Following our discussion with Ritchey sponsored rider Josh Ibbett, we meet with fellow bikepacker and ultra-distance cyclist Robbie Ferri. Over the past five years, Robbie has cycled countless thousands of miles covering more countries than most care to dream of. This season Robbie was planning on racing Race Around the Netherlands, Two Volcano Sprint, Trans Alba and most miles cycled in a single week.
As well as being a Shimano Ambassador, Robbie is also supported by Ritchey choosing to ride the new Ritchey Outback frameset.
We caught up with Robbie to find out a little about this close-knit community of ultra-distance cyclists and the season ahead.
Ultra-distance bikepacking, as the name suggests is hard - extremely hard. How do you take this to the next level and break a world record?
As odd as this sounds; I find racing much harder than record rides - it’s a completely different set of challenges. When it comes to a record, gathering evidence is difficult and time consuming. The logistics and routing is tough compared to racing where it is all mapped out and planned for you. For me, the hardest part is knowing you’re alone. In a race you see other competitors and have set checkpoints. Whereas, in a record you’re completely alone for the entirety, which means you have to stay strong in body and mind to make good choices and complete the task at hand.
In previous years you have raced The BikingMan Series and The Transcontinental Race amongst others. Which editions have you raced and have you raced any this year?
In 2018, I completed all Bikingman Races - Oman, Corsica, Inca Divide and Taiwan. They were incredible. I can honestly say I experienced some of my highest highs and lowest lows throughout these races. Inca Divide was definitely the most gruelling, from terrible altitude sickness to wild dogs who didn’t take kindly to cyclists.
Oman was a personal favourite, I lived there for a time whilst growing up. Seeing it as an adult to compete and seeing how little it had changed was a pleasure.
The Transcontinental is an extremely long race, I was in TCR No5 and No7. The most recent I had to scratch from due to a knee injury, which I had been suffering with all season. I have learned over the years it’s important to fail - this way we know what to change in order to come back stronger.
Distances in these races often cover more than 1000 miles and can climb to altitudes well over 10,000 feet. Comfort is of paramount importance. What equipment is the most important to you when it comes to staying comfortable on the bike and in the saddle?
You need a bike that’s made for miles. Don’t be put off if it's not aero or super lightweight. Get a strong frame with comfortable geometry and the miles will come easy. Then make it even more comfortable by looking at your contact points: saddle, shoes and bars.
High-altitude cycling effects people differently. What effect does it have on your body and how does it affect you?
I had awful altitude sickness in Peru racing the Inca Divide. The highest point was 5000m. It’s so hard to deal with while riding. I had nose bleeds, was dizzy, breathing was hard, couldn't think straight and ended up sleeping in some kind of barn for nearly 12 hours because I got so ill. It won’t put me off racing at altitude again, but I will go more prepared next time.
Food and sleep have the biggest effect on health. How do you eat and sleep on a multi-day stage race such as the BikingMan or Transcontinental Race?
You have to eat everything you can - 10,000 calories a day just isn't enough. You think it would be fun to eat this much, but it’s not! [laughing] I go for the highest calorie stuff and tend not to take any risks with street food - so most [of my food] comes from petrol stations. This way I can avoid feeling lethargic or risk eating something I shouldn’t have.
When it comes to sleeping, I take a bivvy with me - but only as an emergency. I would rather take a short hotel stop or ride through the night and catch up on sleep the following night. Taking tents and sleeping bags is more weight and the quality of sleep isn’t as good.
Ultra-distance races are totally unsupported. You must find yourself alone with your own thoughts a lot of the time, yes?
Of course, but I love it - being alone with your own thoughts is the most peaceful place to be. I feel that you learn so much about yourself without others around. Life is so busy and crazy that time away to focus on just turning pedals is amazing for my mental health.
You raced Inca Divide 2018. No doubt that you have to prepare for a race like this physically, but is this a race that you have to prepare for mentally and how do you come out of a race like this?
I couldn’t have done it without my coach and friend Niel. Getting mentally prepared was such a challenge as I'd never cycled at altitude and feared wild dogs so much. He really helped me keep things in perspective and get through the tough times.
When the race was over I had overcome so many challenges, dug so deep and had so many highs that I really struggled getting back to everyday life. However, I now look back and feel nothing will challenge me like the Inca did, which now makes me feel much more confident towards my racing abilities.
Ultra-distance bikepacking has a close-knit community of riders. Who around you within the scene do you look to for inspiration and encouragement?
Sean Conway - when I first started, I emailed him asking for advice and he invited me up to the Lake District UK. We went bikepacking for a few days and he taught me the basics of the trade. He asked nothing in return for the time, and looking back it was the best thing he could have done for me. I’m so grateful. I want to do the same for others when they ask me for help.
Another Ritchey ambassador, Josh Ibbett, is a huge inspiration to me. Josh is a great guy, super genuine and an amazing rider. He’s given me a lot of advice over the years. I have so much respect for him, he is an endurance animal!
In all of the races you have competed in, which has been your greatest achievement?
Honestly, it wasn’t a race but a ride across Europe where I was trying to break the record for the most countries cycled in a single week for the second time. I experienced terrible headwinds for the first couple of days, terrible storms the next. Then came food poisoning and I had to ride constantly the rest of the way to finish as I was so far behind. I got to the end with only 14 minutes to spare. It wasn’t necessarily the hardest ride, just so much had gone wrong and I had somehow made it, I was so proud of myself.
Racing wise, definitely the Inca Divide.
You’ve had a birthday while you have been out on a race. How do you celebrate while on the road?
That’s true! I usually find a cake and a beer for the end of the day. I love spending my birthday this way, and I now try to find a race that will coincide with my birthday every year...much to the detriment of my family!
What makes a ride an adventure?
You can control your fitness and your equipment, but you cannot really control much else. For me, when something unexpected happens, you leave your comfort zone and the adventure begins.
Why do you race ultra-distance? What do you get from it?
Six years ago I had barely any money, my sister's wedding was coming up and I only had £100 to my name. I couldn’t find anything nice to get her so I bought a padlock and a bike for £25 and spent three weeks training as I had never really cycled before. I then rode all the way from London to Paris in 24 hours to the Pont De Arts bridge to put a love lock on for her and my brother-in-law as a wedding gift. I guess from it I get peace of mind and some time away from life to just be away from it all.
I often hear that, while riding in the mountains and the desserts totally unsupported, it can become a spiritual experience. Is this something that you find while riding?
Completely. I feel that everywhere you go has its own unique energy. You have to immerse yourself in these amazing places so that you can take it away with you. It stays with you and shapes who you are.
And finally, I don’t want to dwell too much on it, but everyone is going through it at the moment. Lockdown!! How are you staying sane during all of this?
In the UK we’re allowed outside for sensible exercise. So that and Zwift are keeping me trained and sane. Apart from that, I’m working on my podcasting, fixing bikes, prepping for going back to work and spending time with my partner as she’s at home as well.
Oh, and one more for good measure, what do you prefer: punctures or dogs?
I previously mentioned my fear of wild dogs. However, in Peru I was followed five miles up a climb by a tiny dog. We shared food and it just wouldn’t leave me alone. I would have loved to take it home with me. Since then I have now got a puppy who loves to watch me train and work on my bikes. Once she’s bigger I’d love to take her on trails with me. So I think I’d take my chances with the dogs!
Thanks to Paul Davy (a.k.a. @cycletogs) for conducting the interview.