(actual posting date – 13 January)
Match twenty-two vs Bolton Wanderers, FA Cup 3rd round (away)
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.
With Tony Kelly and Phil Mason
Third time at the stadium, and finally I was going to see a match
How I felt on the final leg of the return journey