If there were a contest for coolest bicyclist ever, Ian Hibell would win, hands-down.
You may be forgiven for asking: Ian who? Hibell remains an obscure figure, especially outside his native England, to all but a few cyclists and adventure-travel buffs who happen to read the right magazines or assiduously surf the Internet.
But to me, he best represents the possibilities for adventure, discovery and serendipity that a bicycle can bring, if you let it.
I first discovered Hibell several years ago when I opened my new issue of Adventure Cycling magazine to find an article by him about his adventures. The article was accompanied by two-page photo of Hibell on his touring bike, grinding his way up the rocky road to Machu Picchu in Peru. Below him, going on seemingly forever, stretched the route up which he had come. To me that one photo perfectly captures the possibilities that a bicycle can unlock.
Hibell was a true British eccentric in the positive sense of the term. He grew up in mostly rural but decidedly civilized Devonshire, in the Southeast of England. His first experience as a cycle tourist was borne of a combination of accident and necessity, when his father could not afford train tickets to send the entire family to the seaside for a vacation. So Hibell and his dad rode their bikes there, sleeping on park benches and wherever else they could.
As an adult, Hibell worked for a local English telephone company for a time, but soon found that the allure of the open road trumped the comforts of a nine-to-five job. He spent the next 40 years as a nomad on a bike, never really settling down. He rode from Bangkok to Vladivostok. He rode from Norway to the Cape of Good Hope. He rode from the tip of Tierra del Fuego to Alaska. He rode across the Sahara Desert, almost dying of thirst before he was rescued by a band of tribesmen. He buried himself in mud to escape hoards of mosquitoes. He was chased by rogue elephants and almost eaten alive by tropical ants. He was shot at and jailed. He crossed the notorious Darien Gap in Panama (an adventure captured in this vintage film). His family knew him fondly as “mad uncle Ian.”
Ironically, it wasn’t the wilderness that killed Hibell, but civilization. After 40 years on the road, Hibell was killed by a hit-and-run driver on the Athens-Salonika Highway in Greece while on a training ride for another adventure.
But I like to remember Hibell for his adventures rather than his end. And I think it’s a good thing for all cyclists to channel Ian Hibell occasionally. If you want to cycle across the Sahara or brave the Darien Gap, great. Long-distance touring is fabulous. But you don’t have to go that far to get a taste of adventure. Just try something new. Go camping on your bike. Explore some local logging roads. Go up a valley that you’ve driven by but have never been to. Sometimes there’s great joy to be had in breaking your routine to discover the simple pleasures of an unexpected mountain view, or eating a cheese sandwich in the fall sun while listening to the wind in the firs, or even getting a little lost. And after you’ve done it, raise a toast to Ian.