Photographer, writer, graphic designer, artist and all-around good egg, Paul Davy (a.k.a. @cycletogs) speaks to Josh Ibbett about bike packing and the season ahead. Photos by Ryan Le Garrec.
Bikepacking is becoming popular around the world. It's not a new thing by far, but it is becoming more accessible to the average cyclist - with new products giving riders more confidence to go further. Not content with a day in the saddle? The next step could be bikepacking. With the advent of the gravel bike having plenty of braze-on's and rack mounts, you can turn your bike into an off-road caravan on two wheels. Bikepacking often refers to self-supported, semi-off-road multi-day epics, and with events popping up all over the world, there are plenty to choose from.
Josh Ibbett is one of the UK’s current crop of ultra-distance bikepackers on the scene at the moment. We caught up with Josh, first of all to get first-hand insight into ultra-distance bikepacking and secondly to find out how the current situation is affecting his riding and competition. Josh is currently supported by Ritchey with the WCS Carbon VentureMax handlebar and C220 stem.
I want to know more about you and what it is that makes you tick, I won’t ask you how you got into bikepacking or what advice you would give to a newbie ultra-distance bikepacker or what your favourite colour is. I want to know where you're going, what you are doing and who you're going to beat in your next event?
Ultra-distance bikepacking isn’t always about the length of the race, but what has been the longest race you have taken part in so far?
My longest race both in duration and time was the 2019 Tour Divide at 2750 miles in seventeen and a half days. Unfortunately, it was way below my expectations in terms of a finish time, however the fire is burning inside, and I want to return to the Divide and have a crack at a sub 15-day time. I believe it is possible now that I have experienced the route.
What factors come into making a race difficult? Which has been your hardest race to date?
My hardest race to date is also the Tour Divide. The length of time on the bike makes it hard and the unrelenting terrain and exposure to the elements just add to this. 2019 was a crazy weather year - the coldest temperature was -8 degrees centigrade and the warmest was 42. We also got hit by the biggest summer storm in a generation and got holed up for two days in Colorado. That made it even harder, mentally.
You have not long since completed The Tour Divide in the States. Which race/races are you planning for next?
The plan was to return to the Tour Divide in 2020 to do the ride I believe I can do, however bigger things are currently afoot in the world so bike racing is of little importance right now. The Divide will no longer be possible in 2020 and so I will have to look forward to 2021 instead. Due to the ongoing Pandemic it's impossible to really plan much, however I do have a number of events I’d like to ride including GBDuro, Highlandtrail550, Rhino Run and the Atlas Mountain Race.
Who are your current rivals/do you have rivals?
My biggest rivals are the Tour Divide and myself. I believe that I have to ride my own race and fundamentally overcome the terrain and conditions before I can worry about beating other people. I always tend to do badly if I worry about other riders, so I just concentrate on my own game. I have unfinished business with the Tour Divide and need to go back and beat it.
Is it always a race?
No. I won the TransContineintal race in 2015 and realised at the finish line that I cared more about the journey than the result. The result is for everyone else, but the journey is for me alone.
The bike and equipment is a huge part of what you do and I won’t bog you down in kit lists etc., but if I asked you to choose five essential items to take with you on a trip, what would you take?
Well I have to say a set of Ritchey Venture Max bars, right? I joke but I have used them since 2016 and they are a staple of my off road drop bar bikes and I’ve cycled thousands of miles on them.
The other four things would be a good set of shorts that I’m comfortable in, some music, a tooth brush and a plan that is easily changed!
Ritchey supplies both your Carbon VentureMax handlebar and C220 stem. Which race did you use them in last, and could you give us some insight into how they perform in the field?
I’ve not used the Carbon VentureMax bars in anger just yet, however I have raced four cyclocross seasons on the alloy version which I bought years ago. I also won Italy Divide with them, completed Tour Divide, cycled across Canada, down America, across Europe a few times – it's safe to say they are a firm favourite.
A few years back I had to cable-tie two tyre leavers to a frame to get myself home. Have you had any catastrophic mechanicals where you had to put your mind to the test to get yourself out of a situation?
I have been relatively lucky so far. However in 2015 I arrived in Vietnam for a three-month cycle tour and all the fluid had leaked out of my front brake. I was repaired by a motorbike shop on the side of the street in Hanoi… it wasn’t a conventional bleed, but it lasted four years without a rebleed!
More often than not these epic trips are more about the people you meet and the places you see along the way. Have you made any long-lasting relationships through ultra-distance bikepacking and are there places you would like to visit again?
Yes, there are so many people I have met and keep in touch with through races and journeys. There is a long list of places I’d like to revisit, but a longer list of places I still want to see. It's magical visiting a place for the first time and it’s not always the same the second time, so I’m focusing on seeing new parts of the world where possible and to some extent that has shaped the races I’ve entered the past few years.
Bikepacking isn’t always based around organised events. Do you ever take off on a big ride for fun or without a plan or destination?
Yes, all the time. I don’t always enjoy the races as there is a certain level of expectation from other people. As I’ve mentioned before, I really value the journey and my favourite bikepacking trips have been solo journeys with no camera or photos - only memories.
There is a lot of literature on bikepacking and travelling around the world on two wheels. What have you read that has been invaluable for these epic journeys?
Alister Humphries wrote a wonderful book on cycling around the world and this made me want to travel. Also ‘As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning’ by Laurie lee. It's not a cycling book but rather a classic account of traveling Spain by foot in the 1930s. Also, there is a film called ‘The Road From Karakol’ by Kyle Dempster – it's my all-time favorite bike touring film. It was, and still is, a huge inspiration.
How are you involved in the ultra-distance bikepacking scene here in the UK?
I’m probably not as involved as I should be. There is a great grassroots bikepacking scene in the UK, however I’ve concentrated on visiting new countries so I've not been that involved. But having said that, I do love to travel by bike in the UK. I quite often just ride places I need to be rather than drive or catch the train.
You have done other long rides in Europe and the Middle East. Where do you like to ride when you are back home in the UK?
I live in Cambridgeshire, so most of my UK riding is around there. However, I have a strong urge to go back to the Scottish Highlands again. Maybe 2020 will be the year for UK travel after all.
When I often think about roads in other areas of the world like in the Middle East, I don’t think of them as being very safe. What roads have you found to be the safest on your travels?
The safest roads are in Spain. The drivers are courteous and the surface smooth. The scariest place to ride is in London or Surry in the UK - too many drivers in big cars in too much of a rush who are too self-important to value the lives of mere cyclists. Quite often roads in less developed countries are safer than they appear. Yes, they may look manic, however the drivers are often more used to mopeds, bikes and other slow moving traffic so they are normally looking out for them which is often not the case in more car-centric developed countries.
Is bikepacking your way of making a living or is there more to Josh Ibbett?
I certainly don’t make a living out of bikepacking, although it would be nice. But I have arrived at the stage where bikepacking doesn’t really cost me anything anymore, which is pretty amazing. I work for my family business where we sell garden and agricultural machinery and have a countryside store. It’s not the most glamourous industry, however it's stable and allows me to pay the mortgage whilst having the flexibility to travel on my bike.
Finally, although most us of are trying to take our minds off the current situation, I wanted to ask a few questions about how your season is shaping or isn’t and how you are coping at home.
Everyone is affected by the Corona Virus pandemic and a lot of people are self-isolating at home. How has this affected your calendar and how are you putting a positive slant on all of this?
I am very fortunate that at the moment we are still able to cycle in the UK and currently our family business is considered an essential service as we serve farmers and utility companies - so we are able to trade, albeit with reduced staff and hours. However, nothing is certain right now, so I’m just trying to make the most of every day. I’ve basically cancelled all plans for 2020 in terms of races. I was due to race Dirty Kanza and Tour Divide but there is no way that these will be possible with the situation. Instead I have a long list of events later in the year, and hopefully at some point we can race or at least bikepack again.
I read about a guy who was asking the public to give ideas on Twitter on where to travel via an online cycling app. He would use the turbo trainer each day and then he would go and camp in the garden/garage at night until he arrived at his destination. Have you got any new and novel ways to keep ultra-distance bikepacking a thing while self -solating?
Whilst we are allowed to ride outside in the UK, I am making sure I explore my local area as much as I can. My goal is to find a new trail to ride every time I ride off-road.
Maybe you have some ideas for others to carry on with their ultra-distance bikepacking while self-isolating?
Well, I don’t think the two really go hand-in-hand. Right know we need to be responsible, reduce contact with other people as much as possible and beat this virus. Having said that I’m sure it will be over at some point, so there’s no harm in daydreaming and planning future adventures.