(actual posting date – 15 December)
Match sixteen – Hull City (away)
Match seventeen – Manchester United (home)
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!)
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…
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)
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.
Janet’s Tea Rooms
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’ Memorial
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.
The local convenience store clearly knew I was coming
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.
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 me
The three Steves
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.
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)
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 miles
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.