Ride the Divide

It is the winter solstice; the shortest period of daylight and longest night of the year. The time when many of us reach peak hibernation, as we light fires and coddle mugs of tea, wilfully withdrawing from the cold and dark beyond our front door. 

Josh Ibbett and his riding partner/coach/longtime friend, Rich Rothwell have the steaming mugs, but are sat in lycra as Rothwell pulls up the route on his phone. His finger traces a 320km tour of the border country between Scotland and England, from Rothwell’s home in Northumberland, crossing into Scotland, touching the west coast of Cumbria, returning via high Lakeland passes, then finally spanning the Pennine hills on their journey home. A finger slides across the screen effortlessly, covering kilometres in seconds, scaling gradients without breaking a sweat, reducing what will be the best part of a day in the saddle to a couple of minutes tour in the warmth and light of his kitchen.

The reality of the ride is, of course, a little less comfortable. The pair depart in darkness, and the sun will have long since set by the time they return. Yet, chatting to Ibbett a week or so before the ride, you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for a leisurely spin. Matter of fact, and a little vague on the details, “Rich has sorted the route, I’m just along for the pedal and the company”, the reality is that Josh has been there, done that so many times before that his sense of scale is wildly skewed towards the epic. 

Reflecting on his twenty or so years of riding and racing, it has been one of growing distances and ever greater feats of endurance. From local cross-country mountain bike races, to twenty four hours solo, and then self-supported bikepacking racing – crossing countries, then continents against the clock and other endurance athletes. 

Now at thirty three, Ibbett has gone from being the young upstart to the experienced veteran. Talking to him, he has a quiet, understated confidence; no bravado, plenty of self-deprecation, but also the knowledge that he has the physical attributes, mental strength and more experience than you could ever squeeze into the minimalist framebags strapped to his bike.

“Experience is merely the name men gave to their mistakes” – Oscar Wilde

In 2015, Ibbett won the Transcontinental Race (TCR). Starting in London and finishing in Turkey, racers rode 3500km day and night, stopping only when exhausted, competing to be first across the finish line in a race where the clock doesn’t stop. As a “self-supported” event, the rules prescribe that riders buy food from local shops as they pass through towns and villages en route. They fix their own mechanicals, or limp their way to the nearest bike shop. And they sleep where they stop; whether that is in a bivvy bag at the side of the road, or the rare luxury of a real bed in a hotel room en route. 

The biggest victory of his riding career was not just the culmination of a year of training. It was the perfect example of applying lessons learned over years of riding, distilling his experience and executing a plan. 

Sometimes the lessons have to be learned first though…

A year earlier and Ibbett is sat, cross legged, outside a bike shop during the 2014 edition of the TCR. He’s filling down a Shimano gear cable to try and get it to fit his Campagnolo-equipped bike. He’s beyond exhausted having tried to ride beyond what even his well-tuned body can cope with, and he has been pedalling in just one gear after his shifter cable snapped. Eventually he bodges a repair, cursing that he hadn’t brought a spare in the first place. It lasts a short distance before snapping again, leaving Ibbett to complete the race singlespeed. He rolls into Istanbul with severe tendonitis in his ankle, but in second place; two days behind the winner, Kristoff Allegaert and ten hours ahead of third. 

Despite many successes before and since, it’s in Ibbett’s analytical nature to pick out the things that haven’t gone well, and he lists off the tens of mistakes that he’s made in races; from forgetting to pack spare brake pads to not servicing his suspension before travelling. From pushing too hard to not pushing hard enough. 

It’s this tacit knowledge – banking good decisions and noting the bad ones – accumulated over thousands upon thousands of hours in the saddle, racing, training, simply having fun on a bike.


“I love riding my bike, you know? I always have. And, I’ve always had a bit of a competitive streak. I guess I got into endurance racing when a couple of mates from the XC scene tried a 24 hour solo mountain bike race. 

“I was inspired to give it a go [the aim is to complete as many laps of an off road circuit within twenty four hours; with the best not even stepping off their bike for the whole time], and quickly realised that my physiology and mindset lent itself to endurance riding. I’m an efficient rider. I’ve got that classic endurance build; I’m tall and lean – definitely not built for absolute power. But, if you ask me to ride steady away for a long time, I’m all good”. 

There is no glorious sunrise. In fact, the darkness never truly departs. Gloom hangs across the land as the riders’ lights pierce low-hanging mist. The browns and beiges of winter are even more muted in the banks of cloud that hug the moors and valleys; smudged sepia landscapes and an equally vague border. “Welcome to Scotland,” says the sign. Little else feels welcoming today.


Fast and light

There is nothing new about strapping some bags to a bike and heading off to explore for days or weeks on end. Bike touring has existed in some format for as long as the trusty velocipede. So too has self-supported racing. The early editions of the Tour de France saw racers diving into bars and cafes to restock during epically long stages, crossing unpaved mountain passes. A far cry from the modern race, with team cars, buses between stages and the managed nutrition of a pro athlete.

Modern bikepacking racing takes its cues from history, but the hand-in-hand development of lightweight frame bags that attach directly to the bike (rather than relatively heavy and cumbersome panniers) had a similar impact to new materials and technology leading to the ‘fast and light’ revolution in alpinism. The same too can be said for clothing. Breathable, waterproof fabrics and lightweight insulation have drastically reduced the weight and bulk of kit to be carried.

Ibbett became intrigued by the burgeoning niche when two racers from the UK twenty four hour scene travelled to America to race what in many ways is the original bikepacking race; the Tour Divide. Jenn Hill, then Mike Hall raced the divide; riding the entire length of the United States: off-road from Banff, Canada, to the Mexican border. Hall was so inspired by his experience that he went on to set up the TCR. 

A combination of reading their tales and watching the first edition of TCR in 2013 play out lit a fire within Ibbett. He quickly went out and tried bikepacking, before ending up on the startline a year later. It felt as though he was on an upward trajectory after winning in 2015, but things aren’t always that simple when it comes to endurance racing. 

“I struggled a little bit after winning TCR. It was such a big deal. It felt like the expectations placed upon me rose massively, and I became the man to beat in any race I entered. I felt like I was hunted and it took me a while to adjust to that. I guess relatively speaking, the results didn’t follow as I would have liked. Bikepacking racing is hard, you know? Reputations and past success stand for nothing when you are on the start line, and even less when you are sleep deprived, tired and have a mechanical. I had plenty of good results, but nothing that quite matched up to my own expectations.”

His response was to take five months off work in 2017 and just ride; bikepacking in the US and Asia.

“I love being out there. I love those moments that you’d never normally experience. Sunrises and sunsets. I love the simplicity of thought; I think it becomes almost primal. We evolved as hunter-gathers, our brains are wired to want to keep moving, think about finding food and shelter. In so many ways, bikepacking strips us back to the mindset.”

The longer the ride, the greater the opportunity for something to go wrong. Select a random day in the middle of winter in the UK, and there’s a good chance the weather isn’t going to play ball. There is a biting, damp cold as the pair drop off the border ridge. Spare layers are tugged on; insulation over insulation. Any remaining exposed skin quickly chills. Cheeks and noses sting. Eyes water.

Temperatures tip below zero in the valleys. Fronds of frost glint along road edges. Damp roads sit in a flux state, ready to freeze in an instant. 

Ibbett and Rothwell ponder their options over a haggis burger in Newcastleton. Neither are strangers to changing plans; whether that be making hay while the sun shines, or deciding when discretion is the better part of valour. Carry on and risk a crash on untreated country roads, or put their heads down and tear along A-roads home.

Tour Divide

Mentally refreshed, Ibbett set his sights on the Tour Divide in 2019, but it was a new challenge once again. 

“Everything about it felt so big; from the route to my expectations to the attention that it draws. And, in many ways, I felt like a learner again.”

“I think I was overwhelmed. I felt so psyched out by it all. I ended up sabotaging my own race. I could have pushed on earlier, I could have pushed harder. Physically I was strong enough. But, something held me back from truly riding as hard as I know I can. The biggest fear is always the unknown. I know I can do the riding bit, but I was intimidated by the course. There was so much I didn’t know: what the route would be like, what the high mountains would feel like, what the weather conditions would be; that was the hardest thing to deal with mentally and it cost me my performance”.

Listening to Ibbett, you’d be forgiven for thinking that he had pulled out, but he still finished in a creditable sixth place. Slower, and lower down the order than he’d hoped but still putting 4,420km of hard off road riding under his belt in sixteen and a half days. 

He might not have taken away the result he was hoping for, but he left with a wealth of new lessons learnt. 

“It turned out that the hard part of the Divide wasn’t facing the Hard Bits; those sections that pass into folklore… well, that’s all just riding. I struggled the hardest with the unexpected; whether that was snow or impassable mud, or petty politics.”

Moving On

Ibbett planned to return to the Divide as soon as possible. Thanks to Covid, that wasn’t as soon as anyone expected, but all things being well, he will turn his eyes stateside once more in 2022. Wiser once again, more focussed.

“I already know almost exactly what my bike set up will be and what gear I’ll need. But more importantly than that, I feel focussed. Whenever I’ve been focussed, I’ve achieved my best results. It helps me visualise and execute a plan. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so mentally prepared.

“I don’t have a placing in mind; there are far too many variables that are out of my hands to think about that. I do have a time that I’d like to achieve though. Even then there are always outside influences, but I know that I can get myself to the start line in the right mental and physical state to be able to achieve something I will be proud of.”

Ibbett never explicitly states Hall’s record time of under fourteen days, but given his ability and competitive mindset, it will surely be playing on his mind. It’s a sobering thought for even the hardiest of endurance racers that for him to come close to that, he will need to cover a similar distance to this winter ride day after day, after day. Not only that, much of it will be off road and there are sections at altitude. His mind may be prepared, but how will he make sure his body is?


The fells of Northumberland are Rothwell’s home. They are typified by quiet lanes, empty hillside and punchy climbs. There is a bleak beauty to this world. Sandstone edges peek out from open moorland, farmland edges up valley sides until the tops are lost to bog and heather. And in the vales and cloughs that are too steep to farm, ancient woodlands cling on. Today though, the pair race through, following an arrow-straight road – two millennia on and the Roman influence is strong here, whether it is their thoroughfares or the remains of Hadrian's Wall – conversation ebbing with a desire to simply get the ride done, then finally building again on the literal home straight. 

“I haven’t had a coach for the last few years – it has never really worked for me before. But Rich approached me and I was interested. We’ve been friends for years and he knows me. He knows what makes me tick. What coaching has meant is more accountability. I’ve applied more structure to my training; not making huge changes, but I’ve responded well to having something written down saying today is intervals day or whatever. Having Rich to answer to definitely helps.

“And when he suggests a big dumb long ride, well, I’m always stupid enough to say yes. As well as being a practical way of testing out kit and stuff like that, they are always a useful reminder that a bit of discomfort is no bad thing. You never stop learning that lesson.”

With that, this big, dumb, long ride is done. Not quite as intended, but even 200km of riding is miles in the bank. There’s no fanfare – not that there is at the end of most bikepacking races – never mind a training ride. It doesn’t matter though. There is utter joy to be had in simply not needing to pedal anymore. The self-inflicted discomfort of previous hours contrasts with the pure luxury of satisfaction in a job done. The problem is, that feeling doesn’t last. And it won’t be long before Ibbett is drawn to push himself once more.

Produced by: Coldhouse Collective

Words: Tom Hill

Photos: Mick Kirkman & Ryan Goff

18 November 2023