Another win and some hard miles

(actual posting date – 6 March)

Match thirty one vs West Bromwich Albion (away)

Won 2-0

285.5 miles

Total mileage – 5,300.6

My general approach to the longer away trips has been to stay near the ground on the nights before and after the match, so that match day itself would effectively be a rest day from cycling.  For West Brom, that would have meant cycling on Thursday and Friday to get there, and returning home on Sunday and Monday, riding 70 odd miles a day.  Not exactly short days, but far from the longest I have done; and that was my original plan.

However, when I started planning the route and looking for hotels, I struggled to find cheap accommodation in the right areas.  Feeling bold, I decided on a change of plan: to push myself and do the round trip in three days rather than five.  That would mean 30 miles each way on match day; and 113 miles (or thereabouts) on each of Friday and Monday.  Not since the Sunderland trip had I planned on such long days, and it was a decision I was to regret at times on the return journey (but more of that later).  What it did mean was that I could afford to stretch my normal nightly budget to meet the princely sum of £110 for two nights B&B in Warwick.

The weather forecast for the weekend did not bode well and it was clear I could expect to get very wet.  I managed to get an early start on Friday and was on the road by 7.30am.  My route – at least to Oxford – was the same as for my trip to Everton back in September.  That meant following (on and off) the River Thames through Kingston, Walton, Staines and Henley.  It also meant a fairly flat ride for 40 miles until the long slow climb and then steep descent between Henley and Watlington.

The morning ride was, as forecast, very wet.  The early start meant I was able to cover 65 miles – and reach Oxford – before stopping for lunch.  The long climb had proved easier than I remembered from the Everton trip; but the sharp descent was rather scary with my brakes rendered ineffectual by the soaking conditions.  After passing Watlington and Chalgrove, I was disappointed that my route skirted round rather than went through Oxford’s historic centre – not least as I was three quarters of the way through an Inspector Morse novel.  Instead, I found a pleasant tea room on the outskirts of the city for lunch (a cheese toastie and a slice of cake).

While the morning terrain had been pretty flat with one big hill, the afternoon was much more up and down with (on average) 75% more climbing per mile.  But at least the rain had stopped and I arrived at the Cambridge Villa Hotel in Warwick shortly before 5pm.

I received a very warm welcome at the hotel, and was shown where to take the bike round the back and a place to lock it up.  I was then taken through the back door to my ground floor room.  It was immediately clear I was getting value for money for the extra cost of this hotel.  For the first time on my travels, a bathrobe and slippers were provided.  As was, even better, a teddy bear to keep me company.

Having come into the hotel through the back entrance, there was then just the matter of finding my way to the front entrance to head out for a bite to eat.  The hotel was a couple of large Victorian (at a guess – I’m no architectural expert) terraced mansions knocked together; which meant I had to navigate a maze of several corridors and flights of stairs – up and down – to find my way out.

After breakfast on Saturday – two wonderfully poached eggs accompanied by a similar number of sausages – I set off for the 30 miles ride to the Hawthorns.  The contrast in the weather couldn’t have been more marked with the sun shining brightly.  The first part of the ride was through lovely Warwickshire countryside.  With time to spare, I stopped for a cup of tea at a bike shop/cafe.  The second half was more urban, as it skirted round Birmingham, passed Edgbaston cricket ground and on to West Bromwich.

Most Premier League clubs I have visited this season have at least arranged for someone to meet me and give me the opportunity for some pre-match pitchside photos. Disappointingly, West Brom were unable to field anyone.  No matter: I met Fran from the charity and we found some people (a Palace supporting American family who were in the UK for a week) to take a few photos of us by the Tony Brown statue outside the ground.  Tony is something of a West Brom legend, including being part of their 1968 FA Cup winning team.  My mother was a West Brom fan as a girl and that Cup final was the last football match she went to.

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Whilst the club might have let us down, the WBA stewards were great.  A couple of them came over to speak to me as I was about to lock my bike up to some railings outside the away end.  When I explained what I was doing, they arranged to store my bike inside the ground (leaning up against the ride of lawnmower).

And so to the match.  West Brom had been on a good run of form, in particular at home.  I, and every other Palace fan I spoke to, would have been very happy with a draw.  But Palace have a new lease of life (since my training ground visit?) and stunning goals from Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend gave us a well deserved 2-0 win.  Survival is far from assured, but having looked down and out after the Sunderland trashing, Palace suddenly have a fighting chance of avoiding relegation.

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316 miles? My route planning is clearly better

The ride back took me nearer the centre of Birmingham, before again going past Edgbaston and into the now dark Warwickshire countryside.  I made it back to the hotel before 8pm.  My brother, sister-in-law and nephew came over to meet me and took me out for dinner.

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The Edgbaston floodlights at dusk

The return journey on Sunday proved to be possibly the hardest day of the challenge – only a couple of the Sunderland days come close.  The ride started in heavy rain.  The early terrain was very up and down, and the strong wind wasn’t helping either.  After struggling up one hill I stopped for a roadside comfort stop and re-fuel.  I then realised why I’d found the hill particularly hard: my back wheel had a slow puncture.  Thankfully the rain had stopped and I replaced the inner tube; stripped off the wet weather gear; and set off again.

On the next climb, I changed gears onto the largest cog on the back wheel and heard an alarming scraping sound.  Initially I thought it was the chain rubbing.  I stopped to check and it seemed fine.  I set off again and the noise was still there, including when I freewheeled.  It appeared that the hanger part of the gear mechanism was rubbing against the spokes.

I stopped a couple of times to try and solve the issue.  As it had only started after I’d repaired the puncture, I tried re-seating the back wheel.  Each time when I checked, the issue seemed to have gone away; but no such luck.  When I set off again, the added weight (ie me) pressing down on the back wheel caused the rubbing to start again.  The final time I tried to fix the problem, I felt a painful twinge in my back, which caused me discomfort for the rest of the journey (and beyond: it is still sore at the time of writing).  It was time to give up and carry on as best I could.

All in all it had been a very slow morning.  With all the stops, I’d barely managed 10 miles an hour and was well under halfway home when I stopped for a late-ish lunch at the Kings Arms in Oxford (my return route was taking me on a more picturesque route past the dreaming spires of the University City).  Two pints of diet coke and two packs of crisps later, I was ready to get back on the bike.

The weather took another turn as soon as I set off again: hail.  There was something surreal about cycling out of Oxford in a hailstorm, but thankfully it didn’t last.  The weather brightened up and I made much better progress than in the morning.  I passed Watlington, struggled (and pushed) up the big hill and knew that it was pretty much downhill from there.

The descent down to Henley was a pleasure, with the highlight being watching a calf in an adjacent field running alongside to keep me company.  Post-hail, the weather had been pretty good and any rain had been light and short-lived.  I had had enough of the wet weather gear hokey cokey (on-off, on-off, shake it all about) and weathered the few bits of rain in my normal kit.

This approach proved to be a big mistake when the rain started again around Windsor.  This time there was no let up; and by the time I realised it was no passing shower, the horse had bolted as far as wet weather gear was concerned.  I was already too wet for it to have made any difference.

For the rest of the ride I just got wetter and colder.  All I could do was press on to get home as quickly as possible; I was already in a race against time to make it home before the children’s bedtime.  By the time I reached Kingston, I could hardly feel my hands, except for when I flexed my fingers and was hit by painful pulses of pins and needles.  I barely had the dexterity left to change gears.

But I made it home and the children were waiting, in their pyjamas, on the doorstep to greet me.  They had even delayed watching the Cbeebees bedtime story so that I could watch it with them.

Somehow getting off the bike made me feel even worse, and I was shivering uncontrollably.  But Janet was a star and came to the rescue: getting me into a warm dressing gown; running me a lovely hot bath; and even pulling off my neoprene overshoes – a task my numb fingers could never have managed.

And that’s another away trip done and the fourth with a Palace victory.  There’s now something of a lull.  Palace have only one more match (at home against Watford) in March and no trips over 100 miles each way until they play Liverpool on 23 April; the first of the three late season trips to the North West that will provide the climax to the challenge.

A trip to the training ground and a win (surely no coincidence)

(actual posting date – 1 March)

Match thirty vs Middlesbrough (home)

Won 1-0

14.7 miles

Total mileage 5,015.1

 

Crystal Palace have been very supportive of my efforts, not least in the form of very generous sponsorship donations from three shareholders.  One of the things the club offered to support me an invite to the training ground for some publicity photographs with the players and manager.

Circumstances (particularly Palace’s poor form this season) meant that this had been somewhat delayed.  It had initially been scheduled for Friday 2 December.  But that was the week after the Swansea debacle (losing 5-4 despite being 4-3 up in the 89th minute, in case you need reminding).  Training was shifted to Selhurst Park and my invite postponed.  It worked – in the very short term – with Palace beating Southampton the next day, though that proved a false dawn.

I finally made it to training on Wednesday 8 February.  And it was great!

Slightly surprisingly, Palace asked the charity and me if we could bring our own photographer.  But this turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as I managed to secure the services of Palace legend Hy Money.  Hy was the first female sports photographer in the country and has followed Palace since the early 70s. Pretty much every iconic photo of Palace from the 70s and 80s was taken by Hy, and her photos grace the walls of lounges at Selhurst Park.  She has published a brilliant book of her photos called ‘Hy on Palace’.  (For more on Hy – visit her website or read this Telegraph article.)

To be honest, I was as excited about being the subject of a Hy Money photoshoot as I was about anything.

I arrived at the training ground towards the end of the morning’s training.  As the players finished with a practice match, manager Sam Allardyce came over for a chat with Hy and me.  He was very amiable and open; and Hy was delighted that he had seen and loved her pictures around the ground.  He didn’t give away any great secrets, but was complimentary about Palace fans and compared us favourably with those of a couple of his previous clubs.

As training finished, the players donned Contact a Family t-shirts and came over for the group photo, and captain Scott Dann presented me with a signed shirt.  And Sam told the players that if Palace weren’t safe from relegation before the final game of the season at Manchester United, then they’d have me to answer to!

All in all it was a great experience.  And whilst Palace hadn’t supplied a still photographer, they did video my visit and gave it a big push on their website and social media the following week.

What is more, the threat of having me to answer to clearly had an impact on the players.  For the second home game in a row, Palace’s opponents were a North East club also fighting against the drop.  But there was no repeat of the Sunderland horror show.  Palace put in a solid performance and even some awful refereeing couldn’t deny them a 1-0 win over Middlesbrough.  Let’s just hope it isn’t another false dawn…

Croydon advertiser article

Palace website article

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Two more defeats and a rather delayed blog

(actual posting date – 21 February)

Match twenty eight vs Sunderland (home)

Lost 0-4

15.1 miles

Match twenty nine vs Stoke City (away)

Lost 0-1

370 miles

Total mileage 5,000.5

My confidence levels were sky high on the ride back from Bournemouth. Bottom of the table Sunderland were next up at Selhurst Park, and a win in that game would surely signal Palace moving away from the relegation dog fight.

By the day of the match, my normal Palace-related pessimism had kicked in. But even in my worst fears, I didn’t foresee what was going to happen. Sunderland took the lead after nine minutes. On 43 minutes they made it 2-0. I turned to my friend Mark and said that the most worrying thing was that Jermain Defoe – normally Sunderland’s only goal threat – hadn’t scored yet. By the time the half time whistle blew, he had. Twice. Somehow, Palace were losing 4-0 at half time to Sunderland. All the optimism and good feeling from the Bournemouth win had evaporated. It was hard to blame those Palace fans who decided to leave at half time, though I wasn’t one of them.

The following Saturday, Palace were away at Stoke City. For me, this meant a 370 mile round trip, setting off on Thursday 9 February. The first day’s ride was to take me to Northampton. After a spell of mild weather, a cold snap came just in time for this trip. And cold it was. As with previous trips in the cold, my kit held up well with only my right foot really suffering in the cold. I’ve no idea why my right foot seems to be singled out in this way, given both feet had the same covering (two pairs of socks, shoes and overshoes).

Traffic and the cold meant that it was slow going along the familiar roads through south west and west London and up through the Chalfonts, Chesham, Tring and towards Milton Keynes. I put in a long stint and completed 62.5 miles before stopping for lunch at the Food for Thought cafe at Thrift Farm in Whaddon, near Milton Keynes. Lunch consisted of a cheese roll and a slice of Victoria Sponge. I probably should have just settled for one or other of them.

That left a short stint of around 25 miles in the afternoon. My destination for the evening was the Ibis hotel in the centre of Northampton. With about five miles to go on my Garmin, I saw a sign saying ‘Northampton 1’. It appeared my planned route was going to take me round the houses. Given the central location of the hotel, I decided to risk going off route and follow the sign post – it seemed worth it to save four miles. About a mile further down the road there was a ‘welcome to Northampton’ sign followed by a ‘Town Centre 3’. In contravention of normal practice, the first sign had given the distance to the edge of town rather than the centre. Nevermind, the re-route still saved me half a mile or so.

This was the second Ibis I had stayed in on my travels (the previous one being near Rugby). They do the job pretty well: big rooms, with plenty of space for the bike. The rooms are also very reasonably priced. My only complaints are the cost of breakfast (an extortionate £8.95) and the views. In Rugby, it was of the busy A5. In Northampton, a scene from some sort of dystopian sci fi movie.

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I nipped out for dinner at an Italian restaurant about 50 yards from the hotel. It was only once inside that I realised I’d eaten there on my previous stop in Northampton.  It (Sorrentino’s) was a good choice both times.  Back at the hotel I sat in bed watching telly. Alarmed, I spotted a new mole on my chest. Then I remembered I’d bought a chocolate bar on the way back from the restaurant…

There had been some flutters of snow on Thursday’s ride. On Friday morning, the snowfall was pretty constant. It wasn’t settling – at least nowhere other than my arms – and didn’t in itself impede my progress. What it did do was clearly show the headwind into which I was riding.

My way out of Northampton was on the Brampton Valley Way – another cycle/walking route along a disused railway line. It was a pleasant enough route, including passing a small section of the Nene Valley Railway. But the surface was bumpy (and, at either end, very muddy) and that, plus the aforementioned headwinds, plus some climbs later in the morning, combined to make it pretty slow going.

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After 50 miles I stopped for lunch (diet coke and a bag of cheese and onion crisps, twice) at the Bird in the Hand in Atherstone. The terrain was much less challenging in the afternoon and the sun even came out. I made much better time until the final pleasant, but slow, few canal-side miles on the edge of Stoke.

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Forty-three miles after lunch I made it to the Crescent pub and budget hotel in Stoke. I again had a large room – with two beds (one double, one single) – though it wasn’t easy lugging the bike up to its attic location. The heating also wasn’t working on the Friday evening and, after eating, I snuggled up under the bed covers to stay warm and ended up having an early night. Thankfully, the heating was working fine by the morning and for the rest of my stay.

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I had run out of chamois cream (for those not in the know, this is a cream you spread on your nether regions to protect against saddle sores), so I took a detour on Saturday to find a local bike shop. Swinnerton Cycles – a 100+ year old business – was a great find. Spread over two floors, it had a great range of bikes, though my favourite parts were the memorabilia and retro kit on display. I was also treated to a cup of tea as I killed time before heading to the ground.

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At the ground, I was allowed onto pitch side for the now customary pre-match pictures. There was then plenty of time to lock up the bike outside the away end, have a burger and head back inside to see yet another Palace defeat. As I wheeled the bike away from the ground after the game, a policeman sarcastically commented that it was a long ride home.  He was somewhat taken aback when I explained that I was indeed cycling all the way back to London.

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I took a circular route back to the Crescent pub to get some supplies and find a cash point, and got back to the pub around a quarter to six.  Any pub which has free pork pies on the bar is alright by me, so I watched the second half of the rugby (England v Wales) over a couple of pints before heading back to my room.

I decided to avoid the slow canal path on the return journey. I’d seen a sign to Stone – which was on my route – and decided to follow that. As the road climbed and climbed I began to regret the decision. After 2.4 miles I’d climbed about 300 feet to an altitude of 800 feet – the highest point of the day. Then I got the benefit: a lovely fast decent into Stone and about half a mile saved. It set me up well for the rest of the morning, and I made pretty good time despite the near constant drizzle and a cold easterly wind. Fifty-three miles took me to lunch in Market Bosworth.

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The afternoon brought hillier terrain and was therefore slower going, but I completed the final 42 miles in 3 hours 20 minutes and was back at the Ibis in Northampton. I was in the room next door to the one I’d stayed in on Thursday, so was blessed with the same lovely view.

It was much warmer on Monday, with some beautiful sunshine. On the other hand, I had to battle a strong headwind for much of the way. I pressed on all the way to Uxbridge (bar a very quick stop in Stony Stratford to buy my wife a Valentine’s Card…) before stopping for lunch in Uxbridge (64 miles). I then knocked off the final 21.5 miles in an hour and forty minutes. When I got home, it became clear to me that the novelty of my rides has worn off for my family. On the early rides, my children would be waiting on the door step to greet me. This time I got home at 3.30pm to find the home deserted.

When I totted up my stats after the ride I was delighted to see I’d just ticked past the 5,000 mile barrier.  5,000.45 miles done, and (an estimated) just under 2,000 miles to go.

The rest of my week was a combination of family time (it was half term – and my excuse for not writing this blog more promptly) and a trip to the Palace training ground for some publicity pictures with the players. I’ll write a brief separate blogs on that shortly.

Concentrating on the League…

(actual posting date – 3 February)

Match twenty six vs Manchester City FA Cup 4th Round (home)

Lost 0-3

15.3 miles

Match twenty seven vs Bournemouth (away)

Won 2-0

225.3 miles

Total mileage 4,615.4

 

FA Cup 4th round weekend always falls around the time of my birthday. When Palace were drawn to play Manchester City at Selhurst Park on my birthday, I didn’t expect any presents and so it proved. Yaya Toure had to wait until the last minute for his inevitable goal: a direct free-kick which rounded off a routine 3-0 victory for City. The most notable part of the game was the sudden hail storm (which thankfully came during the match rather than during the ride). There was also the slight farce of the officials not realising Palace had brought on substitute Loic Remy at half time, so that one minute into the half he was led to the edge of the pitch to have his studs checked before being allowed to resume – but other than that, a pretty forgettable game for Palace fans.

Hailstorm (photo Hy Money)hail-vs-man-city

The FA Cup fourth round did bring some good news though. One mile from my house, my actual local team Sutton Utd beat Leeds to secure a place in the fifth round and a visit from Arsenal. Lincoln City, the other non-league team in the tournament, knocked out Palace’s rivals Brighton and Hove Albion. And Liverpool were also knocked out.  Had they reached the semi finals of the Cup, then Palace’s trip to Anfield in April would have had to be re-arranged, with no guarantee I’d have been able to make the trip for the revised date.

The ‘bonus’ part of my challenge – Cup games – had ended. Palace had played the last of their five Cup games this season. I had been to four of them (missing Southampton away in the League Cup, as I was already a third of my way to Sunderland at the time). They had added 523.5 miles and 41 hours 26 minutes to the challenge, mainly from the trip to and from Bolton. To quote the over-used cliché, Palace and I could now concentrate on the league.

We didn’t have long to wait either, with Palace playing Bournemouth away three days later on 31 January. For me, this was a 225 mile round trip.  I decided to take two days for the trip down and a single day for the return leg. That meant a short ride on Monday and a late-ish start after doing the school run. I rode 42 miles before stopping for lunch at the wonderfully named Chocolate Frog Tearooms, and then rode the final six miles in the rain to the night’s B&B in East Tisted, near Alton.

Time for the school run before setting of for Bournemouthfb_img_1485804850807

Unfortunately, the B&B was having staffing problems, and they neglected to tell me there were problems with breakfast in the morning. According to the information in the room (which was in a separate annex out the back of the main building) breakfast was 7.15 to 8.15am. However, when I went for breakfast at 7.30, there was no sign of life and no-one answered the doorbell. So I had to make do with an energy gel before setting off on the 63 miles ride to Bournemouth.

I started with a damp, but quick, 15 miles to the Good Life Home and Garden Centre near Winchester where I stopped for a croissant and cup of tea. By the time I set off again, the rain had really set it and a very wet ride followed. It included one of the stranger sights of my travels: a dustbin man, in the rain, smoking a pipe.  In these days of vaping, it was good to see someone with a bit of class.

My route took me through the New Forest, a favourite holiday destination for our family. But I’ve never seen it quite so wet.  There was a lot of surface water on the road and the surrounding countryside was waterlogged. The wettest point was when I came to a fast flowing ford. I stopped for a couple of minutes building up the courage to cross, when I noticed the small narrow footbridge twenty yards up the road. Discretion was the better part of valour, and I wheeled the bike across the bridge before continuing on my way.

Thank goodness for the footbridgedav

As well as being drier, the New Forest of my holiday memories was also considerably flatter than the one I rode through. Or, more accurately, I’d not been expecting the significant climb before reaching the flatter roads through the forest. But, despite the climb and the wet, it was a good ride. I’m not sure where the famous New Forest ponies go to shelter from the rain, but there were fewer around than normal. I still saw some, though, along with a number of free range cows. There’s something very disconcerting about being watched by silent, staring, cows when having a quick roadside pee; you can’t help but feel you’re being judged and judged rather harshly on an unfair comparison!

The final stretch of the ride went through Christchurch and I took a very short detour to say a quick hello to friend and fellow Palace fan Nigel Gray at his fishing tackle shop. If fishing is your thing, and particularly if you’re in the Christchurch area (but also available on line), I would encourage you to look to Davis Tackle to meet all your equipment needs: www.davistackle.co.uk.

I had a leisurely afternoon at the Elstead Hotel in Bournemouth, before heading early to the Vitality Stadium for a pre-match pitchside photo. There were still almost two hours to kick off and I was allowed into one of the club lounges for a drink. As time passed, I looked at my phone and saw a number of friends checking in at the ground on social media, so I headed down to the away end. I was surprised to find, with only an hour and a quarter to kick off, that the turnstiles were not yet open. We all had to wait and queue in the rain until they were finally opened less than an hour before kick off. The game, however, was well worth the wait.

Pre-match at the Vitality StadiumD6A_1567.jpg

On 24 September, Christian Benteke headed a goal deep in injury time at Sunderland’s Stadium of Light to win the match for Crystal Palace. Between then and arriving at the Vitality Stadium, I cycled 3,283.7 miles in 254 hours and 14 minutes travelling from and to Palace away games. Palace played nine away games in that time without winning any of them (four draws and five defeats). So there was massive relief on the pitch, on the Palace bench and in the crowd when Benteke again buried an injury time header, this time to secure a 2-0 victory. It had been a much better performance from Palace and a deserved win, but the margins are small: keeper Wayne Hennessey had tipped a Bournemouth free kick onto the post just moments before Benteke’s goal.

Scott Dann and Christian Benteke celebrating their goals.scott-dannbenteke

Unsurprisingly, therefore, I had a big smile on my face on the short ride back to the Elstead Hotel. As I approached the hotel I had the sudden realisation that it was the same hotel I’d stayed in in 1993, pretty much exactly half my life ago. I’d missed a Palace home game for that weekend away; something of a classic when Palace hammered Portsmouth 5-1, including a brilliant goal from now-England manager Gareth Southgate. Forget lucky pants or lucky socks, with two stays and two Palace wins, the Elstead is my lucky hotel.

It was still raining when I set off on Wednesday morning for the long (110 mile) ride home. The winds were pretty gentle and not very noticeable on any of my rides to and from Bournemouth. But they were headwinds on the way down and tailwinds on the way back and even if you’re not aware of such winds, they do make a big difference when cycling. Plus, of course, there was the metaphorical tailwind of celebrating a rare Palace victory and – dare we hope – the first signs of Big Sam turning round Palace’s season. (I fear I may regret typing that by 5pm on Saturday…)

I made good time, therefore, back through Christchurch and across the New Forest. The rain stopped and there were more ponies (and even donkeys) out and about. It was warm enough to stuff my coat in my pannier and cycle with my ‘banana sash’ Palace cycling top proudly visible. I pressed on and completed nearly 64 miles before lunch, including the final long climb of the day to the route’s highest point.

Obligatory picture of New Forest poniescof

I was riding along shortly before lunch on a relatively busy section of road. I noticed cars on the other side of the road pulling right across to the kerb. Wondering what they were trying to give room to, I looked behind me to see an ambulance with its blue lights flashing (but no siren). I pulled to the side of the road to let the ambulance through. As it went past me, the paramedic in the passenger seat leaned out. I was expecting to get abuse for not pulling over sooner. But instead I was greeted by a shout of ‘Palace’ and a wave of a CPFC lanyard!

Lunch consisted of a bacon, brie and cranberry baguette washed down with the obligatory pint of diet coke at the Market Hotel in Alton. From then on, it was a pretty straightforward final 46 miles home. Or, rather, nearly home. Janet texted me while I was on the road to say she way taking the kids to dinner at Prezzo in Cheam Village. Having made such good time, I was much earlier than I’d expected, and was therefore able to join them halfway through dinner. After dinner, Hannah and I raced the final couple of hundred yards home – her running, me cycling sportingly slowly.  She won.  And so another away trip was completed.

A quick update

(actual posting date – 24 January)

Match twenty three vs West Ham Utd (away)

Lost 0-3

37 miles

Match twenty four vs Bolton Wanderers FA Cup 3rd Round Replay (home)

Won 2-1

15.1 miles

Match twenty five vs Everton (home)

Lost 0-1

15.1 miles

Total mileage 4,374.8 miles

 

I’ve had three short London trips since the Bolton away game; one to the London Stadium (formerly Olympic Stadium) and two to Selhurst Park.  Unfortunately, there has been no turn around in form for Palace, with a narrow Cup win over League One opposition sandwiched between two further league defeats.  Relegation is starting to look a real threat.

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A nice surprise in the post on the Tuesday morning – a copy of Bolton’s programme from their previous match, with a piece on Cycling the Season.cof

Two very different reasons for celebration

(actual posting date – 13 January)

Match twenty-two vs Bolton Wanderers, FA Cup 3rd round (away)

Drew 0-0

478.2 miles

Total mileage 4,307.8

 

When I was originally planning this challenge, I wanted to do every Palace match in every competition.  Janet – ever the realist – kept telling me that either the fixture list or domestic arrangements were likely to mean that this wouldn’t be possible.  At the time, European football was a possibility for Palace, and although I knew I wouldn’t be able to cycle to and from Kazakstan for a Thursday night match, a bit of me was in denial (maybe I could fly out with the bike and cycle from the airport?…)

Of course, Palace’s Europa Cup dreams lasted as long as Alan Pardew’s Wembley dance. The Premier League fixture list was kind, and it looked like it would be possible to do every Premier League game.  But League and FA Cup games were likely to remain problematic. Cup draws could lead to unfeasible journeys and the relative lack of notice might make it impossible for Janet to re-arrange work commitments to look after the children.

So it proved very early in the season.  The League Cup draw pitted Palace against Southampton in Southampton on a Wednesday night when I had to be in Sunderland for the Premier League match on the Saturday.  There was no way I could do both, so the Premier League match (and longest journey of the challenge) took precedence.

It would have been very easy, therefore, to decide give the trip to Bolton Wanderers for the FA Cup third round a miss.  Very easy, tempting, and – dare I say it – sensible.  But there were two particular reasons why I wanted to do this trip.

First, the Premier League fixture list had rather front and end loaded the longer rides. There are nine Premier League trips of over 200 miles each way.  My journey to Hull in mid December was the sixth (after Middlesbrough, Sunderland, Everton, Burnley and Swansea).  The remaining three (Liverpool and the two Manchester clubs) are Palace’s final three away trips of the season and take place in April and May.  That meant a long gap between long trips, and to be frank I wanted to get another one in.

The second reason is that Janet and I have a degree of competitiveness about how many of the current 92 league grounds we have been to.  Janet is some way ahead of me (around 70, to my mid-50s).  Bolton’s Macron Stadium has been a particular bone of contention.  I’ve been there twice, but both times for conferences and never to see a match.  So, apparently, it doesn’t count.  (Neither, I am told, does Newport County’s Rodney Parade ground, even though my dad took me to a rugby match there when I was a child.)  This was my chance to lay that one to rest.

In those circumstances, I wouldn’t have been surprised if Janet had had some immoveable work commitment which meant I couldn’t go.  But to her own surprise, she said she would work things round so I could go.

After I’d made the decision and arrangements to go, I learnt of two far better reasons to be making the trip.  Two very different causes for celebration – one of which I knew about before setting off, the other which wasn’t confirmed until the teams were announced.

I had arranged to stay with a friend, Sherann Hillman, in Stockport on Friday and Saturday nights.  Before taking my redundancy package and embarking on my mid-life gap year, I had worked in the Civil Service on education and children’s services for 25 years.  I had held a whole range of posts in that time, almost all of which I had enjoyed.  But my favourite was the three and a half years I spent from 2011 to 2014 as head of special educational needs and disability policy.  There are a whole host of reasons why I look back on that time so fondly and with a degree of pride. One of the main ones was the number of inspiring parent carers I met and worked with.  Quite frankly, I find being the dad of two small children shattering – and it’s Janet who does all the work.  And yet I met parents who not only were bringing up children with additional needs, but also found time and energy to volunteer and support other families.  I am, quite simply, in awe of such people. And it is because of them I chose to raise money for Contact a Family while undertaking this challenge.

Sherann is one such parent.  Among other things, she is co-chair of the National Network of Parent Carer Forums and founder and chair of Parents in Partnership Stockport.  I know some people are cynical about the Honours system in this country, but sometimes it really does get it right; and it did when Sherann was awarded an MBE in the latest New Year’s honours list.  I was delighed, therefore, to have the opportunity to celebrate with Sherann.

The second new reason was Palace related.  Argentinian goalkeeper Julian Speroni joined the club in the summer of 2004.  His Palace career didn’t start well, some early mistakes led to him losing his place and at that time it seemed impossible he would end up holding the record for the most appearances ever for a Palace goalkeeper.  But within a couple of years, he had made the number one spot his own and he went on to win the Palace Player of the Year award on multiple occasions.  Recently, he has dropped down the pecking order at Palace, stranded needing just one more match to break the appearance record – and that chance came at Bolton.  I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Julian on a number of occasions and he is a lovely bloke – as everyone who has met him agrees.  No-one could be further from the negative stereotype of a modern day footballer.  So I was really pleased to be part of the Palace following who sang his name as he came on to the pitch at the start of the game (and during and after it) and whom he saluted after the final whistle.

Anyway, back to the cycling.  I decided to push for longer days and do the journey to and from Stockport in two days each way rather than the three I’d originally planned. That meant two 100-105 mile days, plus a nearly 50 mile round trip on match day, and then the same going home.  But, of course, it also meant two fewer days away from home.

I set off on Thursday morning.  It was cold.  Very cold. Minus 4 degrees celcius cold.  As on the trip back from Swansea, my winter gear proved up to the job; with (for some unknown reason) only my right foot feeling uncomfortably cold.  I know I’ve previously complained about lots of my routes taking me on the same routes, but after a bit of a gap there was something comforting about being on familiar roads.

The cold notwithstanding, it was a beautiful day, with clear blue skies.  Even in winter, the countryside was stunning and, surprisingly (to me, at least) green.  With not everyone back at work post-holiday, the roads were relatively quiet and I made good time until my latest puncture issues somewhere just past Tring.

On the Swansea trip I’d suffered from a series of slow punctures on my back wheel the cause of which had proved frustratingly elusive.  It turned out the problem was the rim tape (the tape which goes round the wheel and protects the inner tube from the holes for the spokes).  It takes time to notice a slow puncture; but riding started to feel harder work and the ride somewhat ‘spongy’.  I stopped to check.  The back tyre was fine (phew) but the front was slightly soft.  I removed the wheel and tyre and checked: sure enough the rim tape had shifted and exposed some of the holes.

I re-seated the tape as best I could, put in a new tube and replaced the tyre.  I managed to make a bit of a hash of pumping up the tyre with a CO2 cyclinder.  As a result it wasn’t quite as rock hard as I like, but nonetheless absolutely fine to ride on. I just hoped the rim tape would do its job; and I figured that at some stage I’d pass a cycle shop where I could borrow a track pump and buy a new rim tape just in case.

I stopped for lunch shortly after at the Queen’s Head in Wing with 53 miles (or just over half of the day’s total) done.  My routes tend to take me onto very quiet country roads. Generally, this is great.  One of my worries, however, has been what condition these roads would be in cold weather – and specifically whether they would be gritted.  It turns out for at least one of the roads I needn’t have worried.  I passed a gritting lorry travelling in the other direction.  And got a face full of grit and salt for my troubles: not pleasant.

Towards the end of the day, my route took me off the quiet roads and onto the A5 for a few miles.  I’ve generally avoided busy A roads, and it wasn’t great fun on the A5 in the dark. The road undulates.  On the downhill bits I could get a reasonable speed up.  It was less fun on the uphill stretches, particularly when I had an articulated lorry behind me and no way to let it pass.

A couple of miles from my night’s destination (the Rugby East Ibis, near the A5/M1 junction) my route took me off the A5.  This seemed fine, until I turned left off the road onto a rutted muddy, but now frozen, track.  I tried riding, but that proved impossible and I had to push the bike for a mile, before the final couple of hundred yards to the hotel.  The cold weather was a blessing – pushing over frozen ground (accompanied by the sound of the frost cracking) was an lot easy that it would have been through mud.

There was a marked change in the weather on Friday.  The clear skies had clouded over (and rain was forecast) and it was noticeably warmer.  The ride started with a further eight miles on the A5.  I made good time for a couple of hours or so, and was rashly considering a really long morning ride.  However, my energy levels dropped and when I saw the golden arches near Rugeley Power Station just before midday, I decided to stop for lunch with 51 miles done.

I had two separate conversations during my lunch stop about my challenge; first with a guy who asked me about my panniers (and he needed to buy some for an upcoming trip) and then with a Villa fan who commented on my Palace cycling top.  These kind of random conversations are one of the nicer parts of my journeys.  I am also pleased to say that one of the two later sponsored me.

As I’d expected, it started raining in the afternoon.  My route took me onto the A34 past Stoke and through Newcastle under Lyme.  It’s not a particularly attractive road to ride on and it is a pretty busy main road.  But it is wide enough that the passing traffic doesn’t feel intimidating and I always seem to make pretty good time on it.  I passed the junction for the A500 and the bridge repairs that had led to (unnecessary) diversions on previous rides had finished; and on into the Cheshire countryside.

About two miles from my destination (Sherann’s) I saw Rick Green Cycles.  I stopped to pump up the front tyre and buy a new rim tape; and have a quick chat about what I was up to.  Another mile of so down the road there was a loud pop – my front wheel had punctured, and it was no slow puncture this time.  Clearly the extra air pressure had pushed the tube harder against the dodgy rim tape with the inevitable result.

I was probably close enough to push the bike to Sherann’s and sort it out there.  But I decided I didn’t fancy a long push for a second day in a row and would do the repair at the side of the road.  It wasn’t as if I needed to check the tyre to find the cause of the puncture. Removing the old rim tape and putting on the new one is a fiddly job, particularly at the roadside in drizzle and in the dark.  I did that part of the job pretty well, but my mechanical ineptitude raised its head as I replaced the tube and tyre.  I managed to break one valve and my CO2 inflator.  So I ended up using my manual pump before riding the final few hundred yards on a not brilliantly inflated front tyre.

The welcome at Sherann’s was lovely.  Her husband Garry was sent to run me a bath and, after I’d bathed and changed, we settled down to watch the football  with a curry and plenty of beer.  Sherann and her children are Manchester City fans (Garry is a Chelsea fan: you can’t have everything).  I was happy to be an honorary City fan for the night, not least as they were playing West Ham.

On Saturday, I rode the two miles back to Rick Green Cycles, to pump up the tyre, buy a new inflator and restock my supply of CO2 cartridges and inner tubes.  Off I set again.  And fifty yards down the road there was another loud pop.  I wheeled the bike back to Rick Green’s, to a very amused welcome.  It turned out that (while it had undoubtedly been a good idea to replace the rim tape) the rim tape had not been the cause of the puncture.  As the guy in Rick Green’s (possibly Rick himself, I don’t know) poked an allen key through a hole in my front tyre, it was clear I needed a new tyre…  My ineptitude was then overshadowed by a guy who came in asking for oil to put on his disk brakes; it would have been fun watching him try and stop if he hadn’t been given some proper advice.

New tyre supplied (with a free inner tube – thanks) I was on my way again.  If you’re ever in Wilmslow or the area needing a cycle shop, I can’t recommend Rick Green’s highly enough.

After the cold on Thursday and rain on Friday, Saturday’s weather issue was the fog.  It shrouded me the whole way round Manchester and up to Bolton.  At the Macron Stadium I was given a very warm welcome by club chaplain Phil Mason and ex-player, now ambassador, Tony Kelly.

My previous seven trips outside of the London area had produced 34 goals.  A 0-0 draw was, therefore, something of a surprise.  Having said that, there were chances at both ends, including both teams hitting the woodwork.  The highlight, though, was meeting up with my friend Trevor, with whom I’d stayed on the trip to Burnley.

The cycle ride back to Sherann’s went very well and very quickly.  The Hillman’s did me proud again: treating me to a meal out at a lovely local Italian restaurant.  I really should have gone to bed when we got back, but somehow we were still drinking G&Ts at 2.30am…

Clearly that was not the best preparation for a long ride the following day.  Getting on the bike, however, is the best way I know to clear a hangover.  The Cheshire countryside looked wonderful as the early morning sun struggled through the mist. Unfortunately it turned dull and damp on my way back to the McDonald’s in Rugeley.  It then brightened up quite nicely – before night fell – on the final 50 miles back to the Rugby East Ibis.  Given the over indulgence of the previous night, I’d made really good time; though I was pretty much asleep on my feet at 5pm when I arrived.

The final day was a difficult one.  It started with some very hilly miles.  And all the while I knew I was racing a band of rain moving from the North West to the South East.  If there was any justice in the world, that would have at least meant a tailwind; but no – the wind was from the South West, so either a head or crosswind the whole way home.

After 40 miles – with the rain just catching me – I stopped at the Thrift Farm near Milton Keynes.  I’d hoped for a lovely slice of Victoria sponge: I hadn’t had any on this trip. Unfortunately, I had to make do with a lemon cake, but it still hit the spot.

From then on it was a wet and windy ride.  I stopped again after another twenty miles for lunch at my regular haunt of the Greyhound in Wigginton, before the final 4o miles back home.

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Roadside repairsIMG_20170105_115655.jpg

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With Tony Kelly and Phil MasonPC2_3577.JPG

Third time at the stadium, and finally I was going to see a matchsdr

How I felt on the final leg of the return journeycof

Two festive trips ‘up North’

(actual posting date – 2 January 2017)

Match nineteen v Watford (away)

Drew 1-1

64.2 miles

Match twenty v Arsenal (away)

Lost 0-2

33.7 miles

Total mileage – 3,814.5

 

I don’t really need another reason to be glad I’m not a West Ham fan, but the festive fixture list gave me one anyway.  The Hammers had a long trip on Boxing Day down to Swansea.  Had that been Palace instead, my challenge would have failed: being away for Christmas Day was not an option.  Oh for the days when Boxing Day meant a local derby.

For Palace, fortunately, the Boxing Day trip was more manageable: around 30 miles each way across London to Watford.  The only slight fly in the ointment was that the match was live on telly, which meant an early kick off and therefore an early-ish start for me.  I set off at around 9am, with the previous day’s Christmas lunch sitting a little heavily in my stomach.  But – festive over-indulgence notwithstanding – it was a largely uneventful but enjoyable ride North, with very little traffic to negotiate.  My route took me through (among other places) Twickenham and Ickenham, making me think I was in a round from Only Connect.

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I was met at Vicarage Road by Watford’s Supporter Liaison Officer, Dave Messenger.  Dave took me into the ground and we had a quick photo op before Dave got back to his normal match day duties.  It had been a few years since I’d been to Vicarage Road and there were noticeable improvements to the ground in that time.  In particular, I was impressed with the facilities for the disabled.  Dave and I are in the away fans disabled area in the above picture: giving a great view from behind the goal (and a much better position that when Janet had previously been there with her father and had to sit with the home fans).

The next I saw of Dave was as he was interviewed on the big screen pre-match.  He was talking about an excellent and innovative facility at the ground: a sensory room to enable autistic children and young people to enjoy the match in a safe environment.  https://watfordfc.co.uk/club/introducing-sensory-room.  It’s great to see things like this, and I’d love it if Palace followed suit.

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It had, of course, been all change at Palace since the previous game.  Alan Pardew had departed and Sam Allardyce was the new man at the helm.  The early signs for the new era were good.  Palace were far the better team in the first half and the previously under-performing Andros Townsend and Johan Cabeye combined for the latter to open the scoring.  Palace then had a great chance to double their lead, but Christian Benteke’s woeful penalty was easily saved.  That’s now three penalties Palace have missed this season (two by Benteke; one by Cabeye).  When you’re down at the bottom end of the table, you can’t afford to waste opportunities like that.

The second half proved that some things haven’t changed.  First, Palace still seem unable to play well in both halves of a game; and it wasn’t a great surprise when Watford equalised with a penalty of their own.  The other thing that hadn’t changed was that referee Mark Clattenburg cost Palace yet again: booking Wilfried Zaha for a dive rather than awarding Palace a penalty.  And so the Allardyce regime started with a point.

Between Christmas and New Year my cycling took a rather different form.  We had a short break at Center Parcs with some other families and I had a lovely time pootling around on the bike with my five year old daughter and our friends.

The second trip North of the holiday period was an even shorter one to Arsenal on New Year’s Day.  It was another televised match, but at least the 4pm kick off meant I had time to get over my hangover.

I’ve been very lucky with the weather on my travels so far; and I’ve been pretty well prepared when it hasn’t been at its best.  This trip, however, was an exception.  The rain was just starting as I set off; and I hadn’t really gone into full waterproof mode.  By the time I reached the Emirates Stadium (a ride of under an hour and a half) I was drenched: my feet in particular were soaked and very cold.  It didn’t then help that the roof at the stadium doesn’t seem to do anything to protect the lower tier from the weather.  Still, I wasn’t the only one who had misjudged their clothing: my friend Andy had plumped for canvass shoes for the day.

My family is divided between Palace and Arsenal supporters.  One of my brothers and I are Palace fans (along, I’m glad to say, with Janet and her family: I married well).  My other brother and his two children are, however, lifelong Arsenal fans whilst my dad has also been a big Gooner since some time in his mid-50s.  In terms of family bragging rights, they pretty much always fall on the Arsenal side – I went to every Palace v Arsenal game home and away from 1989 to 2005 saw us manage only one win and two draws.  This match was no exception.  Arsenal completely outplayed Palace in the first half; the only real surprise was that they only scored one.  What a goal it was, though – and incredible back heel into the top corner by Olivier Giroud.

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A second goal followed early in the second half.  Palace’s performance improved a bit after that – but that was probably as much due to Arsenal easing off.  The only consolations were that Palace’s goal difference didn’t take a battering and there was nothing controversial to fall out over when I met by dad, brother, niece and nephew for a post match drink.

The weather had improved somewhat for the journey home and I made good time across London to be home before 8.30pm.  I was also feeling more philosophical.  A draw at Watford wasn’t a terrible result and we were never likely to get anything at Arsenal.  The crucial game is the one next up: at home against Swansea City.  If we fail to win that, then relegation will start to look very likely…

 

 

No disgrace in losing to Chelsea, but…

(actual date of posting – 18 December)

Match seventeen – vs Chelsea (home)

Lost 0-1

16.7 miles

Total mileage – 3716.6

 

A foggy Saturday lunchtime/early afternoon in South London.  A second home game in four days.  Both on TV; both against one of the country’s richest clubs; and both ending in narrow defeat.  As with Wednesday’s defeat, it was a creditable but fruitless performance.  Unlike on Wednesday, we couldn’t blame refereeing decisions: the only goal coming from a sadly all too common moment of indecision from Palace goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey.  Alas, creditable performances and narrow defeats against the big teams don’t get you anywhere, especially if you can’t beat the teams around you in the relegation battle.  Four points from the last ten games is relegation form: something needs to change very soon or Palace’s stay in the top flight will be coming to an end.

The main plus for me of the day was the opportunity to catch up with some friends over a drink, including one who lives in Abu Dhabi but is back in England for Christmas.  The only cycling drama was cycling half a mile to a post-match pub to find I’d lost my keys.  I cycled back to the ground to see if I’d dropped them when unlocking the bike.  I hadn’t.  It was only then that I found I’d put them in my back pocket with my wallet.  I never ever put my keys in my back pocket…

And finally, happy Christmas everybody.

 

Posh seats, muddy roads and dodgy refs

(actual posting date – 15 December)

Match sixteen – Hull City (away)

Drew 3-3

418.1 miles

Match seventeen – Manchester United (home)

Lost 1-2

15.3 miles

Total mileage – 3,699.8

 

A long distance away game on a Saturday followed by a mid-week home match means it’s a two match blog post.

It was another interesting week in the build up to the Hull game.  When I’d been to the BBC to record my very very short interview for the Today programme, they’d mentioned that Radio 2 were interested in featuring me.  One thing I’ve learnt over the last few weeks is that the BBC don’t see the need to give you much notice.  At about ten past eight on Monday morning my phone rang.  It was the Chris Evans show: could they have me on (via the phone – no taxis to London this time) at 8.45.

Once again, I was reliant on friends to make this possible – I dropped Hannah off at school and left Gilbert with one of the other nursery dads (thanks again Matt!) to rush home to take the call.  A short (but not as short as Radio 4) interview with Vassos Alexander followed, though I was told beforehand not to mention the name of the charity which seemed to defeat the object a little.

Later on Monday morning, I received an email from Steve Browett inviting me to join him and (Palace Chairman) Steve Parish in the Directors Box for the Hull match.  It would mean stuffing a pair of proper shoes and a jacket into my luggage, but was an opportunity to good to miss.  It also enabled me to sell my match ticket on-line and put the proceeds towards my sponsorship. On the subject of which (and following Steve Browett’s very generous donation earlier in the season) I received big donations from Palace’s American investor David Blitzer and from Steve Parish.

I’d originally planned to ride to Hull over three days (Wednesday to Friday) and return over Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.  However, Hull actually isn’t quite as far as I’d thought (still over 200 miles, mind you) and I decided I could do it in two main days, leaving myself a short hop over the Humber Bridge (and back) on matchday.

Thursday’s route took me right across London, crossing the Thames via London Bridge.  In fact, it took me the same way as my first away trip of the season to Tottenham and I passed White Hart Lane on my way north.  That trip now seems a very long time ago.  It was Palace’s second game of the season and also our second 1-0 defeat.  A season of struggle looked likely.  That is proving to be the case – but there was no hint then that Palace’s games would be the place to go if you wanted to see lots and lots of goals (and didn’t care which end they went in).

It also seems a very long time ago in terms of my riding.  Tottenham was just a forty mile round trip and I had no idea how I would find the rigours of the really long journeys.  Since then I’ve ridden 3,700 miles and have done six of the nine longest (ie over 200 miles) away trips.

I felt in good form as I cycled through London, helped no doubt by a tailwind.  But it was slow going in the heavy traffic, particularly through North London.  As I travelled through Dalston and Stoke Newington I found myself wondering (not for the first time) why they are such sought after areas.  Give me South London any day.

The going remained slow until I had passed the attractive, if a little twee, town of Ware. After that, my average speed increased considerably.  After a lunch stop in Great Shelford, I skirted Cambridge and then headed on the cycle track alongside the ‘Cambridge Guided Busway’, where buses hurtle along a concrete chute.  I used to know this area north of Cambridge well, but the busway came after my time.

The Cambridge Guided Busway (not my photo – it wasn’t so green in December!)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I then headed through Earith and Somersham to my night’s lodgings in March.  When I’d booked a room at the King William, I’d assumed it was a pub, but actually it was just a B&B. The welcome was warm and friendly and there was secure storage for the bike (and a donation to the cause on the way back).  They were well used to people on strange charity challenges, having previously accommodated a man who was walking all the way to Scotland.

A barge in Earith – it appears I’m not the only one…20161212_102444.jpg

Friday was a day of two halves.  I knew that the east of England was flat, but I’m not sure I realised quite how flat until my ride through the Fens and into Lincolnshire. The was nothing to stop the south west wind.  When I was riding north east it pushed me along; when I turned north west it became an annoying crosswind.  But more irritating that the wind was the state of the roads – they were quite simply filthy, as was every car and van I saw and – before long – the bike and me.

The flat ride took me through Boston and past Boston United’s York Street ground, adding to my growing collection of grounds-I-won’t-be-visiting-but-have-cycled-past.  I also passed the Maud Foster Windmill in Boston.  I’ve seen a number of old windmills on my travels (appropriately enough, as I grew up right by the Shirley Windmill in Croydon) but this was one of the few which, like the Shirley Mill, still has its sails.

Boston Utd’s ground and the Maud Foster Windmill (pictures taken on the return journey)20161211_115849

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I stopped for lunch early – at about 11.30 – for two reasons.  First, so I could buy some wipes and have a bit of a clean up, and second because I spotted a cafe called “Janet’s Tea Rooms” in Woodhall Spa.  How could I not stop there?

Just a bit dirty – the shoes are meant to be black.20161209_113720

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I parked the bike in a small public garden in front of a large war memorial and gave it (and me) a clean before heading into the tea rooms.  I knew I’d been heading through RAF country – not least when a jet had buzzed me on its way to land – but I was still taken aback by the interior of the tea rooms.  They were quite simply packed with RAF memorabilia, with a particular focus on Lancaster bombers and on the Dambusters.  I thought this seemed a tad over the top.  Then in the toilet I saw a short history of the place and learnt that the war memorial wasn’t just any old war memorial.  It was the Dambuster Memorial.  Suddenly it all made sense.

The Dambusters’ Memorial20161209_125857

And so to the second half of the day’s riding.  I knew the terrain was going to change, but after miles and miles of flat-as-a-pancake terrain, it was still a shock to the legs to climb up and through the Lincolnshire Wolds.  After a morning spent within a metre or so of sea level, I climbed as high as 555 metres.  I made good time, nonetheless, and arrived in Barnetby in North Lincolnshire, where I would be spending the next two nights, by around 4pm.

This sign was on the inside of the door, which meant you’d already been up the stairs before seeing it.  It didn’t stop me taking the bike up to my room, mind you.20161209_173034

The local convenience store clearly knew I was coming20161209_184709

Saturday morning meant a sub-20 mile ride over the Humber Bridge and into Hull.  The Humber Bridge crossing was very similar to the Severn Bridge.  The shared cycle lane/walkway was at the edge of the bridge – with the road slightly raised to your right and a railing on your left before the big drop to the water below.  And as with the Severn Bridge, I thoroughly enjoyed the ride across and the views it afforded.

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I arrived in Hull a little early, so stopped at a cafe for a quick cuppa and popped into Kingston Cycles to stock up on energy gels (and have a chat about my rides).  Even then, I arrived at the Hop and Vine in Hull before Steves Browett and Parish and co arrived.  There were a couple of Palace fans – one of whom it turned out I knew ‘virtually’ – and a handful of Hull fans, and we had a good chat about beer and football before the others arrived.

I started going to Palace regularly in 1984.  That coincided with Steve Coppell becoming Palace manager for the first time.  Over the next seven years I saw him build the best ever Palace side, culminating in our highest ever placing of third in the league in 1991.  Cycling had already given me the opportunity to meet one of my heroes from that team, when I cycled round Surrey with captain Geoff Thomas to raise money for Leukemia Research in 2012.  Now I got to sit in a pub, chatting about cycling, with one half of football’s greatest rhyming forward partnership: Mark Bright.

Mark Bright and meimg_4623

The three Stevesimg_4628

I left the pub before the others as Hull had kindly offered to take a photo of me on the pitch with two of their ex-players, Dean Windass and Bryan Hughes.  When I got to the ground, I made a quick change into smart shoes and put on a tie, waistcoat and jacket.  Hull stored my bike in the stadium and I met Dean and Bryan by the edge of the pitch.  Bryan asked me about another former Palace star – and ex-teammate of his – Andy Johnson.  This led to him reminiscing on his part in relegating the Palace team of Andy Johnson’s era. I’d completely forgotten that he had scored Charlton’s first goal in the 2-2 draw that saw Palace drop from the Premier League in 2005, and I’m not sure I needed reminding.

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Pictures taken, I was shown my way to the dining room where we would be having a pre-match three course meal (well, two courses pre-match and desert at half time; there was also the option of post-match cheese and biscuits but I declined).  I arrived before the rest of the Palace party, but was soon joined by them.  I was not the only guest for the day.  The other was music journalist Tony Fletcher, who has written books about Keith Moon, The Smiths and REM (among others).  Unsurprisingly, he was very interesting company.  He’s also just had a year travelling the world with his family, which he described as a ‘mid-life gap year’: exactly the same term used by a friend to describe what I’m up to.

 

After the solidity and sanity of the Southampton win, the match was another rollercoaster goalfest of a Palace away match. Plenty of incident, but ultimately a disappointing result against fellow Premier League strugglers.  Palace started the stronger, but went behind in controversial circumstances.  Robert Snodgrass dived in the penalty area. If the referee had seen the dive, it would have been a second yellow card and a sending off.  However, he bought the deception and Snodgrass himself scored the penalty.

In the second half, Snodgrass fouled the game’s outstanding player – Wilfried Zaha – and Benteke equalised from the spot.  Zaha himself then scored a stunning goal to put Palace 2-1 up.  But Palace’s defence was at its generous worst, and Hull scored twice to lead 3-2.  Zaha had the final word – crossing for substitute Fraizer Campbell (ex of Hull City, and not popular with the Tigers’ fans) to head the final goal of the game.  There has to be a great sense of relief when you rescue a point with a late goal, but this still felt like two points lost rather than one gained.

My view at the KCOM Stadium (that’s the back of Brighty’s head)20161210_162833

The ride back to Barnetby took me along pitch black country roads in an increasingly persistent drizzle, but was largely uneventful.

Sunday was another ride of two halves.  It was difficult going first thing as I climbed steeply back into the Lincolnshire Wolds – but worth it to see the sun rising over the lovely countryside.  I rode for around 62 miles before stopping in Fosdyke for lunch.  Or rather for a couple of packets of crisps: the only other food option was a carvery and I judged that would be too heavy in the stomach for the afternoon ride.   The afternoon ride was 30 completely flat miles back to March.

I’m assuming this placename is ironic: I hadn’t seen so much as a molehill for miles20161211_145426

I was surprised by the cold on Monday morning.  I’d been enjoying the unseasonably mild weather, but it was sub zero first thing.  Cold: but beautiful, as the rising sun pierced the freezing mist.

I mentioned earlier in the blog that I used to know the area north of Cambridge well.  That is because my first wife is from Somersham in Cambridgeshire.  In fact, my route took me right past the end of her old road.  So, 14 miles into Monday’s ride, I stopped for a cup of tea with my ex-in-laws.  I hadn’t seen them in 18 years.  You might think this would have been really awkward, especially I was entirely to blame for the failure of the marriage. Indeed, I was worried that it would be, but actually it was really nice and it was lovely to see them.

I hit the road again shortly after 10am.  Once again, I followed the guided busway, where I passed a dog walker swigging from a can of super strength lager at 11am.  I clearly have some way to go in the problem drinker stakes.  After that, rather than skirt round Cambridge, I went right through the centre.  That means the challenge has now taken me through the country’s three great University cities: Oxford, Cambridge and Hull (with thanks to Blackadder).

I was eager to get home and feeling good, so was tempted to ride all the rest of the way in one go.  However, the slow traffic of North London and my bladder conspired against me and I stopped at a McDonalds in Barnet shortly before 3pm.  In the end, I made it home at around 5.30pm.  That was another long journey done.  My big decision now is whether to do the FA Cup trip to Bolton in early January.  If I don’t, I won’t do another 200+ mile trip until the Liverpool match on 22 April.  I’m not sure I can wait that long for another long ride.

One of the reasons it was so disappointing not to beat Hull was that the next few fixtures offered little prospect of many points, starting with Manchester Utd at home on Wednesday night.  And so it proved as we lost 2-1.  Once again, we were at the wrong end of some bad refereeing decisions. Manchester Utd’s Marcus Rojo should have been sent off for a two footed challenge on Zaha at 0-0.  United’s opener should have been disallowed for both handball and offside.  Not that all the ref’s bad decisions were against us: United should have had a penalty at 1-1, but given the timing of the decisions we definitely had the most to complain about.  The growing anti-Alan Pardew contingent on social media found plenty to blame him for in defeat.  In isolation, that criticism was almost entirely unjustified, but in the context of our awful run of form it is difficult to defend his position.  It must surely be time for a change.  We desperately need points – and with rampant Chelsea next up it’s difficult to see where they might come from.

In better news – and helped by a generous donation from the Croydon South Probus group – I’m delighted to say that the total amount I’ve raised for Contact a Family now stands at over £7,500.