Surely there must have been moments while mucking through miles of waist-high swamp water in the sweltering marshlands of Central America, dragging a gear-laden bicycle behind, climbing into a hammock suspended over black water teeming with lord knows what, Ian Hibell thought fondly back to the cool, green, fog-shrouded hills of his England home. He may have drifted into slumber, perhaps dreaming of tea and dry socks. Then he’d wake up, climb out of the hammock, and resume his determined push through the jungle.
Hibell, you see, was a man on a singularly impressive mission: to ride his bicycle as far as possible, over as much of the planet as possible, for no reason other than to see what was out there. To scratch an insatiable itch. “Every so often a bird gets up and flies some place that it’s drawn to,” Hibell once wrote. “I don’t suppose it could tell you why, but it does it anyway.”
Miles of impenetrable jungle weren’t going to stop him. Nor would lung-searing mountain passes. Or torrential rain. Not even physical exhaustion. Ultimately, not surprising to road biking enthusiasts, it was a car that finally ended Hibell’s bike touring and life. But he saw so, so much before that happened.
Hibell was born in Surrey, England in 1934, and started his long-distance cycling life at a young age, riding with his father on trips to the coast, the two of them sleeping outdoors along the way. Eventually, Hibell took a job at Standard Telephones and Cable, after a stint in the Royal Air Force.
But by the early 1960s, Hibell’s travel itch was maddening. He requested a leave of absence from his job and was granted a two-year reprieve. It proved to last a lifetime. Over the next 40 years of constant motion, Hibell rode his bike far enough to encircle the earth ten times.
Hibell almost immediately proceeded to establish incredible cycling firsts. Truly astonishing feats of endurance, both mental and physical. In 1973, he rode from the tip of South America to the frozen wilds of Alaska, along the way becoming the first person to ride, or, rather, carry, a bicycle across the Darien Gap in Panama, 66 miles of roadless swamp that interrupts the Pan-American Highway.
Hibell previously had accomplished a similar latitudinal crossing, in Europe and Africa, riding from Norway to the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. He crossed the Sahara, where his bicycle was nearly consumed by the desert. Malaria almost killed him in Zambia, with the foreign service office so convinced Hibell was dying they made arrangements to fly his corpse to England. Stampeding elephants chased him. So did soldiers. Later, back in the western hemisphere, Hibell once hopped a ride on an ice-breaker in the Falklands, steamed down to Antarctica, and rode his bike there too.
At his traveling peak, Hibell covered more than 6,000 miles each year on his bike. In a 1984 book describing his travels, “Into the Remote Places,” Hibell wrote, “the quiet hum of the wheels, the creak of strap against load, the clink of something in the pannier, was delicious.”
So delicious in fact, he could never quite give it up. In the early 2000s, after hanging his riding shoes up for a time, Hibell was again plagued with restlessness and began doing training rides crisscrossing Venezuela, islands in the Caribbean, and the South Pacific. He wanted to complete a ride across Europe to Russia, then on to Southeast Asia. It was an eventful trip, to say the least.
In Russia, he nearly succumbed to food poisoning. A dog attacked Hibell on the road outside the town of Omsk, dragging him off his bike, where a passing trucker saved him by scaring off the dog by throwing rocks. He cycled through snowstorms near Lake Baikal, then headed south toward Mongolia, where he was nearly cooked by the sun.
Thwarted from returning to Russia by visa issues, Hibbel abandoned the journey and returned home for a break. In 2006, he decided to finish his grand trip in reverse, pedaling from Bangkok to Vladivostok. In September, near the end of his journey, Hibell was hit by a car in Harbin, China. The accident nearly crushed his left hand and severely injured his shoulder, a fate that only temporarily halted his voyage. In writing about the incident, however, it seemed his first thought was to the condition of his bike: “The bike’s okay but I’m in and out of hospital on a daily basis.” Later that month he pedaled triumphantly into Vladivostok, having dealt only with several brake changes, one cable malfunction, and a change of bar tape.
Sadly, two years later, Hibell was killed when he was hit by a speeding car as he rode through Greece. He was 74 years old and still cycling around the world.