Whilst attending the Spokes Junior team launch in January I wondered aloud “who was the best rider in the room?” This lead to thinking about who has impressed me on a bike.
In my youth the transition from fairly hopeless junior to clueless Senior meant facing the prospect of racing against amongst others the men from the West: Jamie McGahan, Willie Gibb, Stevie Finnigan, Davie Whitehall, Bobby Melrose, Davie Gibson, Kenny Clark… the list goes on.
In the years that followed I crossed paths with them many times and generally impressive they were.
Around that time there was a guy on TV called Mr Motivator in the early days of aerobics, complete with Lycra, headband and thick knee-length ankle socks, a look that was pulled off much more effectively by Jamie Lee Curtis in the film “Perfect”.
When I was a younger man motivation was a tricky thing but at one point my Mr Motivator was a certain man from the West; Willie Gibb. I recall battering myself on a training ride alone thinking “Willie Gibb would be going faster”, invariably in the races he was and I have no recollection of ever having beaten my one time motivator.
Fast forward to today and the memories start to fade. Time passes and the ‘Cycling Weekly’s are discarded by some and with it the stories that made these guys so impressive.
But through the wonder of the World Wide Web and VeloVeritas we can rekindle the memories and immortalise them – at least until the power goes off.
I got in touch with Willie to find out more and as it transpired find his palmarès was something else again…
Willie’s career extended from Robert Millar (know known as Pippa York) to Jason McIntyre over a period of some 19 years (with a gap of a few years in the middle), observing up close two of the biggest talents likely ever to emerge from Scotland.
Willie enjoyed success in single day events, stage races and time trials. How many riders do you know of that have won their country’s Senior Road Race championship twenty years apart? (Oh, and a couple of times in between just for good measure!)
Some headline figures:
- 117 career wins
- 11 Scottish titles, including:
- 4 time winner of the Scottish Senior Road Race Championship
- 1 Senior Time Trial Best all Rounder
- 100 mile time trial Champion.
So Willie, from the beginning please;
“Robert Millar and I were in same class at school and cycled together for fun. We cycled to the Fenwick Moors to go fishing and stuff, before we decided to consider racing.
“We applied to join the Eagle RC but were told we were not good enough yet to race with them and come back in a couple of years, maybe try the CTC to get started. Well intentioned advice I think but not what we wanted to hear…
“Ignoring that suggestion, we joined the Glenmarnock CC run by John Storrie.
“We had already been training hard having moved from riding our Raleigh Choppers as youngsters to building our own sports bikes and drafting behind buses from Glasgow to Ayr and back again.
“Not to be recommended and not even possible now with the more powerful buses on the road these days.
“I later moved to Regent CC and Robert went to the Glasgow Wheelers.”
And you started racing when?
“1976 as a junior.”
When did you start winning?
“In 1976 I won a Junior Criterium in Inverness.
“The following year I won Daily Record Rosebowl Road Race. It was big bunch sprint, George Kermode was 2nd.”
Tell us about your development a and how you became the rider you were.
“I benefitted hugely from a number of things;
“Enjoying riding the bike with Robert Millar and our other friend Tom Brodie as kids and teenagers. We got fit having fun on our bikes rather than “training”
“Knowing Jimmy McGinty who taught me a lot about riding a bike and was I would say my mentor. He was always willing to listen, gave good advice and challenged me to challenge myself.
“Even after I left the Regent Jimmy was willing to help me. I rode my only twelve in an attempt (successful) to win the time trial BAR. This was after discussing it with Jimmy who persuaded me to ride it rather than the Road Race Championship which was on the same day.
“The BAR was a big deal then and maybe even bigger than the Road Race Champs.
“The other big thing for me was racing against super strong riders and in particular Jamie McGahan who knew if I was there at the finish I would beat him. So he made every race very hard in his attempts to drop me.
“So for ten years that was what happened! He made my life so difficult. What this also did though was make me stronger, and whilst so often brutal it developed me as a rider.”
In domestic racing you were a force to be reckoned with – how many and what Scottish championships have you won?
“I won eleven Championships, seven Road Race, the Road Race Grand Prix Series in 1980 and 1987, I also won the Time Trial BAR and 100 mile Time Trial in the same year, 1987.”
Aside from Championship victories Willie was also winning most of the Classic Scottish single day races, some of which have passed into history, others still going strong, including:
- Davie Bell Memorial, once
- Glasgow Dunoon, once
- Drummond Trophy, once
- Sam Robinson, three times
- Inverness Elgin, twice
- Tour of Arran, twice (and great prize money!)
- Landemar road race, twice.
Seven Scottish road race championships!
“I was Senior Champion on four occasions, and won three in a row as a Veteran. It was pleasing to win the Senior and Vet Road Race titles in the same year.
“This was also my last year of racing in 2000 at age 42.
“It was also pleasing to win my fourth Senior Road Race title twenty years after my first.”
Tell us more about those road race championship wins.
“My first win in the Senior Championships was in 1980 in Aberdeen. There was a small breakaway of five away at the finish including Jamie McGahan and Colin Fraser, myself and two others I don’t remember. I won the sprint.
“In 1984 I won from a break of four comprising Jamie McGahan, Davie Whitehall and Alan Gray.
“My third title was 1996 when the race was based on a circuit around Glenrothes. This time I finished alone with Graham Barclay taking the silver.
“I used carbon wheels for the first time and pulled three spokes when I jumped away near the finish. The wheel was all over the place and I didn’t think it would get me to the finish. It did but it went in the bucket when I got home.
“In 2000 I won from a small break of four or five with the course around Blairgowrie. This was a brutal race in sleet and rain over every climb in the region. I missed the break but I had two teammates in it. I counter-attacked after 30 miles to form chasing group.
“Brian Smith who was our Team DS in the car radioed for teammates in the break to ease up. I got across and the break split to bits over the many climbs to form the finishing group containing me, Andy Mathieson, Greg Imlah, Jim Cusick and Neal Brown. I won the gallop.”
“I missed out on a fifth win when I finished second to Ken Russell in 1999. The course was the Anderside Classic route, hard roads with plenty of climbing. With about ten miles to go we hit a hill and the break was lined out with Ken driving.
“Graham McGarrity was second wheel but let the gap go and by the time I realised he had a reasonable gap. I chased him for the last nine miles but couldn’t close it.
“I was in a group of four and finished second, I was annoyed because if I’d been on his wheel he wouldn’t have dropped me and I had confidence in my sprint. But that’s bike racing!”
So how many Nationals did you ride?
“I reckon only about eight and I won four and was second once so not a bad record.
“I also won the Veterans Championship Road Race in Aberdeen alone in 1998, Phil Duncan took the silver a couple of minutes down. This was the first of my three wins in the Vets championship.
“In 1999 it was back to Aberdeen 1999 where again I won alone, with George Findlater second at about three and a half minutes.
“In 2000 I won the bunch sprint from Ivor Reid to take the title.”
Travelling to race out-with Scotland was less frequent due to work commitments but still there were notable results against some of the country’s top riders and teams. So I wanted to know about his successes elsewhere.
“I’ve won a couple of big races abroad, including the Navan Grand Prix in Ireland in 1985 which is one of Ireland’s biggest one day events.
“I also won the Grand Prix Le Mureaux based around Paris in 1981. I was pleased with that one.
“I was also 5th at the Lincoln Grand Prix in 1980 – a hard race!”
“I used to do a few team time trials and took second in the British 100 kilometer Championship event 1982 and third in 1985.
“I was also runner up in the British Veterans Road Race Championships in 2000, won by Neil Martin, Dan’s dad. It was a seven man sprint, I was focusing more on Ian Hallam who had been winning at World Masters level but Neil pipped it.”
“I’d previously placed third at the British Veterans Road Race Championships in 1998. Oh – and I got a Bronze at the European Masters Road Race in Spain in 1999.”
Tell us about your Commonwealth games appearance.
“I went to Brisbane in 1982 and we finished fifth in the team time trial over 100km.”
Known as a road sprinter Willie was in fact much more versatile, turning his hand to time trailing regularly and producing yet more impressive results, winning the Senior Time Trial Best All Rounder contested over 50 and 100 miles and 12 hours in 1987.
So how did that come about?
“I rode one “Fifty” (1.53.21) one “Hundred” ( 4.04 with a puncture) the National Championship, which I won and one “Twelve” and that was it.
“I was only 350m short of beating Sandy Gilchrist 12 hour record of 270 miles at the time. I also finished second in another eleven championship time trials.
“This was all on a standard road bike, no aero wheels, low-pro frame or clip-on aero bars.”
Perhaps most impressive are Willie’s exploits and success in stage racing which suited Willie, although some were tougher than others, as he explains:
“I rode the Milk race in 1979 and we all got slaughtered by the Russians. With four days to go was in bad crash in a hotspot sprint. I suffered concussion and a broken wrist, but I managed to finish four days later.
“I also rode the 1987 Milk Race for the Great Britain B team won by Malcolm Elliott riding for ANC and completed this one without injury.”
What other big stage races did you ride?
“I rode the London-Glasgow Pro-Am in 1980 and finished fourth on two stages. I beat Sid Barras and Barry Hoban in the bunch sprint for fourth place into Newcastle.
“I also placed sixth overall in the 1982 Scottish Health Race, with my best stage placing a third on stage 3.”
The Irish stage race “The Rás” was a favourite of yours.
“In 1982 I won two back to back stages of Rás Tailteann (stages 5b and 6 ) beating Martin Earley in one. I also held both King of the mountains and Points jerseys.”
What Willie doesn’t mention is his eight place overall whilst supporting team mate Jamie McGahan secure second place overall.
Did you ever consider turning pro?
“In 1980 I thought about it but I was at the start of my career and I spoke about it with my Granddad. We agreed the life of a pro was too big a risk. I have no regrets about that decision.”
The Girvan stage race was the premier race in Scotland for many years and the race of choice each Easter for all British star riders and enthusiastic clubmen.
Willie tasted success at the Girvan, winning the painful Saturday night Criterium in 1983. I remember seeing his smiling face as I stopped after finishing a lap down.
Who did you beat?
“I can’t remember, it was a two man break from three laps out. I think Dave Lloyd won overall and I was seventh on GC.”
Dave Lloyd did indeed win from Joey McLaughlin.
Domestic stage races also provided you with a happy hunting ground.
“I won three of the four stages in the Tour of Argyll in 1985 and in The Tour of the Kingdom I only won one stage. I don’t remember how many I won at the Tour of the Speyside, it was a few.”
You’ve had some nice bikes, I remember a steel Colnago Master Pui, red I think?
“Yes, super bike.”
What are you riding now and what do you make of the latest bike tech, electronic gears, power meters?
“My Summer bikes are a Pinarello F8 and DeRosa. Bikes these days are amazing, particularly the wheels which are much stronger and lighter. I wasn’t fussed with the electronic gears until I tried them, no going back now.
“The Pinarello steers so well and is so rigid. And what I love the most; all in one bars/stem. I reckon todays bikes give you between 1 and 2 mph extra for the same effort.”
Campag, Shimano or SRAM?
“I switched from Campag to Dura Ace in 1995, never looked back. Dura Ace is far superior in my opinion, hence have never tried SRAM.”
Do you keep an eye on the Scottish racing scene?
Who impressed you as a rider back in the day and currently?
“In the UK, Jamie McGahan, for years one of the strongest UK riders.”
“Jason McIntyre was starting when I was finishing. He had immense talent and I’m sure would have stamped his mark.
“For me in the pro scene Freddy Maertens, best ever sprinter in my opinion, obviously Cav is up there too and perhaps they’re on a par.
“Today John Archibald looks very promising with improving results in both RR and TT and without doubt his sister Katie (possibly the best to come out of Scotland since Robert Millar).
“In today’s pro scene – Peter Sagan, such a talent and a great inspiration for aspiring cyclists. The sport needs people like him, particularly amongst the negative publicity relating to Wiggins and Sky. Such a shame.”
And your views on the current state of the sport and should be done to improve things?
“My view to improve our sport:
1. Remove TUE’s – if unhealthy you shouldn’t be racing.
2. If caught doping, ban for life.
3. Ban race radios; go back to captain on the road. Everything is too controlled and is spoiling the racing, particularly the big Tours.
4. Revert to seven man teams in the tours – again to limit big budget teams controlling everything.”
And are you involved in the sport at the moment?
“I still love and take part in our sport but not officially involved in anything.
“I’m part of North Racing club and get out three or four times each week doing between 150-200 miles.
“Occasionally I will travel to the Tour de France or The Worlds (will be doing so this year and next).
“I read all I can in our fascinating sport (drugs aside) and watch many hours on Eurosport.”
How’s your brother Alan doing? He could go a bit too and won quite a few races.
“Alan is doing fine now but not on the bike. He had a lot of talent and won several races including West Scotland Champs.
“In 1981 he was seriously injured when a car hit him head on whilst training. He spent months in intensive care with spinal damage which he never really recovered from and which impacted his development in racing.”
So for any aspiring youngsters out there reading this hopefully Willie Gibb will provide you some inspiration and if you are ever told you’re not good enough… go elsewhere and prove them wrong, like a certain Mr Millar and Mr Gibb.
Thanks to Willie for his time and the use of his photos.