Riding the bubble

The road to Winter's Gibbet is one of the North East's big 'killers' and perfect prep for this spring's big sportives.

As every serious roadie in the North East of England would agree, the road to Winter’s Gibbet is a killer. The Gibbet at Elsdon in Northumberland, about 35 miles from Newcastle, is a gruesome reminder of a hanging-in-chains in 1791. William Winter was executed for the murder of Margaret Crozier. The original gallows - and Winter’s body - rotted, but a replica gibbet was built in the 19th Century and is today a listed building. A wooden head swings from the gibbet’s crossbar...

The road to Elsdon was lonely in times past and is still lonely today. Comparing the 1856 OS map with the present day version reveals no changes whatsoever. Not even field boundaries have changed. The road may now be metalled but it’s a straight four mile climb from Scot’s Gap and even when the wind doesn’t rock William Winter’s wooden head it’s never an easy ride. With a gale force storm roaring down the Cambo road - a headwind, naturally - the 70-mile jaunt from Newcastle is character building stuff.

I was on this road last week. My riding mate powered off into the distance. I tried to grab his wheel but the wind was so fierce - and my mate was so strong - I failed. I dropped into my granny gear, and watched, in agony, as Dave used the wind and the slope as a training aid of sorts, pulling away from me with every revolution of the pedals.

Deflated, I stopped, dribbled down a caffeinated gel, and, focussing on William Winter’s wildly swinging head in the distance, got back on the bike to complete the last mile of the climb.

By the time I got to him, Dave had had time for a snack and, for all I know, a bit of a snooze. Clearly, we’re miles apart in fitness right now.

He was sheltering from the roaring wind behind an old stone wall. I thought we might be dropping into Elsdon for a visit to the village cafe, a regular haunt for Newcastle’s masochistic cyclists. In fact, it was the thought of a pot tea and a plate of sticky buns that had got me to top of the gibbet climb. At my gel stop, I’d felt like phoning Dave, telling him I was turning tail. If I’d known the cafe was shut that day - a fact Dave revealed from his resting place - I’d have definitely given up, heading for a cafe lower down the moors.

So, instead of refuelling at Elsdon, it was a case of doing the road in reverse. The wind at the gibbet was roaring through at about 40mph. I know this because, with only light pedalling, we were able to ride the return flat sections at 45mph. Despite our rapid descent, there was almost complete silence. It was like riding in a bubble. Every little bird chirrup, every little whirr of bike noise, could be heard sharply. Where before we’d had to shout to make ourselves heard we were now descending at breakneck speeds but could carry on a conversation as though we were driving along in a Bentley.

The pain of the climb was long gone. This was cycling at its most sublime. To appreciate the good times, you have to suffer the bad.

And I’m not suffering enough at the moment. I need to suffer a lot more. On 11th May I’m riding the Fred Whitton Challenge, 114 miles over every major col of the Lake District. This will be my third ‘Fred’. My goal, as always, isn’t a stellar time, it’s merely to ride every inch of the route. At just under 100 miles ridden you’re faced with the twin terrors of Hardknott and Wrynose, tough climbs with fresh legs, murderous with jelly ones.

It’s on rides like these you know you’re not a cyclist for the pleasure of it, it’s the pain you seek out.

I only do two sportive rides a year. The ‘Fred’ and then, in August, CTC’s Phil and Friends Challenge Ride in Sheffield.  The Phil and Friends Ride, even though it climbs Holme Moss and Winnats, is a piece of cake compared to the Fred, a sustaining thought that keeps me going the whole day.

I’ve ridden all but one of the seven ‘Phil’s’ to date. I’m one of the “friends”, joining other regulars such as first British Tour de France finisher (way back in 1955) Brian Robinson and TdF author Graeme Fife. (You can see them all in the pics above.) Last year we were paced by Eurosport commentator David Harmon. He and Phil can be seen in this video.

There’s not a gibbet in sight.

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