A rider who’s taken on nearly every endurance discipline going on the bike, we spoke to Rawvelo ambassador Josh Ibbett just before he set off on his journey to Canada for the start of the Tour Divide about where it all started, how it’s been going (spoiler - pretty well!) and what challenges lie ahead.
Josh rolled out on 10th June on a mighty 4,418km epic adventure race self-supported from Banff, Canada to Antelope Wells on the US-Mexican border. The Tour Divide is for many the halo event of Bikepack Ultra Racing. You can follow Josh’s progress via the race tracker here.
From the beginning then Josh - how did you first get into cycling?
I was a slightly slow starter, much to the frustration of my parents, but once I finally learnt to ride at seven I was always riding around the garden. Proper cycling didn’t arrive for a few more years but the early days were spent riding around Thetford Forest on the MTB.
What were your disciplines when you started to ride more?
I only rode mountain bikes for much of the early years. When I was growing up we moved to a village called Grafham, in Cambridgeshire, which is located next to a reservoir with a 9-mile off road cycle path around it. So, naturally, my earliest competitive cycling was just seeing how fast I could ride a lap of the reservoir. This soon evolved into participating in local XC races locally, primarily in Thetford Forest where I’d first got into MTB.
What was your first race and how did you get on?
It’s an easy one to remember - I was in the Juvenile category at the Eastern MTB Series. I false started then finished last. Then in my second race, having switched to SPDs for the first time, I fell over on the start line and then came last, again.
That clearly didn’t deter you from going again! Did any other disciplines appeal to you then too?
I didn’t really know anything else other than riding an MTB early on. I had a basic knowledge of the Tour de France but apart from that I was all about MBUK and following Steve Peat! As I got involved with British Cycling and the Talent Team I was introduced to other disciplines such as CX, road and track, but I think I always see myself as an off road rider at heart.
When did you start to think about going longer and focusing on ultra endurance?
As a young rider I always seemed to do better at the slightly longer events. I won the Junior 3 Peaks CX which was pretty much as long and tough a race as you could do at that age. As things progressed I got a place on a team called Extreme Endurance who focussed on the 12 and 24h race scene, so being around those races it was a natural development for me to take part in them and gradually increase the distances of my races. All those formative years racing around muddy fields for 24-hours taught me a lot of the basic skills that I was later to call upon in the ultra endurance world.
What was your first multi-day ultra endurance event and how did you find it?
My first ultra endurance event was the 2014 TCR (Transcontinental Race), although by that point I’d ridden a few big unsupported rides such as the South Downs Double and a solo trip across Europe. TCR was a steep learning curve learning to deal with the emotional highs and lows, minor injuries and general life out on the road. But things went well and I finished second which made me realise that winning one of these big events wasn’t inconceivable.
Finishing second in just your first attempt at the TCR is pretty impressive! What were the main learnings you took from that experience?
The main things I learnt were about keeping a tab on your emotions and learning how energy levels affect them. It was an emotional roller coaster but upon reflection I realised that the highs were probably when I was well fuelled and the lows were when I was in need of a good meal. Understanding why your mood is changing is a key part of these events and it's often a very simple solution… just eat something and get some sleep!
I also learnt that sometimes you just have to push on and get it done. One such incident in that first TCR led to me actually riding the last 500-miles singlespeed. I snapped my gear cable in Croatia but miraculously managed to find a replacement in Montenegro. However, I was running Campagnolo and the cable was Shimano so I had to borrow a file to adapt the cable nipple to fit. The cables were also internally routed which took an age to fix. It then snapped again in Albania so I just screwed in the mech as far as I could and rode the rest of the way with the choice of either a 36x14 or a 52x14.
A broken gear cable clearly wasn’t enough to stop you. What did you change for 2015?
I had a much better understanding of my body after the 2014 event. I’d made so many mistakes in 2014 and I was able to reflect on them and see what I had done wrong and try to improve for the following year. In 2015 my mind was much more focussed and I felt that I was very much in control of myself.
This clearly put you in good stead as you went on to win that 2015 edition of the TCR. Can you remember your feelings when reaching the finish?
Ha, yes - at the time I was actually getting pretty annoyed that so many people were hassling me when all I wanted to do was have a shower and go to bed!
Since that TCR win, how has your focus changed?
The years after TCR15 I felt that I had to win any event that I attended. But by focusing on just winning you often forget the basics and without the basics you often don’t finish, let alone win.
So it took a few years to figure it out but I now don’t focus on winning but more making sure everything I can control is being controlled and then the racing takes care of itself. If I’m good enough to win an event then that’s great, but there can only be one winner and it’s a big commitment to take on one of these events, so fundamentally I make sure I’m enjoying it. Anything else is a bonus.
The whole events scene was turned on its head in 2020 when the pandemic took hold. How did you find the period during COVID?
Objectives and plans were put to one side for a bit and I ended up working on the farm, but did way too much which was a nice distraction in a lot of respects but at the same time the work / bike balance was somewhat upset.
It did mean that I was very grateful to be able to ride GBDURO in that first year and I managed to channel a lot of energy into that ride.
What's next? Tour Divide ... then what is the next big target this year?
The Tour Divide starts on 10th June and then once that’s done I’m looking forward to a break afterwards. After that, the focus will be firmly on the Atlas Mountain Race and Rhino Run later this year in October.
Thanks Josh for your time and best of luck for the epic challenge that awaits over the course of the Tour Divide. Over 160 riders will roll over the start line in Banff, Canada, on 10th June to get their individual efforts underway, riding the entire length of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, the most recognised off-road cycling route in the US, if not globally. Last year’s winner crossed the line a hugely impressive 14 days 19 hours and 15 minutes after having crossed the start line in Banff, so we’ll obsessively Dot Watching Josh over the coming two weeks. You can follow Josh's progress on DotWatcher.cc here.