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Preview: Polka Dot Challenge - Spud Riley Gran Fondo

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Event: 17th June 2012
Location: Woodford, Cheshire
Preview: Eddie Allen and Phil Ingham


2012 sees a change of organiser for the Polka Dot Challenge – Spud Riley Memorial Gran Fondo, one of the most established events on the UK scene. However, what hasn’t changed is the iconic route, which brings around 500 riders back year after year to sample some of the finest cycling roads the Peaks has to offer. We take a closer look...

It’s 9am and we’re in Woodford, Cheshire, unpacking bikes from cars in the spring sunshine, ready to sample the sweeping, dramatic opening movement of the Polka Dot Challenge – Spud Riley Grand Fondo.

The ‘Spud’, titled in memory of Manchester Velo stalwart George ‘Spud’ Riley, is one of the original wave of UK-based sportive rides, inspired by epic Italian ‘Gran Fondo’ rides. The unassuming Woodford community centre car park may seem a world away from the glamour of the Alps and the Dolomites, but locals know that at Woodford, you’re just a few miles away from the Peak District’s choicest cycling roads, which the Spud Riley plunders with relish.

After leaving the HQ, the route begins in earnest at Pott Shrigley, a small village at the foot of the climb known as Brickworks, a delicious ribbon of tarmac climbing through a narrow river valley to meet the Macclesfield Road. Think of Brickworks like an escalator, transporting you steadily from the Cheshire Plain into the heart of the Peak.

A twisting plunge north on the Macclesfield Road takes you to Kettleshulme, where you turn right and take the minor road that climbs past Windgather Rocks, a shattered outcrop of gritstone 1300ft above sea-level on the Cheshire/Derbyshire border, popular with climbers from far and wide. For cyclists too, Windgather is a ‘must-do’ climb, a challenge on a still day and a real epic when the wind is up. The road eventually comes to T-junction, the route bearing left and dropping down through the conifer clad hillside to the Goyt Valley’s twin reservoirs.

Turning right and keeping the reservoirs to our left shoulders, we climb the idyllic Goyt Valley, the eponymous river trickling over the rocks in the gorge to our left, bound for Derbyshire Bridge, a striking moorland lane linking with the infamous Cat and Fiddle road.

The route crosses the Cat and Fiddle road and takes the A54, plunging down towards Allgreave on wide, smooth tarmac, where our next challenge awaits – over the border into Staffordshire and the long climb up to Flash – the highest village in Britain, according to its sign at least. We pause in the sleepy village before continuing through Longnor and Crowdecote (where the first feed resides come the day of the event).

Shortly after Crowdecote stinging switchbacks comes the choice – turn left and follow the 54 mile route for further adventures in the High Peak. Turn right and the 100 miler plunders the riches further south, heading as far south as Ashbourne before heading back through the Tissington Estate, eventually returning to ‘the crossroads’ for the final shared leg.

From here the final climbs and descents are shared by the 54 and 100 milers. Chief of these is Axe Edge, a climb totalling almost five miles from Earl Sterndale to the Cat and Fiddle road. Steep, with cruel false summits, Axe Edge scythes into the energy reserves, especially when westerly winds prevail. A high level blast on the Cat and Fiddle road ends with a right turn and the drop into Lamaload Reservoir, followed by the short but brutal assault on the grimly titled Dead Man’s Hill before plying the flatter Cheshire lanes back to Woodford.

It’s a route that’s barely changed in the decade that the event has been running. Taking over organiser duties for 2012 is Will Wright, a personal friend of Spud and the Riley family, who is keen to keep the spirit of the ride alive and not tinker overmuch with a winning formula and a winning route; “My own favourite bits are climbing from Pott Shrigley and then going up through the Goyt Valley – get a good day and you could be anywhere in the Highlands of Scotland up there,” said Wright when I spoke with him a few days after sampling the route. “It’s not a route for slackers who what a flat quick blast around. You’ve got to pedal every bit of it.”

You can read the full interview with 2012 Spud Riley organiser Will Wright here


The Polka Dot Challenge – Spud Riley Memorial Gran Fondo takes place on 17th June 2012. To find out more and enter, check out our event calendar.