Stories From The Road

Josh Ibbett, recent winner of the 900km bikepacking race the Italy Divide and the Europe-crossing Transcontinental in 2015, is about to depart on a year-long adventure around the world by bike. With no definite plans beyond focusing on “the journey, not the destination”, Josh will document his travels through monthly updates for Rapha. In his first installment below, he explains the journey towards his trip, and his hopes for inspiring others to take the leap into adventures of their own.

I originally wrote this article before the tragic death of Mike Hall in the Indian Pacific Wheel Race across Australia. Mike was my hero and my inspiration to begin racing in ultra-distance and bikepacking events. He was a very humble man and I never told him exactly how much of a hero he was to me because I didn’t want to make him feel uncomfortable. Writing this article was supposed to be my way of letting Mike know how much he had inspired me, and to thank him for helping me achieve my dreams. Unfortunately he will now never read it, however I will always think of him when I’m travelling on my bike and will carry his memory with me on my journey.

Thanks for everything Mike, rest in peace.

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“I wish I could do that.” It’s a phrase that still bothers me, and was the response of a former colleague when I told her I’d handed in my notice and was going travelling around Southeast Asia and New Zealand for three months on my bike.

Those six words played on my mind the whole three months of my trip, which incidentally lasted for four months. I lived off my bike with minimal possessions, experienced new cultures, explored new countries, slept under the stars and met fantastic people.

It bothered me that my former colleague felt that she couldn’t have a similar experience and was destined to stay in a ‘proper job’, get married, buy a house and settle into a ‘normal’ life. It’s not that there is anything wrong with a ‘normal’ life, however there’s equally nothing wrong with living a little either – and challenging the path that society expects us to follow. Don’t get me wrong, packing up my job and heading off into the unknown funded by my life savings wasn’t an easy task. The week leading up to my trip was extremely stressful and I experienced the “what the hell am I thinking?” moment a number of times. But once I’d made the jump it was one of the happiest, most stress-free and fulfilling experiences of my life.

Deciding to quit work and head off bikepacking does not happen in an instant. It builds gradually over the years, starting with the “I wish I could do that” thought before you realise that, in actual fact, you probably could.

I began racing aged 14 in the Eastern Region Mountain Bike Series based around Thetford Forest. The first two races I finished last, and in the third, my first on SPD pedals, I missed my pedal and crashed on the start line and everyone laughed at me. But by my fourth race, a round of the National Series held in Thetford Forest, I was hooked. Two years on the British Cycling Talent Team opened my eyes to the variety of disciplines that cycling had to offer. My only results of note came in the more obscure races, the highlight being a win in the junior category at the 3 Peaks Cyclocross event.

Riding round in small circles was beginning to get a little boring though, and coupled with a year out for overtraining and drinking during my first year of university, I began to drift towards mountain bike endurance events. My first six-hour race was a relative success, and my first 12-hour and 24-hour solo races resulted in victories. A third place at the 24-hour mountain bike national championships followed, and although I enjoyed the results, the real eye opener was discovering the depths I could push myself to both mentally and physically.

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A few years later and a lot of money spent saw me race a number of mountain bike stages races, including the Cape Epic in South Africa, but what was really capturing my imagination was reading books about cycling around the world by people like Alistair Humphreys. Racing in this way soon seemed like an expensive way of riding a set course in a foreign country, all the while staring at the back of another rider and getting sprayed with mud and dust. It was travelling by bike that had me dreaming.

Then Mike Hall cycled around the world in a record time. I knew Mike Hall; I’d chatted to him at races, and even beaten him a few times. Mike was one of us: a mountain biker, 24-hour racer and a genuinely down to earth guy. “If Mike can do that then maybe I can do that too” I thought.

Mike Hall has a lot to answer for. After returning from his round the world trip he organised the Transcontinental, a 2,500-mile unsupported race from London to Istanbul with no set route and only a few check points to keep riders heading in roughly the right direction. This seemed like it ticked all the boxes: adventure, travel and competition. I didn’t enter the first edition because I was too scared. However I followed the race avidly and a few days after it finished I booked a one-way flight to Slovenia, purchased some bikepacking essentials, and headed off on a 1,000-mile journey back home across Europe.

That trip was pivotal. I realised I could ride 100 miles multiple days in a row, sleep in bushes, fend for my self in different cultures and, more importantly, I realised that it made me incredibly happy and fulfilled. I also experienced how incredibly kind and friendly people can be.

In 2014 I lined up at the start of the Transcontinental Race. I made poor equipment choices, navigational errors, suffered injury and was close to mental breakdown. But despite the mistakes I still finished in second place. I arrived home, handed in my notice a few months later and headed off into the unknown. Everyday as I cycled around Asia and New Zealand I thought about the Transcontinental Race, and in the summer of 2015, I returned and won.

As the old cliché goes, ‘it’s all about the journey not the destination’, and the experience of new roads, people and places meant much more to me than my victory in the third edition of the Transcontinental. So in 2017, it’s all about the journey.

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Once again I have quit my job and am heading out into the unknown. Supported by Rapha I will be heading off on my own journey. I hesitate to say that I am cycling around the world. My job will be to travel, a professional hobo if you like. Part of me wants to head out from one side of the Cambridgeshire village where I grew up and cycle back to the other side via a lap of the planet, but I’ll just go with the flow. So far I have two firm dates for the trip – a flight from Barcelona to New York City in June and my school friend’s wedding in Kelowna in the Canadian Rockies in August – but the rest of the journey will be planned en route.

Over the course of the next 12 months I will be documenting my journey for Rapha with words, images and video. My monthly blog will be full of tales from the road, and I hope it will inspire others to think, “I can do that” and head out for an adventure of their own. It doesn’t have to be a yearlong journey; it could be as simple as catching a train or a one-way flight somewhere and riding home. Why not even ride to your holiday? Just be brave enough to think you can do it – the hardest step is setting off in the first place.

Enjoy the ride.