By Danny Roberts-Clarke
Blistering heat, deep sand, long climbs and extremely remote terrain make the Rhino Run one of the hardest off-road unsupported bikepacking races in the world. At over 2700 km and 30,000+ metres of climbing, the route winds its way from Plettenberg Bay in South Africa’s Western Cape up to Windhoek in Namibia. Entries supported Masaka Cycling Club, a Ugandan team providing opportunities for young African riders on the world stage.
This year, Abdullah Zeinab rode his Curve GXR (AKA Kevin) to victory in just 7 days, 20 hours and 4 minutes after an exciting hard fought battle with Kevin Benkenstein (Benky), who finished only 17 minutes later on a prototype Curve Karoo.
Some of the biggest names in the ultra endurance world were on the start list, including experienced race winners Sarah Hammond (Race to the Rock), Josh Ibbett (Transcontinental), and Sofiane Sehili (Tour Divide and the Silk Road Mountain Race). If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend you watch the race film here.
With some sections of the route on smoother gravel roads and tarmac, and long portions with deep sand and rocky climbs and descents, bike choice was a contentious topic. As a result, the start line was full of everything from titanium hardtail mountain bikes to carbon gravel bikes.
Curve were good enough to send us over some shots of Abdullah’s GXR when it arrived back at Curve HQ, still covered in premium Namibian dust. Feast your eyes below, and make sure you scroll down to the bottom for a Q&A with Abdullah.
Abdullah was running Campagnolo’s Ekar 1x13 speed gravel groupset, with Curve’s 50 cm Walmer bars and 700c G4T carbon wheels in the 35 mm depth. This is as it comes in stock specification straight from Curve, except for the Rene Herse Oracle Ridge tyres and 3T aerobars.
Abdullah made use of Apidura’s Expedition range of bikepacking bags, with just a small half frame bag, seat pack, top tube and feed bag letting him travel fast and light. This was a fairly common strategy at the pointy end of the race, but further back some riders opted for more creature comforts. Photo: Outlaw Media
The Campagnolo Ekar groupset is a nice option for a bike packing rig, with the notoriously excellent brakes providing plenty of stopping power. Abdullah used a 9-42 cassette paired with a 38T chainring, and mechanical shifting means there's no need to panic about charging batteries when you're 200 km from the nearest power point. Photo: @averagemrjoe
2700+ km of off-road riding in one go is not kind to hoods… Photo: @averagemrjoe
Kevin will officially take up to 700c x 45 or 650b x 2.2” tyres, but if you like living life on the edge, you can push that out a little bit with the right tyre as Abdullah has done here with a pair 700c x 48 Rene Herse Oracle Ridge's. Having ridden the first ~700 km of the route myself on 650b x 2.25” tyres, I wouldn’t want to go any narrower. Photo: @averagemrjoe
It’s the best head badge in the game, and I will close my ears to any arguments. Photo: @averagemrjoe
Spare tubes, still taped to the frame. Photo: @averagemrjoe
Abdullah in full flight, somewhere in Namibia. Photo: Outlaw Media
Sweat, sand and bikepacking bags mix better on a Ti bike than carbon. No chance of the frame or paint wearing through from friction here - that’ll clean up fine. Photo: @averagemrjoe
A p-clip on the rack mount keeps the gear cable tucked away. Tidy. Photo: @averagemrjoe
Three of the excellent Arundel stainless steel bottle cages still weren’t enough for some sections of the route, with the racers often filling backpacks with water bottles for the long sections between desert resupplies. Photo: @averagemrjoe
One of the most famous incidents from the race - Abdullah lost a grub screw from his rear derailleur hanger, and as a consequence lost the lead he’d painstakingly built over Benky in second place. After 2 hours of sifting through the sand for it, he repurposed a screw from his Garmin mount and cracked on. Photo: Outlaw Media
The replacement screw in question. It’s a high stakes bodge, but it worked. Photo: @averagemrjoe
Abdullah at the finish, after a huge last day push let him pass Benky and take the win by just 17 minutes. Photo: Outlaw Media
How much gravel riding/training had you done before attempting the Rhino Run?
I had probably done less than 100 km of gravel training in preparation for the Rhino Run. I was pretty beat up when I started training for the Rhino Run. I had been working as a scaffold labourer which took its toll on my body so the idea of taking on a new challenge like riding on gravel seemed a bit too much for me at the time.
When I began training I defaulted back to riding on the road with hopes of eventually switching to gravel but that never happened. I eventually rationalized my choice by thinking that if I just got as fit as possible in the time I had that I would be able to handle it. I did however improve on my ability to handle big training weeks and I was able to do some of the biggest weeks of riding back to back that I had ever done.
I got my friend Matthew Derosches from Resilience High Performance coaching to plan out my training. It really helped to have him on my team and he pushed me at times that I probably would've pulled back. He also told me to rest at times I probably would have gone too far. Overall it was the best on road training block I had ever done which allowed me to do virtually no gravel training and still survive a gravel race. The biggest training week I did was 38 hours which was tough. Harder than that was the months of manual labouring prior to starting the training.
What did you like most about the bike setup?
The thing I liked the most was the comfort. The bike I rode previously was a Giant Trinity so coming from a time trial bike to a relaxed geometry gravel bike was a welcomed change.
What did you like about Ekar specifically?
It was super robust. I crashed three times and I never had a significant issue with the group set. The only thing I damaged was bending the derailleur hanger but that was expected after the crash I had.
Is there anything you would change about the gearing for next time?
The only thing I would have liked was to have more gears on the cassette. There were some real steep climbs and multiple times I was doing a full body workout trying to get up them without walking. Usually I don’t think it would be an issue but after multiple days, a ten percent climb feels like twenty percent.
Other than that tiny screw, did you have any issues you had to fix along the way?
Don’t remind me about the screw! Apart from that traumatic event I had a smooth run. I plugged the tyre a couple times and had to straighten my handlebars up after going over the bars. All in all I think it went well.. Except for the screw in the sand.
Did you weigh the setup? How much weight do you think you were carrying when fully loaded?
I would say it would have been between 15-18 kgs when I started. As the race progressed services got further and further apart so I ended up finding ways to secure more water to my bike. At times I had 8 litres plus on the bike spread between the bottle cages and bottles taped to the time trial bars.
Any changes you'll make to the bike setup going forward?
The biggest change I would make would be to use a dynamo hub. I came from a road background where you can get away with a low Powered light charged via a battery bank. On rocky descents I quickly realized just how much light you needed. I only had a 20,000 Mah battery bank which made it difficult at times. Having a dynamo would give you a high powered light and allow you to sleep on the side of the road, which would also save time checking in and out of hotels. The dynamo would allow you to sleep on the side of the road and not have to stop for any charging.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this bike check gallery - if it's something you like, please let us know and we’ll do more in the future. Finally, a massive congratulations to Abdullah, Benky, and the rest of the competitors, as well as the team at Curve and Outlaw Media who did such a great job of putting this race on and letting us follow along.
Abdullah has big plans in the Ultra racing space over the next few years. If you’d like to support his journey, you can do so here.
If you'd like to get in touch about a new bike, give us a shout at email@example.com, or hit the link here for more details. We'd love to have you as part of the G!RO and Curve family.
Titanium bikes have featured more prominently in bikepacking races in recent years. It's not just racing, more and more riders are choosing titanium for bikepacking and cycle touring adventures. So, why do titanium bikes work so well for this application? Jesse Carlsson, one of Curve's owners, has ridden tens of thousands of kilometers on Curve's titanium frames - from the Trans Am Bike Race and Race to the Rock to touring remote outback Australia. Here Jesse explains the four reasons why titanium bikes are best for bikepacking. Read on to learn more.