What it’s like to ride 900 km in a day
A chat with ultra-endurance racer Abdullah Zeinab.
A chat with ultra-endurance racer Abdullah Zeinab.
Any cyclist can relate to the satisfaction of finishing a long ride – the sense of completion, the physical and emotional release, the satisfaction in your body doing its best effort.
Very few cyclists, however, can relate to the feeling of having ridden more than 900 kilometres in just 24 hours. But Abdullah Zeinab is not like most other cyclists, and with a mammoth effort on the weekend he is one of just a handful of people worldwide to hit that milestone.
For the last two years, Australian ultra-cyclist Abdullah Zeinab has had his eye on a big ride: the 24-hour world record.
The 26-year-old has shown an abnormal ability to ride far, fast – he burst onto the ultra-endurance scene in 2018 as the winner of Australia’s continent-crossing Indian Pacific Wheel Race. A year later, he conquered the Trans Am, riding 6,800 km from the west coast to the east coast of America in the record-breaking time of 16 days, nine hours and 56 minutes.
The 24-hour record is different, though – it is an unfeasibly long time in the saddle, but it is also far more succinct than a weeks-long bikepacking race. It’s a different physical challenge, Zeinab says, with no reprieve. “You know how people say that an hour on the Wahoo Kickr [indoor trainer] is like three hours on the road?” he asks hypothetically. “The 24 hour is like that. You’re on the pedals all the time. It’s like being punched in the face.”
In the two years he’s had his eye on the record, he’s done many hours in a tuck on a time trial bike riding in circles on flat roads. Ironically, then, it’s been a journey with plenty of ups and downs.
A key milestone along the way came in April 2021, when he had a crack at the record – which at the time stood at 915 km – on the Ford test track near Geelong, Australia.
“In hindsight, I don’t know how I thought I could pull it off,” he says now. The promotion, the fundraising, the sponsorship, and organising all of the logistics took its toll before he’d even pedalled a single stroke. Compounding the issue was the weather: due to rolling coronavirus lockdowns there was little scope to plan to acclimatise, and in the end, he’d rather abruptly had to go from the warmth of southern Queensland to single-digit temperatures in Victoria, with an inconceivable amount of distance to cover on his bike.
The best-laid plans came unravelled early. He was vomiting on the roadside from four hours in, and eventually withdrew after 18 hours. Even then, he covered over 600 km and raised thousands of dollars for the Masaka Cycling Club in Uganda. (That’s a worthy cause we’ve written about before. To donate, head here.)
In the time between Zeinab’s first attempt and his second, the bar was raised. In July 2021, the Austrian ultra-cyclist Christoph Strasser obliterated the record by over 100 km, setting a new mark of 1,026.2 km at a mindblowing average speed of 42.75 km/h.
Zeinab, meanwhile, was haunted by his first failed attempt and resolved to try again, despite a nagging suspicion that it had just been put out of reach. But then, as he processed the first failed effort over the months that followed, his motivation steadily shifted from extrinsic to intrinsic.
“It wasn’t really about the number,” he says. “If it was 600, 700, 800 km – I just wanted to be able to say that I did my best.”
Last weekend, he set out to do just that.
Abdullah Zeinab’s path to the forefront of a niche branch of competitive cycling does not follow a typical narrative. Born in Adelaide, Zeinab relocated to Melbourne just after turning 20 – where he worked as an Uber delivery rider, while notching up bikepacking race wins. About two years ago he moved again, this time to the Gold Coast. Bikepacking and ultra-endurance cycling doesn’t make anyone rich, and Zeinab works as a labourer with support in the form of equipment from sponsors.
Most recently, prior to his second crack at the 24-hour record, he was working as a concreter. “Thankfully that job wrapped up a month ago,” he says, “so I could train for this.”
‘This’ is the act of riding as far as possible in 24 hours – stopping as little as possible, eating as well as possible. All on the line for an entire day and a night.
Despite an impressive palmares as an ultra-endurance racer, Zeinab has had a fairly impulsive approach to riding and training, and the 24-hour record was like a new language. He shifted over to a time trial bike, and started thinking about watts and aerodynamics and food. From riding long days in bikepacking races at a consistent 30-ish km/h, his intensity needed to increase. “I did a lot of six-hour training rides, and I’d often end a ride feeling horrible,” Zeinab says. “When I started eyeing off the record it didn’t feel achievable, but I’d do six hours, eight hours, 10 hours … and my average speed would keep going up.”
He brought that studious effort to his April attempt, and when his body failed to back him up, he was left shattered.
Zeinab doubled down on ‘theory’ rather than ‘feeling’. Six months later he was ready for another crack, his impulsive side working with what he’d learnt along the way.
“During my training I was planning on the attempt around a closed criterium circuit in Brisbane,” Zeinab says. “In testing I knew that it was around 25 watts quicker, but it was shorter and because it was so quick through the corners, after a while you’d almost feel whiplash … like you wanted to throw up.” He was left with a choice – speed or (relative) comfort.
“The circuit I ended up using down on the (Gold) Coast is close to where I’m living, and longer – about 4.5 km I think – but I’d been training on it for the last two years … I’ve put in 13, 14,000 kilometres there in training,” he explains. “I got to know the people in the area, I even knew what time people would be walking their dogs. I’d gotten so comfortable on it that in the end I just decided to go for it. It was a trade-off between it being a slower loop, but it would take less of a mental toll than the short loop.”
Zeinab was keen for closure, and reached a point where he felt that there was nothing further he could do to prepare. Almost spontaneously, he called the attempt for a weekend a few earlier than he’d originally planned for. As it turned out, conditions weren’t optimal – 25 km/h winds for most of the first half of the attempt took their toll, and temperatures reached around 32 °C (90 ºF). “Thankfully the humidity was pretty low,” Zeinab says. “But the TT helmet is heavy and hot, and I could feel myself slowly getting cooked.”
In videos from the ride, however, the difference with the first attempt is stark. For one, the Melbourne attempt was on something like an enormous banked velodrome – the Gold Coast circuit was open to cars, and lined with vehicles parked outside homes. The cold was almost visceral in Melbourne; the heat in Queensland shimmered off the road. But this time, Zeinab’s body did what he wanted it to.
Fuelled by a steady diet of rice cakes and coconut water supplied by his support crew, Zeinab ticked off the kilometres. “At one point a few hours in I was just cooked and it was feeling like the first attempt all over again,” he explains. “My power started dropping and my heart rate started spiking to higher than it normally gets.”
That hard-won experience from April, and the depths of mental strength he’d had to conjure since, helped turn it around. “That’s what it’s like – you need to deal with the mix of external and internal factors and get your head right. Everything plays together.
“On the TT bike you’re so hunched over that you start feeling sick, so after a while you just have to eat whatever you crave,” Zeinab says. For the Trans Am, that was a diet of hash browns – in part due to their availability as a vegan-friendly high-calorie fuel. For the 24-hour record, he consumed a litre of chocolate soy milk, Sprite, Coke, lollies, and hot chips – whatever he could get down and keep down, to the tune of 500-800 calories an hour.
After 24 hours in the saddle, having pedalled through a day and a night, Zeinab rolled to a stop in the gutter of a suburban street. His skinsuit was salt-ringed, and as he gingerly dismounted, his supporters snuck a look at his computer screen. The distance: a colossal 904 km.
That was a way off Strasser’s record, but is – as far as we can tell – the third-greatest distance anyone has ever cycled in 24 hours. For Abdullah Zeinab, it was redemption after the disappointment of April’s attempt, and proof to himself of the strength of his body and mind. “With this ride I just wanted to do my best,” he says. “You can look at it and think about how you could have saved time here or there but in the end, I feel like on the day I did my best.” There’s something seductive about the thought of going further down the rabbit hole, but he’s content with the ride. “I’ve closed that chapter,” he says.
At the time we speak, four days after the fact, his body is on the way back. “I couldn’t sleep when I got home – it’s like you’ve microwaved your insides, you’re hungry but you’re full, you’re so hot and everything feels wrong,” he says. “It was pretty hectic … it was almost worse than the ride. But that night, I went to bed at 8pm, woke up with the sun at 5am, and I don’t remember anything. I slept like a little kid.
“I now know the secret to a good night’s sleep. The only problem is that I’ve got to ride for 900 km,” he says with a laugh.
There’ll be long rides in Zeinab’s future – he’s eyeing off an attempt at the European bikepacking races, including the Transcontinental. “But with the world the way it is – with visas and passports and lockdowns – it’s hard to wrap your head around,” he says. There’s ambition, but the practical steps aren’t in the works just yet.
Besides, there are other priorities before then.
A week after riding further in one day than most cyclists do in a month, Zeinab is starting to think about getting back on the bike. “I’ve just been on the TT bike pretty much for two years,” he says. “I’ve missed my road bike. I’m looking forward to getting on and going in a straight line, uphill.”
“I’ve missed that – being in the middle of nowhere, looking around, going slow, instead of just staring at the road in front of me.”