Ding a ding dang my Ding a Long Ling Long

For this weekend’s adventures, I travelled across the border to Wales. It’s the first time I’ve ridden in Wales for over five years. To be exact, the last time I rode Llandegla, it was June 14th 2015 – my 35th birthday. I don’t think I even rode the red, instead sticking to the blue.

Today, in an effort to be MORE AWESOME. I decided that I was going to do the red. Everyone uses Llandegla as an example of an ‘easy’ red, I’d done it in the past and it had been quite friendly. What could go wrong?

To start with, the weather was uncooperative. When I booked this escapade, it was supposed to be cloudy, but dry. As the weekend drew closer, the forecast became increasingly grim. First, the prediction of rain, and the percentage chance increasingly ticking up. Then, joy of joys, the suggestion of thunderstorms and lightning in the afternoon. DEEP JOY.

I ventured out this morning, determined not to be deterred (and also determined not to waste the hotel and petrol cost of the weekend). It was, quite frankly, pissing it down.

“Aaaalways look on the briiight siiide of life!

I worked my way up Llandegla’s climb, getting increasingly saturated. Fortunately, the ebike made easy work of it, and I found myself at the top feeling rather cheerier than I would have done if I’d had to grind up a 2 mile hill in the pissing rain on a normal bike. Naturally, the first time up I stopped to take a photo by the Black Grouse sculptures. IT IS TRADITION.

Traaaadition!

I was in two minds over whether to start with the red or the blue. I eventually decided on the red, hoping that it would be a little quieter first thing in the morning than a later attempt.

The red was, for the most part, even easier than I was expecting. I had to dismount one of the early descents (that runs parallel to the black-graded jumps), but that was because there were literally branches hanging over the trail at face height. It felt a little melancholy – the trail is good fun, but it’s… well, there’s no nice way of putting it. It’s ugly as sin. Llandegla is a working forest, and a good chunk of the red runs through heavily deforested areas. So whilst the trail itself is entertaining, you don’t get the wow factor or sense of speed that you get when zipping through the trees. I think it’s also battering the trails a little too – it was a lot rougher and rockier than I remember it being, and I’m not sure whether it’s my memory playing tricks, or whether the trails are suffering more from erosion being exposed without the trees for protection.

All went well until I was relatively close to the end, where there were a few things that forced me to dismount. The first was on the Golden Trail – I rode the boardwalk cautiously, but hopped off right at the end as there’s a drop off. It was actually relatively small, and I think I could have rolled it with a bit of speed, but I erred on the side of caution (I did watch another rider clip his bottom bracket plopping off the end).

It unnerved me a little, and then there were two downhill turns that had me walking. They were similar to some of the turns on the Verderer’s, but with much steeper exits. It was raining, I was feeling a little on edge, so it was a hard NOPE.

The last bit was on Julia’s Trail – there were some nasty climbs with accursed uphill switchbacks, and a steep climb with lots of loose rocks. Even on the ebike, I didn’t fancy it, so I pushed up. This is now a walking blog.

It was worse if you were there, I swear

I was still pretty chuffed with my efforts as I finished the trail, but also slightly miffed. My plan was to do the blue next, but… I’d accidentally paused my Garmin on the red, and forgot to unpause it for a couple of sections. Obviously if it’s not on Strava it doesn’t count, so… onto the red again!

I was even more comfortable this time around, but split onto the blue to avoid those tricky sections that had thrown me on my first lap. Interestingly, the blue section I rode can only be ridden if you bail from the red at that point – it’s not part of the blue loop proper. I’m also pretty sure that it’s made up of an old original red section, and used to be part of the blue when I rode it six years ago, but I wouldn’t swear to it. In any case, the Llandegla trailbuilders have been busy, and have done a great job.

There was lunch…

If my Slimming World consultant sees this, I have no idea what it’s doing here. I chucked it in the bin, or something.

… and then the blue in full!

The draw distance was terrible…

I really enjoyed the blue, and was kind of gutted I only got to ride it once. It seemed to have a bit more of a fun factor, and was more rewarding for the climbs, but it’s possible that I was feeling particularly well disposed as it had finally stopped pissing it down, and I’d just eaten cake. I did plot a second lap of the blue, but I realised that my battery was a little low, so I played around on the skills course and did a few laps of the green.

Gnar

I once again emerged at the trailhead, and tried to wash my bike. I’m staying in a Premier Inn, so I needed to get it as clean as possible. I also looked like an absolute mess…

Wonky helmet? Oooh, errr, etc.

…and everything was covered.

Fortunately, I’d had the hindsight to pack some clean clothes for the drive back, so I didn’t have to do a muddy walk of shame through the Premier Inn foyer – plus, the driver’s seat in my car also avoided a slimy fate. Less fortunately, my dirty biking clothes are fermenting in my car. I think the drive back tomorrow is going to stink. My nice new Camelbak (and the bike *cough*) has had a rinse off in the shower – which reminds me, I need to check for gritty residue.

All in all, a most excellent day.

(Btw, if anyone is wondering why the title of this entry is quoting the Jesus Built My Hotrod lyrics – it’s because, for some reason, Llandegla is nicknamed ‘Ding Dong’ amongst my friends… and it’s a banging tune).

Turning a corner

Despite my multiple medical woes over the last year or so, I’ve actually been riding more miles than ever before. A good part of this is down to moving to a pleasant little village with a ridiculous name in the Warwickshire countryside. It doesn’t have much in the way of fun off-road riding, but it has a few nice enough bridleways, and a lot of quiet country roads.

It’s enabled and encouraged me to get out a lot more, because riding is more fun when you’re passing green fields and pretty villages, than it is riding through slightly miserable towns with busy roads. Plus it’s a lot nicer passing hares, rabbits and squirrels than it is shouty blokes. Generally, you don’t have to worry about being attacked by wildlife in the UK.

The church at Chesterton

That, combined with the Overvolt, has made a huge improvement in my life, both mentally and physically. I’ve found myself getting out in all weathers, exploring, and just generally feeling better. My knees are still awful, but a lot stronger than they were, and my ankle only occasionally reminds me that I was still on crutches nursing a broken ankle this time last year. And when I’m out on my bike, I can briefly de-stress, and forget the multitude of near soap opera-esque bollocks that I’ve been through over the last year or so.

So now, a photographic tribute to my Overvolt. I’m still very fond of it, and it’s my go-to ‘local’ bike, although the Liv gets all the foresty fun.

Burton Dassett in the snow!
Burton Dassett in the fog!
Bridleway at the top of Compton Verney
Farnborough by moonlight
Compton Verney Bridleway in the sunshine
Compton Verney Bridleway at night
Moor to Sea route near Dalby

Although the Overvolt is great for getting in the miles, it’s possibly just a little too big for me. It’s absolutely fine on roads, or easy bridleways, but on the trail it feels a little cumbersome – the standover is slightly too high, and the reach is possibly a bit long.

Now, I’ve always been fairly terrible at tight corners, but I definitely feel like I’ve got worse since getting back on the bike after having my son. When I was on my Stumpy, I’d struggle to have the leg strength to power up around uphill turns. On the Overvolt, I struggled in both directions – I had the oomph to get uphill, I just couldn’t get positioned correctly. Downhill, I just suffered from the paranoia that I wouldn’t make the turn, and go off the edge, or hit a stump, or…

After getting my Liv and realising that it wasn’t a magic bullet for my cornering woes, I realised… it wasn’t. Falling off twice in one ride at Cannock was one clue, but it became particularly apparent in the Forest of Dean, where I was fairly shocking both up and down on the Verderer’s. Part of me got paranoid that maybe my new and really fucking expensive ebike wasn’t right for me. Was the stem too short? The bars too wide? Is the frame TOO small?

But I looked at it logically. Have I always struggled with uphill switchbacks? Yes, yes I have. Have I always been a bit nervy on bigger or tight downhill berms? Also yes. Have I ever managed to ride the Werewolf bypass? Once, about ten years ago. Despite that, can I ride the Bombhole? Yes I can, despite it being a tight turn on a downhill. Well, OK, I came off on it the other week, but that was literally the only time in FOURTEEN YEARS (which I’m putting down to a combination of getting used to a new bike, and overdoing it on the brakes, which were bedding in at the time).

So, I need practice! I’ve been cracking on with the practice – I did a good ride this weekend gone, and felt absurdly pleased that I did a lot of corners that I’d been flunking, and taking other corners a lot smoother. I guess that one of the advantages of starting with such a low bar is that even tiny improvements even great.

It really is a basic thing, but I was consciously forcing myself to look at the exit to the turns – I’m pretty sure a lot of my woes are fixating on my front wheel, checking if it’s going to make the turn, and then not actually making the turn as a result. I’m off to Llandegla this weekend, and I’m aiming to do the red, hoping that I don’t end up splatting myself. I’ve also got a skills course planned, hopefully before our Glentress holiday, so maybe this will be the year where I manage to become marginally more competent at cornering!

And now to close, pictures of the Intrigue so that it doesn’t get jealous.

Forest of Dean family trail
Forest of Dean – section that makes up part of the Sculpture Trail.
Just before Son of Chainslapper at Cannock Chase

Intrigue!

If there’s one thing my medical mishaps and general state of physical shonkiness has taught me, it’s that e-bikes are fucking great.

I got Voltron (as my LaPierre Overvolt 700HT is known on Strava) shortly after my son had his first birthday. I was struggling with my knees, as not only had I got the usual issues that had been plaguing me since my teens, but pregnancy had also done a proper number on them.

Did you know that the body produces a hormone called relaxin during pregnancy? It’s supposed to prepare the body for pregnancy by softening the ligaments and cartilage in the pelvis. But, if you’re particularly lucky, it goes overboard on all of your joints, leaving you in pain and more susceptible to injury. SO BLESSED.

I hoped that an ebike would help me get back some fitness. I never planned for Voltron to become my primary bike – the idea was that I’d use it for longer bridleway rides, and my Stumpy would still be my go to for more technical stuff.

It took a couple of years, but eventually, I had to accept… I am an ebike wanker. I could ride further and faster, but also harder, if my heart rate monitor is to be believed. I started taking Voltron on the trails, which was fun, but not quite as confidence inspiring as I would have liked. It’s a little too big for me, which is fine when I’m bimbling around, but suboptimal on the more techy stuff.

So, I bought a new ebike – a Liv Intrigue E+1.

So far, it’s been amazing – the motor has all the power you could ever want, and the battery lasts for aaaages. I’ve comfortably done 30+ miles of trail centre riding, and still had nearly half the battery left. The geometry is taking some getting used to though, and I’m not sure if I could do with a longer stem and narrower bars, or if I just need to get used to riding a more modern, aggressive style bike.

I’ve had a couple of comedy offs, including a spectacular splat on the Bombhole at Cannock Chase. It’s infuriating, as I’ve chicken out of it on subsequent rides, despite never having an issue for 14 years. That, coupled with my longstanding cornering issues, has led me to book a skills course. Maybe, just maybe, I can be an ambiturner.

The Medical Misadventures of Missus Toast

So, this last year has been fairly rubbish for a variety of reasons. My mom’s death, the small matter of a global pandemic and, for me personally, the stark reminder that my body is a shonky wreck.

(Incidentally, autocorrect just tried to change ‘shonky’ to ‘chunky’, which is also accurate).

My knees have always been a hot mess since my teens – soft cartilage that gets chewed up easily, missing a couple of ligaments, and so on. But last year, shortly before my 40th birthday, I decided to add a broken ankle to my repertoire.

It was self-inflicted, and completely stupid. I was riding up what is usually a fairly tame bridleway – for context, I’ve towed Mini-Toast up it in a trailer. But this time I was riding solo, it was a beautiful evening, and I decided in my infinite wisdom that I’d try to beat my previous Strava time up the hill.

My line choice was poor – instead of riding within the rut of the track, I rode the raised bit in the middle. It’ll be faster, I told myself. And so it was… right until the point the edge of the line fell away and I went over.

There was pain. There was shock. There was the growing realisation that I’d properly hurt my ankle. I didn’t want to call Mr Toast, as he was getting Mini-Toast to bed. I didn’t want to call an ambulance, because that would be an overreaction, and I was probably fine, and we’re in the middle of a pandemic. So, after rolling around in agony for about 20 minutes, I gingerly got back on the bike and rode the most painful 3.5 miles of my life.

After getting home and crawling in, Mr Toast came downstairs and was slightly disconcerted by my general demeanour. We got my shoe off, rolled up my legging… and it was not pretty. Nothing poking out of the skin, but my ankle was exceedingly wonky. We called 111. They called an ambulance.

The paramedics were amazing. They assessed that I’d certainly done something to my ankle, as one pressed my foot and said, “There should be a bone there, but it’s not”. So off to hospital I went, with delicious, delicious morphine.

Long story short – unstable Weber B fracture, 3 months in a cast, 6 weeks in a moon boot. Not the best way to spend a summer. Especially not in a heatwave. In lockdown.

As the ankle recovered, naturally, something else had to go wrong. I developed an ear infection that lasted three months, and took multiple courses of increasingly aggressive antibiotics to clear. Apparently, I have ‘dainty ear canals’, which means they’re more at risk of infection. Hurray! The ear infection eventually cleared, but the antibiotics kicked off another issue, which I won’t go into as… ugh.

Then, towards the end of 2020, I lost full use of my shoulders. For weeks my shoulders could cause agonising, breathtaking pain if knocked the wrong way. Even when the pain subsided, I couldn’t lift my arms up past a certain point. I couldn’t brush my hair properly, or put it in a normal ponytail (I had to rock a side pony, 80s style). I could only wear baggy tops, or ones that button/zipped up. Fortunately, that only took five months or so to clear up, and I nearly have full mobility back.

So, I’ve been plodding on, with intermittent bouts of IBS which I put down to stress. Only, it might not have been stress, as two weeks ago I ended up in A&E again, and am now missing a gallbladder. Fortunately, this has been relatively minor compared to everything else, and recovery has been quick. Also, free weight loss! Yay! I’m currently assessing what other organs I can get shot of to cheat the scales.

I’m hoping that I can be free of hospitals for a while, and that things might start looking up. I’ve had my Covid jab, I’ve got a new bike arriving today, and we’re moving into summer. We’ve got holidays booked for Forest of Dean, Glentress and Dalby, so fingers crossed I can have a better year this year!

In memoriam

First up, a content warning – this post is going to be fairly miserable, and not contain anything about biking. Instead, I’m going to talk about my mom, and the last few months of her life. With the whole global pandemic thing going on, I don’t think I’ve really even started to process my grief. Maybe writing it out will help. So, you’ve been forewarned.

Back in May 2019, I took my mom on holiday with my son and dog, whilst Mr Toast was at Google I/O in San Francisco. We went for a slightly less exotic setting, staying at a forest lodge in Sherwood Forest. My son took his balance bike but I remained bikeless – thanks to arthritis, my mom was in no physical shape to look after a toddler and frequently over-exuberant dog.

I have many memories of the trip. My mom was frequently infuriating, funny and kind in equal measure. She adored her grandson, and enjoyed getting out into the forest on her rented off-road scooter – even though she was, quite frankly, a menace on it. She literally ran into Ethan’s balance bike at one point… whilst he was riding it (fortunately no injuries occurred!)

Born to be wild.

However, I noticed that she couldn’t eat as much as she used to. This wouldn’t have been a huge concern, appetites can change as you age, but she admitted that it wasn’t that she didn’t want to eat more – she felt like she couldn’t. She suffered from terrible indigestion and reflux. I told her to go to the doctor when she got back, and she promised that she would.

Despite her usual antipathy towards the medical profession, she did go – I think it had been worrying her for a while, she just needed someone to tell her that she should. An endoscopy was quickly arranged in the following weeks. Leading up to that, we wondered what it could be. I thought perhaps a hiatal hernia, trying to avoid the idea that it would be the original big-C. Sadly, the endoscopy showed what was ‘almost certainly a tumour’, in the words of the doctor.

More tests followed, at a variety of hospitals (Burton! Derby! Nottingham!). My mom said that, even if it was early stage cancer, she didn’t want treatment. She didn’t want her remaining time, however long it was, to marked by hospital visits, surgery and drips.

I sat with her as the oncologist gave her the results. The cancer was advanced and aggressive oesophageal cancer, and there were other tumours around her body. The best but unlikely case scenario, they were all independent primary cancers, but they were most likely metastases – the oesophageal cancer had gone on a tour around her body. I started sobbing uncontrollably. My mom comforted me. She was fine with it – being the eternal pessimist, it was what she was expecting. I was not fine.

She firmly told the oncologist that she didn’t want any chemotherapy or surgery. She didn’t want to ‘drag it out’ and, to be fair, she’d been whimsically pining for ‘happy hunting ground’ since my dad died. She’d seen both her kids happily married and have children, and her arthritis was robbing her of more and more of her independence. I still wasn’t fine with it, but I didn’t try to talk her out of it. Apart from anything else, she was a stubborn old mare, and I knew it wouldn’t have worked.

She carried on in comparatively good health for months. Her bad days of reflux got worse, but, on the whole, she was relatively stable for the rest of the year. We booked a family Christmas meal, not knowing if she’d make it, but she did. She made it to my nephews’ birthday parties, at the end of December, and the start of January.

Then suddenly, she went downhill. She had an extremely nasty fall, and agreed to go to St Giles, the local hospice, for convalescence. They saw the bruising and sent her to A&E at Burton, suspecting that she’d broken something. Fortunately it was ‘just’ bruising, and she stayed at St Giles for a couple of weeks, where she proceeded to be a pain in the arse there. How?

Well, throughout my life, mom had a drinking and smoking habit that would make Keith Richards blush. Remarkably, despite it being a bone of contention through my teens and 20s, she actually managed to cut right back on the drinking in her last few years. However, the smoking remained. I remember the oncologist raising a brow as she explained how she was now only ‘a light smoker’, smoking around 20 a day. Really, it should have been no surprise that she’d come down with oesophageal cancer, more that she hadn’t come down with it earlier.

Anyway, as mom recovered in St Giles, she hit a snag. Quite rightly, you’re not allowed to smoke indoors, and that includes hospices. However, you are allowed in the smoking shelter in the carpark… if you can get there. If you can’t, you have to wait for a relative, as the staff won’t do it (again, quite rightly).

This meant that my mom’s usual greeting as we visited her in the hospice was, “Can you just take me outside?” And lo, we’d roll her outside in a borrowed wheelchair, and she’d proceed to chain smoke 2-3 cigarettes in the space of 15 minutes.

After a couple of weeks, after it was evident that she was not going to die imminently, she was sent home. She was quite irritated by this – not the being sent home, but the being told that she wasn’t going to die any time soon. After a week or so after being at home, she took another downhill turn.

In addition to having a horrendous cough, she started to go delirious. She called the carers murderers. She didn’t know that she had cancer. She didn’t know that dad was dead. She didn’t know that nan was dead. I broke her heart by explaining that nan had died nearly 30 years ago. I wondered if honesty was the best policy. We thought that perhaps the cancer had finally spread to her brain.

My brother and I braced ourselves. We started sleeping on a mattress on the floor, taking care of her as she called out throughout the night. We were exhausted. She said that she wanted to die at home, but she also said that she never wanted to be a burden, and my brother and I were being pushed to our limits. So, back into St Giles she went, to spend her last days.

Except… she didn’t die. She just kept on going, and the doctors decided that, as she was being so stubborn, perhaps they should treat that chest infection.

Antibiotics can work miracles. In a couple of days, my mom was fully lucid again. We explained how poorly she’d been, and she was quite shocked by how she’d ‘lost her marbles’. There was a price though – she’d regained her marbles, but lost the use of her hands. The doctors thought that it was most likely the arthritis rather than the cancer. There wasn’t much to be done.

She received visitors again. She was even well enough that Ethan could see his nanny for one last time. She was well enough to ask him for a Wotsit. He dutifully hand fed her the rest of the pack without prompting.

One of the best things that happened was that her brother, who she hadn’t spoken to in over 25 years, came down from the Lake District to visit her. Although she’d professed that she didn’t want anything to do with him, when she was delirious, she called his name. I think that their estrangement had weighed heavier on her than she liked to admit, and him visiting had laid a ghost that had been troubling her to rest.

Then… then Covid-19 happened. As March rolled on, it was obvious that things were getting worse. The hospice removed all the tea-making facilities, increased the amount of hand sanitiser (which they already had a lot of!), started operating closed-door source control on some of the rooms… then they stopped visitors. Every day I phoned to ask how she was, and the answer was the same. She was stable, unless something acute happened she was fine for the time being. They started talking about moving her to the long-term residents unit, as she evidently wasn’t going to pop her clogs any time soon. My brother went to Cheltenham for a few days, calling me for updates. A few days before Mother’s Day, the hospice said that visitors were allowed again, with restrictions. My brother went to visit. I got her a card. I’d see her on Sunday. My brother started to feel a bit iffy, and had a temperature. He let the hospice know, and they told mom that he was isolating, so couldn’t visit – but I’d be along on Sunday.

It was about 3.30am on Saturday 21st March when my phone started ringing. I recognised the number. My heart started racing. Let’s face it, it was fairly unlikely the hospice were calling to tell me that everything was fine. They told me that ‘something had changed’ and she had started to decline rapidly.

I got dressed, and got in the car for the hour or so drive to the hospice. My brother rang me, distressed. He couldn’t go, he was isolating. I told him I’d keep him updated.

I got to the hospice, and went in to see mom. She was still alive, wheezing and gasping for breath. She said my name a few times, and I sat with her, holding her hand. I told her that it was all right, that it would be all over soon, and that she would be with dad and Robert. I told that I loved her. She replied, “I know”. Those were her last words.

Yes, my mom accidentally quoted Star Wars on her death bed. Way to go, mom!

Her breathing slowed, and she seemed to calm down. Eventually she settled into what looked like a restful sleep, but with her eyes slightly open. I called a nurse. I’ll never forgive the look of pity on the nurse’s face as I asked if she had passed, and she said, “Yes, love, I’m so sorry”. She closed my mom’s eyes, gave me a quick hug then said, “I’m not supposed to do that at the moment”.

Mom died on the day that Boris closed the pubs. Because of course she fucking did.

The rest is a bit of a blur. I remember being in the hospice’s remembrance room, and talking to another nurse as she went over what happened next. She was apologetic, telling me that normally they’d be offering tea and hugs at this point, because of covid everything had to be a bit more clinical. I made a comment about mom being a bit of a pain about us wheeling her out for a cigarette on her first visit. The nurse giggled and admitted they’d found fag butts by the windows that time. My mother, the rebel.

Eventually, I stood outside of my brother’s house, and we shared our grief through a window. He was pretty much a wreck. He had covid, so he felt like shit. Because of that, he hadn’t been there when mom died, so he felt like shit. He didn’t know if mom’s sudden decline was because of covid – we’ll never know, she wasn’t tested – so he felt like shit. It didn’t matter though – after nearly 15 years of saying that she was ready for the knackers’ yard, mom was finally free of pain. We still both felt like shit.

Her funeral arrangements were almost comical. Lockdown was now in full effect, and my mom – or rather, her body – did a tour of the local Co-Op funeral directors. She was supposed to go to Burntwood… but they got furloughed. So she went to Brownhills… then they got furloughed. Then she ended up in Lichfield, and after two weeks of isolating, my brother and I met again over her coffin. To the director’s credit, she looked a lot healthier than when she was alive. We laughed and cried, and prepared for the not-so-big day. Only six guests allowed, we ended up with five. Mr Toast couldn’t go, as he was looking after Ethan – due to lockdown, no-one else could.

I arrived at the crematorium and was surprised that the gates were closed, with a security guard. I confirmed which funeral I was attending, and off I went. The funeral was weird – no hugs from the few that were there – but I took solace in the fact it’d be the last time I had to listen to Barbara Streisand.

As we left, there seemed to be some sort of police yard on the graveyard, with blue flashing lights and officers in stab vests. It turned out that the reason why there was security on the gate was because an earlier funeral had breached the capacity rules by quite a lot, and they didn’t want it to happen again. The police had come and dispersed the crowd, but had returned as some mourners had sneaked back in. I giggled. Mom would have loved the drama.

Here we are, 10 months later. We’ve not got probate yet (because of covid), and so we’ve not sold our childhood home yet, or even managed to get it decorated (because of covid). And most of all, I still can’t believe that she’s gone. I think because EVERYTHING is so weird, it’s hard to grieve properly. I don’t get to see her on weekends, but I wouldn’t be able to anyway, because of lockdown. I can’t phone her every day after picking Ethan up from nursery, because he’s started school, but isn’t at school, because he’s at home, because of lockdown. Sometimes I feel bad because I don’t feel anything, then sometimes I’ll howl with grief because I remember something, like the existence of armchairs.

There’s also a sense of relief that she isn’t here to have her last years marred by lockdown. My mom basically loved three things, her family, smoking, and going out for dinners (sometimes it was questionable whether it was actually in that order). I think the idea of no more cafe lunches or pub dinners would have horrified her – as I’ve said to many a person, her dying on the day the pubs shut was possibly the most on-brand thing she ever did. But it still hurts. The first time I went into a Morrisons cafe (back when ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ was the order of the day, before, ‘Oh shit what have we done? Abort! Abort!’) I burst into tears, as I remembered all the times we’d eaten there when I’d taken her to do her shopping.

Anyway, that’s that done. Thanks for coming to my therapy session. RIP mom, you’re dad’s problem again now.

Megan Alma Rigby

May 8th 1944 – March 21st 2020

2020 and the road to recovery

You know, it really was a shame that I didn’t keep up with this blog. The month after my last post, I rode Pivot 24/12 and got a podium place! Third! With a trophy, and everything! Admittedly, there were only four women in my category (12 hour solo, under 40s) – something like eleven had dropped out due to the horrendous weather, which also ended up curtailing the 24 hour race. It would have been a great post. Really uplifting. Look, here I am with my trophy – sadly not on the physical podium, as the wind made it too dangerous.

Instead, I’m posting in 2020. Now, I’m sure everyone’s aware by this point that 2020 has been a bit shit, but I’ve found it particularly… trying. Let’s tick things off the list, shall we?

  • Global pandemic: Got to say, didn’t see that one coming. Here in Blighty we’re currently riding our second wave. Yay.
  • My mom died: OK, we did see this one coming. She was diagnosed with cancer last year, which had already spread, and she actually had relatively good health until the start of this year. I still can’t believe that she’s gone though, and despite our occasionally fractious relationship, I miss her like crazy.
  • I broke my ankle: First time I’ve broken a limb, and I did it on my bike! I tried to peg it up a hill as fast as possible to beat my previous Strava time. It didn’t end well.

Fortunately things are coming around a bit now, and I’m riding more than ever. I’ll possibly detail my recovery a bit more in future posts, so I can look back cheerfully at this amazing year….

Electric Dreams

Yes, another good ol’ stretch between posts. In my defence, this time I have a slightly better excuse: like the US elections, my site was compromised by the Russians! It took a bit of work, but it’s now back to normal and safe again. Huzzah!

So, what have I been getting up to? Well, I’m still riding, although crushing mommy guilt (as well as a genuine desire to spend time with my son) prevents me from getting out as much as I used to. Ethan’s got a trailer now, so I’m looking forward to getting him out on more rides.

I’ve got a Lapierre Overvolt ebike (known as Voltron) that I use for getting in the miles, but Devastator the Stumpjumper still reigns supreme on the technical stuff – mainly because my ebike is slightly too big for me, and weighted oddly due to its small frame size.

I can still push it a lot on the ebike though – with the strain on my knees much lessened, I can pedal harder and faster. Today I pushed myself so hard over 30 miles that I felt dizzy and nauseous when I stopped. Once the ride was over, I treated myself to a ham sandwich, a slice of malt loaf and a shower.

Unfortunately, the nausea made a sudden and dramatic reappearance whilst I was in the shower, culminating in surprise projectile vomiting. If you’ve ever wondered what malt loaf looks like approximately 20 minutes after consumption, the answer is “exactly like dog shit”. My shower was followed by an intense bath cleaning session, and then another shower. Because picking chewed up ham out of the plug hole is kind of disgusting.

If you’re feeling iffy reading this, just be glad that you didn’t experience it first hand.

So yeah, still possible to push yourself on an ebike to the point of being sick. Yay, I guess?

Today’s adventures aside, we’ve got a couple of weeks before our anniversary trip to Scotland. We haven’t been for the last two years, as in 2016 I was two weeks off giving birth, and last year Ethan was a bit to little for such a long car journey. My fitness still isn’t quite up to how it’s been on previous visits, but I’m hoping that I’m up to the task – Voltron is staying at home, so the initial climb should be interesting…

 

October. Bleugh.

Well, it’s been an odd few months. Confession time: I haven’t actually been on my bike since October, a thoroughly miserable little factoid there.  When I was first made redundant, I did vaguely have this dream that on days in between looking for work, I could get some extra miles in over the Chase.  Unfortunately, as time went on, I realised that the £20+ in fuel it cost to get to and fro the Chase was financially a bit irresponsible – especially as the statutory redundancy claim was taking longer than expected to sort out.   

It was, all-in-all, a pretty grim cycle of misery for a few months – I felt guilty about doing anything ‘fun’, as ‘fun’ wasn’t looking for a job or improving my skills.  Jobs were scarce, and each week that passed made me feel more useless. The redundancy claim was a fairly fraught process, with an investigation dragging it out, and leading to the delightful conclusion that my role had been TUPEd to another unrelated company.  I was informed that I’d technically resigned by refusing a job at the company in Oxford, so wasn’t entitled to anything other than my owed wages, which I’d have to claim from a company I’d never worked for. There was misery, there was despair, a fair bit of anger… put it like this, if I was strong in the Force, I would have been full on Sith and shooting lightning out of my fingertips, with Yoda looking a bit disappointed.  There was also a fair bit of weight gain – winter eating combined with no exercise plays cruel, cruel tricks on my waistline.  The weather went terrible, and EVERYTHING WAS RUBBISH.

Fortunately, things started to turn around.  The company that I was supposedly TUPEd to got their lawyers involved, and I ended up getting my statutory redundancy, loss of notice and unpaid wages/holiday after all.  Money may not buy happiness, but it pays the bills and buys motorbikes, so that was a plus.  I then managed to not only get my career back on track, but to give it a massive boost – I’m now working on two awesome projects for a company that helped shaped my childhood, and am professionally the happiest I’ve ever been.

And I’ve also taken up a new hobby – archery.  Longtime readers (if there are any) will know that I often talk of my love of Lord of the Rings, and my childhood desire to be an elf – ride a horse, live in a tree, have awesome hair, shoot a bow.  Well, I tried riding a horse, didn’t like it, but mountain biking is close.  Living in a tree is impractical, but we have a semi-detached and a mortgage. Hair… well, I try. 

But archery… I’ve been wanting to do it for years, and I finally managed to complete a beginners’ course which demonstrated that I wasn’t going to have anybody’s eye out, and joined the local archery club.  I was surprised at the bewildering array of stuff that you can get for recurve bows (my weapon of choice) – sights, long rods, clickers, etc. I’ve now got the basics, and have hopefully passed the ‘excruciatingly bad’ starting period, where my arrows were landing in strange and unpredictable places.  Unless you predicted ‘on the floor’ – then they weren’t that predictable.  Sometimes I would hit the target… just not the one I was aiming at.  Turns out you should keep your head still when shooting, instead of bobbing it around like an angry pigeon or like the possessed lass in The Exorcist.  WHO KNEW? But it’s great fun, will hopefully do something about my feeble upper body strength (18lb draw weight…), and will stand me in good stead for any forthcoming zombie apocalypse.

So now, I’ve just got to get back on the bike.  I’ve suffered from a lack of enthusiasm because of the weather, but now it’s starting to be less awful, I’m actually a little bit scared.  Scared to see how much fitness I’ve lost over six months, scared because people will be laughing at the fat girl on the expensive bike, scared because what if I’ve forgotten how to mountain bike and hurt myself on the Steg, or on the exit to section 8. What if people laugh?

But screw that – I can’t solve any of those problems unless I get back riding.  So this weekend I’m going to the Specialized Demo Day, so if anything terrible happens I can blame it on an unfamiliar bike (I’m also quite interested in the Rumour, as it looks like it might be a new-full susser that fits me). So if you see a tubby lass wobbling around – go easy on her, yeah?

Adventures in unemployment

I can’t say that redundancy agrees with me.  I don’t mind the application or interview processes, it’s the wait that follows that kills me.  I was thinking that I’d make my applications then spend my downtime wisely.  Housework! Gardening! Bike riding!  More Lua and Unity work!  I’ve done quite a bit of the latter, but everything else has taken a backseat to checking my email, Facebook and LinkedIn every five minutes.  I’m sat in front of my PC all day, so in that respect being redundant is much like being at work, only I don’t have any Proper Coders(TM) to mock my shoddy indentation.

Waiting for emails, I’m a bit like a kid at Christmas – only I don’t know if that brightly coloured box contains an exciting new job and a new phase in my career, or a big ol’ bag of unemployment.  I’ve come to deeply resent Chain Reaction, Evans Cycles and Wiggle, as I’ll see that I have a new email, excitedly open it… and find it’s from one of the aforementioned retailers.  Shiny new bikes! Winter gear now coming in?  As much as I’d love to blow my statutory redundancy (yet to arrive) on biking year, this is probably one of those situations where I have to be an adult and not spunk loads of cash on biking stuff. So not only can I not take advantage of the FABULOUS WINTER OFFERS, but they’re also not offering me a job.  Pfffft.

Still, it’s given me time to work on other things, like faffing in Unity and Corona, and I’ve also been putting some stuff together for schools, to encourage kids to consider game and app development as a viable career (and encourage them to continue in the appropriate subjects).  I’ve also been over the Chase once, on a Monday.  Fastest time ever! \o/  Hopefully I can get back over there this week too.

 

Well, that escalated quickly…

Blimey, I’ve gone a bit slack on the blogging front – I last posted on my birthday.

Well, if it’s any consolation, I’ve done a lot of riding this year – more than ever before!  Aaah, the benefits of a good summer – it was fantastic when it finally made an appearance!  I’ve been going out on rides in the evening on the local bridleways and quiet country roads, and also joining in with the Thursday night XC rides run by RLSCC.  This has made the weekends a lot more productive too – I can now do two laps of the Dog fairly comfortably, and have even done two laps of the Dog and the blue.  Admittedly I end up walking a bit like a cowboy after a hefty ride over the Chase, but it’s nothing that a bag of frozen peas and 400mg of ibuprofen can’t cure.

Sadly my racing has been limited this year – I didn’t fancy Mountain Mayhem, Sleepless was cancelled, Bonty 24/12 was the same weekend as my sister-in-law’s wedding (which was ace) and Torq in Your Sleep was the day before Mr Toast started his new job at Sega.  But things calmed down. Benny finally passed his bronze Good Citizenship test! All was well.  We started to ponder From Dusk Til Dawn.

Then I was made redundant.

To describe Thursday morning as ‘very surreal’ doesn’t really do it justice.  We were working away as usual. I went to the toilet, and, as I sat in the cubicle, I heard the door open and a male voice say, “Is anybody in here?”

I initially thought it was going to be a maintenance guy, but when I answered and had the response, “It’s Tom, you need to come to the second floor for a company meeting” – that was when I knew that something was seriously amiss. If the male company lawyer is coming into the ladies’ toilets and saying that everybody needs to go to an unscheduled company meeting, it’s not going to be for happy fun times. If you think differently, you’re either a deranged optimist or a pervert. Possibly both.

We shuffled to the second floor, a sea of concerned faces and nervous laughter.  I cracked a joke about The Hunger Games – truth be told, I was expected mass redundancies.  Blitz had tried so hard to buck the trend of hire and fire that’s prevalent in the industry that it was surely about time to slim down?  May the odds be ever in your favour.

What I wasn’t expecting was the entire company to have ceased trading, with the loss of over 170 jobs.

It was at the same time both kind of expected and a complete and an utter surprise.  Blitz had sailed close to the line over the past few years, trying to adapt from console development to a broader range of projects.  With the demise of THQ, the bottom falling out of anything other than AAA console development and the emergence of mobile and tablet gaming, it was a struggle.  But I think people always expected them to last – ten years is a long, long time in the games industry, and for an independent developer, over twenty years is almost unheard of.

It’s strange, because although Blitz never made a AAA hit, or anything that your stereotypical hardcore gamer would embrace, it’s a genuine loss to the industry.  Indie Celebrity(TM), former colleague and all-round good egg Mike Bithell wrote a lovely eulogy on Eurogamer.  So many of my former colleagues are at studios around the world – in Amsterdam, working on Killzone.  In Canada, working on Mass Effect.  Closer to home, in Twycross, working on super-secret Rare things.  I can’t help but imagine that when the news hit the gaming industry grapevine, that it was like Alderaan being blown up by the Death Star – millions of voices suddenly crying out. 

Because although Blitz wasn’t without its flaws (what company isn’t?), it contributed so much.  Blitz was willing to take on placement students, and graduates, or even with people without degrees, as long as they had the talent.  They allowed me to go out an champion accessibility in games development. They championed improved links between the industry and academia, helping students come out of university with relevant skills. And the Olivers are incredibly, incredibly nice, talking with relentless enthusiasm.  Hopefully something good will spring from the ashes.

So, what now? Well, fortunately Al started at Sega a few weeks ago, so at least one of us is in a job.  He at one point called me ‘a lady of leisure’. I threatened to punch him.  But I’ve got a few interviews coming up this week – all great companies, but I’m aware that I also have a lot of great competition now.

Interesting times!