Autumn scenery; a man with a paper maché head; and a friendship rekindled

(actual posting date: 11 November)

Match twelve– vs Burnley (away)

Lost 2-3

537.8 miles

Total mileage 2743.1

 

Autumn 1988.  The Tartan Bar, University of Leeds Student Union.  A naive 18 year old fresher is in the front row watching a man with a paper maché head belt out his repertoire, including a number in homage to his home town of Timperley.  Eighteen years later that fresher – older, but probably not wiser – made a pilgrimage to Timperley to visit a statue to the great man.

Well, travelling to see the statue of Frank Sidebottom seems a more sensible reason for cycling across the country than to watch Palace lose again.

I set off for Burnley (via Timperley) on Wednesday 2 November.  As I wrote in my previous blog, my first (and final) days’ rides had been becoming rather samey.  For the sake of variety, therefore, I turned west after crossing Kingston Bridge rather than north towards Twickenham as on earlier rides.  On I headed, towards Windsor; basically following the same route (in reverse, obviously) as I’d taken home from Legoland after the Leicester game.  Variety is a wonderful thing.

My route continued to Henley, now following one of my early summer ‘training’ rides. After Henley, I was into new territory and the ride quickly became interesting.  The terrain for the day’s ride was largely unchallenging except for one big spike in the middle, as shown in the screenshot below.

 

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After Henley I was faced with eight miles of pretty much continuous climbing.  The gradient was, at first, reasonably gentle; but it was unrelenting and ramped up towards the end of the climb.  I passed a road cyclist, in Sky/GB kit, mending a puncture by the side of the road.  A little later, after I’d had a short stop to take on some calories, he went passed me.  Given he was unladen, I was surprised that a little further on I caught up with and overtook him.  As the climb continued, my pace dropped and I saw him gaining on me again.  I expected him to go past me again; but no, he decided to let me do the work and ride in my wheel.  Shortly before the top of the climb I stopped for a quick breather – as he went passed he complained, good naturedly, that I should have kept going as I was pacing him so well.  The cheeky ***.

What goes up must come down, and the descent was shorter and steeper.  Shortly after I stopped for lunch at the Coach and Horses in Chislehampton, Oxfordshire.  With 58 miles under my belt, I had only 24 miles to do after lunch.  Those miles took me through the centre of Oxford – dreaming spires and all that – and then over the Swinford Toll Bridge.  This small, grade II listed bridge is free for cyclists but toll for cars is the princely sum of 5p.  There were two men working the single toll booth – I couldn’t see how the tolls could possibly make enough money to pay them.  However, on googling when I got back home, I learnt that the bridge was sold in 2009 for over £1million, so clearly those 5ps do all add up.  Helped by its unique tax status. (The bridge was also much busier on my return journey, and caused quite a traffic jam.)

I arrived at the Romany Inn in Bampton at about 3.30.  It was closed.  But when it opened half an hour later I was given a very warm welcome by the landlord, Mike.  The kitchen was, unfortunately, closed, but he was happy for me to get a takeaway from the Chinese over the road and eat it in the pub, using the pub’s crockery and cutlery.

My mileage for the second day was relatively short – at under 70 miles – so I was happy for a late start after a leisurely breakfast.  It was a glorious morning to be on a bike, as I wound my way through 33 miles of the Cotswolds.  The roads were quiet, the villages quaint and the views spectacular.  I stopped for lunch at the Bantam Tea Rooms in Chipping Campden – an omlette followed by a slice of victoria sponge (what else?).  Also at lunch I received a phone call (that I was expecting, following a twitter conversation) from the producer of the Talksport’s weekend breakfast show.  Arrangements were made for me to appear on the show on Saturday morning.

The cake nicely fuelled me for a good afternoon riding – albeit in more cloudy conditions – and I made it to the Central Guest House in Yardley in good time.  It was not the most picturesque location for a guest house: right on the main road from Coventry to Birmingham.  But it was pleasant enough and the welcome was warm and friendly.

I woke up to rain in Birmingham.  Fortunately, by the time I left (with a sponsorship contribution from the guest house) it had stopped and the sun soon came out.  Once I’d got through the Birmingham rush hour traffic (and thankfully I was mainly travelling in the opposite direction to the main flow) it was a pleasant ride.  After 50 miles I’d reached Newcastle-under-Lyme.  A couple of pints before (and often after) the match at the Cherry Trees pub by Norwood Junction station used to be a key part of my match day routine, so when I saw a pub in Newcastle called the Cherry Tree I figured I ought to stop there.

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From the outside, this singular Cherry Tree looked in far better nick than the plural South Norwood one. However, it did not live up to that promise.  I had to wait over half an hour for my cheeseburger.  After one bite I realised it lacked one of the key ingredients of a cheeseburger: the cheese.  I sent it back; they made a reasonable attempt at lining up the bite marks in the top and bottom halves of the bun when it returned with added cheese.

I put on my raincoat to make it rain; and sure enough the skies opened up again.  I’m a big fan of Billy Bragg and think he’s a great lyricist.  However, this line of his is clearly wrong: we all know that putting on a raincoat has the opposite effect.  And so it proved for me.  As I continued after lunch, the heavens opened.  I stopped by the side of the A34 to change into my waterproofs.  Sure enough, within five minutes or so the skies had brightened again and a change back was required.  This was not the only time this happened on the trip.

A bridge closure on the A34 had forced me into a detour onto the A500 on my trip to Everton.  I’d hoped in vain that the work might have been finished by now; but no such luck and I was sent on the A500 again.  The diversion signs took traffic two junctions down the A500 before sending it back up the other side of the A500.  On the Everton trip, I’d chosen not to follow the U-turn but to re-plan my route.  This time I ignored the diversion signs sending me passed the first junction and U-turned there instead.

When I got back to the A34 junction, I realised that it was only the northbound bridge that was closed.  It looked like (and I confirmed this on the return journey) I could have got off the bike and crossed by foot on the other bridge, saving myself a four and a half mile detour (on this ride – and about eight extra miles on the Everton trip).  Ho hum.  The afternoon ride continued in the same irritating manner.  The rain started again – another kit change – and I had my first puncture since the return journey from Sunderland.  I made it to Timperley around 5.30pm.

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Paying homage to the late, great, Frank Sidebottom wasn’t the actual reason for me visiting Timperley in South Manchester.  An old school friend, Trevor Paxman, had offered to put me up for the weekend.  Trevor and I hadn’t seen each other in about 25 years and it was wonderful to see him and meet his family.  And a home cooked stew and dumplings – and lots of red wine –  was just what I needed after the afternoon’s tribulations.

I was up early on Saturday: my telephone interview on Talksport was at 7.20am.  My ride publicised and Wilfried Zaha praised, I showered and breakfasted before setting off for Turf Moor at about 9.30.

The ride from Timperley to Burnley was about 32 miles each way; which actually meant this would be the most miles I’d ridden on a match day so far.  I enjoyed the ride to the match, but it was tough and slow going as I climbed up from Bury, through Shuttleworth, Rawtenstall and Crawshawbooth before the final sharp descent to Turf Moor.

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I arrived around 12.30.  The journey had taken a little longer than I’d expected, but I was still comfortably in time for the planned 1pm meet up.  Burnley gave me and the representatives from the charity a great reception and it was very good of Burnley Chairman Mike Garlick to come and meet us (he’s the guy in the suit).  They also put a decent sized piece on my challenge in the programme.

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And then there was the match.  For the second time this season, Palace went 2-0 down and pulled it back to 2-2 before the game was settled by an injury time winner.  Unlike at Sunderland, however, this time the final goal went the wrong way.  Palace went straight on the attack from the kick off and won a corner in the first minute.  Burnley broke away from the corner and scored with just 80 seconds gone.  They were 2-0 up before 15 minutes had been played. Palace fought back in the second half: Conor Wickham reduced the arrears and then – miracle of miracles – we scored a penalty to equalise.  Palace pushed for the winner and threw men forward when awarded a free kick in injury time.  But just like in the first minute, Burnley broke and scored.  There was still time for Andros Townsend to hit the post; but when the final whistle blew it was four defeats in a row.

As I returned to pick up my bike (which had been safely stored behind the door in the above picture) I saw Palace chairman Steve Parish march out of the ground with a face like thunder.  I’ve met him a couple of times, but decided this wasn’t the time to say hello.

The ride back started with a steep climb.  I’d seen other cyclists pushing up the hill as I’d sped down in the other direction on the way to the ground.  I’d thought I was likely to have to resort to the same approach, but spared of most of my luggage, I managed to ride the whole way up.  It was then mainly downhill back to Timperley, as fireworks exploded around me.  The temperature dropped and I wished I’d not left my overshoes at Trevor’s house.  The route took me through Manchester and past both Old Traffords, before I got back to Trevor’s shortly after 7.30.

Trevor and I headed out for a Chinese and a chance to reminisce on our childhoods – the good, the bad, the ugly and the holiday on the Norfolk Broads.  We were so engrossed, we didn’t notice the subtle hints that it was time to leave (the waiter having his coat on ready to go was a clue).  We continued when we got back home – Trevor on the brandy, me on the left overs from the previous night’s red wine – and I eventually made it to bed around 1.30am.

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In the circumstances, I set off a bit later than I had planned the next morning, but still felt far more sprightly than I could rightly have expected.  I managed 34 miles before lunch and, for the first time on the challenge, I resorted to a McDonalds.  It had felt slower going than I’d expected, but when I looked at the profile I saw it had been largely uphill.  I made better time post-lunch – until the Birmingham traffic slowed me down – and was back in Yardley before 5pm.

Monday was again a relatively short mileage day, so I allowed myself a late start.  I flew along in the morning.  After 36 miles I saw a sign to an ‘historic church’.  I looked to my left and said church was a long way above me.  What a relief that my route didn’t take me that way.  Then, just after I went passed the turning, my Garmin beeped ‘Off Course’.  Uh-oh.  It looked like I was going up the hill after all.

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It was hard work and I pushed some of the way.  After a slight flat section there was a final easier climb that took me to Broadway Tower where I stopped for lunch.  As I was getting ready to set off again, a couple on road bikes rolled up.  They were from South Wales and we had a good chat about cycling, football and my challenge (and my Welsh heritage).  He supported Swansea City: my next destination and, we agreed, a must win game for both teams.  Our conversation was overheard by a two of the staff from the restaurant: it turned out one of those was a fellow Palace fan.

I’d confessed to my fellow cyclists that I’d pushed some of the way up the hill.  They were surprised, but accepted that my luggage gave me an excuse.  It was only after lunch – as I flew along a different, and gentler, way down the hill – that it struck me that they may have taken a different route up to Broadway Tower than I did.

The afternoon ride was, quite simply, glorious.  On days like that, I can’t understand why anyone would choose a different form of transport.  Having climbed so far for lunch, the afternoon 30 miles were largely downhill and took less than two hours.  In the low autumn afternoon sun the Cotswolds looked stunning.  After the Middlesbrough and Sunderland trips I’d decided that North Yorkshire was the most beautiful place in the country: I’m not so sure now.

Tuesday morning was, let’s say, a bit nippy.  I set off early in very frosty conditions.  I made good progress through the morning.  I again crossed the 5p bridge and cut through the centre of Oxford.  The one big hill of the day loomed large.  This time the short steep side was on the way up.  Fully loaded, it was too much for me and I resorted to pushing, before bombing down the other side.

I’d considered trying to push through and do the full 82 miles in one go.  I thought better of it, though, and stopped for lunch in Windsor before knocking off the final 24 miles in time to do the school pick up.

That’s the three longest rides completed.  The international break and then a home game against Manchester City give me a bit of a break before the trip to Swansea.  Here’s hoping that the international break will once again see a change in Palace’s fortunes: we got one point from four matches before the first break; 10 points from four games between the second and third; and four defeats in four since the third break.

Finally, a couple of observations:

  • I’d thought I might get immune to the amount of roadkill I see as I ride around.  I haven’t: it still upsets me.  Basically – all those animals that sneak onto the trampoline at night in the John Lewis Christmas ad?  I’ve seen them dead on the road.  And add to that rabbits and a whole range of birds.  (Though I have less sympathy for the birds – you can fly, for heaven’s sake.)
  • On a cheerier note, I’ve always wanted to go to New England in the autumn (I refuse to say ‘fall’).  However, having ridden across this country in autumn, I struggle to see how much better New England could be.

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And, very finally, I’m embarrassed to admit that, before a large satellite dish appeared on the horizon, I’d had no idea where Jodrell Bank was.

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