Britain’s Josh Ibbett is likely to be one of the protagonists in the third Transcontinental bike race that starts with the Muur van Geraardsbergen climb in Flanders at midnight this Friday (24 July 2015) and finishes in Istanbul, Turkey.
Brighton-based Josh, 27, finished second in the Transcontinental last year behind Belgium’s Kristof Allegaert, having briefly led. He was first rider to reach Paris, the race having started in London. Towards the end of the race he says he was so tired that he was hearing voices inside his head, but he’s keen to go back for more.
If you’re not familiar with the Transcontinental race, it’s quite a simple concept. Riders start at Point A – this year the aforementioned cobbled Muur van Geraardbergen, which features prominently in the Tour of Flanders – and they ride to point B – the Bosphorus Strait, Istanbul.
The clock keeps running throughout, even when you’re sleeping hence the riders’ reluctance to stop except when absolutely necessary.
The riders have to pass several checkpoints along the way – this year including the famous Mont Ventoux in Provence, France, 40km (25 miles) of unpaved passes above 2,000m on the Strada dell’Assietta, Italy, and the 25 switchbacks to Mount Lovcen National Park, Montenegro – on a route of their own choosing.
They’re permitted no support. “Racers can only use what they take with them, or what they can find en route at commercially available services,” says the rules.
And that’s about yer lot.
Kristof Allegaert finished the 2014 London-to-Istanbul route in 7 days, 23hrs with Josh over a day behind. Allegaert won’t be competing this year, although about 200 other riders will be.
They’ll have a maximum of 15 days to get to Istanbul, meaning that they’ll have to average at least 260km (163 miles) a day. They’ll log over 40,000 vertical metres of ascent.
We caught up with Josh, who is brand manager for Hunt Wheels, before the start of this year’s race to find out how his preparations have gone and his aims for the event.
road.cc: How did you get involved in the Transcontinental?
Josh Ibbett: I’d done a few trips before last year’s event and I’d had long-distance riding on my radar for a while. There were always people like Mark Beaumont out there who had sponsorship, but [Transcontinental organiser] Mike Hall has been a key figure because he’s one of us. He rides a mountain bike, he races 24hr events and stuff, and I thought: no excuse!
I wanted to ride the first Transcontinental but I didn’t know if I could ride that far having not been on a tour as such. I’d done stage races and 24s and some pretty big races, but never anything like that.
I’ve been more and more intrigued by long-distance riding and in the end I got my first carbon road bike and it was really comfy so I thought I’d do a tour on it. So I bought all my luggage, booked a flight to Slovenia and rode home over about a week, across the Dolomites, through the Black Forest, and the Ardennes.
It was great, I thought, “That’s it! I’m entering the race.”
What sort of training do you do for an event like the Transcontinental?
Once you know you can ride all day, you can do it. You just get as fit as you can.
I was doing a lot of road racing last year but this year it was a bit different because I was travelling in New Zealand and Asia for three months and I rode 5,000 miles on the mountain bike in the first three months of the year.
Then I did the Highland Trail race [a 560-mile self-supported mountain bike time trial in Scotland] which I was leading but my bike maintenance skills let me down. I trained for that, then recovered and then did three or four weeks doing threshold riding and tempo just to get my levels up.
The past few weeks I’ve just done some long rides with the kit on the bike. I rode from Brighton to London, from there to Cambridge, then I rode back.
Then last weekend I did full-on race prep. I set off from work [Partridge Green, West Sussex], camped in the New Forest [Hampshire], rode down to Land’s End, camped, rode back up to Cheddar [Somerset], camped there, and then rode back to Brighton. That was two 230-mile days and a 100-and-something day. That was luxury with 5hrs sleep!
Speaking of which, having minimal sleep obviously pays in the Transcontinental, right?
The race mode kicks in and you think, “I need to keep moving.”
You need to balance the minimum amount of sleep you can have with remaining sane!
Last year, I was concerned about how I would cope with the lack of sleep because generally I’m really grumpy if I don’t get at least 7 1/2 hrs.
It’s really weird. Your body goes into a basic, primal mode. You go into fight or flight. You wake up and think, “I need to get moving quickly; they’re chasing me.” You just get on your bike and get riding.
I averaged about 2 1/2hrs sleep a night last year, but it was getting a bit dicey towards the end. Towards the end I got voices in my head. It’s like a radio is left on in the background, which is a bit weird.
I wasn’t quite sure what was going on, especially after I ran out of ibuprofen and started taking codeine. I woke up in a drainage ditch. I don’t know how long I’d been sleeping there.
I started at about 6am and rode all the way across Bulgaria and got to the border with Turkey. I thought, “I’m in Turkey, I’m nearly there!”
It turns out it’s 150 miles from the border to Istanbul. That’s not that far in the overall scheme of things, but it’s horrible when you’ve been riding all day and you’re really tired, you’re injured and it’s windy.
The mental side of things must be really, really tough.
It is and it isn’t. Yeah, you’re tired and under pressure and stressed and there might have been a moment where I was on the phone to my mum crying when my Garmin and phone and everything died last year, but I quite like it!
I was having a bad day and I had injury issues with my ankle – my achilles was inflamed from the Alps – so I taped it up and took loads of Ibuprofen. I nearly quit and I was figuring out how I could get home but it wasn’t going to be easy.
Then I was cruising into Croatia and I caught myself, I thought, “I’m in Croatia and I’ve just ridden here; I’ve always wanted to go to Croatia so it’s not actually that bad.”
At that point I just switched off from the race and had a nice time on my bike riding down the coast. That settled my brain and I thought, “Oh, I’m actually doing alright,” and I kicked into race mode again.
Having ridden the Transcontinental before must stand you in good stead this time around?
I learnt so much last year. For instance, I had a Garmin Edge 800 bike computer that needed to be charged. I got caught in a massive storm on the first day so my charger wouldn’t work properly and I couldn’t really charge my Garmin very well.
That meant there were a lot of times when I was doing circles around cities and going the long way. I have a new Garmin that takes AA batteries this year. I can save at least six hours compared to last year just by eliminating those missed turns.
Last year, I thought I was travelling really light with a lightweight air mat. After the first or second night I really couldn’t be bothered to blow it up. In Croatia I just got out the sleeping bag, put a down jacket on, lay on the side of the road and slept on some gravel, so I won’t be taking an air mat this time. You learn lots of small things like that.
It’s obviously incredibly gruelling. What’s your motivation for doing the Transcontinental?
I really enjoy it. You’re totally self-indulgent for a whole week. You think about only you and this race. You have all day to think about your troubles and stresses. It’s really relaxing, although eventually you’re so tired you can’t actually think anyway.
You have freedom. You have everything on your bike and you can go anywhere. It’s an escape and I like the progress, moving forward, ticking off countries and landmarks, and going to places I’ve always wanted to go. I’ve always wanted to ride up Ventoux and I’m going to do it next week at some point and in some state!
The other thing is that I’m keen to show that anyone can do it. People should realise that you can have adventures and you don’t have to sit on the sofa. I hope I can inspire people maybe to do the Transcontinental next year or even just to have a weekend away on a bike.
What are your aims for this year’s event?
I was aiming for about 250 miles a day last year, which I did, but I think I could have gone further without issues. Kristof did 287 miles a day. I think I was matching that on my good days but he has a massive amount of experience and he doesn’t muck up.
Kristof Allegaert © Twitter
Unfortunately, he’s not doing the race this year which I’m disappointed about because I really wanted to test myself against him.
I’m just going to focus on myself and getting there. I’ll keep an eye on what other people are doing but you can get too worked up about that. Unlike last year, I have a smartphone this year so I’ll be much better informed!
The race is longer this year and I think my aim is to do this longer race in the same amount of time as last year. I think that’s an achievable target. Ideally, I’d like to match Kristof’s average mileage. I don’t know if I can do it but I want to compare myself to that.
We’ll talk you through the bike that Josh is riding and the equipment that he is using early next week. It’s fascinating just how little he’s carrying.
Mat has worked for loads of bike magazines over 20+ years, and been editor of 220 Triathlon and Cycling Plus. He's been road.cc technical editor for eight years, testing bikes, fettling the latest kit, and trying out the most up-to-the-minute clothing. We send him off around the world to get all the news from launches and shows too. He has won his category in Ironman UK 70.3 and finished on the podium in both marathons he has run. Mat is a Cambridge graduate who did a post-grad in magazine journalism, and he is a past winner of the Cycling Media Award for Specialist Online Writer.