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GBDuro: 2,000 km from Land's End to John O'Groats
The GBDURO is a 2000 km self-supported bikepacking enduro down the length of the UK. It was created by The Racing Collective, a not-for-profit bikepacking club for self-supported racers. Under normal conditions the ride consists of 4 timed stages (500km each): the rider with the lowest aggregate time over the 4 stages 'wins' (although there are no prizes, just respect and bragging rights). Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the event adapted into a fully self-sufficient, non-stop race with no checkpoints and no access to public buildings. No shops, no stocking up on supplies and no assistance whatsoever. 2020 winner Josh Ibbett shared his experience of the race with us.
“Yes, you can have a spot in GBDURO, however we are thinking of changing the race format to a non-stop race with no checkpoints. You’ll need to be fully self-sufficient with no access to any public buildings. What do you think?"
It's amazing what you can get yourself into with a short phone conversation with an event organizer – that’s pretty much how I found myself lined up for GBDuro at Land’s End, the southernmost point of the UK, with a 32.5 kg bike loaded with enough food for 8 days. 1200 miles lay between me and the finish line – John o ‘Groats in the far North of Scotland.
15 of us were brave (stupid) enough to accept the challenge and so on the 1 st of August we
rolled away from the Land’s End signpost at 8am. The first section of the route took us through Cornwall and into Devon. There was some off-road but it mostly consisted of narrow high-sided lanes and plenty of short, steep climbs.
I had a firm plan for the race which consisted of ignoring everyone and getting into my own
routine. That meant stopping to cook breakfast lunch and dinner each day and trying to not
overexert myself. The evening of day one I reached Exmoor and managed to climb up and
over before finding a suitable spot to bivvi for the night.
Dawn over the Quantox hills is a special experience and I was very fortunate to begin my
ride at first light. I had the hills to myself enjoying the peace and tranquillity. It was a stark
contrast to a sunny Sunday afternoon in Bristol later that day. Once through Bristol I knew
I’d begin to get to the good stuff, I spend my time at University in Cardiff and so was
heading into familiar ground once I crossed the Severn river into Wales. The day was hot
and the climb up from Usk steep, however I knew once I was up into the hills the terrain would suit my riding style. I finished the day by passing over the Brecon Gap at sunset, it’s a classic off-road climb in the UK and very popular with hikers, however I had the hill to myself and was able to absorb the beauty of my surroundings undisturbed. That night I slept under a full moon and fell asleep watching the stars.
A well-timed breakfast on the morning of day 3 enabled me to dodge some threatening rain
showers, however the skies soon cleared and the sun shone bright. The day was spent
traversing mid Wales on a series of t forest roads and rough off-road double tracks. I was in my element enjoying the countryside and off road-riding.
Hitting Snowdonia in the evening was a shock to the system. The Bwlch y Groes is a particularly steep tarmac climb which had me wishing I had fitted a slight larger cassette and I’d be lying if I tried to convince you that I didn’t walk the steepest section. Sleeping on an exposed hillside that night with a bitterly cold wind blowing wasn’t my smartest move, however the fatigue was beginning to build so I still managed to sleep through my 4am alarm.
I woke up early as usual and descended back into England toward Chester. The mornings
ride offered the flattest part of the entire route, a 70 mile cruise along roads and canal paths
into Manchester before the hills hit once more. Being the British summer time the inevitable rain hit, so I donned my waterproofs and used the morning to top up my energy and rest my tired legs. There were plenty of dot watchers out to give me a cheer despite the weather and there seemed to me a similar theme in our brief chats: I was in second position around 7 hours behind Angus Young but Angus was concerned that I was riding fast and was going to close the gap, I took that as my cue to start pushing harder!
The wind was raging as I crossed the Southern Pennines on the Pennine Way trail, which
allowed me to cover good ground, however in the far distance I could see the dark clouds
building. The rain began just after nightfall as I climbed up into the Yorkshire Dales, it was
gentle as first but soon a gale was driving the rain hard. Once more I suited up in full
waterproofs and pushed on. Around 11 pm I decided that I needed to address the situation,
the weather was really bad and I was crossing exposed high ground – I either had to push
on or cut my losses and bed down for the night before the situation got out of hand. Opting
for the second option I found a spot out of the wind between two dry stone walls to set up
my bivvi as the storm raged overhead.
The rain stopped at 2am but it was apparent that I had managed to sleep in a stream. My
bivvi and sleeping bag were soaked through but at least I was warm. I checked my phone, it
was 2am and I actually had a signal. The forecast revealed that the rain was forecast to restart in an hour so I decided I needed to get moving and keep warm. I dragged on my wet socks and shoes putting on the remaining dry items of clothing I possessed and set off into the night.
This was the point where the self sufficiency rule became a real test. I really needed to get inside and shelter from the storm, however if I did that, under race rules, I would be disqualified. I was forced to manage myself out of the situation so I lit my stove and made myself a porridge sachet and a cup of coffee. This was enough to get my body temperature up and refocus my mind. The storm also began to ease so I continued on my way.
At this point the race was quite low on my list of priorities, survival and warmth had taken priority so I was somewhat surprised to pass Angus asleep at the side of the road as I climbed out of Appleby. I thought that Angus was having a long sleep after a hard night’s ride through the storm, so I put my head down eager to push out an advantage. I crossed into Northumbria and into Kielder Forest, an area I am familiar with after years of racing in the forest, and finally crossed the border into Scotland just before nightfall. My body was tired and sore after a hard day’s ride and 24 hours battling the elements so I opted for an early night and a big sleep to recover and prepare for the imminent race against Angus across Scotland.
There were no tyre marks on the track when I awoke at 4am, but I knew Angus wouldn’t be
too far behind. The dawn sky was clear and I was looking forward to some warmer
conditions to ease my tight cold body. The sun rose above the hills as I sat and ate my first
breakfast in Scotland and it was at this point I discovered a new foe… Midges! I’d packed a head net at the last minute and little did I know that this would be essential for the
remainder of the race.
Around 10:30 am I crested the summit of a pass which happened to have a
phone mast on top, so I thought I might take the opportunity to check the race tracker. I’d
been looking over my shoulder for Angus the past 24 hours and still hadn’t seen him so was
intrigued to see how close he was. The answer was not what I expected: he had abandoned
the race in Appleby. It transpired that he had endured a similar experience to me whilst in
the Dales however hypothermia had got the better of him. He had to go inside to get warm
and so, under race rules, had to abandon the race.
I was shaken by the news and felt guilty for pushing on when I passed him at the side of the
road without stopping to see if he was ok. In terms of the race the big battle I had been
preparing for had vanished, my lead was now over 100 km and growing. I sulked along for a
few hours processing the news and took the opportunity to have an extended lunch to dry
out my belongings and waterlogged feet. The break helped me refocus, despite the loss of
Angus the race was most certainly not in the bag. I only had 8 days’ worth of food so I had to
keep to my plan in order to finish in time. It was now my race to lose.
The Scottish highlands were the part of the route I was most looking forward to and they
didn’t disappoint. The sky was clear as dawn broke and I once more enjoyed having the
wilderness to myself. A key waypoint on the route for me was Corrieyariak Pass, the old
military road that I had to ride to reach the town of Fort Augustus. I was familiar with this part of the route and the summit of the pass represented the start of the final section of the route. To celebrate I rode as hard as I could up the pass and then had to stop for lunch half way down the descent perilously close to hunger knock. It was an apt reminder that the margins are fine on a ride like this.
The afternoon was spent dodging heavy showers but thankfully the skies cleared once more
as evening came. I knew this would be my last night on the race and had high hopes of being
finished by the time the sun set again. I bedded down for the last time in the forests just
I woke with a start at 3:30am, the moon was shining bright and I could see everything
clearly as it lit up the darkness.
That morning was one of the most magical experiences of the entire trip. I couldn’t get the
Tour Divide out of my head as I rode into dawn, the long climbs through the pine forests and
surrounding peaks reminding me of the Divide route in Canada and Montana. I crossed into
a new valley as the sun rose and this was Scotland at its finest, deer leapt across the heather
covered glen while crystal clear water trickled from the streams. The next valley felt like I’d
travelled across to the North Island of New Zealand, the soil became sandy and ferns
covered the side of the track.
It was a long day and I became distracted by the thought of finishing. I planned how I would
ride the final miles in 7 hours and finish in time for dinner as the sun set. It was a romantic
fantasy that was soon shattered by dragging, undulating roads and a persistent headwind.
The final sunset of the race coincided with the final section of off-road. It reminded me of the Great Basin on the Tour Divide, I was surrounded by tussocky grass with hills catching the light in the distance. Yet I was still 50 miles from finishing. I told myself it would be a fast downhill to the line, but it wasn’t. The roads dragged, the mist closed in and the wind picked up. At one point I was charged by a pack of ravenous wolves, but they soon disappeared in a blink of an eye only to be replaced by two deer fleeing with fright. I was becoming delirious with tiredness but just wanted to be done, I turned my headphones up and kept shovelling in handfuls of Haribo.
Just before 2am I made it to John o ‘Groats. It was a long day and I’d wanted to finish much earlier, but I was grateful to finish alone and absorb the end without a steady stream of tourists taking photos at the iconic sign. I’m not sure if I was happier about winning or just not having to pedal my bike anymore, but I was happy. It was an incredible journey and one I will not forget.