There are many words to describe the Dorset town of Shaftesbury and its immediate environs. Flat is not one of them.
But as I ascend with unexpected ease the aptly named ‘zig zag’ hill on the town’s outskirts and conquer the cobbled ramp of the iconic Gold Hill (made famous by the Hovis commercial) en route to the town centre, other adjectives spring to mind: satisfying, rewarding, achievable.
On Sunday April 1, with the WorldTour peloton focussed on the cobbled climbs of Flanders, hundreds of amateur cyclists will tackle Gold Hill on a ride appropriately named The Joker. Far from being April fools, the keen-as-mustard applicants for this early season sportive may be signing up for a real treat. Four routes (80km, 91km, 100km, and 120km), all starting and finishing at Salisbury Racecourse, will take the riders through the Cranborne Chase and West Wiltshire Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
“When we saw the calendar, we thought there’s no way we’re not doing an event that day,” smiles Martin Harrison of organisers, Southern Sportive, as we spin along one of several pretty back roads surrounding Shaftesbury.
Those brave enough to accept the Jokers Challenges offered by Southern Sportive will find themselves on more demanding sections of the course – Gold Hill, for example. The Fools Choices could be a mixed blessing. Short cuts offered without penalty, a clue to their true nature may lie in the title.
Conversation stops for a steep climb from Fontmell Magna to the A350. A short spin of about two-miles along this main road takes us past the turning for the Compton Abbas air field, before a right turn leads us to another hill. This time, it’s pointing downwards, testing the nerves and brakes rather than legs and lungs.
Brake pads aglow, we turn right again on to a narrow back road, pass a small number of pretty cottages, and exit the village near the foot of a hill known locally as ‘zig zag’: a series of hairpin bends that prove unexpectedly easy to ascend. As we emerge from the tree-lined climb to stunning views of Dorset and Somerset, I’m feeling pretty pleased with myself and half expecting to see my name chalked on the road.
We’re pressed for time and so double back on ourselves, descending ‘zig zag’ hill on the way back to Shaftesbury, emerging at the foot of Gold Hill: another unexpected pleasure. Determined to avoid a shaming dismount and a cleats-on-cobbles scrabble to the summit, I grit my teeth and steel myself for the sort of effort I imagine would be necessary to conquer the Angliru. Intermittent wheel spins do little for my confidence, but when I finally allow myself to look up, I realise I’ve done so just in time, and narrowly avoid pedaling straight into the café at the top of the hill. The café’s alfresco diners politely applaud my efforts, further increasing my satisfaction.
April fools? Hardly. Riders preparing to see in April surrounded by beautiful countryside could well have the last laugh. Those missing out may find the joke’s on them.