have a feeling that your body is restless and ready to fire. In the case of Munga you should really just want to get on your bike and ride far. That is the goal, to get the excitement and motivation as well as freshness to a new level so that all of the work you have done and fitness you have built can show itself in the race. 

So keep riding, keep doing what you do when riding, listen to your body, think about the race, rest and get ready for a lot of fun!

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Munga 2018 - Beyond the How

This time next week I'll be on my bike inching my way across the Karoo. I'm looking forward to it.

I've spent the last few years writing this blog to help people get a handle on what it takes to race endurance events. The feedback from riders has been positive.

However, there are some, including people in my own riding circle who question the wisdom of me giving away all "my secrets". Firstly, they are not my secrets, they are a composite of what I have observed in other people with a dash of my own experiences.

At 58 I'm fortunate that I haven't yet exceeded my racing use-by-date. Even though I haven't achieved anything great on two wheels I hope to leave a legacy of inspiring people to take on their own adventures. I really am an ordinary rider who punches above their weight because I am driven by a compelling Why.

Over the years I have been awestruck by the exploits of certain riders where their achievements ignited my imagination and got me to stretch my boundaries. Their achievements became my goals. And those goals became my achievements. As an ordinary cyclist my achievements resonate with the average rider who can then imagine their own possibilities and then my achievements became their goals and the cycle continues.

Over time my competitors became my friends and their generosity in how to tackle endurance races made me a better rider. In a sport characterised by "giving away" tactics and techniques all I have done is attempt to codify tried and tested techniques and make them available to a wider audience.

I stumbled into cycling at 45 and within a year I had entered my first major race. It was an inauspicious start to my cycling adventures. The circumstances were a little bizarre. The guy at my local bike shop mentioned that he knew someone who was looking for a riding partner for a race that was scheduled to start in 2 weeks. My first words were, "Sure, that sounds great." The next words were, "What race is it?", closely followed by, "Cape Epic, what's that?"

The following year I entered my first Freedom Challenge Race Across South Africa and it had a profound effect on me. My blog started there. The rest of the story is there to read.

I've dedicated the bulk of the last few years addressing the How's of endurance racing. What I haven't touched on is the Why. That's not something I can answer for you. My Why probably doesn't come close to matching yours. The How of racing is the chassis and wheels of the car. The Why is the engine. Without a Why your knowledge of the How's might get you on your bike but it's the Why that energises the experience and feeds your soul.

It's not all about winning. You need to decide the purpose of your Why. For some there's no philosophical reason and they default to Why Not, and that's okay. But I suspect there will come a time when Why Not runs its course and they are left wondering why they do what they do. Some falter in their commitment to riding and move on to something else and that's also okay. Others take stock, grab hold and stay the course driven by a compelling Why.

If you're doing the Munga next week you'll have lots of time to figure out your Why. If you've already got a Why then you can spend the time polishing it. It's hard to imagine that someone would enter a race as hard as the Munga purely on the basis of Why Not.

Friday, 16 November 2018

Munga 2018 - Chasing Ghosts and the Virtue of Cowardice

Ghost Rider

One of the benefits of being a competent cyclist who falls short of being awesome is that you get to race someone you know you can beat—yourself. 

Once the race has started and the initial mania has settled down and I'm riding at a pace that I'm comfortable with there are only 2 riders that I am concerned about—me and me from last year. There is nothing to be gained about worrying where Marco, Guy, Benky, Leon, Ramses or anyone else is for that matter. The fact is they are far better cyclists than I am. 

I've trained hard for this race. Harder than I've ever trained before. But it hasn't been motivated by the thought of beating any of those guys. My training motivation has simply been to ride faster than I did last year. 

As I've done for other races I've compiled a list of my in and out times from the previous year and it'll tape that onto my bike so I can constantly compare my progress. This is much like the ghost rider on my Garmin which I think they call a virtual partner. I've considered using the virtual partner function on my Garmin but I've found it gives odd results. What I am going to do is set a overall target for myself which I said in a previous post is 61 hours 50 minutes. The race is 1076km so that means an overall average speed of 17.4 km/h. I'll turn off the auto pause on my Garmin and pull up my average speed. As long as I keep it reading 17.4 km/h or more I'll be on target. Sounds easy but your average speed sinks quickly when you are standing still at a water point or race village. When you sleep you wake up to a depressing number which you then have to push up by riding hard. 

Last year I managed 16 km/h as an average speed. I've worked hard in the hope that I can get that up a paltry 1.4 km/h. 

Now to address the cowardice part. 

Mrs Robinson and I were sitting around drinking post ride coffees, as we do 4 or 5 days a week, and the topic turned to the thought of wanting to quit while suffering on the Munga. I have to admit the thought crosses my mind every race. In fact, almost every day of every race. I don't think we are unique. It gets tough out there. 

Mrs Robinson gave it some thought and added, "But you need a good reason, you can't just quit." He then articulated what he thought were acceptable reasons for withdrawing from the race. Acceptable in that they didn't make you look weak or pathetic. His list included, but wasn't limited to, being struck by a crashing aeroplane, maimed by falling space debris and being attacked by a bear. He went on to elaborate on the bear attack saying a few scratches were insufficient, the bear would at the very least have to rip your arm off. That we don't have bears in Africa is of no consequence. 

When I got home and regaled my wife with the details of the post ride conversation she thought about it for a minute then summed it up in a sentence, "What you are telling me is that everyone who finishes the race is a coward because they are too scared to just quit." Think about that and then resolve to be a coward. 

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Munga 2018 - The Art of Power Napping.

Power nap techniques were touched on by Carlo in his guest posts but are worth revisiting to examine the pre-programming involved. Right up front I must explain that power naps are more art than science—there is no one-size-fits-all magic formula. 

Power naps are a critical component of successful endurance racing. To be honest, until recently, I've had more misses than hits in trying to figure out how to leverage maximum benefit. A big shout out goes to Tim James who apart from helping me figure out how to use power naps effectively has also been my inspiration for pushing my boundaries in endurance racing. Many of you have have spoken to me or contacted me about the useful advise I spew on these pages. A lot of what I have learnt has come from watching and chatting to Tim. He has been and continues to be an inspiration.

I finally figured out how to use power naps to my advantage after a frustrating night of stumbling down the trail on the Freedom Challenge a few years ago. I was struggling to stay awake and decided to have a 10 minute nap next to the road. Tim was riding with me and waited while I tried to shake off the sleep monsters. When I woke up he told me that I shouldn't have set a 10 minute alarm. He could hear from my breathing that I had only managed 1 minute of sleep. 30 minutes later the monsters swarmed again. I told Tim to push on the the interim support station a mere 5 km's up the road while I dropped to the ground to grab more zzzz's. By the time I got to the support station Tim had brewed tea and sorted out bedding for me. He was up a few hours later and made a point of bringing me tea before he left. Even though I caught up with him a few days later he went on to finish ahead of me. It was only after the race that I took time to process what he had said. 

I've learnt that if you fight off sleep monsters without yielding you can end up stumbling forward with an efficiency that'll make you cringe in review. I've also learnt that a 5 hour oversleep is exactly the advantage your competitors are hoping for. 

This year I got the technique right in the Freedom Challenge Race Across South Africa. I shaved a couple of days off my previous best time and managed to finish 2nd. 

Power nap pre-programming includes, when, where, and a handful of hows.

As I said earlier there is no one-size-fits-all approach to power naps. This becomes evident when people choose to ride together and face the challenge of trying to coordinate their nap times. Power naps like toilet time are best done solo. 


I have found the feeing of wanting to sleep comes on without warning. One minute I'm riding my bike and the next I am struggling to keep my eyes open. I fight it as long as I can. Not to get a few extra kilometres down the road but rather to get me closer to the point where I can no longer keep my eyes open. Once I start hallucinating I know it's probably a good time to get some shut eye. 


Power naps as a rule take place on the trail. I have however had some of my best power naps on a bed or curled up on a farmers couch. At a couple of support stations I have taken off my helmet and pulled a blanket over me without taking my shoes off. 

Out on the trail the where depends on your surroundings and time of day. Some of the places I've been to are so remote that you can simply lay down in the middle of a jeep track and go to sleep knowing that there is zero risk of being run over by a car or have people find you. Other times you need to be more circumspect. 

On the Munga you'll want to find a spot that will keep you out of sight from passers by. I don't want someone driving past to think they've stumbled across a dead guy. No one wants to wake up to a burly farmer doing chest compressions on you. For everyone's sake I look for a spot that shelters me and my bike from the wind and from view. I also turn my tail light off so as not to draw attention to my position. 


Once I have picked out a suitable spot the first thing I do is make sure I have my bike pointed in the direction I want to go when I resume cycling. Sounds silly but stories of waking up and going the wrong way abound. I've even found myself looking the wrong way after a nap because my bike position wasn't right. 

For the Munga I don't bother covering myself with a space blanket as it's warm enough that time of year. What I do bother about is the scorpions and spiders. I'm not sure they pose a real threat but the thought is enough for me to rather rest my head on the front wheel of my bike instead of the ground. It's not as comfortable as a pillow but that's fine because I'm not looking to get 8 hours sleep. If you need a proper sleep it's best done in a bed at a race village or water point.

How long

This is the crux of the matter and the thing that Tim helped me figure out. I used to ask myself the wrong questions. Those were, "How long do I need to sleep", and, "How long can I afford to sleep." I used to think 10 minutes would get me back on my bike and that 10 minutes was long enough to not affect my place in the race. I was asking the wrong questions. Now I ask one question to which I always know the answer - "How long is too long?"  As I said earlier if you need a solid sleep do it in a bed. A trail side nap is just that - a nap. Tim advocates not setting an alarm at all and trusting yourself to wake up. I can't do that so I set a 90 minute oversleep alarm with the understanding that I'm going to wake up before my alarm. 90 minutes is also the theoretical time if takes to work through a full 5 stage sleep cycle. With that understanding I go with the science even though I know that putting a firm number on sleep cycles is more of a guesstimate than hard data. 

As I said in the previous blog I use a countdown timer which is easier to use. I have it preset to 90 mins and simply press the start button before placing it out of reach. I want to avoid the risk of turning it off and falling asleep again. If I have to move to get to the phone I'm more likely to wake up properly.  

The next part is tricky. I fall asleep with the intention of waking up as soon as I can. Sometimes it's 5 minutes, other times it's 25 minutes and rarely it's a full 90 minutes before the alarm wakes me up. If the alarm wakes me up I am groggy and miserable and the effectiveness of the sleep is reduced. 

You know what it's like at home when you set your alarm for 6am and wake up naturally at 5:30am and feel wide awake. Instead of getting up you stare at the ceiling for 25 minutes and fall asleep just before the alarm goes off. When the alarm goes off you feel like death warmed up in spite of feeling great 30 minutes before. Waking up in the middle of a deep sleep cycle is horrible. 

While snoozing in the bush I open my eyes as soon as I become aware of being awake. It doesn't matter how long that period is. I get up immediately and get back on my bike. I've had a few instances where I've had only a 5 or 6 minute power nap and then gone on to ride another 100 kilometres without feeing tired. It sounds odd but it works. 

What I do now to cement the wake up habit is set my alarm for a time earlier than my usual waking time with a view to waking up ahead of the alarm. It's working. Sometimes I'm up an hour earlier than the alarm. To offset the potential loss of sleep I go to bed earlier. The added benefit is that I no longer have a regular sleep pattern which is fine. It's a habit worth breaking ahead of a crazy race. The important thing is that I'm getting enough sleep. 

Sorry for being long winded but it's a skill that's worth developing. As I said, it's what works for me. It's taken me over 10 years to figure out. I hope this information will shorten the time it takes you to find your solution. 

The next post is about chasing ghosts and the virtue of cowardice

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Munga 2018 - Develop Good Race Habits

At this stage, with 2 weeks left before the start of Munga 2018, your training over the last few months will determine how well you do during the race. There's not a lot you can do now that will improve your speed or endurance. During your taper you are unlikely to effect changes that will make you ride faster or further but there are things you can do to avoid race day stumbles that make you slower and shorter. 

Before I go any further I want to reiterate that there are only 2 weeks left. 2 weeks is how long it takes to become heat acclimated. If you haven't started already then you run the risk of getting behind the curve. I started this past weekend and was out again today when the mercury peaked in the mid 30's (Celsius). Heat acclimation is easy when it's hot—just ride during the hottest part of the day. If you're in the northern hemisphere that becomes a challenge. I've heard people suggest you use you indoor trainer without a cooling fan or hang out in a sauna. I don't know what works in the absence of the real thing. 

Some info you might find helpful

I imagine that many of you, like me, are fiddling with your bikes, weighing your kit and figuring out what to take and what goes where. I've already set up my weather app to check the weather at the various race villages so that I can prepare kit that best matches the predicted weather. Now I wait for the date to roll forward enough that the 10 day forecast reveals what might lay ahead. I'm probably going to check it a few times every day even though I know it's hopelessly unreliable until a few days out. 

With training almost wrapped up and final kit choices on hold is there anything you can do to improve your race outcome? Over the years I've found myself staring down the barrel of failure because of silly mistakes. Silly in that they were entirely avoidable. They were mistakes that most people would never make. But most people never experience the levels of exhaustion and sleep deprivation that we do. Our faculties get clouded whether we are aware of it or not.

Think through the likely challenges that you will face or even previous experiences that you have had that didn't go like clockwork. Decide now how you would like to respond or, in the case of previous hiccups, how you should have responded and determine that this is what you will do when you're not firing on all cylinders. 

I have developed habits that have become automatic responses no matter what my state of mind. The most important of these is my water bottles. I left Sutherland one year without water and had to get to the Tankwa Lodge before I could remedy the blunder. It's not a mistake I want to repeat. Now when I get to a race village or support station the first thing I do is fill my water bottles and put them back on my bike. Only once that is done do I go in search of food. 

Likewise, when you take off your helmet, gloves, glasses and other paraphernalia do so methodically. In the early days of endurance racing I was an organisational mess. I'd get to a support station and explode. My equipment and clothing was spread over whatever space was available. Gathering my stuff together and repacking it became a chore where it was all too easy for something to go astray. In later years I added stuff bags and categorised my clothing and equipment. That contained my mess. In the last few events I have gone with very little kit and less kit means less mess. I also make sure I have a routine. Gloves, buff, glasses, and earphones go in my helmet and my helmet gets hung over my handlebars. The trick is to put your stuff in a non-shared uncluttered space. If it's empty when you arrive then it must be empty when you leave. That way nothing gets left behind. 

If you put your phone or batteries on charge away from the rest of your stuff make sure you leave a vital piece of equipment with them so you can't leave without noticing. For me it's my helmet. 

I take a picture of the sign in sheets when I arrive and leave a race village. Apart from a digital record of my in and out times it's a habit that ensures I sign the sheets and leave with my phone. 

If I'm going to sleep I always use a countdown timer instead of a time of day alarm. It's too easy to get your PM's and AM's mixed up not to mention 12 and 24 hour times. If I want to sleep the last thing I want to do is think. Thinking is a stimulant. I set my phone on a 90 minute countdown before the race and simply activate it when I'm ready to nod off. 

These are some of my race habits and may not be applicable to you. Figure out what your challenges are for easy transitions and develop routines to suit. 

Lastly for this post I want to urge you to be presumptuous. Stop with the 'if's' and 'I'll see's'.  I hear it over and over-if I get to Sutherland. That's negative programming. Change that to when I get to Sutherland. The other phrase I hear is along the lines of 'I'll see how I feel when I get to Van der Kloof to decide if I stay or go.' Obviously if you are really shattered it makes sense to regroup. And it's probably our individual assessments of what shattered feels like that is the problem. I know I am not stopping at Van der Kloof. I also know that when I get there I'm going to be wrecked. I don't allow myself the space to choose the soft option. For what it's worth, we all feel completely drained when we get to Van der Kloof. It doesn't matter if you are first or last-  it's hard. The front guys and gals just suck it up and get on with the job. 

In the next post we will have a closer look at power nap techniques and the virtue of cowardice. 

Friday, 9 November 2018

Munga Musings - Guest Post 3

Munga musings from a novice - Carlo Gonzaga 

Part 3 of [probably 3]

All the gear and no idea


A decade ago I broke down on a dirt road in Kenya's northern frontier.  This road exits north out of a place called Marsabit in Kenya and winds its way through 250km of sandy corrugated hell before depositing its journeymen in the Ethiopian border town of Moyale.  The cause of my unexpected and soon-to-be-very-expensive mishap was a blown rear shock absorber on my BMW GS1200.  It was hot enough to cook a goat on; leaking like the Titanic and smoking like a recently lit PRASA train.  Earlier in the trip we passed a weighbridge where my steed and I topped out the scale at 422kg.   I tell this story because it may put my Munga equipment choices into some perspective.  On the one hand I have a predisposition to catering for every eventuality while, on the other, I hope I now know better.


I don't think any subject matter in endurance cycling attracts more diverse opinions than the one of what should fill your bags.  Hell – there isn't even agreement on whether you should take bags with you at all.   I have looked at so many pictures of blokes on bikes and bike set-ups that my wife has started checking my browser history.


At the one extreme you have folks like Jeannie Dryer.  If you don't recognise her name, google her before you make a fool of yourself in cycling company.  In 2016 she came second – overall - in one of those epic cycle races that reminded me of that Froome/Sagan breakaway in 2016, or Armstrong vs Ulrich after the knapsack caught his handlebars in 2003.  The Stuff of Legend.  She travels so light that when I saw a picture of her bike I felt sorry for her as she had clearly been the victim of a mugging on route and all her belongings stolen.   Heck, her bike was even missing half its fork.    


When I asked some chaps what Alex Harris would take they jokingly replied, "an earbud".  With true attention to detail, it must be the hollow plastic type – doubling as a straw for shallow puddles of water in the Karoo.    


Look at photos of finishers of the Tour Divide and the Munga.  It's immediately evident that the quickest folks also have the least gear.  Pondering this over your first glass of Pinotage you may conclude that the reason they can carry so little gear is becausethey're the first into the showers at the finish.  Slower riders simply cater for more time on the road, you conclude, packing you third pair of shorts into your seat bag.  However, what if, after your third glass you wonder if the reason they're first into the showers is because they carry so little.   In excel, this would qualify as a circular formula.


Betting and pain

My first attempt at packing my bike saw the scales reach 28kg (the bare-bones bike with tri-bars is 13,9kg).  When taking it for a ride it had the handling characteristics of a six pack of yogurt on a roller-skate.   One way to approach this "what to take" dilemma is to get lists from people that have done similar events and simply see what fits in the bags you've bought.   In fact, Alex provides a handy list that will probably get you through the Munga not wanting for much.    However, if you're like me and are looking in every nook and cranny for small gains to make up for large inexperience and moderate watts, then what to pack is, first, a question of principle.  How much risk am I willing to take and how much discomfort am I willing to endure.


For example, I asked my bike shop what spares I should take.  Among others, they suggested I take a spare tyre.  It's probable that if I pitched up at the start with a tyre slung around my shoulder like an ammo belt in Rambo 182 I would get laughed off the start line.   I am happy to live with the risk of not taking a spare tyre, but can I live with the risk of not taking a spare tube?  One tube or two?  A tube with slime or no slime?   Old school rubber tube or those new lightweight orange tube thingies?   

I need a nap already, but it could be the wine. 


Unless you're a politician there are no free lunches and decisions involve a trade-off of some sort.  This packing dilemma is no different: carry too many answers to 'what if?' questions and I increase my weight, going slower, especially up the hills.  On the plus side, the chances of a terminal breakdown are reduced as I have enough spares to rebuild my bike from the hubs up.  Taking the second feedbag increases wind resistance, slowing me down.  But at least I won't starve to death and have a higher chance of finishing.   Despite all the 'keep it simple' talk I imagine that those that travel light today, traveledheavy once before.  To realise the benefit of getting rid of baggage you must have carried it once before. 


Colin Anderson (that guy that took an 87km wrong turn last year) has had to sew his tyre together with fishing line and a needle to prevent the tube from popping out.  I really thought that only happened in movies with ex-bodybuilders as the lead actors.   The real question to ask Colin is why the hell he thought that carrying fishing line and a needle was necessary in the first place.   Was he perhaps hoping to 'throw a line' at some point?


Then there's the question of how much discomfort I am willing to endure.  Two bibs or one?  A second shirt?  What will I sleep in?  Arm and leg warmers as well as a base layer, making night riding a pleasure?   Will you, like me, ride a full suspension bike on 3" rubber that eats corrugations for starters and doesn't even cleanse the palate before eating sand roads for mains?  My car seats are harder than the ride on my bike.  At the risk of stating the obvious, this decision is highly personal - not in the Malusi Gigaba type of way, but I think you know what I mean. 


How much does money weigh?

I seem to have distilled all the good advice I have received down to a few main objectives when it comes to how to think about gear choices:  reduce weight, manage risk, reduce air resistance, and reduce complexity.


I week or so ago I was out riding with two Munga veterans:  Colin Anderson and Gavin Robinson.  Both have completed a brace of Mungas and Freedom Challenges, among others.  At some point Gavin was having some anger management issues with his pedals and I was struggling to keep up. To slow him down I started rambling, incoherently at first, about how he thought about equipment choices.  Apparently (Colin had to eventually tell the story), Gavin talks to his equipment, asking one simple question: "what do you do for me?".  If the said piece of equipment has only one answer it goes in the bin.  Gavin has even done this during races, shedding equipment as he goes.  In Gavin's world if you're going to make the cut you need to have more than one use.  By way of example:  my space blanket is meant be useful to me in an emergency.  It's mandatory per the Munga rules.  Gavin reckons itsalso good to use in the same way you would use newspaper down your shirt to keep the icy wind out when you descend Ouberg or Baineskloof.   It's also good to sit on:  getting dirt and gravel in your chamois is not recommended unless you plan on standing most of the Munga.  But best of all Gavin reckons that if you hold it above your head it will reflect sunlight and can be used in advanced search and rescue operations when you've had enough and are calling for your mom. 


So, for me at least, having never done an endurance event these seem to be the parameters around which I've made my choices: How much discomfort I am willing to endure; how much risk am I willing to take, and does it have multiple uses.  Then, for each item, my journey went down weight loss boulevard and air resistance alley.   At some point, which I am still busy with, I will make all of this less complicated.   Jeez - this Munga stuff is exhausting.  And this isn't even the riding bit.


Let me humour you, and you me, as I share some of my more recent discoveries about how gear choices impact cycling speed.    


What's a fart worth?

Somewhere in the dead of night I came across some research that indicated that the things that slow you down the most are air, gravity and your tyres.   (Wine and whisky are still under review).  Amazingly, for me at least, they are in that order of importance.  Even on mountainous routes gravity still back ranks air resistance.  This appears intuitive to most.  For me this was new news that required some understanding.


After all, if I was going to cycle the Munga in a cat-suit and a condom over my helmet I should know why. 


So here is what seems to be at play:  when we cycle up a hill the effect of gravity is linear.  That means that, considering no other factors, to go twice as fast up said hill, you will need twice the number of watts through those bastard pedals.  This requirement stays the same regardless of the gradient.  However, if you're cruising nicely on a flat at 15km/h and want to go twice as fast, you will need eight times the power on those same bastard pedals to overcome the wind resistance.   The power needed to overcome wind resistance and wind drag, increases more and more the faster you go.  The same problem the guys at Bugatti had when they built the Veyron:  it requires something like 500hp to get to 200mph and another 500hp to get to 250mph. 


"Not a problem" you say – "I never cycle at 30km/h".  What if, in what appears to be a quite likely scenario in the Munga, you're trundling along at a 15km/h, turn the corner and find the wind is blowing into your front teeth at 15km/h?  Well, mathematically, you would need twice the power just to stay at 15km/h.  From trundle to trouble, with a capital F.     


Part of the reason why the power required is not double, like gravity, is that it's not just the force of pushing through the air that you're overcoming.  As the air flows over your irregular (I'm not judging) shaped body and seat bag, it swirls about, causing a small pocket of air directly behind you that acts like a vacuum, sucking you backwards into it.  This is called drag. You must overcome this drag in addition to pushing the air in front of you out the way.  It's like trying to push to the front at a rock concert – you've got to shove the people in front of you out the way, but as you pass themthey try and grab you. 

In one of Alex's adventures a group cycled from the top of Kilimanjaro (the mountain, not the song).  Speaking to some of them, they all commented how fast they went.  You see, at 6000m altitude there's just not a lot of air to push through. 


Given the flattish profile of the Munga it looks like spending time on being less like a brick and more like an arrow seems to be effort well directed.  Better directed than, for example, only taking half a fork.  According to the chaps that run the wind tunnel at Specialized the difference between having pannier style bags and bike packing bags is a crazy 1.5km/h or 6 hours over the course of the Munga.  Hydration?  you're better off carrying a six-pack in your backpack than on a rack right behind you. 

Want to rock some cool baggies and loose-fitting shirt? – that'll cost you 2-odd hours in the Munga.  The greatest clothing gains seem to be made from ditching the baggies, donning the five-xl race-cut gut-hugging shirt and squeezing into that toit-as-a-tiger jacket. 

Tri bars? If you only use the standard MTB position and your mate uses aero bars some of the time -you mate will be 8 hours into the beer by the time you arrive in Doolhof


Low carb for gear

Having been told all my modest cycling career that 'weight is everything', I weighed everything.  I mean everything. The tape under the tribar mounts.  The additional links of a chain.  I know the weight difference between different types of bottles and have debated the weight difference between polyshorts and a speedo, in the event I may like to swim during the Munga. 


I tossed my old rubber spare tube for a new-fangled orange Tubalito.  Boom! Saved 183g.  Bought a lightweight jacket - another 194g 'saved'.  And that's not even considering the lesser volume and air resistance due to smaller packing requirements.  If I take a spare bib it will 'cost' me 194g.   Before you go out and splash 1 billion rand on those carbon seat rails and a Cannondale lefty here's some food for thought, which I was happy to hear: 


Weight has a larger impact on more mountainous routes (not new news).   Even then it is only significant going uphill on gradients above 4% (good news for the Munga).  On the flip side you go slower down the hills! (I can live with that).  But here's the data that really focussed my mind as to whether I should empty my bank account in search of everything carbon;  


For every 1kg saved, I will improve my time over a (not flat) 100km course, by about 1 minute.  Specifically, a 1kg saving over the Munga course will theoretically yield an 11-minute saving.  Only 11 minutes. 


I did double check that.    


I have nonetheless continued to put my gear on a diet.   The problem I have discovered is that my bike weighs 13,9kg and, unless I convert it to a unicycle, that is a difficult number to change.  At the last weigh-in my bike, gear, and H20 was 24,4kg.  That's 10,5kg to play with.  Of that 10,5kg, water is 3,7.  If I include the very necessary containers that stop the water from spilling into the hot Karoo sand, that number increases to 4,7kg.  Given that water seems to be important on the Munga I only have 5,8kg of stuff to work on reducing.  A 2kg reduction, thereby gifting me 22minutes potentially, would require I shed nearly 35% of that weight.  Seems like a tough ask to me. 


So, armed with this new information I have decided to pack my 3kg espresso machine with me – I figure I'll easily make up the 33 minutes extra by staying awake longer. 


This doesn't mean weight is not worth reducing.  It's just not the most important thing.  If this data is even half right, and I have no reason to believe it's not, better gains can be had by losing some of my own weight (which I've done lots of); changing my aerodynamics from that of small country cottage and changing my tyres. 


Why do tyres resist so much – aren't they meant to roll?     

The effects of weight and air were intuitive, but I was not alive to the specifics.  What was less intuitive in this journey of mine has been the effect of tyres.  Specifically, how small decisions can steal watts quicker than a window washer in Sandton.   My Stumpjumper has 27,5" rims and comes off the shelf with 3" wide black stuff.  It's got more grip on the gravel than some of our honourable ministers have on reality. 


Each tyre weights 1000g before the LBS has added Stans to each.  Every person I've met asks me if they're difficult to 'turn'.  Enough people asked me this question that I started to get a little anxious at not having a cogent answer.  They didn't 'feel' difficult to get up the hills.  I started digging a little. 


Looking at rolling resistance data it looks like:  the more air in the tyre, the less watts it takes to keep the tyre rolling.  That sounds right.  What I didn't realise is that its about 4W-6W difference between 1.7bar and 3.8bar of pressure, with more watts required at lower pressure.  That difference equates to needing 32% more power to keep a Continental Speedking turning.  So, if you're pushing 150W that's 3% more watts required, per tyre.   That's an enormous time difference over the distance of the Munga.  According the folks at Schwalbe this only applies on tar.  The Munga isn't on tar.  Oops. 


Their view is that a tyre with a lower pressure can adapt better to bumps in the surface and sinks less when the surface is not sealed (like tar).  The principle at play is that the more a tyre deflects the more energy it absorbs, instead of transferring that energy into forward motion.  A very hard tyre will deflect more than a softer tyre.  But here's the real interesting discovery – wider tyres have less rolling resistance than narrower tyres.  (I've included the explanation on this in a picture below).  But wait… there's more:  you can run wider MTB tyres at much lower pressures than the equivalent 2.3" tyres.  It's a sort of two for the price of one deal:  Wider tyres are better.  Lower pressures are better.  Wider tyres run at lower pressure.  #hellyeah


My last 5600-odd kilometres have been done on 3" or 2,8" rubber at 0,8 to 1,1 bar.  I'd like to say I knew when I chose this tyre size in February that it looks, on paper, to be perfect for the Munga. But I can't – it was luck.  I'll take what I can get.


You don't enjoy the Munga

At this point if you're still reading you're probably an A-type personality or having a kak day at work.  I've heard many people say that this is OTT, OCD and even a "FFS – just ride your damn bike".  I'll admit, none of these conclusions are untrue.   I'm all the above and probably should just ride my damn bike.  But I'm curious. I like to question 'universal truths' and 'conventional wisdom'.  In short, I like to understand why I do stuff.   Perhaps in time I'll be able to "just ride my bike". 

For now, I am in love with the inspiration this crazy-ass Munga race has given me to learn more about a hobby I enjoy.  I haven't read this much in years, nor tried to understand mathematics and nutrition, nor the effects of training stress scores on my fatigue and form.   What I have learnt is that despite appearing OCD this stuff does matter in endurance races.  Tyre choice and pressure; aero bars and riding position; better fitting clothing and some understanding of the where and why I carry stuff on my bike, matter.


When I spoke to Mike Woolnough those few weeks ago I got to talking about "how I plan to enjoy the ride".  He picked up a slice of focaccia, had a bite, and in a sort of hushed tone said something like "you don't enjoy the Munga – its uncomfortable.  It's hard."


When I finish this years' Munga I want to know I could not go one minute faster.  I don't want to regret spending an extra three hours at waterpoints or wondering why I stopped when I didn't need to.   I am sure my arse will hurt in my single bib, with no backup.  I don't want to pitch on the line and not have a view why I have 3" rubber at 1bar.   I accept I will get much of this wrong, but I take responsibility for that.   I plan on racing the Munga.   Where I come relative to the other 149 competitors is inconsequential to me - as long as I leave everything inside of me on the dirt roads between Bloem and Paarl.   


The Munga does not start in Bloemfontein.  It starts in those last waking hours of many nights.  Those thoughts become etched into your eyelids slowly taking shape as you commit, pull out, recommit, ask permission, pull out, swear a little, pull out one last time, and finally, commit.  Alex maps out 1100km of the journey.  The rest of the journey is up to you.   T.E. Lawrence didn't have the Munga in mind, but he may as well have:

"All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible"


For those who I'll see on the 28th November, at noon, we will be the dreamers of the day.  Avanti!


That's an Arkel seat bag with frame.  Weighs 661g.  The bag on top of the seat bag is a 2L camelback bladder in an insulated bladder bag with a pipe than runs along the top tube and appears between the tri-bars.  The Bedrock bag on the bottom of the down tube holds a 1l bottle.  Bag and bottle are a bit heavy at 411g.  The only upside is that the bag keeps it colder for about 6 minutes longer and I don't have to wipe the cow dung off it before drinking.  

There are two Revelate feed bags on the bars.  I'm not sure what will end up in there just yet.  At 65g each they're light but probably not great for wind resistance.  Have my Garmin 800 and an iPhone (not in picture) for music and to record myself in general states of hysteria while riding.  A 22000mah battery pack will keep my iPhone and Garmin charged the entire Munga.  Not having to take anything off my bike to charge at charging stations keeps things much simpler.  Also, less chance of forgetting the things behind.  The tri bars are Red Shift, from the great chaps at Gravel and Tour.  If you haven't ridden tri-bars (like I hadn't) prepare for pain until your body gets used to it.  Transact patches for your shoulders should come with the tri-bars.  

The spares I'm taking.  The only thing not there are some extra bolts, a cleat and screws and the rubber O-ring that keeps my light and Garmin on.  These all fit inside my down tube and weigh 745g.

Given the lack of gnarly descents my Specialized Butchers will miss the trip to Cape Town.  These Rocket Rons have a great mix of puncture resistance and very very low rolling resistance due to the tread pattern.  I have tested one set for 2900km to date and had zero sealant leakage and had to plug 5 or so punctures, with no more required than just jamming the plug in.

In my search for weight gains I did weigh a flip flop with a cleat.  Weight is better, but heel support was lacking.  Didn't make the cut. 

After permission to release the mixture formula its:  squeeze the tube of nipple cream and the bactroban (supiroban generic) in the tub.  Mix well.  Apply to body.  I haven't had a need to apply directly to the chamois.   The Anethane is for when you're getting into emergency territory as its a topical anaesthetic.

From the Schwalbe website.  The most cogent explanation I found around wide tyres and their rolling resistance.  This happened to confirm what Alex spent much time trying to explain to me.  Apologies for arguing with you Alex.