(actual date of posting – 3 May)
Match thirty-seven vs Liverpool (away)
Match thirty-eight vs Tottenham Hotspur (home)
Match thirty-nine vs Burnley (home)
Total mileage 6,268.6
On 1 May 1993, Palace comfortably beat Ipswich Town 3-1. After a difficult season, it left Palace eight points above third from bottom Oldham Athletic. Palace had two matches left to play, Oldham three. Oldham would need to win all three of their games to have any chance of overhauling Palace, starting the next day with a trip to second in the league Aston Villa. Surely Palace were safe and – as it was the last home game of the season – the Palace players did a lap of honour/appreciation after the final whistle.
But then the unthinkable happened. Oldham beat Villa 1-0. In midweek, they won again at Anfield, whilst Palace drew 0-0 at Manchester City. On the final day of the season, Arsenal hammered Palace whilst Oldham won 4-3 against Southampton. Palace were relegated.
And that’s the reason why – whatever the pundits say – I will continue to worry about Palace’s Premier League safety until and unless they are mathematically safe.
Matches have been coming thick and fast, with seven games during April. This blog covers the last three of those, beginning with a magnificent win at Anfield. That was followed by a brave, but ultimately fruitless, performance against Tottenham and then a very disappointing defeat at home to Burnley. Injuries and fatigue – not to mention some more poor refereeing decisions – meant Palace missed their first chance to secure survival.
With three games to play, there are many possible connotations and potentially a number of teams involved. But in essence the maths is simple and scarily similar to 1993. If Palace can secure two more points, then they will be safe even if Swansea repeat Oldham’s feat and win their last three games. If Swansea win two and draw one, then one point will be enough for Palace; and if Swansea get six or fewer points, then Palace are safe regardless. The fact that Palace’s next match is away at Manchester City just increases the parallels to 1993 (though at time of writing, I be very happy with a repeat of the 0-0 draw from 24 years ago).
Enough about the football, though, and back to the cycling and a great trip to Liverpool. At the start of the season, one of my Palace/cycling/internet friends predicted that the combined desire to reduce the time away from the family and to save money would lead to me pushing for longer days in the saddle. And so it proved. I had originally thought the trip to Liverpool would be a week long round trip. However, I decided to reduce that to five days: two long days to Trevor’s in Timperely; following by a 67 mile round trip to Anfield on match day and then two long days home.
The match was a 4.30pm Sunday kick off, so I set off on Friday morning. It was a mild, but cloudy day. Some sunshine would have made the scenery and views nicer, but actually it was pretty good weather for cycling. I rode 62 miles before stopping at one of my regular haunts – the Food4Thought cafe at Thrift Farm near Milton Keynes – for a healthy lunch (a slice of Victoria Sponge and a cup of tea!). The morning had brought two of the sadder sights of my journeys. First, there was a new addition to my list of roadkill spots: a dead owl.
On a very different level, another sight that saddens me on my travels is that of a closed down pub. It was, therefore, particularly sad to see that the Queens Head in Wing – a pub I have stopped at a few times during the challenge – has closed.
Early in the afternoon ride, though, there was a nice surprise on the pub front. On my first long journey – to Middlesbrough, back in September – I had tried to stop for lunch at the Lowndes Arms in Whaddon, only to find out it was closed down. I have since cycled past the still closed pub on a number of occasions. It was, therefore, lovely to see that it has now re-opened: I plan on trying it out on one of my two remaining journeys.
The terrain was very up and down for the afternoon ride, making it tough going. A seven mile stretch on the busy A5 wasn’t the most pleasant experience either, but I safely made it to the Ibis Rugby East – a hotel I have and will be seeing a lot of! – before five o’clock.
Ibis hotels are proving pretty good stop off points (I’ve stayed both at this one and the Northampton central one). The rooms are good value (particularly at weekends; weekday prices are a little steeper) and are large enough to easily accommodate the bike. The downsides are that the locations – while practical – are hardly picturesque; and the breakfasts are extortionate at £8.95. However, I made better value out of that in two ways. First there was a half board offer – £23.95 for breakfast and a two course dinner (including a drink) – which was much better value. And second, I realised that the buffet breakfast could also supply my lunch!
Saturday was an even longer ride than Friday – 110 miles rather than 100. On the plus side, however, there were fewer climbs to contend with, so I was hoping for an easier day. No such luck: persistent (though thankfully not very strong) headwinds and tired legs meant it was hard going. There were compensations though. There was a marked shift in the weather and it was a lovely sunny day. Spring really had sprung; the views were lovely and the fields full of gambolling lambs.
I passed the Frank Sidebottom statue and safely arrived at Trevor’s in Timperley sometime before 6pm. Trev and I picked up from where we had left off when I stayed in November for the Burnley match and had another great evening catching up.
The journey to Anfield on Saturday lunchtime was fairly straightforward. It wasn’t the most picturesque, with large parts of it being along the A57, but it did the job. As I approached Anfield, a car past me and the occupants called out my name. I waved happily back, with no idea who it was!
When I arrived at Anfield, I bumped into a friend who took the obligatory picture outside the ground. I then looked for somewhere to park the bike. As I did so I met the two occupants of the aforementioned cars, who turned out to be journalists from the Croydon Advertiser. They then proceeded to record a quick interview with me – thanks again lads for the publicity.
Throughout my challenge, I have heard a number of recurring jokes. Basically, these are “it’s all downhill coming South”; “watch out for the queues on the motorway”; and “you’ll get your bike nicked in Liverpool”. I’d tried to ignore the last joke and not fall for regional stereotypes; though that wasn’t helped on my previous trip to the city (for the Everton match) when the guest house owner had advised me to leave the bike at the guest house rather than take it to the ground!
But I definitely need not to have worried at Anfield. I was about to lock my bike to a railing in a car park, when a steward pointed me to a bike hub. The hub provided free parking, including supplying locks (wish I’d known – my own lock is the heaviest thing I carry) and the hub was manned throughout the match. It also provided a nice opportunity to discuss cycling; my challenge; and the joys of head and tailwinds (one of the attendants was bemoaning the headwinds on the second half of a time trial he’d ridden the previous day).
The match itself was amazing. For the third season in a row, Palace won at Anfield; the first team to complete that feat since Chelsea in 2005. Liverpool had taken the lead, but ex-Liverpool player Christian Benteke scored two to give Palace the points. The only downside was an appalling challenge on Palace defence James Tomkins late in the game which left Tomkins injured and potentially missing the rest of the season.
The ride back was considerably quicker that the outward journey, as I benefited from more favourable winds. The route also differed on the way back to Timperley and, whilst it still followed the A57 for large parts, offered more enjoyable roads and views.
The weather had changed again by Monday morning, with stronger winds and rain forecast. The good news, though, was the wind would be behind me. As a result – and despite frequent stops to put on/take off waterproofs (I’d learnt from the West Brom trip) I made better time than on the northward journey. I’m sure the win helped, too.
I was averaging about a mile and a half to two miles an hour more. That might not sound like a lot, but over the course of a long day it means about an hour less in the saddle.
I considered stopping for lunch at the McDonalds at Rugeley Power Station. However, at that stage I still (just) had more than 50 miles to go so decided to press on a bit further. I made the same decision I did when I passed the next pub. Pretty soon I was starting to regret it, as I passed a succession of pubs that had either closed down or weren’t open on Monday lunchtimes. It meant I’d done a massive 84 miles before I stopped at the Cock Inn at Sibson.
As I left the pub, an old gentleman – on spying my red and blue halves Rapha cycling top – asked me if I’d heard of the Genoa Football and Cricket Club in Italy. The cricket club bit was new to me, but I had, of course, heard of the Serie A football team. His grandfather had been one of the group of Englishmen who had founded the club.
The long pre-lunch ride had left me with just 25 miles to go, and I raced through those back to the Rugby East Ibis.
The weather changed yet again for the last day of the trip. It had brightened up again, but was much colder. I’d only brought cycling shorts, so it meant chilly legs for me, but otherwise the conditions were great. And I got to warm up when I rode past a large pile of burning – actually, I have no idea what was burning. But there was a roadside fire, with the fire brigade in attendance but settling for a watching brief.
I rode 66 miles before stopping in a park in Chesham to eat my Ibis-breakfast-packed-lunch. It was a little chilly, but very pleasant watching the ducks and geese; at least until I heard a commotion near my bike. One duck had chased another into and under my bike. The duck seemed unharmed, fortunately – and possibly surprisingly as any cyclist will tell you how painful a chain ring can be. The bike was also unharmed, although I later realised the duck had knocked my cadence sensor out of alignment.
The final stint was the very familiar trek through west and south west London. As always, the traffic was terrible through Isleworth, but otherwise I made good time home.
The Liverpool trip was followed by the two straightforward rides to Selhurst Park for the Spurs and Burnley games. I’m now left with two trips to Manchester to finish the challenge; while Palace have three games to do what they failed to do in 1993 and preserve their Premier League status.