There’s challenging. And then there’s mountain biking masochism. For those who only feel they’ve accomplished something when they have out-of-body experiences on the bike, South Africa has a few excruciatingly hard mountain bike races.
The Cape Epic, 18-25 March
Preparing for and participating in the Cape Epic is by some margin the most expensive and gruelling thing you can do in South African two-person stage racing. The entry fee is R82 900, and if you tabulate all the training hours, component wear and supplementation in preparation for the Epic, the total expense can easily be double that.
It’s boundlessly popular: event entries sell out in seconds. The race itself is also becoming notoriously harder over the years as climate change makes the Western Cape a more inhospitable place to ride. Searing temperatures sap your energy and induce a sense of despondency, whilst riding in any of the staggered groups will have you choking in dust, which can also blind you to obstacles in the road, possibly leading to catastrophic falls. There are sections of the Epic not meant to be rideable. A lot of sand. Impossibly steep, shale-strewn climbs. It’s here where you portage, bike over the shoulder, and feel the lactic acid start to cramp your legs.
24 Hours of Oak Valley, 14-15 April
With its festive atmosphere and plush lawn camping facilities amongst Elgin’s oaks, this race is as nightmarish as you wish to make it. Most participants race as a team, completing 8 laps each of the 10km course in 24 hours to qualify for a medal. Most of their 24 hours off the bike are spent sleeping, braaiing and encouraging team members. But there are outliers at the Oak Valley 24-hour event. People who don’t sleep. Or braai. Or socialise. Who ride many more laps of the course than even the most ardent racer would consider sensible.
Last year’s winner did 31 laps. That’s more than 300km of mountain biking from 12:00 one day to 12:00 the next, with a climbing profile not that far off ascending Mount Everest.
EzelEnduro 22 September
A single-day timed race consisting of five stages, where only the downhill sections count - but you end up pushing and riding some agonising terrain and gradients to get to where the good bits are. This is the most challenging combination of technical downhill racing and endurance available in a South African one-day race and to guard against ambitious riders being hospitalised due to a skills deficiency, the first one was an invite-only event.
It’s now open to all who think they’re good enough. Routing through the rock-strewn trails of Eselfontein farm outside of Ceres, the terrain is brutal, and the longest descent is left for last. Although that final stage is only 2.6km long, the very best riders aim to finish it in just under ten minutes, an indication of how viciously technical the riding is. Broken bikes and riders are a feature of the Ezel.
The Freedom Challenge June/July 2018
A 2,300km solo ride from Pietermaritzburg to Wellington requires a tremendous degree of self-sufficiency. You’ll need to be a handy amateur mechanic and excellent navigator as the route crosses private land and a selection of nature reserves. If you stray, and run into an annoyed farmer or game ranger, you’re on your own. No GPS devices are allowed, only a traditional compass and map.
Riders have 26 days to complete the route. The current race record is 10 days, six hours and 40 minutes. It’s marketed, quite rightly, as a journey into the life of a rural South Africa mostly undocumented and forgotten, with isolated communities offering hospitality and inspiring vistas overwhelming from the moment you set off. If you desire the ultimate digital detox, this is it.
The Munga, 28 November to 3 December
There’s no tougher race in South Africa than this. A murderous 1,000km sprint from Bloemfontein to Wellington, through the Karoo, in the peak of summer. It’s a solo event for those who revel in the existentialism of South Africa’s great rural nothingness.
Headwinds, arthritis-inducing corrugated Karoo roads and 40-degree heat. If you suffer from agoraphobia this is not for you. If you can’t manage with only an hour or two’s worth of sleep whilst performing beyond the boundary of your endurance every 24 hours, it’s probably not for you either. Last year’s winning time was 58 hours and five minutes. Probably not a second of those were enjoyable.