Bringing the heat to Rwanda. A tale of two races

Racing is hard. You make mistakes but hopefully learn from them as R&D Division rider Josh Ibbett found out in Rwanda

Tailfin equipment tested: Prototype top tube pack | Prototype frame pack

Rwanda, the small country located in the heart of the African continent, is fast becoming one of the must-visit cycling destinations for endurance gravel racers, mountain bikers and bikepackers. 2022 has seen three events take place so far including the ever popular Race around Rwanda. R&D Division rider Josh Ibbett was our man on the ground for the latest two, The Rwanda Epic and RaR. Tailfin sat down with him to find out a little more about the country, the events, the preparation for two very different styles of racing alongside how his races went.

Tailfin: Josh, can you tell us why Rwanda has to be on the list of must-visit places for riders?

Josh: Rwanda is an excellent starting place for exploring Central and East Africa. It’s an incredibly safe country and its cycling infrastructure is developing fast. The people are really friendly, enthusiastic and energetic plus cycling is a way of life there. Although the road network is developing, there are still plenty of opportunities to get off-grid and explore the vast network of dirt roads.

You managed to take part in two races when you were in Rwanda, what were they?

The first event was the Rwandan Epic, a 4-day mountain bike stage race. Riders compete in pairs and I teamed up with a local Rwandan rider, Jean Ruberwa, who is a 2x U23 Rwandan national road race champion. It made for a week of riding on the rivet on the climbs that’s for sure! The second event was 5 days later and was the 1000km Race Around Rwanda which is an unsupported ultra-distance mixed surface race around the country.

Josh pushing hard at the Rwandan Epic. Photo: Naomi Cousins

The Rwandan Epic was a bit of a departure for you in terms of the style of race you are more known for. What were the highlights for you?

To be honest it was really going back to my roots rather than a departure. Before I started bikepacking and ultra racing I was racing MTB stage races such as the Cape Epic and Andalucia Bike race, so it was nice to return to a discipline that I love. The MTB trails in Rwanda were incredible and it was nice not to be sleeping at the side of the road in a race for once!

Josh Ibbett at the Rwandan Epic
Josh and race partner Jean Ruberwa finish a stage of the Rwandan Epic. Photo: Naomi Cousins

The Race Around Rwanda has started to make a name for itself as the gravel ultra season opener. Can you tell us a little about the format,  how long it is, the route, what the elevation is like, and what the surfaces are like?

Rwanda is known as the land of a thousand Hills… so as you can imagine the elevation reflects this. There is very little flat and what flat there is, is usually uphill! The roads in Rwanda are amongst the smoothest I’ve ever cycled on and the gravel ranges from hard baked super smooth dirt roads to basically mtb trails. It’s a real test of bike handling on all surfaces.

How difficult is it to acclimatise to riding hard in a tropical environment? Do you have any tips for riders attempting the same?

The first few days were a bit of a shock, but I arrived 5 days before the first race started so had a bit of time to acclimatise. The main issue is that almost all of Rwanda is at relatively high altitude, the low point being 1400m and most of the race being ridden at 2000m or above. The first few days of the Epic involved a lot of heavy breathing and restless nights but by the time the RaR came round I was feeling pretty good.

Josh Ibbett at the Race around Rwanda
Josh riding in a very different environment to his home in Cambridgeshire. Photo: Naomi Cousins

One of the biggest issues with racing in a different country must be sorting out food. Did you take your own food or did you rely on local supplies? What was your favourite?

I took a fair bit of food with me which saw me through the first day and a half. Meals were available at checkpoints, but they are quite often really slow to be made which isn’t ideal in a race. Later in the race, I relied on small village shops where options are limited. Let’s just say I’m ready for a break from biscuits and dry baked goods for a few weeks.

Did you have any issues in the race?

The heat caused problems with dehydration for many riders on the first day. I suffered an upset stomach in the few days before the race which made for some interesting moments… but I found the hard-baked bread from local shops soon blocked things up!

Talk us through your race strategy going into RaR. What was your plan?

My plan was to ride to CP2 and then have a decent (2-3h) sleep on night one and then reassess. However, I arrived at CP2 in 3rd position and saw the leaders so decided to have a 30min power nap before leaving. Despite the fact I felt sick and was unable to eat much. This backfired (literally) during the night when I felt sick and was unable to eat ( not to mention a ‘roadside emergency break’) So the moral of the story is stick to the plan you made when you were fresh and lucid and don’t make quick decisions when not thinking straight.

Josh Ibbett Race around Rwanda
Josh struggled with stomach issues through Race around Rwanda. Photo: Naomi Cousins

Do you have any advice for riders if things don’t go quite to plan?

Make sure your plans always have an element of flexibility built into them, because the best-made plans always change.

How did the race go for you overall?

Overall I felt I was fairly consistent despite the issues and I finished in fourth place. The result wasn’t anything spectacular, but I felt I finished fairly strongly and didn’t put myself in too much of a hole. Hopefully, it’s a good sign for longer races later in the year.

On board with Josh at the RaR

Would you do anything differently next time?

Not drinking an unfiltered bottle of water 3 days before the start would have helped! But race wise I should have slept a little more at CP2 on the first night to enable me to finish stronger.

You went pretty light for RaR in terms of spare kit. What was your kit list?

Essentially I just took the clothing I needed to ride in. My plan was to sleep at checkpoints and keep the pack list light. Everything fitted into my prototype Tailfin frame pack and it consisted of shorts and jersey ( which I wore the whole time), arm warmers, knee warmers, a base layer, Albion rain jacket. Albion gilet and an Albion Lightweight insulated jacket. Apart from that, I carried a few spares, tools and food.

Josh’s complete kit for Race around Rwanda. Photo: Rupert Hartley courtesy of Albion Cycling

How did you carry your kit for the race and why did you choose that setup?

All my kit fitted into my frame bag. The benefit of being tall and running a large frame is that I can usually get away with just a frame bag. I find this to be a neater solution, not to mention much more aero.

Josh’s RaR bike check

Would you add or lose anything from your kit if you were doing the RaR again?

The only thing I’d add would be a small inflatable pillow… it turns out that power naps on concrete are not the most relaxing.

Josh carried all his kit for a four day race in frame and top tube bag. Photo: Naomi Cousins

You managed to take two bikes with you to Rwanda. Can you talk us through the setups you used for the Rwanda Epic and the RaR?

The Rwanda epic is a MTB race and so I used my Mason RAW MTB. There wasn’t much need to carry much apart from basic spares ( tube pump etc) which I strapped to the frame with a Tailfin strap (watch this space for a very imminent release date!). For the RAR I used my Mason Bokeh gravel bike with a Lauf suspension fork for extra comfort. I opted for 44mm slick tyres chosen as a calculated risk to have minimum rolling resistance on the faster sections… thankfully it didn’t rain too much!

What would you say would be the best bike setup for the RaR?

The best bike for RaR is undoubtedly a gravel bike with the widest 700c tyres you can physically fit in the frame and fork. Some kind of suspension would be of benefit on the rougher sections of the course matched with a set of nice fast-rolling tubeless tyres.

What’s next for you?

It’s all eyes on Tour Divide now. I have a few races in the build-up ( Battle on the Beach, Dirty Reiver and a MTB stage race) but the main focus is getting to the start in Banff in the best condition with the bike setup dialled.

Tailfin equipment tested: Prototype top tube pack | Prototype frame pack

When are these products going to be ready to buy?

As you can see from Josh’s Rwandan adventure, intense testing is taking place amongst our R&D Division as we speak. This real-world testing alongside our constant lab testing, prototyping, and refinement mean we are expecting a release date sometime in late summer/early autumn.

Interested in being amongst the first to find out more about new Tailfin product developments such as the frame and top tube packs Josh is testing? Why not subscribe to our regular email newsletter?

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