(actual date of posting – 10 May)
Match forty vs Manchester City (away)
Total mileage 6,678.4
Before the children came along, Janet and I used to go to a fair number of away games together. We saw some great performances in that time. But looking back, my abiding memory is of a succession of trips that were enjoyable for everything except for the football. Seeing Robbie Savage outplay Edgar Davids as Derby romped to a 5-0 win was probably the epitome of those experiences.
For some reason, that came to my mind on they way home from Manchester…
I’ve not done very well at spreading my friends round the country to cover all the Premier League grounds. Whilst I had to rely on guest houses in the North East, I had a choice of two very generous friends to stay with for the matches in the North West. Having stayed with Trevor in Timperley for the Liverpool match, I arranged to stay at Sherann’s – just down the road again in Healds Green (near Stockport) – for the City match. Sherann (and most of her family) are big City fans, so she would be in the other end of the ground for the match.
My route, other than match day, was going to be very much the same as for the Liverpool trip: two long days in the saddle to get me to the Manchester suburbs, stopping off in the luxury of the Ibis Rugby East on the way. It will be the same for the final away trip of the season, when I’ll be staying with Trevor again.
Two days before I was due to leave for Manchester, Sherann contacted me to say that I needed to bring some smart clothes with me and arrive by 5.30 on the Friday night: we were going to a ball. I decided my dinner suit wouldn’t survive being crammed into my panniers, but I’d managed smart clothes for the Directors’ Box at Hull so I could repeat that. It meant a little extra weight, particularly from the shoes, but as I’d found out on the Hull trip, it was perfectly do-able.
I set off on the Thursday, with around 100 miles ahead of me to Rugby (or, rather, the A5/M1 junction a little east of Rugby). I knew from the trip two weeks previously that there was a fair amount of climbing ahead, particularly at the back end of the day. As always, Janet took a picture of me before I set out. Thankfully, she then asked if I’d got my ticket. That was close…
The weather on Thursday morning was much better than forecast and, after a slow start through the London suburbs, it was lovely to get into the Buckinghamshire countryside and cycle through woods carpeted with bluebells. However, the headwind made it hard work. I considered stopping earlier, but I was really keen to make it to the 63 miles to the Lowndes Arms in Whaddon, near Milton Keynes, for lunch. This was the pub I’d tried to stop at on the Middlesbrough trip back in September only to find it had closed down, but which I had seen had recently re-opened.
When I came out of the pub after lunch, the sky had clouded over and there was the ominous feeling of an impending downfall. I even either felt or imagined the first tentative drops of rain. I put on my waterproof jacket and set off; but thankfully it proved a false omen: the skies quickly brightened and the jacket came off.
On some of my early trips, I over did it at lunch and found myself sluggish when back on the bike. On this occasion I went to the other extreme, and quickly found that the bag of crisps and couple of pints of diet coke had not given me a sufficient re-fuelling. I swallowed my first energy gel of the afternoon much earlier than normal and then stopped for an emergency mini pack of chocolate digestives.
That worked for most of the afternoon, but with about five miles to go I suffered the dreaded bonk. I stopped by the road, took another gel and a load of fluid and then forced myself along with final stretch of the busy A5 to the hotel.
Friday was another lovely day. It was still windy, but they were more cross than head and caused me fewer problems. I rode 62 miles before stopping for my Ibis-buffet-breakfast-picnic-lunch (leaving about 43 for the afternoon). Any concerns I’d had about arriving late at Sherann’s evaporated. I even had time to make two stops on the afternoon ride. The first was for a drink; at a farm that had a machine dispensing raw milk. The second – just a couple of miles from Sherann’s – was at Rick Green’s Cycles. They had exposed my mechanical ineptitude and sorted me out with a new tyre on the Bolton trip, so it was good to have chance to pop my head in and say hi. Even better, they made me a cup of tea!
Despite the extra stops, I made it to Sherann’s in plenty of time to get showered and changed for the ball. It was a charity ball at the Manchester Hilton for the Seashell Trust. The Trust is a wonderful charity that is home to the Royal School, Manchester, a non-maintained special school, and the Royal College, Manchester, an independent specialist further education college. I had the pleasure of visiting the Trust a few years ago when I was working on special educational needs and disability policy, and I was delighted to be able to attend their ball. It was also great to meet the Trust’s CEO, Mark Geraghty, again.
The ball itself was an absolute blast and I had a brilliant time, though probably the less said about my dancing the better. I am indebted to Sherann and her husband Garry for their generosity in taking me to the ball, and plying me with wine all evening! It felt like Garry and I were the only supporters of London football teams there; everyone else seemed to follow either the blue or red half of Manchester (or, as it happens, Bolton Wanderers). Garry was in a particularly good mood as news came through that West Ham had beaten Tottenham and effectively ensured Chelsea would win the league.
Unsurprisingly, I didn’t feel on absolutely top form in the morning and I bemoaned the fact that the Manchester City v Palace match was the day’s early kick off. Nonetheless, I knocked off the nine miles to the Etihad Stadium without any problems. At the ground I met up again with Sherann and Mark Geraghty (another City fan!) After that, there was a football match…
The ride home was similarly straightforward and I proved again the efficacy of cycling as a mode of transport as I was back in Healds Green before Sherann. With everyone feeling the effects of the night before, we had a lazy afternoon half watching Superman (the 1978 film) and the rest of the day’s football. I was cheered up by Sunderland beating Hull, which kept Hull four points below Palace, although then disappointed that Everton could not gain the victory over Swansea which would have guaranteed Palace’s survival. After the late game, we headed out for a very nice curry.
The previous time I stayed at Garry and Sherann’s, I ended up drinking G&Ts until the early hours. The gin came out again this time, but I was more sensible and headed to bed after Match of the Day. (But not sensible enough not to watch Match of the Day…)
Just a couple of miles into the ride on Sunday I stopped for an energy drink to perk me up. But after that I flew along and had one of the best and fastest day’s cycling of the whole challenge. I split the day pretty evenly – 53 miles before and 52 miles after a lunch stop at the McDonalds at Rugeley Power Station and averaged over 15mph across the day. It was a lovely and increasingly warm day. It was a great day for cycling and there were loads of cyclists out and about. This included a few large club rides; three tandems; and a time trial competition between Wolvey and Magna Park. At least I think that’s why they were the only cyclists not return my friendly waves.
The only problem the weather presented was the insects. You know how when you look at your car after a long journey and the number plates is covered in insect remains? Well, my face knows how the number plate feels.
The weather changed for the worse on Monday: no great problems, but it was overcast and much cooler. And there was no roadside fire this time to warm my chilly legs. I rode for around 66 miles before stopping for a picnic lunch in Chesham and then knocked off the final 35 or so miles in good time. For once, the traffic in Isleworth was not at a standstill and I made it home by 4pm.
For me, there are now just two games left. A home game against Hull on Sunday, and then a return trip to Manchester to play Manchester United the following Sunday. I am far more confident of completing the challenge successfully than I am of Palace staying up. The odds are in Palace’s favour:
We’re safe if we don’t lose to Hull
Even if we do, we’re safe if they don’t beat Spurs
Even if they do, we’re safe if Swansea don’t get at least four points from their two games
Even if they get four points, we’re safe if we draw with Man Utd
And whatever happens we’re safe if we beat Man Utd.
But this is Palace and I remember Oldham…