Tour de France Stage 10

Yesterday’s TdF stage was a beautiful mess; surreal, stunning, painful, gorgeous… Just a bit of an epic on a day which looked like it could have been so straightforward.

There was one unexpected moment when I all but lost my shit: the helicopter cameras that provide such gorgeous footage throughout the entire race for the TV viewers suddenly showed a piece of coastal defensive architecture – it was only Fort Boyard! A surreal moment in a day packed with them.

The coverage had opened with the reassuring news that – aside from a handful of positive Covid-19 test results which have put individual team members out of action – none of the riders were being forced to leave the race at this point. The Tour’s rest days are being used as a roughly weekly moment in time to test all those participating in the race – the result of two positive results in one team (of anyone including staff, riders, etc) is a forced abandonment for the entire team.

But then came the news that the Tour’s ebullient director Christian Prudhomme has tested positive and is now barred from any in-person involvement. Prudhomme is the face of the Tour, and he is usually seen standing with his head out of a car sunroof as he drops the flag at the start of each stage. The car then follows the route the whole way, giving the race director oversight of the whole thing. News of Prudhomme’s positive Covid result was accompanied by images of him riding in the back of this car during an earlier stage with France’s newly-installed prime minister Jean Castex – masked-up, but very cosily chatting away. Castex has since tested negative, but is self-isolating for seven days to be on the safe side.

So, for now the race continues, though the spectre of “will the Tour reach Paris this year?” looms large. We will need to wait till the next rest day for the next round of tests and possible exclusions.

Meanwhile, Stage 10 looked like it would be pretty straightforward: a pan-flat profile, only one intermediate sprint, and fresh legs following the first rest day. And it was a gorgeous stage to watch, too – starting on one island on the west coast of France, noodling around the low-lying coastal towns and salt flats and ending on another island. The islands and wide estuaries along the route meant for a diverse range of bridges, and as usual there were a number of gorgeous-looking towns and villages passed through at speed, a few of which have been added to my perpetual Google Maps of places I’d like to visit someday. There was even a shot of a transporter bridge which apparently takes bicycles, so that’s definitely on the list.

Unfortunately, despite (or because of) the flat profile, high speeds and a tightly-packed peloton led to a number of fairly nasty crashes. With a whole bunch rolling along, filling the width of the road, all it takes is one momentary lapse of concentration or a sudden piece of road furniture and several riders can be sent flying. There were a number of shots of some very sore-looking road cases of rash, and that Lycra clothing doesn’t offer much protection when sliding along tarmac at 50km/h.

It all culminated in an exciting sprint finish – of course – and a tight victory for a very emotional Irishman who has worked hard towards the goal of a stage victory at the Tour de France for many years, and now Sam Bennett has one under his belt.

A close-up look at archival collections with the National Library of New Zealand and Te Papa

The National Library of New Zealand has always seemed especially good at presenting its collections digitally (which is handy for remote researchers/enthusiasts like myself). Their online catalogue gives pretty easy access to items with a digital holding, including photographs, paintings, letters and – of course – newspapers as part of Papers Past.

Through their blog, I have found countless stories of items in their collection – and, in turn, of Aotearoa New Zealand – which are so often richly presented and well-told.

Most recently I found myself fascinated by a post written by Lissa Mitchell, the Curator of Historical Documentary Photography at Te Papa, NZ’s national museum in Wellington. In the post, Lissa writes about two stereoscopes (3D photographs) taken in remote Milford Sound in early 1882. Early NZ photography has also been a cause of fascination to me for the way in which the landscape and its people are depicted. Sometimes it’s the sight of a newly-constructed town or city springing up, or the landscape shown at a time not terribly long after European colonisation begun.

Most of the time, these shots of early European NZ are ‘serious’ – a straight, no-nonsense photograph showing a scene for what it is, whether as an artistic object or a piece of documentary evidence. There’s often a subtext or some wider context which needs to be understood. But sometimes there’s humour and a twinkle in the eye which transcends the image – and in this post about two stereoscopes – one held at Te Papa, the other at the National Library of New Zealand, Lissa explains: “This pair of stereographs were not conventional colonial landscapes — empty of human presence and focused on the view — here was a representation of life being lived with hardship and humour.”

One of these stereoscopic images is below – and Lissa invites readers to zoom even closer in to the products assembled on the table to see if readers can identify the goods that the subjects of the image have just taken delivery of.

I love the detail these images contain. Seeing the faces of the two men in the picture one can’t help but read a little into who they were and what they were like.

As Lissa writes, “I imagine the fun they had recreating the two scenes after Burton had arrived — a novel way of spending their time in this isolated place.”

Indeed. It’s this level of detail that online archives can give: from the vast collection and the metadata in the catalogue, right down to a digital copy of the document itself and the smirk on the face or the label on the bottle. It’s just wonderful.

Little Saturday ride

Today I was in the mood for a little bike ride and I’m glad I got out for one.

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On the one hand, going for a little ride in London is easy enough, but it’s different to those days when I lived in a suburb of Milton Keynes where I could just spend a few minutes riding out to the edge of town and then find myself on country lanes.

But still, I’m grateful that I can just decide to ride for no reason other than the ride (well, alright, and a stop into the supermarket because I have a hankering for pork schnitzel).

So I did just that today: a pootle up towards Hampstead (I got my second best PB going up Arkwright Road, a sharp little 7.5% climb), and a moment’s breather at the top (Whitestone Pond, above, is one of the highest points in Greater London).

And then a nice steady downhill all the way to Swiss Cottage with a little rolling around the quiet backstreets eyeing up the big houses between there and Belsize Park.

The fact that I can combine this sort of mindless noodling about with a perfunctory stop at Waitrose with my quick-release Topeak pannier bags to grab some supplies is just immensely gratifying. I loaded up with dinner and drinks and then headed home again. Simple. And so rewarding.


I found this neat Flickr group the other day, Bike 180, where people just post pictures of/from their rides.

I think the idea is you aim for 180 days of cycling adventures inside of the year. That would be a stretch for me this year, but it would be nice to tot up how many cycling days I’ve had so far in 2020.

Anyway, the pictures people post to that group are just lovely and give me immense wanderlust – wanderlust for just getting out there.

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Thank you very much, Denmark: 23 years of loving the free CD that came with a magazine

In June 1997, Select magazine came with a covermounted music CD containing eighteen tracks of ‘rare’ and exclusive indie that perfectly evoked the scene of the time.

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For some reason, the me that had just turned twelve years old saw this edition of Select in Tesco and bought it. For some further reason, the current 35-year-old me still has that CD, and still absolutely adores a decent number of the tracks that CD contains.

I say ‘for some reason’ (the first instance of that phrase), but actually it’s not that surprising that 12-year-old me was attracted to it. The music I was listening to at the time was the likes of Blur, Oasis, Manic Street Preachers, Kula Shaker and, err, Robbie Williams. Guitar-led indie was (mostly) appealing to me.

Further, CDs had recently been introduced to our household. We added a Matsui CD player to a 1970s record/tape/radio deck with big boxy speakers. It sat on a chipboard sideboard* in the dining room, and I mostly listened to music on that system while messing around on the computer.

* I love that band.

Buying new CDs was obviously a vast investment both at the time and for a kid of my age. So, cover-mounted CDs that came with magazines – when magazines only cost a couple of quid – were fantastic. Free music! Free software! Free… internet trials? (For me? A kid whose computer lacked a modem? That’s a tale of ignorance for another blog post…)

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What I made of the content of Select magazine back then in the summer of 1997 is lost to the mists of time. But the CD clearly struck a chord. Music often does to listeners between the ages of 12-17. There’s some cliche that I can’t be bothered to look up that refers to this very phenomenon: that what you listen to then is largely what you’ll continue listening to into adulthood.

And so when I listen to the tracks on that CD – a handful of which are today readily available via streaming services (and I’ve therefore stuck them into a nifty Spotify playlist for those interested), I am transported… not quite to 1997, but to a sort of halfway house holding cell of somewhere between then and now: those songs have followed me around the whole time.

From the stand-out Blur track Get Out of Cities and running throughout the CD, which features artists like DJ Shadow, Suede, Stereophonics, Lamb and Silver Sun, there are a number of sharp indie cuts with buzzsaw guitars. The Kenickie track is a particular highlight. 

Alongside these are a scattering of alternative mixes or demos – they are all, apparently, rare tracks, and so they will have been b-sides and off-cuts at the time. The ‘original demo’ for Suede’s Filmstar is a nice inclusion. Tracks by the more well-known artists have since turned up on anniversary remastered re-releases with bonus tracks, but a lot of the stuff on this CD isn’t on Spotify.

I realise that the lack of an appearance on Spotify isn’t really a strong signifier of a band’s status or the actual rarity of a song, but there’s a hint of that to it. Possibly a now well-established artist has made the decision not to put their ouevre on Spotify out of protest at the pittance artists are paid. Or these particular tracks have been deliberately left on the cutting room floor of bad 90s indie.

More likely, those bands whose music is absent from the platform today are just victims of falling through the cracks between gaining releases and magazine coverage in the 90s and the mass digitisation of actively published music in the late 2000s and early 2010s.

(Interestingly, Stereophonics’ Looks Like Chaplin didn’t turn out to be a rarity at all: it was the second track on their debut album which came out only a few weeks after this CD hit the magazine shelves.) 

Being a cover-mounted CD of the mid to late 1990s, the disc also contains a data track which – apparently – gave the user access to Select magazine’s exclusive website, and trials of various Compuserve web services and so on… The executable on the disc is no longer readable but the wonders offered in the CD sleeve are a delightful insight into the burgeoning web of summer 1997, and a web I was still more than two years away from experiencing first-hand.

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On the subject of it being a CD at all, it’s interesting to consider that it could very well have been a tape not much earlier (and I’d have had to make a tape dub of this CD if I wanted to listen to it in my room anyway). But, as a CD, I am free to skip around it. In reality, whenever I tend to play it, I seem to listen to it in full and in order. It’s like a mixtape in that respect, and it falls neatly into a pigeonhole of compilations of music that have entered my life at various points and gone on to become utterly totemic in their influence on my tastes.

That being said, what’s also interesting to me listening back to the CD now is that there are songs here that are… instantly skippable. I hear the opening bars and feel a deep-seated (multi-decade…) resistance. 

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I tried to fight that urge further on today’s listen and made it through a couple of tracks that I never really listened to before. I was surprised to let the Lamb remix play out beyond the opening bars and find I didn’t recognise it at all. It didn’t make me love them any more than I did before, but it was a nice feeling giving them another chance.

But Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, man. Sorry lads, but… no. I tried. I skipped around that song today, and I still couldn’t listen in full. I was surprised to hear from the closing seconds of this track that it was, in fact, a live recording. But just.. nah, man. No thanks.

I now have to admit that I’ve somewhat buried the lede. There’s one track on that album that I have adored the entire time. It’s a song I get in my head about once a month. It’s one of my favourite songs of all time, and it’s short and sweet and funny and melancholic and happy and rocking.

I’m talking (of course?) of the penultimate track: Silver Sun’s Bad Haircut.

It’s just… a perfect song, I think.

Listening now, I hear elements of Harvey Danger’s Flagpole Sitta in the chorus, but overall there’s just a dynamic range to this song that I love. The production is so crisp, and guitars variously ring out and roar when needed. Humour and silliness runs throughout the lyrics, and right down to the final few seconds of studio banter, it leaves me with the feeling that the band were clearly having a great time performing and recording it. 

Studio banter in recordings is, by the way, a real love of mine. Ever since I started listening to music through headphones, I’ve adored being able to hear little bits of chatter before or after a track, or getting the impression that the studio recording was laid down live rather than being tracked and over dubbed. The energy and the realness of those extra sounds has always made recorded music even more exciting for me.

I’ve listened to Bad Haircut so many times over the past 23 years that I feel a sort of synaesthesia when listening to it: a completely made-up music video plays out in my mind, cleverly segueing from the narrative of the song and the images portrayed in the lyrics over to the studio where the song is being played for those final silly comments culminating in someone announcing “thank you very much, Denmark,” a line I’ve found at once hilarious and yet entirely stupid the entire time it’s been in my consciousness.

I just love everything about that silly little song, so much. I’ll probably still love it just as much in another 23 years’ time.

How soon is too soon?

I was walking round the supermarket yesterday and suddenly realised that a) I was wearing my mask, and b) everyone else I could see was also wearing masks. My mind then suddenly exploded into a spider diagram of related realisations: we are still currently in the midst of a global pandemic; nothing is normal; some things seem normal; but nothing is normal.

I have been, and remain, very lucky (or privileged? I don’t know if there’s distinction between these concepts) that my sudden existential Covid crises are rare and that, by and large, I am not directly affected by it on a day to day basis.

I remember having similar, sudden realisations earlier on in the situation which were much bleaker: I would suddenly rememember *everything* that was unfolding from the street I live on to across the world, and fall headlong into an abyss of despair. It rarely lasted long, but it was a very unpleasant sensation. Again, it is hard to overstate the privilege I have that this is as unpleasant as it has gotten for me.

With this in mind, I’ve been looking forward to the return of the Tour de France with very mixed feelings. The postponement along with almost every other sporting/cultural event this year felt inevitable and right. When the new date was announced for it to be held in late August and early September it definitely felt too soon. In fact, I can’t remember when the new date was announced, but it came at a time when those dates seemed like nothing short of arrogance or, at best, a gamble.

But here we are. It’s the 1st of September and I’ve enjoyed the first few stages of a semi-normal large-scale sporting event, complete with crowds and TV coverage and teams from around the world descending on one place. As a small(er) scale analogue for the Olympics, it’s fairly apt.

It’s been enjoyable so far – the coverage has been good despite the split production teams. Only a reduced number of press can report from the location; ITV’s main team are based at Leeds Castle – in Kent – just to add to the geographical confusion.

The TV pictures have been great – the camera and production team behind the Tour de France are world-class and are just so good at their jobs. The TV pictures are one of my favourite elements of the whole event. The aerial shots, the pictures from the intrepid motorbikes on the road, and the macro and micro shots of French scenery just make it so epic.

And the sporting action has been great. Clearly there are a lot of riders who have been champing at the proverbial to get back on their bikes and there have already been some incredible efforts – while for others the timing has not worked out and some big names are missing from this year’s race.

It’s obvious to me that extrapolating any of the logistics behind an event like this to one on the scale of the Olympics makes it immediately clear that the postponement of that for a whole year was the right decision.

I’m glad that the TdF is back, but it still feels slightly like a guilty pleasure – for this spectacle to take place, a huge number of risks have to be taken for a huge number of people across a variety of locations. And all trhoughout a country which is carefully watching as its case counts rise again.

The elephant in the room is whether the Tour will complete all 21 stages and have its trademark finish on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in three weeks’ time. I don’t know. I feel like it must, and I expect that although they will be taking a lot of precautions, there is too much momentum behind the event to stop it. But when one considers what else has been stopped this year for the same reasons… We’ll see?

PS: title