2022 Rhino Run Report: Introduction and Days 1-4
The Rhino Run is a 2,750-kilometer bikepacking race across South Africa and Namibia, and the inaugural edition kicked off last Friday. Our friend Jesse Carlsson from Curve Cycling has been on the ground following the race with photographer Rae Trew-Browne, and the pair put together a report covering the first several days of the race. Find their written updates, photo galleries, and video recaps here…
After many years of planning, the inaugural Rhino Run finally kicked off at 6:22 a.m. on Friday, October 21, from Plettenberg Bay, South Africa. This new 2,750-kilometre bikepacking race begins with the spectacular Cross Cape cycle route, a mixed-terrain cycling paradise with stunning gravel passes and amazing coastal range vistas, finishing among the vineyards of Stellenbosch. Heading north, the course gets increasingly remote, eventually crossing the border into Namibia and traversing the harsh Namib Desert before concluding in Windhoek. The long distances between services and the desert heat will be a new experience for many of the riders, even the seasoned bikepacking racers in the field.
The Rhino Run has a charitable focus, supporting the Masaka Cycling Club, which works tirelessly to discover and nurture raw Ugandan cycling talent. Entry to the Rhino Run was by donation to the Masaka Cycling Club. Part of these proceeds helped three talented Ugandan cyclists to take part in the race. Kato Paul, Wasswa Peter, and Florence Nakaggwa, all siblings, made their way to Plettenberg Bay to line up against an incredibly strong field in their first bikepacking race. Through the Masaka Cycling Club development program, these talented cyclists have each earned contracts with Team Amani, a professional African team focussed on gravel cycling. While they are arguably the fittest riders lining up, unsupported racing is a whole new game for these young athletes.
On the start list for the inaugural event are some of the biggest names in endurance cycling, including Tour Divide and Silk Road Mountain Race winner Sofiane Sehili, Trans Am and Indian Pacific Wheel Race winner Abdullah Zeinab in his first-ever off-road race, winner of the Munga and local favourite Kevin “Benky” Benkenstein, three-time winner of Race to the Rock Sarah Hammond, Transcontinental winner Josh Ibbett, and many more.
Rhino Run Day 1
After an idyllic beachside start shortly after sunrise, Abdullah Zeinab and Kevin Benkenstein attacked hard, opening up an early gap on the first climbs. After 50 kilometres, that gap had grown to 10 minutes, with Stephen Lane in third and Team Amani riders Kato Paul and Wasswa Peter in fourth. The early riding was particularly rugged, with recent storms washing away top-soil to reveal a jagged rocky surface scattered with potholes.
Riding up into the fog and then rain on the spectacular Montagu Pass, the first major climb of the race, Kevin opened up a gap of five minutes on Abdullah. That gap evaporated by Oudsthoorn, at the 200 kilometre mark, where both riders resupplied after roaring tailwinds blasted them through the Klein Karoo.
The lead riders set an incredible pace on day one and arrived at Calitzdorp after 13.5 hours of riding, 300 kilometres into the race with the field spread out 150 kilometres behind them. Leaving Calitzdorp first, Abdullah said he was hoping for at least another 100 evening kilometres before his first rest.
Day 1 Video Recap
Rhino Run Day 2
The hot pace at the front of the race continued into day two. After the first 24 hours, Abdullah Zeinab was first on course at the 444-kilometre mark, holding a pace unheard of in off-road bikepacking racing. Amazingly, this is Abdullah’s first off-road race, but he’s no stranger to ultra-endurance, having won the Trans Am Bike Race and Indian Pacific Wheel Race and come very close to a 24-hour time-trial world record.
Later in the day, Kevin Benkenstein caught Abdullah within 10 kilometres of Greyton. Abdullah stopped shortly after for his first sleep break, Kevin having rested for three hours in Calitzdorp early on the first night. The lead riders were assisted by some strong tailwinds on course today, with smoother gravel roads than on day one. One of the final challenges was anything but smooth. The Rusty Gate climb has perhaps the roughest terrain on the course, both on the climb and descent, with gradients pitching up above 20% at times.
With Abdullah resting for the first time after 32 hours on course, Kevin extended his gap and finished the 726-kilometre entrée course in Stellenbosch on Saturday evening in a time of just over 38 hours. As Kevin rolled into Stellenbosch, Abdullah was in second place, 50 kilometres behind him, with Jimmy Ashby in third, 85 kilometres from the lead. Team Amani riders Kato Paul and Wasswa Peter are riding strong in their first bikepacking outing, sitting in sixth place.
Further back in the field, Sofiane Sehili, who struggled to hold the early pace of the leaders, reported struggling to find the mindset required to tackle the race. On his Instagram feed, Sofiane announced his plan to fast-tour to Stellenbosch and reset there, hopefully finding the motivation to attack later on.
Another race favourite, Sarah Hammond, withdrew from the race on day two. Sarah contracted a chest infection only days before the race, and tried to start after a long journey to South Africa, hoping her condition would stabilise. Unfortunately, that was not the case, and Sarah withdrew near Riversdale. The route now heads north into the Cederberg.
Day 2 Video Recap
Rhino Run Day 3
Kevin Benkenstein and Abdullah Zeinab continued their battle into the Cedarberg, the first of the more remote sections of the course with less than 20 kilometres between them through the day – the lead changing multiple times. The terrain here is particularly rugged, with spectacular rocky outcrops tracking alongside tough climbs and flowy descents. Here, riders faced the first of the heavily corrugated roads that lie ahead. They also got their first taste of the heat that will likely characterise the race, with temperatures close to 40 degegrees Celsius on course.
Abdullah reportedly lost his phone on a rugged descent – a crucial device for forward planning, musical distractions, and perhaps course notes. His performance has been astounding so far, again considering it’s one of his first off-road rides. Dot watchers wondered how his previous experience would translate to an off-road ultra, where the effort is more of a full-body battering, and Abdullah seems to be having no issue at all swapping positions at the front of the race with Kevin, who is extremely experienced on this terrain and familiar with much of the course.
The big news of the day was from the Ugandan riders from Team Amani. No one had seen Florence Nakaggwa’s tracker active since she passed through George, in the afternoon of day 1. Dot watchers were getting worried. The Rhino Run direct messages were jammed up with questions about Florence’s whereabouts. Around midday, a report came through that Florence had made it to Stellenbosch, 726 kilometres into the course, and her dot appeared on the map shortly after. Not only had Florence completed the brutal entrée course against a world-class field in sixth place, she had beaten her older and more experienced brothers. It wasn’t until Florence neared Paarl, 800 kilometres into the course, that her brothers caught up to her. Florence is in her early 20s and is proving a force to be reckoned with in this style of racing.
A particularly South African challenge that some riders are facing is power cuts, usually twice each day for several hours, and often in the early evening and very early morning. This is usually when racers are sleeping and those without dynamos need to charge their lights and other devices.
Day 3 Video Recap
Rhino Run Day 4
Heading into day four, Kevin and Abdullah continued their blistering pace, extending their gap from third-placed Jimmy Ashby to 150 kilometres. After a nighttime crossing of the waist-deep Doringrivier, Kevin and Abdullah started their trek north on the famed R355 road through the heart of the Tankwa Karoo. Kevin opened up a gap of around 20 kilometres as they approached Calvinia, where Abdullah would no doubt be looking for a new phone.
This section of the course is harsh, barren, and remote country, with very little shelter and long distances between services. The dry heat is oppressive, and the race leaders faced temperatures close to 40 degrees Celsius for the second day in a row. Further back in the field, riders experienced a spectacular section of the course, climbing the Pakhuis Pass, with stunning views of jagged peaks and the harsh country ahead.
In the battle for third place, Jimmy Ashby and Jono Botha changed positions a couple of times, with Jono choosing an early afternoon sleep break at a Biedouw Valley farmhouse to escape the scorching heat, as Jimmy forged ahead. As night fell on day four, the battle for first place continued near Kliprand at the 1,365-kilometre mark, with Kevin extending his gap to Abdullah to 40 kilometres. Kevin and Abdullah have now passed the halfway point and are expected to enter Namibia sometime tomorrow.
Day 4 Video Recap
2022 Rhino Run Live Tracker
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