Rhino Run 2023: Interview with ‘Benky’ BenkensteinJan Heine
This morning, the 2023 Rhino Run bikepacking race started in Plettenberg, South Africa. Riders will cross the rugged mountains of the Cape in South Africa before traversing the Karoo and Namib Deserts during the 2,750 km (1,708 mile) race. Last year, Kevin ‘Benky’ Benkenstein and Abdullah Zeinab raced neck-to-neck for 8 days before a night-time showdown on the final climb to the Namibian highlands. At the finish, a mere 17 minutes separated the two leaders, with Abdullah taking the win. This year, Benky is back in the race. We caught up with him a few days before the start.
JH: Kevin, you’re lining up for the Rhino Run again. Last year was the first edition of this amazing race. The course goes over 2,750 km from the coast of South Africa via the Karoo and Namib Deserts to Windhoek, the capital of Namibia. It traverses some of the most sparsely populated areas on earth. Riding there is more than just a challenge, it seems impossible!
Benky: Yes, it does. Namibia is the 2nd least populated country on earth, so the gaps between resupplies are a challenge, as are opening hours of these small stores. I like these sorts of races, though, that require 10-12-hour gaps regularly and give you a lot of planning challenges. My first big Ultra was Race to the Rock, which had a few 300 km gaps, so maybe it’s just from that experience that I like this sort of riding. The views, time by myself, and people just add to what I love about it.
JH: What made you come back this year?
Benky: I am back at the race because I feel like I have something more to give to the route, and to get out of myself. The nature of racing means that anything can happen, though, and really, things might go worse than a year ago. So I am going in with few expectations, but many goals, both in terms of physical performance, but also what I want to get out of the experience.
JH: Last year, you and Abdullah Zeinab raced neck-to-neck for eight days. In the end, he beat you by just 17 minutes, but the showdown could have gone either way. What is your strategy this year?
Benky: Ride my own race, as simple as that. I really feel the need to be out there alone right now, to be absorbed by the goals I’ve set myself, and to enjoy it in my way. I loved racing with Abdullah, but I hope that, this year, I can ride alone a bit more, wherever other riders are, and experience the route in a new way.
JH: With the experience of having raced the course, what are you doing differently year?
Benky: I think I faffed around a bit more than I liked last year and also, being in a race against a rider for most of the way, didn’t really get to ride my way. I want to be very internally focused this year.
JH: Tell us about your bike for this year’s race.
Benky: Equipment-wise I am on a slightly faster bike. I am riding a Curve Big Kev with Curve Dirt Hoops wrapped in Rene Herse Fleecer Ridge 700×55 tyres. I have gone with SRAM AXS 12-speed for the gear range. I am using the same Apidura bags I have had on my bike for the last few races. Really it is a tried and true equipment list that I feel comfortable with. That matters a lot to me.
JH: When I was a student, I traveled in Namibia. I remember the gravel roads as either extremely loose and sandy, or full of washboard. Even in a car or truck, they were a challenge. How do you handle them on your bike?
Benky: The sand is hell, I am dreading that, but the corrugations are OK. There is generally a line, or maybe you just convince yourself there is. Failing that, you just have to ride hard so that you maintain speed and float a bit. Honestly though, it’s just something you force yourself to ‘just do’ because it’s in front of you and you need to move forward, so you find something that feels like it works and go with it.
JH: Resupplies are few and far between in Namibia, and temperatures are extremely hot. How much water do you carry on your bike? And how do you carry it?
Benky: I think last year the most I had was 10 liters plus a few Cokes. I have 3 liters on my frame, and the rest will have to go in my backpack. I carry a collapsible pack. Carrying 6-7 liters of water on your back is one of the less enjoyable parts of all of this, to be honest.
JH: What is the biggest challenge on a ride this long, traversing not just one, but two deserts? How do you deal with it?
Benky: The heat, the loneliness, and the need to stay focused. Being in the desert is pretty normal to me, through racing experience, but it never gets easier. You have to be very aware of what’s ahead of you at all times, from where the next town is to what time you will get there and what will be open then. It’s a big Excel spreadsheet in my head of ETA’s and fuel consumption, which keeps my mind busy. I break it down into shorter segments, set goals for those, and do that on repeat. Riding 2,705 km is scary, but 60-200 km is always manageable, and so I focus on that instead.
JH: What is the best part of the race? Are you looking forward?
Benky: Getting the chance to be a little better than I was before, and the sunrises and sunsets. I am looking forward to the opportunity ahead.
JH: Thank you! Best of luck to you and all the other racers!
- Follow the trackers of the racers at https://rhinorun2023.maprogress.com
Photo credits: The Rhino Run (Photos are from the 2022 race.)