Abdullah Zeinab wins the 2022 Rhino Run and Ekar Kev Survives the Namib Desert
Words: Jesse Carlsson
Images: Rae Trew-Browne & Jesse Carlsson
The 2022 Rhino Run has been run and won. The Rhino Run is a 2,740 km solo and unsupported bikepacking race through South Africa and Namibia. The inaugural race supported the Masaka Cycling Club (MCC), with riders entering the race by making a donation to the MCC. Curve also ran a fully supported expedition along the entree course - we'll tell you more on that another time, though.
The race started on the idyllic beach at Plettenberg Bay, South Africa on 21 October 2022 with a stellar field. Names on the start list included Sarah Hammond (three-time Race to the Rock winner), Sofiane Sehili (Tour Divide and Silk Road winner), Abdullah Zeinab (Trans Am and Indian Pacific Wheel Race winner), Josh Ibbett (Transcontinental winner), Kevin Benkenstein (Munga winner), and many more.
The course was something truly special. The 750 km entree course included the Cross Cape Cycle route with a few edits. This section included some of the iconic South African gravel climbs back and forth across the coastal ranges. Beyond the entree finish line in Stellenbosch, the course got more remote heading north, with the spectacular Cederberg and harsh Karoo on the way to the Nambian border. The Namibian section was more remote that is usually seen in mainstream bikepacking races, but with our years of experience instigating Race to the Rock, which is significantly more remote, we knew it could be done safely. The desert pastels of Namibia are something special, with soft pink hues glowing with every sunrise and sunset. Riders shared the course with zebras, oryx, kudu, springbok and duiker on the road to the finish in the Namibian capital, Windhoek.
The first edition is always the most interesting. Questions about bike and tyre selection, are up for debate. Would a safer wider-tyre selection work best? Or would a more risky gravel bike do the job? There were a mix of bikes at the start lines, from light-weight gravel bikes to mountain bikes with front suspension. We covered the race with daily video updates (Check them out HERE!), in an effort to give dot-watchers around the world a taste of the scenery and terrain as well as helping to put faces and personalities to the dots. After just two days huge gaps had opened up, with the field spread out across 500 km. This made wide ranging coverage impossible, and with one small media team we were forced to focus on the front of the race.
Abdullah Zeinab and Kevin Benkenstein broke away from the rest of the field in the first 10 km and tested each other on the first climb. They continued to test each every day, with close racing right to the end, which is very rare in this style of racing. When one of them opened up a gap, it would quickly be neutralised.Abdullah was on a titanium Curve GXR with 700c G4T wheels built up with a Campagnolo Ekar 1x13 groupset. Kevin was on a prototype Curve Karoo with carbon Dirt Hoops and a SRAM Force-Eagle groupset.
Abdullah showed incredible resilience to stay in the race. Every day Abdullah faced some sort of frustrating challenge - he lost his phone and sunglasses, destroyed a backpack and then its replacement, severely damaged his front rim and had issue with some issues with punctures. It all culminated on the D707 in Namibia, a sandy track in the middle of a 200km stretch without any resupply options on course, when Abdullah needed to change a hanger. He lost a tiny grub screw in the sand - this grub screw was critical to tightening his rear axle. Abdullah searched the sand for two hours, while watching his lead dwindle - a lead that he had gained by sacrificing sleep. Eventually Abdullah realised a screw from his Garmin mount would function as a replacement - he tried it, it worked and he was on the road again.
After a long push of over 30 hours, both leaders were exhausted as they made a final push to the finish at Windhoek. With 130km to go, Kevin seemed certain to win; he had a gap of 20 km - just over an hour. He was confident and looking strong but somehow Abdullah manage to claw back the gap. When he saw Kevin's flashing rear light in the distance Abdullah found new motivation. As the gap closed, dot watchers around the world kept hitting refresh trying to work out who was in the lead.
It wasn't until a keen race fan arrived at the finish line that we knew what had happened - she had been out on course in her car and followed Kevin and Abdullah as they apporached the outskirts of Windhoek. She excitedly recounted the story of Abdullah attacking on a climb in the last 20 km and managing to get a break on Kevin, who was unable to respond. The confirmation happened a few minutes later when Abdullah rolled up to the Christuskirche high above Windhoek to finish in first place. It was an enthralling finish - it is extremely rare to have such a close race and even more rare to have essentially a sprint finish.Kevin rolled shortly after. Abdullah greeted him, saying, "sorry mate" , acknowledging the heart-breaking finish.
The Rhino Run supported the Masaka Cycling Club, and part of the proceeds allowed three talented Ugandan riders to attend the race. Wasswa Peter, Kato Paul and Florence Nakaggwa, all siblings, had no experience in bikepacking prior to the Rhino Run. They were well prepared for the particular challenges of bikepacking by the Masaka Cycling Club. The equipment they used was a mix of gear supplied and borrowed from supporters around the world.
Unfortunately, Kato Paul and Wasswa Peter withdrew from the race after facing sickness in the Namib desert. Florence Nakaggwa arrived in Windhoek as the first female rider, however an absence of tracking data, both from her SPOT tracker and navigation device, meant that her ride was unable to be validated.