It appears I’ve done it…

(actual posting date – 24 May)

Match forty-two versus Manchester United (away)

Lost 0-2

429 miles

Total mileage 7,122.1

 

On Friday, I’m going on holiday with the family to Cyprus.  Once I’m back, I’ll try and write a blog summing up the whole experience and – more importantly – thanking the people I really need to thank for supporting me through this challenge.  But in the meantime, here’s a ‘normal’ blog covering the last match.

Not that there felt that much ‘normal’ in the build up to the last trip of the season.  With Palace safe from relegation, I could at least look forward to the football without any worries.  The final ride of the season brought with it some very welcome publicity – some sought by me, some unsolicited.  In the week before I set off, Ed Malyon from the Independent interviewed me and wrote a very nice article; and the Holmesdale On-Line Podcast team interviewed me for their final preview podcast of the season.

Independent article – http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/premier-league/the-fan-who-has-cycled-to-every-crystal-palace-game-this-season-prepares-for-one-last-ride-a7743611.html

HOL Radio podcast (about 31 mins 30 seconds in) – https://www.acast.com/holmesdaleradio/previewpodcast-32manunitedaway

In addition to these two pre-ride interviews, four further media opportunities were arranged, with Talksport, MUTV, BBC Radio London and the Five Year Plan podcast.

The route north was by now very familiar.  I set off on Friday with the same two days to South Manchester ahead of me as two weeks before and two weeks before that.  It was Trevor’s turn to play host this time.

The weather forecast for Friday had suggested I was in for a soaking.  Thankfully, whilst it was a dull and damp morning, there was far less rain than predicted.  There was, however, a lot of surface water, including one soaking as I forded a 15 foot puddle.

It was strange to be cycling on these roads for the last time.  I stopped more often than normal to take pictures on landmarks that will mean little to anyone but me.  As on every ride, I found myself planning where I might try a slightly different route another time or consider somewhere different to stop before quickly reminding myself there wouldn’t be another time.

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Maybe I should buy this and drive it to every match next season

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Not sure how many golf clubs have their own station

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I stopped for lunch one last time at the Food4Thought cafe at Thrift Farm.  Lunch was a cheese sandwich and my final piece of Victoria sponge for the challenge.

The post lunch ride was similar fare to the morning, and I found myself struggling with conflicting emotions as the end of the challenge accelerated towards me.  My roadkill spots hit a new low when I saw a rather mangled baby deer.  On a happier note, I was riding on a short stretch of dual carriageway near Silverstone village when I received a friendly toot and a wave from a van driving past.  The final few miles once again took me along the A5; never my favourite road and even worse with the amount of spray from lorries as they thundered past me.  But I made it safely to the Ibis Rugby East in reasonable time.

Between breakfast and setting off on Saturday morning, I was interviewed live on the phone by Talksport’s Weekend Breakfast Show.  Unfortunately, I had reception problems, and I ended up dashing outside to get a better signal.  Notwithstanding that, I think the interview went okay.  My previous appearance on the show – back in November – didn’t seem to generate much sponsorship, but this one (and my other media appearances around the final trip) led to a significant spike in donations.  I found the random donations from supporters of other teams particularly touching.

Talksport link  http://talksport.com/radio/listen-again/1495260000  Click on the 7.30 to 8 segment and then I’m on at about 11 minutes to go.

For the first part of my morning ride, I enjoyed nice clear weather.  I planned on stopping for my stolen Ibis breakfast picnic at Sandon, about 62 miles into the day.  About half an hour before I was likely to arrive there, it started to rain.  Thankfully, it stopped before I did.  Not so thankfully, it started again as soon as I had stopped.  And so I enjoyed a rather damp lunch stop.  As I was mentally preparing myself for the restart, the rain stopped again and the sun came out.

Buoyed, I got back on the bike.  And within a few pedal strokes it started to rain again.  I stopped to put on my waterproof jacket.  That was a good decision, because it started absolutely hammering down.  It only lasted about 15 minutes, but the rain was stinging and not at all pleasant.  After that, the sun came out, it warmed up and I dried out.  My ride took me as always on the A34 through Stoke and Newcastle (on Trent, obviously).  There was a massive traffic jam either side of the junction with the A500 at Talke (site of detours back in the autumn) and once I had negotiated that it was a pleasant familiar ride through Cheshire and on to Timperley.  I then spent a fun family evening with food, drink and games.

One of the questions Tony Cascarino had asked me on Talksport was how many punctures I had.  I replied lots, but none for the last few months.  We then all realised I’d just tempted fate.  And so it proved.  When Trevor got my bike out on Sunday morning, the back tyre was very soft.  I couldn’t find the cause of the puncture, but changed the tube and headed off to Old Trafford.  I arrived at about midday.  The next couple of hours were taking up chatting to other fans, interspersed with interviews with MUTV and BBC Radio London.

The match itself was something of a non-event, particularly from a Palace point of view. After the excitement of the previous week, the team seemed off the pace against a young Manchester Utd team.  The game had something of the feel of a pre-season friendly (except for the number of fouls on Wilfried Zaha) and United won 2-0.  After the match was my final media engagement of the weekend, a quick chat for the Five Year Plan podcast.

When I got back to Timperley, I was greeted by Trevor and Lisa and a bottle of champagne to celebrate my achievement.  We then headed out and met up with Sherann and Garry for a lovely evening out.

The return journey felt strange.  Trevor, Lisa, Sherann and Garry had all been congratulating me on what I’d achieved.  My burst of fame had led to a big social media response, again with people congratulating me for what I’d done.  It was all very touching and welcome.  However, it also felt like it was only me who had remembered I needed to cycle home; and with all the euphoria of getting to the final game, it felt like the final 215 miles might be something of a drag.

I set off and rode into the centre of Timperley where I had a quick stop for an energy drink and to say goodbye to the Frank Sidebottom statue.

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Bye, Frank

The ride after that was hard work.  On the previous two rides back from the North West, I had been pushed along by a favourable headwind.  This time, however, the wind had returned to the prevailing direction and that meant a headwind, and as a result my progress was much slower.

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I love a punning business name, and this one was a regular sight
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The familiar view of Rugeley Power Station

I stopped for lunch at another regular haunt, the McDonalds at Rugeley Power Station. Riding was hard work again after lunch.  I was dawdling along at around 13mph when another cyclist overtook me with a cheery wave.  It shook me from my reverie, and I sped up to take his wheel and let him drag me along through Orgreave.  This worked well, and I found myself riding at around 20mph, with my average speed for the afternoon climbing towards 16mph.  I got the distinct impression – as much as you can from the view of someone’s back – that he was less happy about giving me a tow than his friendly greeting might have suggested.  And at a slight ramp up to a roundabout he saw his chance and kicked.  The metaphorical elastic snapped and he left me for dead.

Most of the rest of the day I watched my average speed steadily drop down towards 13mph, but I didn’t mind as I made the effort to make sure I enjoyed the beauty of the countryside.

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I was a little worried about how much I’d have in my legs for the final few miles on the A5, but a well-timed energy gel hit the spot and my average speed rose a little before I arrived back at the Ibis around 5.30.

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Maybe I should have stayed here, a couple of miles up the A5 from the Ibis

I switched on the TV on Tuesday morning to the horrific news of the Manchester bombing, and it made the ride home a rather sombre one.  The wind had eased and moved round a little, so that it was neither helping nor hindering me.  I made pretty good time, though I was disappointed to learn later than I’d failed to hear a fellow Palace fan cheering me on as I rode near Milton Keynes.

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My bike made a friend

 

Lunch was another picnic in Chesham.  A few drops of rain fell on my phone, just as I was reading my weather app telling me there was 0% chance of precipitation.  The drizzle continued for a little bit after I set off, and I played the waterproofs hokey-cokey for a few miles before it brightened up.

Then it was just a case of the final miles through west and south west London.  For the second trip in a row, I managed to avoid getting snarled up in Isleworth and before I knew it I was riding through Kingston and Worcester Park and on to Cheam.

I turned into our road to be greeted by the lovely sight of Janet and the kids, with flowers and Palace flags, ready to welcome me.  Gilbert running along the pavement to keep up with me over the final couple of yards was a beautiful way to end the challenge. As was the half bottle of champagne and Victoria sponge cake waiting for me on the door step.

And that was that: I had cycled the season.

And, Palace being Palace, Sam Allardyce resigned.

Don’t worry, about a thing…

(actual date of posting – 16 May)

Match forty-one vs Hull City (home)

Won 4-0

14.7 miles

Total mileage 6,693.1

 

… ’cause every little thing gonna be alright.

Palace are safe.  Next season they will be in the top flight of English football for the fifth successive season, something they have never done before.  And I can now enjoy a tension free ride to Manchester for the final game of the season.

The weekend started with a ‘Race Night’ in Cheam to aid my fundraising.  I am very grateful to Sarah Jones for organising the evening; for Vic Cooper and Janet for their hard work helping Sarah; to Cheam Sports Club for the free venue; and to a range of local businesses (and Steve Browett) for their sponsorship and donations.  In addition, Chelsea FC (signed football) and Sutton United (signed shirt) supplied items for auction.  The night raised a wonderful £1,500 and has taken my overall total over £14,000.

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A Crystal Palace fan selling a Chelsea football to a Millwall fan (yes, really)

The weekend’s football also started on Friday night, with Chelsea’s victory over West Brom securing the Premier League title.  Palace had no interest in that match, but they certainly did in one of Saturday’s matches.  Already relegated Sunderland had done us a massive favour the previous weekend by pulling off a surprise victory at Hull.  If they could repeat the trick at home to Swansea, then Palace’s Premier League safety would be assured without kicking another ball.

They couldn’t.  So Sunday’s noon kick off at Selhurst Park – Palace v Hull – would be the massive game we had been anticipating.  If Hull could win, then the final day of the season would see a three way battle between Palace, Hull and Swansea to avoid the final relegation place.  Any other result would ensure Palace and Swansea’s survival and Hull’s relegation.

To say I felt nervous on Sunday morning would be something of an understatement.  I set off for the ground early, as I had arranged to meet some of the Contact a Family team for some pre-match photos: a very welcome distraction from the tension of the day.  There were two advantages to the early kick off time and early start: less time to dwell on the potential ramifications of the match, and less traffic.  It was a nice, easy and quick ride to the ground.

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Photos duly taken, I headed into the ground for a quick pint and then took my seat.  The always vociferous supporters’ group, the Holmesdale Fanatics, had arranged a brilliant display to welcome the Palace team onto the pitch.  The atmosphere was electric and the game began.

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The best fans in the Premier League

Back in 2008 Palace had a potentially very tense final game of the season, albeit at the other end of the table (and a division down).  They needed a win against Burnley to ensure a place in the end of season promotion play-offs.  Then, like this weekend, everyone was tense and nervous. And then, in the sixth minute, Burnley’s Clarke Carlisle gave away a penalty and was sent off for the foul.  Ben Watson scored; all the tension evaporated; and Palace ran out 5-0 winners at a sunny Selhurst Park.

Something similar happened on Sunday.  In just the third minute, Hull defender Andrea Ranocchia completely missed his kick.  Player of the year, Wilfried Zaha raced on to the ball and, with a calmness that belied the situation, put Palace ahead.

I’d be lying if I said all my nerves went at that moment, but I definitely felt a lot better. And even better still when Christian Benteke headed in to make in 2-0 after half an hour.

At half time, I was pretty sure we were staying up.  Hull would need to score three without reply in the second half to take the season to the final weekend.  But you never know with Palace.  Janet said before the game, she’d be happy if we were three nil up with five minutes to go, because then she’d be confident we’d get at least a point.

As it happens, as we headed towards the final five minutes, it was still 2-0 and Hull were on the attack.  A cross came over, and Jeff Schlupp headed clear.  The ball came back towards him and he headed clear again, this time finding Benteke.  Schlupp got on his bike (not literally: that’s my job) and sprinted up the wing.  Benteke returned the ball and Schlupp ran into the box.  Hull captain Michael Dawson brought him down and the ref pointed to the spot.  Luka Milivojevic calmly slotted away the penalty and there we were: 3-0 up with five minutes to go.  We were safe.  Patrick Van Aanholt put the icing on the cake in injury time and the party could well and truly start.

We hung around for a bit after the match, and when I finally set off I saw Wilfried Zaha driving away from the ground.  I raced after him and caught up with his car at a junction.  I had a quick chat and a handshake through his car window: a nice way to round off a wonderful day.

It was only when I got home that I found out Palace had had two big slices of good fortune; two handballs that the referee had missed.  The first was by Zaha in the move that led to the corner from which Benteke scored the second goal.  The second was at 2-0, when a Hull free kick struck Jason Puncheon’s arm.  Had the referee seen it, it would have been a clear penalty and a possible way back into the game for Hull.  But then, back in December in Hull, Robert Snodgrass dived in the Palace penalty area.  Had the referee that day seen the clear dive, it would have been a second yellow card for Snodgrass.  Instead, he gave Hull a penalty from which Snodgrass scored.  So maybe sometimes these things do even themselves out.

So that’s it.  Palace are safe.  I have just one last journey to do.  A 430-mile or so round trip to Old Trafford.  Manchester United are now the only Premier League team we haven’t beaten since we returned to the top flight.  It would be lovely to put that right; but it’s even nicer to know that whatever happens Palace will be back there next season.

Don’t let a 5-0 hammering spoil a lovely weekend

(actual date of posting – 10 May)

Match forty vs Manchester City (away)

Lost 0-5

429.8 miles

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.

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I thought this tree looked like the Gruffalo. My kids didn’t agree.

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.

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Almost a nice view from the Ibis bedroom window

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!

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Stopping off for some raw milk

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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.

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Us South Londoners scrub up well

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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…

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Mark and me pre-match
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Sherann and me pre-match
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Taken from the home end – apparently they’d spotted me!

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.

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Bluebells in Cheshire

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.

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The remains of the fire from the Liverpool trip
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Ducks coming to inspect the bike in Lowndes Park, Chesham

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…

Don’t mention Oldham

(actual date of posting – 3 May)

Match thirty-seven vs Liverpool (away)

Won 2-1

486.4 miles

Match thirty-eight vs Tottenham Hotspur (home)

Lost 0-1

14.9 miles

Match thirty-nine vs Burnley (home)

Lost 0-2

14.9 miles

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!

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Ibis Hotels – not known for their views

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!

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One of the better views on the way to Liverpool

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.

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http://www.croydonadvertiser.co.uk/is-this-the-reason-for-crystal-palace-8217-s-turnaround-in-fortunes-in-recent-weeks/story-30296814-detail/story.html

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).

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Cycle parking at Anfield

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.

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I was very close to the home fans

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.

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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.

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Lunch in Chesham (no, I didn’t eat them)

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.

There and back again. And back and there again.

(actual date of posting – 18 April)

Match thirty-four vs Southampton (away)

Lost 1-3

157.6 miles

Match thirty-five vs Arsenal (home)

216.4 miles

Match thirty-six vs Leicester City (home)

Drew 2-2

15.2 miles

Total mileage 5,732.4

 

Three matches to update on since my last blog: I’m blaming the school holidays.

One of the perils for any modern day travelling football fan is having your best laid plans scuppered by a fixture being moved for TV – all the more so if you’re taking the slow route to matches.

As originally scheduled, Palace were due to play away in Southampton on Wednesday 5 April and at home to Arsenal on Saturday 8 April, both in the first week of the children’s Easter holiday.  We had decided we’d have a short holiday in the New Forest during the school holidays.

I warn you, this now gets complicated…  The obvious choice would have been for us to go to the New Forest during the first week of the holiday, so that it would be a relatively short trip for me from New Milton to Southampton for the Wednesday night match.  (I should say, if we had done that, I’d have had to cycle to and from New Milton at either end of the holiday – otherwise it would have been cheating.)

That would, however, have meant travelling home on the Friday to ensure I was back in time for the home match against Arsenal.  The Friday was my daughter’s sixth birthday. She did not want to travel on her birthday (quite reasonably: last year we flew back from Florida on her birthday, and she was sick on the plane!).  So, instead, Janet booked us a four night break from Monday 10th to Friday 14th.

All fine and dandy, until Sky chose the Palace-Arsenal match for broadcast on Monday 10th.  Janet tried to change the holiday booking to the previous week (we would no longer need to be back for the Saturday, so no travelling on Hannah’s birthday).  They were fully booked.  Instead, she simply added a couple of days to the start of the holiday, and I would have to travel back on my own for the Arsenal game.

More on that later.  First, there was the trip to Southampton.  80 miles each way for this two day journey, staying with Palace-supporting friends who live a couple of miles from St Mary’s.  I’ve enjoyed the rides over the winter months, but the ride to Southampton was something else.  The sun was shining, spring had arrived, and the countryside was in bloom.  Riding in such conditions was an unadulterated pleasure and I felt the same pure joy that I had in conquering the early long rides back in September.  How long ago they feel now.

The fields were a blaze of yellow and the air filled with lovely smells.  My hay fever suffering wife disagrees with me, but I love the sight of a field of rape; and I was treated to many wonderful views as I rode through Surrey and Hampshire.  I had an added boost when I checked my phone during a roadside pitstop.  I had received a £1,500 donation from the Palace players, which meant I’d smashed my initial fundraising target of £10,000.  (As a result I have increased my target to £15,000 – at time of writing I’m up to £11,309.)  This excellent news acted like a tailwind, and I managed 55 miles before stopping for lunch.

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That left a mere 25 miles for the afternoon stint.  I’ve been sharing details of my exploits (and begging for donations!) on an on-line Palace forum.  There’s a small band of regular posters on the forum who are keen cyclists (not least my personal mechanic – for the duration of the challenge – Duncan from the excellent Wallington Cycles, http://www.wallingtoncycles.com).  One of my fellow cyclists lives in Hampshire and had had a look at my planned route.  He’d advised me to make some changes to avoid cycling through Eastleigh.  I’d meant to take his advice, but never got round to re-planning…

That was a mistake.  The traffic in Eastleigh was a nightmare; frequently at a standstill with no room for a bike to get past.  At one point, when I was carefully filtering alongside the stationary traffic, a bus decided to pull out without signalling and almost forced me into the oncoming cars.  But other than that, I pedalled through the final stint without incident and arrived at my friends’ house to a very warm welcome.

After a pleasant couple of hours in their company, I got back on the bike for the final couple of miles to the ground.  Arrangements had been made for an official from Southampton to meet up with me for some photos outside the ground.  However, some missed phone calls meant that didn’t work out.  No matter: a friend snapped a photo of me with the Southampton mascot; and the club more than made amends when a steward presented me with a voucher to pay for a burger, chocolate bar and a drink!

Southampton pic

After the euphoria of Stamford Bridge, Palace came back down to earth with something of a bump.  Despite Palace taking the lead, two late goals gave Southampton a 3-1 win. The efforts – and injuries – at Chelsea had taken their toll, as did losing Yohann Cabaye to injury at half time.  In some respects, Palace were unlucky on the night: there was a clear foul in the build up to Southampton’s equaliser, and Palace twice hit the post. But Southampton could also point to two strong penalty claims in the first half and they were good value for their win.

There was no better way to get over the defeat than a blast on the bike in the sunshine the following day.  My hosts had plied me with goodies (croissants and chocolate biscuits) so with 47 miles done, I stopped for a picnic lunch in Pirbright.  Even better, I was joined for lunch by a very cute family of ducks (at least I think they’re ducks – I’ve not seen markings like those before).

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It was barely mid-afternoon by the time I made it home.  Still plenty of time to head out to the park with the kids for an ice-cream.

My original plan for the Arsenal game – since its rearrangement and our revised holiday plans – had been to travel home from the New Forest by train, ride to and from the game as normal, and then get the train back to the New Forest on Tuesday morning.  I had, however, enjoyed the Southampton trip so much that I became very tempted to ride to Selhurst from the New Forest.

I decided to ask twitter what I should do.  Which, in effect, meant I’d decided to ride – I was pretty sure what the outcome of the twitter vote would be.  In the event, it was closer than I expected, but 53% said I should ride from the New Forest, so the plan was decided.

The bike ready for the drive to the New Forest

We had a lovely drive down to the New Forest, and enjoyed a glorious baking hot day on Sunday, before I set off back to London on Monday.

Time for a bit of kite flying
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Ready for the off

Thankfully, Monday was not as hot as Sunday: I would have melted.  It was lovely cycling weather – sunny, dry and not too hot – with only a slight headwind to hinder me.  I had a late-ish start and ploughed through 66 miles before stopping for a late picnic lunch.  My afternoon ride again took me through Pirbright.  I didn’t stop, but as I passed the pond I was delighted to catch sight of the duck family.  I was tiring by the end of the day – 108 miles was one of my longer days in the saddle – but made it to the Pawsons Arms for a pre-match shandy shortly after six o’clock.  I tried not to think about the fact that I’d have another 8 miles to ride post-match.

The game against Arsenal was the stuff of dreams.  Palace had previously only beaten Arsenal three times in their history.  The last time was in 1994 (I was there).  The only time we’d won at Selhurst Park was in 1979; I’m embarrassed to admit that the nine year old me didn’t even support Palace.  And yet we didn’t just win: we hammered Arsenal.  Leading 1-0 at half time, I was hoping we could repeat our feat at Chelsea and hold on.  But instead we scored two more and Arsenal didn’t even manage a shot on target in the second half.  We had won 3-0: it was so surreal that I was even disappointed we hadn’t managed a fourth!

Before we played Chelsea, I had said I’d be delighted if we were still outside the bottom three by the end of the Arsenal game.  But those two brilliant wins meant we were six points clear of the relegation places.

I don’t normally head to the bar after matches these days, but an exception had to be made!  As a result, I didn’t make it home until nearly half eleven.  I then had to stay up to see the goals on Sky Sports News at midnight and even when I eventually made it to bed I was too excited to sleep well.

As a result, I was pretty tired when I set off the following morning.  I had planned on a very early start – on the expectation that I’d have had no cause for celebration and would have been home in bed before 11pm.  That went out of the window, though I was still away by five past eight.

With the lack of sleep, the ride back was hard work, though still enjoyable.  I split the riding fairly evenly: 53 miles before lunch and 47 after.  As I rode the final mile or so through New Milton back to the holiday camp, I was overtaken by a familiar looking car with a couple of kids’ bikes on the roof.  The kids themselves were fast asleep, so missed the chance to see daddy in action.

The rest of the holiday was lovely (so much so, that Janet ended up buying a caravan) including a very enjoyable afternoon in the company of the family I’d stayed with the previous week.

Back home it was back to normal for another home match, against Leicester City.  The only deviation from my usual home routine was to arrive early for a very quick cup of team with my Leicester supporting friend, Jeremy, and his daughter.

It would have been unimaginable a few weeks previously, but both Palace and Leicester had turned their seasons round and this was a match between two of the country’s most in-form teams.  Both teams had won five and lost one of their previous six matches.  It was perhaps, therefore, no surprise that the game ended in a draw.

For Leicester, the match was sandwiched between the two legs of their Champions League quarter final.  We hoped that would be a distraction for them, but they resisted the temptation to make major changes to their team and by early in the second half had established a 2-0 lead.  Palace pulled a goal straight back and drew level with 20 minutes to go.  Despite chances at both ends, that was how the game ended: 2-2.

A lot was made in the post match analysis of Palace’s new found resilience under Sam Allardyce.  In reality, though, this was more like the performance under Alan Pardew. Three times this season under Pardew, Palace had come back from a two goal deficit (albeit they still managed to end up losing two of those games).  The goals conceded against Leicester were also reminiscent of the worst of the Pardew regime.  Terrible marking from a set piece for the first; and a breakaway from a Palace corner for the second.  Nonetheless, a draw from 2-0 down – especially combined with defeats for other teams in the relegation battle – felt like a victory.

Palace now face two very difficult matches, away at Liverpool and at home to Spurs. Before the Chelsea game, you would have said that if Palace only managed to get one point in total from the Southampton and Leicester games then we’d be in dire trouble. But the brilliant and unexpected wins against Chelsea and Arsenal – combined with an awful run of form from Swansea – mean we’re seven points clear of relegation and edging towards safety.  Palace fans of a certain age (ie including me) will never count chickens in relegation battles; and can be heard darkly muttering about ‘Oldham’*. Nonetheless, a seven point cushion over Swansea – who have just five games left to play (Palace have six) – is a great position to be in and one that was unthinkable after the Sunderland debacle.

For me, I have just six more trips.  Three are at home; the other three are long away rides – to Liverpool and twice to Manchester.  I estimate that’s somewhere between 1,400 and 1,500 miles to go.

[* In 1993 Oldham Athletic won their final three matches, including an away game at title chasing Aston Villa, to send Palace down on goal difference.  A recent Telegraph article rated Oldham’s win at Villa as the eleventh best away trip in the history of the Premier League.]

 

 

Worth the wait

(actual posting date – 4 April)

Match thirty-two vs Watford (home)

Won 1-0

15.1 miles

Match thirty-three vs Chelsea (away)

Won 2-1

27.6 miles

Total mileage 5,343.2

 

Palace games – and long trips for me – rather dried up in March. The arduous, but successful, trip to West Bromwich Albion, was one of only two matches in the month. The other was a home match – against Watford – and the first match of April was the shortest away trip of the season, to Chelsea.

I had, therefore, been going a bit stir crazy. There are, of course, far more daytime telly options than when I was off school ill as a child, but it’s still not great. I developed something of an addiction to US crime show ‘Castle’, at least until I got the shock of seeing fellow Palace fan Jim Piddock hamming it up as ‘Lord Henry’ in one episode.

When the football came it was, however, well worth waiting for. The Watford game was the reverse fixture of Sam Allardyce’s first game in charge. That game had started well for the new manager, with Palace taking an early lead and having the chance to double it from the penalty spot. But the penalty was missed and Watford won one of their own in the second half.  Troy Deeney converted it to score his 100th goal for Watford and secure a one-one draw.

The consensus of opinion in the bar before the return match was that Deeney would score again. And so it proved: but what we hadn’t predicted was it would be an own goal and give Palace a one nil win. It took a long time for the Allardyce’s management to turn round Palace’s fortunes, but suddenly we had won three games in a row without conceding a single goal. That run would, however, surely come to an end at Stamford Bridge against run away league leaders, Chelsea, on 1 April.

The ride to Chelsea was a straight forward one – and even slightly shorter than my old commute to work. Highlight of the journey up to Chelsea was being serenaded by a small group of Palace fans outside the Temperance pub just north of Putney Bridge (‘He rides where he wants, he rides where he wants, he’s Crystal Palace, he rides where it wants’).

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Chelsea had been in imperious form and, even with our own greatly improved form, they were odds on favourites to win the match. I was, however, confident that we would at least put up a good fight and make it difficult for them. Then after just four minutes that went out of the window as Chelsea scored.  It looked like being a very difficult afternoon.

But then came the most incredible two minutes of Palace’s season. First, Joel Ward headed a loose clearance to Christian Benteke, who in turn flicked it to Wilfried Zaha. Zaha was surrounded by defenders, but they couldn’t stop him shifting the ball and firing it into the bottom corner of the net. The away end erupted – and it was going to get even better. Benteke picked up the ball and ran at the Chelsea defence. The ball broke to Zaha who played it back to Benteke. The Belgian forward then calmly lifted the ball over compatriot Thibaut Courtois and into the net. Absolute pandemonium in the away end. Palace were in front.

Now there was the small matter of holding onto that lead for the remaining 79 minutes. But with the much maligned Wayne Hennessey in brilliant form, Palace did just that. And then there was just the 10 minutes injury time. When the referee blew the final whistle the away end erupted again. Until we realised it wasn’t the final whistle; just an offside decision against Chelsea. The ref was clearly just having some fun, though, as as soon as Hennessey took the resulting free kick he blew up for full time and Palace had won.

My journey home – on cloud nine – was via the Croham Arms in South Croydon for a 50th birthday celebration for Palace fan Howard. I was far from the only person going from Stamford Bridge to the Croham, but the efficacy of my chosen method of transport was proved as I was the first to arrive.  Great company, music and a smoke machine was a great way to finish off the day.  I just hope Palace can arrange something a good for my 50th birthday (28 January 2020, in case you were wondering).

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Amazingly, Palace have now won four games in a row. Relegation remains a threat, especially given the difficulty of Palace’s run-in and the fact that Hull City are also finding some form. But we’re out of the bottom three, and if we can win a Chelsea, why should we fear anyone?

 

Another win and some hard miles

(actual posting date – 6 March)

Match thirty one vs West Bromwich Albion (away)

Won 2-0

285.5 miles

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.

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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.

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316 miles? My route planning is clearly better

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.

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The Edgbaston floodlights at dusk

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.

A trip to the training ground and a win (surely no coincidence)

(actual posting date – 1 March)

Match thirty vs Middlesbrough (home)

Won 1-0

14.7 miles

Total mileage 5,015.1

 

Crystal Palace have been very supportive of my efforts, not least in the form of very generous sponsorship donations from three shareholders.  One of the things the club offered to support me an invite to the training ground for some publicity photographs with the players and manager.

Circumstances (particularly Palace’s poor form this season) meant that this had been somewhat delayed.  It had initially been scheduled for Friday 2 December.  But that was the week after the Swansea debacle (losing 5-4 despite being 4-3 up in the 89th minute, in case you need reminding).  Training was shifted to Selhurst Park and my invite postponed.  It worked – in the very short term – with Palace beating Southampton the next day, though that proved a false dawn.

I finally made it to training on Wednesday 8 February.  And it was great!

Slightly surprisingly, Palace asked the charity and me if we could bring our own photographer.  But this turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as I managed to secure the services of Palace legend Hy Money.  Hy was the first female sports photographer in the country and has followed Palace since the early 70s. Pretty much every iconic photo of Palace from the 70s and 80s was taken by Hy, and her photos grace the walls of lounges at Selhurst Park.  She has published a brilliant book of her photos called ‘Hy on Palace’.  (For more on Hy – visit her website or read this Telegraph article.)

To be honest, I was as excited about being the subject of a Hy Money photoshoot as I was about anything.

I arrived at the training ground towards the end of the morning’s training.  As the players finished with a practice match, manager Sam Allardyce came over for a chat with Hy and me.  He was very amiable and open; and Hy was delighted that he had seen and loved her pictures around the ground.  He didn’t give away any great secrets, but was complimentary about Palace fans and compared us favourably with those of a couple of his previous clubs.

As training finished, the players donned Contact a Family t-shirts and came over for the group photo, and captain Scott Dann presented me with a signed shirt.  And Sam told the players that if Palace weren’t safe from relegation before the final game of the season at Manchester United, then they’d have me to answer to!

All in all it was a great experience.  And whilst Palace hadn’t supplied a still photographer, they did video my visit and gave it a big push on their website and social media the following week.

What is more, the threat of having me to answer to clearly had an impact on the players.  For the second home game in a row, Palace’s opponents were a North East club also fighting against the drop.  But there was no repeat of the Sunderland horror show.  Palace put in a solid performance and even some awful refereeing couldn’t deny them a 1-0 win over Middlesbrough.  Let’s just hope it isn’t another false dawn…

Croydon advertiser article

Palace website article

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Two more defeats and a rather delayed blog

(actual posting date – 21 February)

Match twenty eight vs Sunderland (home)

Lost 0-4

15.1 miles

Match twenty nine vs Stoke City (away)

Lost 0-1

370 miles

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Concentrating on the League…

(actual posting date – 3 February)

Match twenty six vs Manchester City FA Cup 4th Round (home)

Lost 0-3

15.3 miles

Match twenty seven vs Bournemouth (away)

Won 2-0

225.3 miles

Total mileage 4,615.4

 

FA Cup 4th round weekend always falls around the time of my birthday. When Palace were drawn to play Manchester City at Selhurst Park on my birthday, I didn’t expect any presents and so it proved. Yaya Toure had to wait until the last minute for his inevitable goal: a direct free-kick which rounded off a routine 3-0 victory for City. The most notable part of the game was the sudden hail storm (which thankfully came during the match rather than during the ride). There was also the slight farce of the officials not realising Palace had brought on substitute Loic Remy at half time, so that one minute into the half he was led to the edge of the pitch to have his studs checked before being allowed to resume – but other than that, a pretty forgettable game for Palace fans.

Hailstorm (photo Hy Money)hail-vs-man-city

The FA Cup fourth round did bring some good news though. One mile from my house, my actual local team Sutton Utd beat Leeds to secure a place in the fifth round and a visit from Arsenal. Lincoln City, the other non-league team in the tournament, knocked out Palace’s rivals Brighton and Hove Albion. And Liverpool were also knocked out.  Had they reached the semi finals of the Cup, then Palace’s trip to Anfield in April would have had to be re-arranged, with no guarantee I’d have been able to make the trip for the revised date.

The ‘bonus’ part of my challenge – Cup games – had ended. Palace had played the last of their five Cup games this season. I had been to four of them (missing Southampton away in the League Cup, as I was already a third of my way to Sunderland at the time). They had added 523.5 miles and 41 hours 26 minutes to the challenge, mainly from the trip to and from Bolton. To quote the over-used cliché, Palace and I could now concentrate on the league.

We didn’t have long to wait either, with Palace playing Bournemouth away three days later on 31 January. For me, this was a 225 mile round trip.  I decided to take two days for the trip down and a single day for the return leg. That meant a short ride on Monday and a late-ish start after doing the school run. I rode 42 miles before stopping for lunch at the wonderfully named Chocolate Frog Tearooms, and then rode the final six miles in the rain to the night’s B&B in East Tisted, near Alton.

Time for the school run before setting of for Bournemouthfb_img_1485804850807

Unfortunately, the B&B was having staffing problems, and they neglected to tell me there were problems with breakfast in the morning. According to the information in the room (which was in a separate annex out the back of the main building) breakfast was 7.15 to 8.15am. However, when I went for breakfast at 7.30, there was no sign of life and no-one answered the doorbell. So I had to make do with an energy gel before setting off on the 63 miles ride to Bournemouth.

I started with a damp, but quick, 15 miles to the Good Life Home and Garden Centre near Winchester where I stopped for a croissant and cup of tea. By the time I set off again, the rain had really set it and a very wet ride followed. It included one of the stranger sights of my travels: a dustbin man, in the rain, smoking a pipe.  In these days of vaping, it was good to see someone with a bit of class.

My route took me through the New Forest, a favourite holiday destination for our family. But I’ve never seen it quite so wet.  There was a lot of surface water on the road and the surrounding countryside was waterlogged. The wettest point was when I came to a fast flowing ford. I stopped for a couple of minutes building up the courage to cross, when I noticed the small narrow footbridge twenty yards up the road. Discretion was the better part of valour, and I wheeled the bike across the bridge before continuing on my way.

Thank goodness for the footbridgedav

As well as being drier, the New Forest of my holiday memories was also considerably flatter than the one I rode through. Or, more accurately, I’d not been expecting the significant climb before reaching the flatter roads through the forest. But, despite the climb and the wet, it was a good ride. I’m not sure where the famous New Forest ponies go to shelter from the rain, but there were fewer around than normal. I still saw some, though, along with a number of free range cows. There’s something very disconcerting about being watched by silent, staring, cows when having a quick roadside pee; you can’t help but feel you’re being judged and judged rather harshly on an unfair comparison!

The final stretch of the ride went through Christchurch and I took a very short detour to say a quick hello to friend and fellow Palace fan Nigel Gray at his fishing tackle shop. If fishing is your thing, and particularly if you’re in the Christchurch area (but also available on line), I would encourage you to look to Davis Tackle to meet all your equipment needs: www.davistackle.co.uk.

I had a leisurely afternoon at the Elstead Hotel in Bournemouth, before heading early to the Vitality Stadium for a pre-match pitchside photo. There were still almost two hours to kick off and I was allowed into one of the club lounges for a drink. As time passed, I looked at my phone and saw a number of friends checking in at the ground on social media, so I headed down to the away end. I was surprised to find, with only an hour and a quarter to kick off, that the turnstiles were not yet open. We all had to wait and queue in the rain until they were finally opened less than an hour before kick off. The game, however, was well worth the wait.

Pre-match at the Vitality StadiumD6A_1567.jpg

On 24 September, Christian Benteke headed a goal deep in injury time at Sunderland’s Stadium of Light to win the match for Crystal Palace. Between then and arriving at the Vitality Stadium, I cycled 3,283.7 miles in 254 hours and 14 minutes travelling from and to Palace away games. Palace played nine away games in that time without winning any of them (four draws and five defeats). So there was massive relief on the pitch, on the Palace bench and in the crowd when Benteke again buried an injury time header, this time to secure a 2-0 victory. It had been a much better performance from Palace and a deserved win, but the margins are small: keeper Wayne Hennessey had tipped a Bournemouth free kick onto the post just moments before Benteke’s goal.

Scott Dann and Christian Benteke celebrating their goals.scott-dannbenteke

Unsurprisingly, therefore, I had a big smile on my face on the short ride back to the Elstead Hotel. As I approached the hotel I had the sudden realisation that it was the same hotel I’d stayed in in 1993, pretty much exactly half my life ago. I’d missed a Palace home game for that weekend away; something of a classic when Palace hammered Portsmouth 5-1, including a brilliant goal from now-England manager Gareth Southgate. Forget lucky pants or lucky socks, with two stays and two Palace wins, the Elstead is my lucky hotel.

It was still raining when I set off on Wednesday morning for the long (110 mile) ride home. The winds were pretty gentle and not very noticeable on any of my rides to and from Bournemouth. But they were headwinds on the way down and tailwinds on the way back and even if you’re not aware of such winds, they do make a big difference when cycling. Plus, of course, there was the metaphorical tailwind of celebrating a rare Palace victory and – dare we hope – the first signs of Big Sam turning round Palace’s season. (I fear I may regret typing that by 5pm on Saturday…)

I made good time, therefore, back through Christchurch and across the New Forest. The rain stopped and there were more ponies (and even donkeys) out and about. It was warm enough to stuff my coat in my pannier and cycle with my ‘banana sash’ Palace cycling top proudly visible. I pressed on and completed nearly 64 miles before lunch, including the final long climb of the day to the route’s highest point.

Obligatory picture of New Forest poniescof

I was riding along shortly before lunch on a relatively busy section of road. I noticed cars on the other side of the road pulling right across to the kerb. Wondering what they were trying to give room to, I looked behind me to see an ambulance with its blue lights flashing (but no siren). I pulled to the side of the road to let the ambulance through. As it went past me, the paramedic in the passenger seat leaned out. I was expecting to get abuse for not pulling over sooner. But instead I was greeted by a shout of ‘Palace’ and a wave of a CPFC lanyard!

Lunch consisted of a bacon, brie and cranberry baguette washed down with the obligatory pint of diet coke at the Market Hotel in Alton. From then on, it was a pretty straightforward final 46 miles home. Or, rather, nearly home. Janet texted me while I was on the road to say she way taking the kids to dinner at Prezzo in Cheam Village. Having made such good time, I was much earlier than I’d expected, and was therefore able to join them halfway through dinner. After dinner, Hannah and I raced the final couple of hundred yards home – her running, me cycling sportingly slowly.  She won.  And so another away trip was completed.