Archive REVIEW: The Chilterns Big Dipper

by Adam Tranter

The Chilterns Big Dipper Sunday 17th April 2011
Words and images by Mark Tearle

I find the Chilterns, a 76km stretch of Chalk escarpment that stretches across Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire, a rather intriguing place.  I have been lucky enough to ride my bike around this area a few times now and each time it has been an absolute pleasure.

The Chilterns Dipper, split up in to three courses; Big Dipper, Little Dipper and Mini Dipper (could have been Baby Dipper, I forget) with the major rides taking on 100 miles and 100 kilometres respectively.  I'm not feeling too great right now (I know, I know - riding when ill is not to be recommended) so I opted for the shorter 100 kilometre Little Dipper.

Shiplake College, Shiplake just south of Henley-on-Thames is a nice HQ venue, with a rider quota of 300 registered entries there was plenty of parking and a gentle but not too busy hum of cyclists getting ready in the bright morning sunshine.

The initial registration and start was extremely well organised and efficient but there was a spirit lacking somewhere... I really can't put my finger on what.  This is the second year of running so I am not being overly critical, the location and the sunshine made it ok. 

At registration participants were offered transponder chip timing (strapped to the ankle), a choice of bars and gels and a goody bag that had a can of Red Bull in it as well as a number of leaflets advertising Maxi Fuel - the official sponsor for the day.   

The rider briefing at the start was appreciated and it was helpful to know about the other Sportive that had been laid on that day put on by another organiser, the Princess Risborough Sportive from the Sunday Sportive Summer Series.  It is a coincidence that the two Sportives shared a good percentage of the roads around the Chilterns.

It was pleasing to see a good number of women at the start, though I still think Sportives have a long way to go to encourage more ladies to take to their velocipedes and challenge themselves at these events.

The route from the start headed south towards Reading and then took a right turn at a round-a-bout just before Marsden to take on the first climb of the day.  I headed out with a group who were riding at a decent pace though completely silent. 

The course zigzagged along beautiful tree lined roads, wooded either side, the Blue Bells now in full bloom, and with the bright sun shining through young spring leaves everything looked extremely charming.

Out towards Woodcote the course now meandering through open farmland - a patchwork of bright yellow fields of Rape and green.  The first major climb came at about 20 kilometres with the first 'water station' just after. 

The feed stops were something of an oddity.  I must admit I felt confused as to what was going on.  As I approached the first feed stop I noticed on the sign, crudely written in marker pen that drinks were being sold at a charge...a charge? Surely not considering the £25 entry fee.  

Clarification from one of the lads handing out the water from the back of a car that the water was indeed free of charge, I topped up my water bottle and continued on my way.  Now riding alone I eased up on the pedals and started to take in the scenery more. 

The fact that the two Sportives shared some of the roads, as mentioned earlier, wasn't really a problem, though I understand that a few people got caught out by some of the signs, which in most cases shared a post.  It has to be said that the signs for the Big Dipper Sportive weren't of a quality to boast about, especially at the course splits. 

Still riding alone, I continued on with the sun now high in the sky and offering some warmth and a delightful golden glow across the scenery.  The rolling countryside delivering a wonderful backdrop, the roads were nice and quiet and fairly free of traffic.  The course could not be faulted as far as I am concerned.

The Little Dipper route loops up across the M40 after a few more climbs and comes back across the motorway to start the return journey. 

The climbing isn't done yet, this is the Chilterns after all.  Testing hills but not insurmountable.  The bright pink Kilometre marker signs giving you some idea of the distance travelled - I don't ride with a cycle computer so these signs were appreciated.

With about 20 to 25 kilometres to go I caught up with Brad, or he caught up with me...(Uncannily I have just noticed that I captured him on camera standing just to the right of the girl in the picture above, orange and black shorts with pale blue Planet X jersey).  Brad and I rode together and chatted of this and that.  Brad mentioned to me that this was his first Sportive event and coincidentally the furthest he had ever ridden.

A new comer to cycling Brad is training for an Iron Man competition which takes place in a few weeks and is a regular Triathlete.  He certainly rode very well and was great company for the remainder of the course.  I am always grateful when people actually chat about their experiences and speak freely about why they are there riding the sportive.  The shared experience is extremely valuable. 

The final 10 kilometres were on nice rolling roads, more or less a reverse of the journey out from Shiplake college, though there was some confusion about some of the signage in this section with Brad and I guessing (correctly as it turned out) which way to go at a significant fork in the road.

On returning to HQ we handed back the transponder chips and were awarded with a another can of Red Bull 'Energy Drink', an event T-shirt (which is of decent quality) and a packet of sandwiches - Ham's rare that I share my dietary choices with you here on Cyclosport, but I have long been a Vegetarian so my sandwich was handed to Brad, who eagerly accepted.  Lacking the choice in sandwiches, i.e. offering alternatives is what the twitter generation would term as a #fail.

Not to worry about the sandwiches, they were unexpected anyway and I am sure they were appreciated by the majority of entrants.  There was other food available to buy from the on-site catering though I considered that I would wait until I was home until I fed myself.  

The route was well considered, and took the riders on a good tour of the Chilterns and surrounding areas and it was mostly traffic free.  The HQ and facilities were excellent.  The signage could have been better and for the money I would have expected a much slicker operation with proper feed stations rather than dolling out warm water and supplies from the boot of cars.  I would happily forego the t-shirt to feel better looked after during the ride.

As always, if you were at the event please stop by, rate and leave comment here, you can also leave a comment at the bottom of this page. 

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2nd June 2011 10:46pm Admin wrote:

I think you're being far too kind, the signage was awful. I went off course several times and was endlessly stopping to check I was on the correct route due to lack of signs. Stpping to read the signs at junctions also wasted time. Was a waste of £25.

2nd June 2011 10:46pm Admin wrote:

This event was my first 100 miler, which I thoroughly enjoyed. The company along the route was pleasant although think got caught up with some riders from the other sportive, as people seemed to suddenly vanish. The route was hilly but travelled through some lovely countryside and stayed mainly on small country lanes and quiet roads. There seemed to be some confusion over the second feed station which was not there and signs were missing at vital turning points, (thank goodness for GPS). A good day out and would recommend it for next year.

2nd June 2011 10:46pm Admin wrote:

The Chilterns were a cyclists dream on this Sunday, with quiet lanes, lots of short, sharp climbs, beautiful scenery, and fab weather. The feed stations and road signs were terrible (and missing in a couple of places which led to us missing a crucial 10 mile loop thus cutting the 103 mile Big Dipper to 93 miles) - the £25 entry fee deserved better. With a little more organisation & polish this will be an excellent sportive.

2nd June 2011 10:46pm Admin wrote:

I have done a few sportives now and the Big Dipper was one of the best routes I have ridden to date. It is certainly as scenic as the Blenheim sportive through the Cotswolds and almost as chalenging on climbs as the Forest of Dean sportive. The facilities (ie free showers) were a major plus as I had a two drive back home and appreciated being clean. Only criticism were the feed stations which ran out of gels by the time the 100 milers got to the second one and the signs, some of which were recycled from a running race which caused confusion. Otherwise excellent value for the £25 entrance and I will certainly be back next year.