Introducing Josh Ibbett — the long man of cycling

Introducing Josh Ibbett — the long man of cycling

*disclaimer. This article was written only a couple of days before lockdown.

It’s been a long day. The light has faded to dusk and the illuminated windows across the street are going black one by one. I’m pretty tired from a day of lugging furniture and sifting through things to bin and things to file. Moving office is a tiring endeavour, but i’m pretty proud of myself for the effort. Just at the moment when i decide i’ve earned a beer, my inbox pings and a replied message sits on top of the pile. It’s josh ibbett with the answers to some more of my questions and some photographs of him standing proudly by a dusty bike.

Josh’s reply is cheery and light, there is no labour to the information he shares with me. A little detail about route planning, some explanation about kit and casual reference correcting a race result. “I’ve never won that one, I just came 2nd and 3rd.” Just second and third. I’d like to just come third at some point, I’d definitely treat myself to a beer then. As I sit in my broken state, wondering how a cyclist with spindly arms managed to carry so many books, it’s not lost on me that the wiry cyclist that I’ve been interviewing has probably felt much more exhausted much more often. 

The second and third place that Josh mentioned were in Bikingman Oman, an unassisted race in the south-east Arabian Peninsula crossing the Hajar Mountains and Ash Shaqiyah Desert. At over 1,000km and nearly 10,000m the hot, dusty challenge is likely more exhausting than moving office but the motivation – and reward – also greater. 

“FOR ME THE REAL JOY OF RIDING ALONE IS SEEING THE WORLD. YES THERE ARE TIMES WHEN I ENJOY PUSHING HARD, BUT IT’S SEEING NEW PARTS OF THE WORLD AND EXPERIENCING NEW CULTURES THAT REALLY DOES IT FOR ME.”

For Josh the journey is a greater motivator than the thrill of winning. He explains how discovery fuels the drive to seek out challenge after challenge. With a victory in TCR in 2015 under his belt, these aren’t the hollow words of a gallant runner-up. The unknown is something that Josh seems perfectly at home with – “knowledge can be dangerous” he offers, “if you know what’s coming you can over think it”. Ahead of his entry to the Tour Divide, a 2700 mile off-road bikepacking race in Canada, Josh no solace in the mountains of information about the challenge. A race along the length of the Rocky Mountains to the Mexican border was clearly going to be tough but absorbing all the facts only confused matters. 

“IT’S EASY TO STOP AND REST FOR THE NIGHT BEFORE A MASSIVE PASS WHEN YOU KNOW ITS COMING, BUT YOU ALSO FEAR IT COMING. IF YOU DON’T KNOW ABOUT IT, YOU JUST DEAL WITH IT”

It seems that Josh prefers to make his own learnings, rather than rely on the findings of others. He rode a Mason Cycles InSearchOf for the Tour divide, working with Dom Mason to create a bike specifically for the event. Whilst it was ‘just the job’ he does wonder whether suspension would be a good addition for comfort and to let him rip the descents. A case of improving by his own experience. The same applies to non-bike gear, particularly a hooped bivvy and light sleeping bag which would have prevented him from needing quite so many motels on the 2019 effort. 

The conversation about kit for the bike and for bikepacking could be everlasting, you sense. There’s old fashioned notion of bicycle touring; heavy road bikes with mudguards and racks, maps in plastic envelopes and cagoule clad cyclists stopping off for cream teas. In recent years the concept of bikepacking seems to have had a rebrand. 

“BIKEPACKING, CYCLE TOURING, ITS ALL THE SAME. IT’S THE SAME EXPERIENCE, THE SAME FEELING AND YOU EXPERIENCE THE SAME STUFF”

Cycle touring has always intrigued Josh, but he admits he was never keen on the panniers idea. The popularisation of lightweight bikepacking gear which you could fit to any bike really appealed to him. Suddenly every bike he had was now a touring bike and all he needed was a destination. Having been cycling for as long as he can remember, Josh is hard pushed to pinpoint a eureka moment for the love of two wheels. His first entry into racing was through XC MTB at the age of 14, moving onto stage races and 12 and 24 hour solo MTB races. Just as his love for those kind of events was dwindling the great Mike Hall invented TCR and Josh’s cycling path altered.

“FROM RACING THE TCR I GOT THE TRAVEL BUG, SO NOW THE TRAVEL EXPERIENCE IS MORE VALUABLE TO ME THAN A RACE RESULT”

It seems to me that these events must require a great deal of planning and there must be some joy in that part of a race too. Josh insists that his planning is more like daydreaming, he finds places that he’d like to ride though and maps them accordingly. It’s another sign of his personality that he makes this sound like walking to the shops via the bakery. 

Working for his family business — selling and maintaining garden and agricultural machinery — means Josh can be flexible with his time. Usually if not working, you’ll find him training, with favourite routes on the South Downs Way and Ridgeway. I was curious about the setup for a ride that, for an ultra-endurance cyclist, was relatively brief. For many of us the length of the South Downs would constitute a serious adventure.

What Josh calls ‘weekend trips’ often involve getting a train to somewhere 200 miles away and cycling back. This might include a ride broken up with a cheap hotel or a bivvy under a bridge. For these he’ll pack his usual winter cycling kit (tights, jacket, baselayer, glove layers, gillet), a set of light casual trousers, t-shirt, down jacket and a pair of slides. The best pro-tip here comes in the shape of a small camping stove and pan — not for hillside camping, but to make a big dinner in the hotel room. Room service?

If you’re thinking of your own weekend trip, check out Sustrans or Eurovelo for some excellent touring routes. 

Aside from poached haddock in a Premier Inn, I’m curious about fuelling for a long ride – especially when the contents of my jersey pockets usually gets me around a 3.5 hour loop. Something Josh might call a quickie. A big lunch stop is essential, with Energy Bars keeping him going before and after. Josh sticks to three square meals a day with a smattering of Haribo, cans of coke and the odd ice-cream on a warm day. Sometimes food can be as important for morale as fuel. 

What’s interesting is that what worked on the TCR with regard fuelling was turned upside down for the Tour Divide.

“THE DIVIDE IS THE MOST REMOTE RIDE I’VE COMPLETED SO I HAD TO LEARN HOW TO PLAN AHEAD AND LEARN WHAT TO PACK TO GET ME THROUGH A WHOLE DAY WITH NO SUPPLIES”

I  wondered whether there was an, as yet uninvented, perfect dream food. A 4,000 calorie pill that tastes like a roast dinner for instance.

“A PILL WITH 4000 CALORIES WOULD BE AMAZING! BUT I SUPPOSE A MORE REALISTIC AIM WOULD BE FOOD THAT STILL TASTED GOOD AFTER EATING THE SAME THING FOR A WEEK SOLID!”

Rawvelo struck a chord immediately with Josh, who aligns with the natural ethos of the brand. Of course the most important thing is that the products work, but they have to taste good and sit well in the stomach. A long ride can be ruined or completely finished with poor fuelling or a bad stomach. “My favourite items are the Peanut Butter Energy Bars and Raspberry Hydration Drink Mix”. Flavour and texture set one bar aside from the next, with the ease of eating paramount to their success.

As our email tennis comes to a close I wonder what the horizon brings for Josh and what the ultimate cycling adventure look like, were there no life / work commitments to worry about. I guessed an unending cycle odyssey would be the answer, but – with 6 month escapades already ticked off – Josh is more realistic.

“ULTIMATELY, TOURING ALL THE TIME DOES BECOME A JOB AND LOOSES IT’S VARNISH. I WAS SUPPOSED TO TRAVEL FOR A YEAR BUT DECIDED TO COME HOME AFTER 6 MONTHS. A MORE BALANCED LIFE IS BETTER FOR ME. IF I COULD RIDE FULL TIME I’D BALANCE A FEW 2-3 WEEK TOURING TRIPS WITH TRAINING AND RACING.”

Sounds pretty idyllic to me. As I close down my laptop and stretch my aching arms, my achievements moving the office seem a little hollow, but I vow to ride to work when I”m next able to and embrace the spirit of adventure. Even a little.

Josh Ibbett is an ultra-endurance cyclist and bikepacking expert with an unquenching thirst for long adventures in the saddle. A winner of the famous Trans-Continental Race in 2015 and runner up in Bikingman Oman, Josh is regarded as one of the finest long distance cyclists of a generation. Even over an email conversation I found him to be an inspirational character. Rawvelo are proud to be supporting Josh in his adventures and look forward to hearing the stories on his return.

Just before we all entered a UK wide lockdown, Josh filmed his last proper ride from Durham to Cambridge. Watch the video below.