Words- Jimmy Ashby
Edited by – Guy Wynn-Williams (Ground Effect Cycling Clothing)
Photos – Jimmy Ashby, Jesse Carlsson & Outlaw Media
The Rhino Run is an unsupported 2750 km bikepacking race across South Africa and Namibia - starting in Plettenberg Bay and finishing in Windhoek. Riders climb over 30,000 metres, tackle vast deserts and feast on the sheer beauty of this remote and untouched landscape.
It's a simple concept: everyone starts together; first to the end wins. Just a single very long stage. All riders follow the same route and you have to fend for yourself - only using services that are available to all racers. That doesn’t exclude hunting wild game and drinking from rivers if that's your thing. But you are not allowed a support crew trailing behind you, nor is Mum allowed to greet you halfway with a cold coke. It’s a raw form of riding. You choose when and where you sleep, how long for and where to get food. Essentially the person who can ride the longest distance each day wins.
For me, it was a step into the unknown. Yes I’ve ridden a lot and ridden far but could I race? I was scared. Not scared of the ride itself and places the route would take us, but scared of the unknown. Could I ride with minimal sleep each day? Would I blow up after a couple days? Would I even finish? There were a lot of questions, aspects of self-pressure and an overwhelming rush of excitement. The emotions surrounding the event were immense.
In the end I did make it to Windhoek in 6th place, covering the route in 11 days. I did finish. I could ride off of minimal sleep and yeah, I did blow up a little bit. But the numbers don’t really mean that much. It was my journey into the unknown, the growth I found and adventure I had that meant the most.
So buckle up because this one was wild. Giraffes, sickness, deserts and even a wizard.
PART 1 - TRAINING
Earlier in the year, Rhino Run organiser and friend - Ryan Flinn from Curve Cycling - teased me about heading to Africa to compete in the inaugural race. I didn’t need much convincing. Ryan's enthusiasm, the outstanding countryside and calibre of the field made it a difficult proposition to resist. It took a full 24 hours for my mind and heart to be hooked. I was in, and totally obsessed.
The next 6 months was a journey to the start line. It gave purpose to my riding. I was training and that in itself felt quite weird. I’ve always just cycled for the love of cycling. Now I was trying to be fitter, stronger and faster for a race. Cycle-specific workouts, ride destinations, routes and road surfaces were all about one goal. Africa.
I held my own ‘training camps’ in the Flinders Ranges, bought myself a smart trainer and read countless articles online. I even made a pilgrimage to Belgium to meet with long distance legend and fellow Curve rider Kristoff Allegaert.
Honestly I had no idea. I worked on two aims - pedal lots and build my FTP/power output. Would it work? No idea. Sure, I can ride a certain number on a screen or however-fast uphill, but how does that stack up against the world's best ultra cyclists? I've only ever ridden alone and had no scale to compare myself to. Successful or not, I had a few extra veins popping out of my legs, I felt fast and I couldn’t wait to see if it would pay off.
PART 2 - PROLOGUE
Due to the nature of my work as an outdoor guide I have large chunks of time off throughout the year. Fortunately the Rhino Run fell right into one of these blocks. I flew into Cape Town a couple of weeks before the race. There was a deep sense of relief to be finally in the air. The last minute panic and stress was behind me. No more preparation was possible - only the simplicity of the ride lay ahead. That brought on a great sense of calm.
Looking back, this early travel was a really good decision. It allowed me to acclimatise to Africa's relentless heat - a major factor in the race. Had I flown in a just week before from a cold Aussie winter with no time to adjust, then I think I’d be writing a very different story.
My early arrival let me settle into Africa with time to explore before entering race mode. And it helped ease my mind and body into touring mode. I cycled the Entrée section of the race in reverse to Plettenberg Bay at a relaxed pace. Prior to that I spent 5 days in Cape Town exploring Table Top Mountain, Cape Peninsula and the multitude of coffee and bagel shops in the area. I connected with Jamie - a local Curve mechanic - who guided me on rides around the city. I loved it. Cape Town is stunning.
From Capetown it was a 700 km liaison to Plett. I followed the race route for the majority of it and got a taste of what was to come. It was perfect and the closer I got, the more the nerves and excitement built.
By chance, the night before I rolled into Plett I crossed paths with the Touring Rhinos and stayed with them in their luxury tree house accommodation on the Seven Passes Road. The Touring Rhinos were the crew of cyclists on the Curve Cycling Expedition. Lead by a friend of mine Gus, they were lightweight touring the Entrée over a week, staying in the luxury accommodation, eating great food and having the best time. I was keen to turn around and go back with them! But the race beckoned.
My night with the Touring Rhinos was perfect. I got to hang with Jordan and Danny from G!RO (England) again. There were some familiar faces from Melbourne and I downed a couple of beers with Gus.
Once in Plett I had 3 days to sort out final bits before the start, rest my legs and amp myself to roar! The vibe in Plett was definitely tense. By the time I arrived most of the other racers were already there. It was a small bubble of mind games, self-talk and anticipation. I had a couple of meals with the Curve crew and hung out with friends from home. However it was easy to tell that it was game on.
One of the greatest aspects of this race was how it brought together like-minded souls from around the world. I actually got to meet people I’d only spoken to by phone or felt like I knew due to a social media connection - Benky, Steve Halligan, Rae and a whole bunch of other rad cyclists.
We all converged on a beach 48 hours before the start for a briefing. The energy and excitement that evening was intense. Mind games were being played, bikes scrutinized and the self-questioning was high. If you dot-watched the race you will know that the field was stacked with a who’s who of ultra racing - Sofiane Sehili, Kevin Benkenstien, Abdulla Zeinab, Sarah Hammond, Josh Ibbett, Max Reise, Steve Halligan… and the list goes on. Then there was me, 23 year old Jimmy from Adelaide.
I was excited. Two sleeps to go, no training left to do, the route studied back to front. All that was left was to spin my pedals and see how I measured up.
PART 3 - THE RACE
The race began at 6:22am on 21 October. The start time is significant as Mike Hall tragically died at 6:22am during the 2017 Indian Pacific Wheel Race. We were picking up where he stopped.
In my mind the Rhino Run is broken into three parts with different challenges and personalities.
- The Entrée. 750 km. Lots of climbing and good quality roads.
- Stellenbosh to the Namibia Border. 1000 km through the Cederberg. Longer stretches and where the heat kicks in.
- Namibia Border to Windhoek. 1000 km. Where the race will be decided. 200 km 'stages'. Sandy, corrugated roads. Relentless heat.
I expected a fast start from the get go with a lot of fresh legs and a battle to assert some control at the front by the stronger riders. That’s exactly what happened. Abdulla and Benky let rip within the first 15 km and tore the field apart. I actively stayed away from that, making sure to keep well within my limits and find my own rhythm. However something odd happened in that first 200 km - I started catching people! At the base of Montagu Pass I had advanced to P3, riding with friend Steve Lane. I was still travelling at my own pace but seemed to be performing well. It was reassuring that my intuitive training program might have been okay. There was still a long way to go though.
At the end of that first day I had covered 390 km and found myself still in third place behind Benky and Abdulla. I’d slept well and was eating plenty of food. It felt a little intimidating with the likes of Sofiane, Sarah and Steve behind me. That evoked self doubt. Thoughts like "Oh crap, have I gone out too hard? I shouldn’t be in front of them". I had to silence those voices, knowing I was on my own plan, riding at my own a pace.
As the next day unfolded and we completed the Entrée I maintained third place. The Entrée route is stunning, genuinely beautiful. Worthy to go back and ride just as a tour. The changing climate, terrain and landscape is like nowhere else I’ve visited. Oceans, rainforests, desert and mountains – it has it all.
Due to a favourable tailwind I cycled through Stellenbosh to the end of the Entrée in bang on 48 hours - a few hours faster than expected. I grabbed a coffee at the 24 hour servo, ate some Pringles and a banana then turned my bike north, entering the second stage of the race.
Over the next few days to the Namibian border everything continued to fall into place. My legs were spinning easy, my body felt strong and to be honest, I was having too much fun. I’ve always loved riding my bike, simple as that. I was stoked to have a single purpose; to just ride as much as I could... sleeping only a little, racing between resupply points, making towers of sandwiches or stuffing my pockets with chips was a hoot. Being in race mode spurred me to stop less and transition fast. "Steve’s coming, get moving” I’d tell myself with Steve Halligan always close on my tail. I felt like I was being hunted!
The section through the Cederberg stands out as a favourite. A stunningly beautiful area filled with amazing rock formations and landscapes not unlike my beloved Flinders Ranges. From the Cederberg we entered the Tankwa Karoo. Here the roads and race changed. Stretches between towns grew from 80 km to 160 km; the corrugated roads became rougher and the heat well and truly kicked in.
We crossed the Doringrivier, which is a waist deep river at the end of the Cederberg and start of Karoo. It’s guarded by a friendly guy named Carl and his inflatable dolphin pool toys. He runs a small tourist park where people camp, holiday and stop on their travels. There is a swimming pool, cold fridge and ice machine. So before tackling the river I washed my shirt in the pool, played with the dolphins, drank too much coke, filled my bottles with ice and headed for Calvinia.
In Calvinia I scored my first hotel for the race. A chance to reset, wash and get a solid sleep - all of which I got in abundance. However when I tried to leave after a 4 hour nap I found myself locked inside the hotel compound. There was no night guard and no way out - a real life escape room challenge. I banged on doors, shook every window and tried every option. Finally I discovered a high window to launch myself and my bike out of. It took 1½ hours to escape. Confused, annoyed and full of adrenalin I rode off into the darkness.
On the evening of the sixth day I crossed the Namibian Border. 2000 km in and still in third place. At that moment I couldn’t have been more proud or excited with my efforts. But the border marked a change in my fortunes. I began to slip back in the field and had a royal battle with some sort of sickness. My race morphed into a ride of survival for the next 500 kilometres.
Now I say sickness because I suffered diarrhea and couldn’t keep food down. But on reflection I wonder if it was lack of racing experience that led me to that state. Steve Halligan passed me, Sofiane and Max Reise too. These guys are as experienced as it gets when it comes to this ultra world. Were they looking after themselves in a way that I wasn’t? I’d learnt that I have the legs and mind to keep up with them but maybe my racecraft wasn’t at their level just yet.
Once over the Namibian border we had just over 700 km to go - and by far the toughest section of the race. You could count the resupply points on one hand and the roads were slow. But for me the craziest and most challenging part of Namibia was the heat. I have never felt so constantly hot in my life. Every day it was in the high 30s, often 40ºC. It felt like being in an oven - a slow roasted Jimmy waiting for a large African cat to come and eat him for Sunday lunch. Night would fall and my body would radiate heat. It was incredible, immense and scary at times. Water would almost boil in my bottles, choc bars would melt through my bags and good luck keeping any food down because my guts were not happy.
Crossing the D707 asked a lot of questions of me. Luckily I found some answers. Leaving any ounce of food or liquid in a messy pile at the side of the road, I traversed the 200 km through to Beta Camp on a few jellybeans and a mandarin. That day will remain with me for a long time as one that forced me to dig deep. Looking back on it now I can laugh but there was not much laughter at the time.
Saying all of that though, "yes" I was lacking energy and gusto, but I definitely didn’t want to be anywhere else. I’d look to my right and see a heard of zebra or giraffe in the distance and then blink and catch an oryx or kudu storm across the road in front of me. The sunrises and sunsets brought such beauty to the sky that goosebumps and emotion would fill my body. It’s impossible to put into words how picturesque Namibia is. You’ll just have to go there yourself.
Whilst the African wildlife was incredible, on my second to last night I had a very different encounter. I met a wizard. Yep, a wizard. Asleep on the side of the road I awoke to see a figure floating above me waving his wand telling me in a deep wise voice "You’ve missed a checkpoint and have to go back". So real and clear in my mind was this apparition that I sat up in my bivvy bag and argued that it couldn't be true, yelling "No" at him repeatedly. I jumped up, packed my bike and rolled away - thankfully in the right direction. It wasn’t until an hour or so later that I shook my head clear and laughed at my delirium.
As I left the deserts, giraffes and wizards behind, Windhoek inched closer and closer. With the end in sight I started to understand something pretty important about these races - the value of actually finishing is higher than your time or result. The first goal of the ride should be to finish, everything else comes after that. To finish was a win for me. I was overjoyed to make it.
Sitting here now, weeks later, I’m still processing the enormity of the race - the lessons learned and moments experienced. How will I do better next time? On reflection, it’s easy to point out things that went wrong, at least that’s where my head automatically goes. However the more I think about it, the more I can see how much went right. Sure I made some mistakes but it was my first race and I’m only 23.
What it has done is create an obsession in my mind and heart for more. I know I can hold my own for 2000 km alongside some of the world's best, how do I maintain that for the full 2750 km? This is only the start.
I can’t wait to meet to wizard again soon.
My Ground Effect gear:
- Slim Jims shorts
- Treetop Green Stingray top
- Yoyos arm warmers
- Halfpipes leg warmers
- Flash Gordon rain jacket
- Chipolatas & Quickdraws gloves
- Baked Beanie thermal skull cap
Bike & Bags: