The Trans Am Bike Race is an unsupported cycle race from one side of the United States to the other. The 2019 edition of the event was won by Abdullah Zeinab from Australia; he reached the finish line in record time. This is his story.
Melbourne is where Abdullah Zeinab’s story in cycling begins.
He grew up in Adelaide with his mother and grandmother but moved to Melbourne after finishing school, to attend university. In Melbourne, he started cycling to work; he rode a single speed and his commute was around five to six kilometers. “ I really began to enjoy it and started riding the bike on the weekends,’’ Abdullah said. Before this phase of cycling he had tried out several different sports, growing up. He didn’t really pursue any of them longer than a few months. One choice however, was to leave a lasting impact. When he was sixteen he started going to the gym with his friends. That was the first thing he became consistent with. Strength training provided him a foundation to attempt other pursuits from.
“ Eventually I bought a road bike and the same weekend I decided to ride to Adelaide where my mother lived. It was about 1000 kilometers away. I didn’t know what I was in for and the reality of the situation was a big shock. I had no long distance gear, no lights and nothing to charge my electronics, with. The ride really broke me and I remember crying every day for no particular reason. After six days I made it to Adelaide and strangely as I pulled into my house I thought to myself: I want to try it again and see if I can do it better. This was probably in the middle of 2015. Since than I have followed a pattern of cycling consistently for a few months, then taking a few months off; continuing like that,’’ Abdullah said. Back in those early stages of his interest in cycling, he figured things out on his own. He has never been part of a cycling club or group. He wasn’t into brevets. “ I just started riding by myself and slowly began to meet other cyclists,’’ he said.
Roughly three years before Abdullah got into cycling regularly, in February 2012, a race to circumnavigate the globe on bicycle, was kicked off from near the Greenwich royal observatory in south east London. There were nine participants. The event was called Quick Energy World Cycle Racing Grand Tour. The riders were free to choose their own route. But according to media reports, they had to satisfy one condition – they had to cover a minimum of 18,000 miles in the same direction with GPS tracking throughout. Ninety two days after they set out, the race produced a winner – Mike Hall, an engineer from Harrogate, North Yorkshire. It was a new world record. Reporting the win, The Guardian wrote: a cyclist has triple cause for celebration after he won a round-the-world race on his birthday and broke the world record in the process. Hall would go on to become an iconic figure in unsupported (or self-supported) ultra-cycling. In 2013, the year after that round-the-world race, he won Tour Divide, a 2745 mile (4418 kilometers) annual race traversing the length of the Rocky Mountains from Canada to the Mexico border. That year on, he was principal organizer of the Transcontinental Race, an ultra-cycling event in Europe. In 2014, he won the inaugural Trans Am Bike Race, a 4200 mile (6800 kilometers) race spanning the breadth of the United States.
As you look at the world map, some countries give you a distinct sense of space as matrix of land area and population (overall numbers and dispersion). Australia with its great outback is one of them. The above said matrix, is often sought by adventurers and endurance athletes; it is aesthetic they dig. Fremantle is a port city at the mouth of the Swan River in south west Australia. It is a place familiar to those into sailing or tracking the sport. It is a halt on the world’s regular circumnavigation route. The closest major city is Perth. The annual Indian Pacific Wheel Race (IndiPac) starts from Fremantle. Its course extends 5500 kilometers – a line across the belly of the continent – to finish at the famous Sydney Opera House on Australia’s south east. Among participants in the 2017 inaugural edition of IndiPac, was Mike Hall. Unfortunately, it was his last bike race. Hall was in the final phase of the race and placed second overall, when he was hit by a car on the Monaro Highway, south of Canberra in the early hours of March 31. He died at the scene. It was a big blow for the race and for the world of ultra-cycling. Following the accident, all racers were pulled off the course. Its impact was felt the next year for although riders registered to participate, the race couldn’t be officially held due to concerns ranging from ongoing inquiry into the accident to road safety. However participants decided to cycle all the same. The 2018 edition of IndiPac was therefore unofficial and it produced an unexpected winner (in this case, given unofficial race; person finishing first).
A year earlier, in 2017, Abdullah had been among those involved with filming IndiPac. It gave him a ringside view of elite ultra-cyclists. The experience was a game changer. “ Filming 2017 IndiPac and being able to witness the extraordinary capabilities of the riders doing the event from such close quarters – that really captivated me. I was following Mike Hall and Kristof Allegaert very closely during that race. Just the way both those guys carried themselves under extreme fatigue was fascinating. It looked like they were on a casual Sunday ride. I told my girlfriend halfway through that I had to try this race one day. After that I couldn’t back out on my word,’’ Abdullah said. He got back from a holiday at the end of November and began training for the event’s 2018 edition. “ I gave myself approximately 12 weeks to really train for it,’’ he said. As mentioned, IndiPac 2018 – happening as it did in the shadow of Mike Hall’s demise the previous year – was unofficial. It was a case of cyclists registered to participate, deciding to proceed despite event being cancelled. Several days and 5500 kilometers later, the first finisher of that year’s unofficial IndiPac reached Sydney’s Opera House. It was Abdullah on his Trek Emonda.
“ IndiPac 2018 went really well for me. I ended up reaching the finish first out of all the riders who started. Filming and driving the whole route the year before gave me a massive advantage. Also being able to witness two of the best unsupported ultra-endurance cyclists in the world in 2017 was the ultimate classroom. I guess what worked well for me was creating an ambitious plan. I didn’t really know what my potential was and I didn’t really want to limit it by creating a safe schedule to follow. Instead I just roughly set out to do what the leaders from the year before did and stuck to that. To my surprise I was able to stick to it. That race really showed me just a small taste of what the human body is capable of. I was under-trained and didn’t have the conditioning on paper to back it up day in, day out. But I just rode every kilometer as if it was my first and last,’’ he said. Winning the unofficial IndiPac of 2018 called for an altered approach to what he was doing. “ Given the race ended up well for me, I thought I should try and pursue this type of riding a bit further by being more consistent with training and set a target for a new race,’’ he said.
According to Abdullah, at the finish of IndiPac, somebody came up to him and asked if he could imagine a race with double the elevation and another 1300 kilometers thrown in. “ He said that’s what Trans Am is. I guess at that moment the seed was planted in my head,’’ Abdullah said. He went home and rested well for about three months. Then he commenced training with some structure. Although the distance of Trans Am was intimidating, especially once he began to reflect on how hard some moments were during IndiPac, he decided to give it a go.“ So basically, three months after I finished IndiPac, I decided that I would do Trans Am,’’ Abdullah said.
Over the next eleven months, he did triple the training he had done for IndiPac. “ I had never really been consistent with training before. I wanted to give myself the opportunity to see what would happen if I was consistent. I focused on getting out at least five times per week on the bike which was a lot different to my IndiPac preparation wherein at times, I rode only thrice a week. I knew I could ride long hours so I focused on quality rather than quantity and gave myself more time to rest throughout the training. This was possible because I gave myself more time to prepare. All in all it was approximately 750 hours on the bike from start to finish,’’ Abdullah said. As with IndiPac, he researched Trans Am, essentially figuring out how much he wished to travel per day and checking what services were available along the way – till he was comfortable enough to ride it. “ In terms of details of the research, it’s just knowing the opening hours of gas stations, supermarkets and if there is a hotel nearby,’’ Abdullah said.
Unsupported racing (or self-supported as some call it) requires cyclist to carry all that he / she may need. There is no support crew trailing cyclist in a car. You can eat and avail shelter and repair from outside sources but on courses like the long ones ultra-cycling courts, there are intervening spaces with no human habitation and those with facilities too frugal for the sort of support you seek. An element of self-reliance is therefore important. At the same time, if all that you elect to carry becomes too much, then the weight is bound to slow down progress. What to take becomes a product of research, self-awareness, experience and appetite for the unknown. Given he had done IndiPac, Abdullah had a gear list for such racing. What he needed to do was – research and work out how far he could carry the same stuff for Trans Am too. “ The only difference was I took a few extra pieces of clothing to keep me warm; like an extra set of gloves. Everything I had was distributed between the frame bag and the top tube bag with some spare tubes in a small saddle bag on the seat post. I had spoken with a few friends online who had done the race previously and they helped me understand the type of conditions we would be going through and the necessary clothing required,’’ Abdullah said. Here’s what he finally carried: rain jacket, wind jacket, base layer, gloves (two pairs), beanie and glasses; multi tool, tubes (five), patch kit, spare tyre, zip ties, electrical tape, 10,000 Ma battery pack, wall charger to plug USB ports into, charging cables, Etrex 30x and Wahoo Bolt for navigation. As for bicycle, he used a 2019 Specialized S Works Tarmac.
What did he have on his mind, going into Trans Am 2019?
“ First and foremost I wanted to improve on my previous performance at IndiPac. The Trans Am course has a lot more elevation gain. So I thought that if I could get close to the same average distance per day, I would have improved. Goals before the race and during it are different. I wanted to set a new record at Trans Am and do it the fastest anyone had done before. But once I was a few days deep, I really just wanted to make sure I got to the end in one piece,’’ Abdullah said. According to him, the Trans Am experience was great. “ For crossing a whole country I would say it worked out very well. I had some bad patches of weather but it was mostly just rain and some severe head winds. I was fortunate because some of the racers behind me had to go through snow. There is really no other option than to keep going. I wish I had rain pants and some other things to keep me warm but in the moment the only way out is to continue. From what I experienced so far with this type of riding it rarely goes 100 percent as you expect but you become better at accepting the situation for how it is. The moment you don’t is the moment it becomes harder than it needs to be,’’ Abdullah said.
At both Trans Am and IndiPac, which preceded it, there were several moments when Abdullah was unsure if he would make it; mainly due to physical pain. “ Especially with Trans Am I had some moments of excruciating physical pain and I was unsure if I would make the next town without injury,’’ he said. In such circumstances and generally in ultra-long endurance races, how you think matters. What does Abdullah tell himself through such races?
“ For me, I got nothing to lose. Winning or losing the race isn’t going to define who I am. Cycling is something I do but it’s not who I am. Success for me is giving 100 percent effort. I have achieved enough of the goals I have set out to accomplish to realize that the moment you achieve them is never what you think it will be. It is really the process that is special. Being able to enjoy the process to the highest degree possible is something I continually strive for. In a race like this I tell myself all sorts of things. It depends on the situation and what I am dealing with. To me there is no suffering in a race. It’s not a word I say to myself. If am finding it overwhelmingly difficult and I am struggling to deal with it; well cool… that’s just how it is. Specifically for races like Trans Am or IndiPac, the moment I identify with suffering or something being extremely difficult as a bad or good thing it becomes my slow downfall. You submit yourself emotionally to the ups and downs of good and bad, hard and easy or sad and happy. In my mind moments are just moments. Weather they are good or bad is dependent on your perception of them. I just say to myself it’s okay. You’re okay. Such a simple statement; but it offers me a path that kind of transcends the ups and downs and offers a more stable experience, which allows me to enjoy the whole ride versus being a mess for 50 percent of it and being ‘happy’ for the other 50 percent,’’ Abdullah said.
At Trans Am 2019, the cyclist from Melbourne, Australia, completed the course in 16 days, nine hours, 56 minutes. He not only won the race; he set a new course record. For Abdullah, who has so far banked on his resources and support from his family, to fund his participation at major races this was the second big win of his fledgling career in cycling. “ I hope now that I may be able to get help from sponsors. We will see,’’ he said. In photos and videos showing his finish at IndiPac 2018 and Trans Am 2019 – they are available on the Internet – one person you notice is his mother. She is there at the finish line. “ My mother has always supported me in anything I do, whether it be playing table tennis or riding a bike. She really is my biggest supporter and I wouldn’t be the person I am without her,’’ Abdullah said.
After Trans Am 2019, what’s next for Abdullah Zeinab? “ Honestly right now I am just enjoying the time off and relaxing as much as possible. I am trying not to think about what’s next too much because I know it will ruin my relaxation and reflection time. In a month or so I will begin to see what excites me,’’ he said.
(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. The interview with Abdullah Zeinab was done via email. Trans Am Bike Race website: https://transambikerace.com/)