Cycling to Oxford’s dreaming spires

Oxford

I’ve always liked the idea of cycling to Oxford. It’s just 40 miles from home, making it a realistic adventure. Yet until yesterday I’d never made the journey, despite enjoying the annual Bike Oxford sportive.

It nearly didn’t happen. The forecast was ominous – I was going to get wet. But after a lazy day in the sunshine on Saturday, I shrugged off the easy option, packed a rain jacket and headed to the city of the dreaming spires.

I’d barely gone seven miles before I felt raindrops. I confess I briefly considered cutting the ride short. But today was a day for determination in the face of precipitation. If I’d been riding the London-Wales-London audax (whose route I was largely following to Oxford) I’d have had no choice. So I donned the rain jacket by the Two Hoots sign above between Amersham and Hyde Heath and continued. I was glad I did as the rain wasn’t that heavy, and didn’t last long.

The route to Cadsden is a gradual climb followed by a steeper incline, before a glorious swoop down the escarpment. The road to Thame was busier than I’d have liked (I imagine it’s much quieter early on a Saturday morning when the London-Wales-London audaxers ride it) but it was quick. I decided to stop for a warming toastie and tea at Costa in Thame, which was good for morale.

It was tempting…

After Thame, the roads were much quieter, although I saw a steady stream of sportive cyclists coming the other way, including a hand powered recumbent trike. I was glad I had taken the rain jacket off, as I warmed up and dried off as the day got brighter. The scenery was getting more interesting with lovely pubs, such as the Old Fisherman at Shabbington, and pretty villages such as Stanton St John, where the road climbed past a pretty church. Not long after this I left the LWL route and swooped down through the lovely village of Elsfield towards Oxford. This was familiar territory from several Bike Oxford events over recent years.

Breathtaking: climbing through Stanton St John

Not long after, I was in the centre of Oxford. It was a joy to pedal along the quiet streets to the river at Folly Bridge.

I decided not to stop in Oxford, and pressed on towards Cowley. The multitude of bike shops confirmed Oxford’s reputation as a cycling city! I was soon past the BMW MINI plant and speeding out of the city towards Watlington.

Knowing that I had to climb the Chilterns escarpment after Watlington, I stopped by the side of the road near Chiselhampton and enjoyed a second lunch – the ham rolls I’d made that morning. While I was there, a kindly older cyclist stopped to ask if I was OK. We chatted for a while: he was cycling a local loop towards Dorchester-on-Thames. He said he’d found the short rise to where I was sitting rather breathtaking. After he’d gone, I turned good samaritan to a driver who had taken the wrong turn, giving him directions from my phone.

View from Watlington Hill

I was sorely tempted to stop for a tea at the lovely looking Spire and Spoke on Hill Road in Watlington, but I prudently decided to press on with the ascent of the ridge. By now it was a lovely afternoon, and I took my time, enjoying the view towards Chinnor. My reward was the most delightful descent for several miles after Christmas Common along Holloway Lane. This was classic Chilterns: narrow, wooded valleys dotted with pretty houses and farm buildings. Could the descent take me all the way to Marlow? No, but the climbs after Fingest and past Frieth were modest, and bought me a final freewheel into Marlow.

Last climb – towards Wooburn

By Marlow, I was running out of water, but continued along the busy road to Bourne End. I was now on very familiar territory, and completed the last steep climb, Kiln Lane, towards the Chequers Inn. After skipping the chance to stop at Oxford and Marlow, I decided I had earned a pint after 73 miles. Even better, it was table service so I didn’t even have to lock the bike.

Nectar…

I savoured that drink, reflecting on my wonderful day. I had been right not to give in to the weather forecast. I vowed to spend more weekends exploring the lovely lanes north of Marlow and Henley. My gravel bike, a Specialized Diverge, proved perfect for the hills with its low gears. My Garmin proved more fickle, regularly telling me I was off-course and should make a u-turn. Fortunately I knew the area and was confident in my route. It’s the first time a Garmin has let me down for many years.

As I reached home after 81 miles, it struck me that had I been doing the London-Wales-London sportive, I’d still have another 170 miles to go. Quite a thought!

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