(actual posting date – 6 March)
Match thirty one vs West Bromwich Albion (away)
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.
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.
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.
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.