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:
- Drafting of a competitor is only allowed up to the first Race station.
- 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.