(actual posting date – 21 February)
Match twenty eight vs Sunderland (home)
Match twenty nine vs Stoke City (away)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.