Our particularly unsettled weather, since the aberration that was Wimbledon fortnight, has been considerably ameliorated by several hours coverage each day of the three-week-long Tour de France. That all came to a stunning end on Sunday when the young Manxman Mark Cavendish, brilliantly aided by his Columbia HTC team, utterly annihilated all opposition on the final sprint finish on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris. It’s been a great Tour de France for us with Cav’s amazing six stage wins and Bradley Wiggins finishing a very creditable fourth. Bravo!
Now we are left wondering what to do as the entertainment ends but the showers and/or threat of showers continues.
One thing I’d been doing is leaping out during commercial breaks stalking butterflies that were visiting our buddleia bush. I’d also been trying less successfully to stalk some Daylilies that Carol has blooming in our garden. One might have thought, since butterflies move whereas plants remain rooted to the spot, that flowers might have proved easier to snap. Not so for me, apparently. Whilst I grabbed a few acceptable shots of butterflies, an acceptable rendition of a Daylily had eluded me.
Today however, with the sunshine intervals being little longer than commercial breaks, the mixture of sunshine and showers combined to provide a suitable subject pleasantly beaded with glistening raindrops. After a little judicious dead-heading by Carol during which the lily pollen attacked her clothing (oops, sorry!), I finally managed to capture a shot that I liked. I’m particularly taken with the tiny bead of moisture sparkling atop the flower’s stigma (that’s the pollen receptor though I doubt any pollen is going to make it through that water).
Most species need a decent summer. Let’s hope the weather improves soon, for us, the flowers and the butterflies.
During this final week of the Tour de France, ITV4 has scheduled several additional days of live coverage on their main channel, as opposed to screening it via the interactive system (the “red button”). This is a mixed blessing. The main ITV4 channel coverage comes swamped with extremely irritating American-length-and-frequency commercial breaks whereas the ITV4 interactive coverage is unexpectedly and blissfully commercial free. The interactive coverage provides 3+ hours of live action with absolutely no breaks whatsoever. On one day there was a notable exception to this rule when there was a terminal break in the final kilometre of the stage apparently caused by an automatic cut-off to transmission. That little glitch has not recurred and the one and only advantage that I can see of the main channel’s coverage is that it is accompanied by the incisive, dry wit of Gary Imlach.
Commercials on most of these “fringe” channels are doubly irritating because the same handful of inane commercials seem to be repeated at every break; there’s little or no variation. An already irksome device becomes insufferable. For sanity’s sake, it’s necessary to find something more appealing to do in these commercial interludes, such as scrubbing the kitchen floor or visiting the dentist for that overdue drilling of a cavity.
Today I was lucky, the sun had emerged after our obligatory downpour, and our buddleia bush was attracting Peacock butterflies. A couple of days ago it had been attracting Painted Ladies and Commas but now it had moved on to Peacocks. Marvellous! Since the Peacock is one of those cooperative butterflies that settles to feed with its wings open, I was in a position to avoid a trip to the dentist by grabbing my camera and sneaking outside to try and snap one. The butterflies were clearly at pains to save me from several trips to the dentist because, initially, they insisted on settling high up and at angles unsuited to portraits. Eventually, however, one did decide to eat on a sunny lower branch and I managed to add it to my Lepidoptera catalogue. Nothing difficult about the shot but it proved to be a good clean specimen.
I wonder what might be next? Red Admiral butterflies are partial to buddleia, too.
I was feeling a bit lost today. It’s a day off in the Tour de France so there was no racing to watch this afternoon. Mind you, after a particularly exciting start to Le Tour last week, the weekend’s stages in the Pyrenees didn’t seem to provide much actual racing, either. All but one of the main contenders seemed uninterested in chasing down any breakaways and were content to plod home (relatively speaking) and maintain the status quo. Everyone seems to be waiting for a showdown, hopefully in the Alps but at least up the killer Mont Ventoux on the penultimate day. Somebody should inform the team managers that cycling is of itself worth absolutely nothing and that the entire team becomes worth something only when/if entertainment is involved. Fortunately the Pyrenean scenery was stunning in the glorious weekend sunshine. Let’s hope a few flat sprint stages back across France in the coming week inject more life into the proceedings.
Since we also had clear calendar and were effectively thumb twiddling, we decided to brave the forecast showers, some of which might be heavy, to go and see if there was any activity at Whipsnade Zoo. It would, after all, be one of our last chances for a civilized visit as it is fast-approaching the time when it becomes a no-go zone courtesy of the summer school holidays. I can’t help but think that Wimbledon fortnight was summer and that, since the weather now seems to have resumed normal service, the poor little rugrats have rather missed the boat, but I digress once again …
Most of Whipsnade’s inmates appeared similarly unimpressed by our blistering July temperatures and were mostly subdued. A group of people on what I imagine was a keeper experience day did get the small-clawed otters jumping around with excitement as they threw them pieces of dismembered rat for lunch. I decided I didn’t really want a picture of a painfully cute small-clawed otter rather ruining its image with a rat tail dangling from its mouth as it chewed its way through the pelvic girdle. Patience was rewarded by a decent photo opportunity as we made our way towards the exit past a few emus that were clearly having a collective bad hair day. Mind you, the rain probably wasn’t helping their coiffures.
After the emus became bored with posing, we added a completely new critter to our collection when we made a rare excursion into the so-called Discovery Centre, which seemed like a reasonable place on a relatively quiet day to escape the cool and damp. In a pleasantly calm and quiet atmosphere, an impressive sail-finned lizard was basking under its sun lamp, and who could blame it. I didn’t really notice the stunning blue colour of its eye until we returned to process our efforts.
We’ve had more interesting days at Whipsnade but I did come away with something.
The Tour de France is managing to keep the excitement level up. Two days ago I watched an incredulous Frenchman survive what became an independent breakaway from the peloton to take a stage win. It was delightful to watch: as he approached the line he kept glancing around and shaking his head in utter disbelief that the main bunch of riders had messed up their chase and failed to catch him. Yesterday the Tour moved into its second foreign territory, Spain, and headed down to Barcelona. It looked for a while as though another independent move from 30 kms out would survive but it was not to be; this time the peloton reeled him in for another frenetic sprint finish. The really weird thing yesterday was that it was raining in Spain. Shock, horror! The weather is supposed to be better south of the Pyrenees.
I can’t quite believe today’s stage. The organizers, who can only be described as sadistic, send the hapless competitors up into Andorra (foreign territory three) and the heights of the Pyrenees. Not only is this said to be one of the highest finishes ever at 2240m/7350ft, but there are four further climbs to warm up the legs along the way covering a total distance of 224 kms/140 mls. 140 miles with a killer finish – strewth! It should be fascinating.
All this French activity is making me champ at the bit to get back to France myself. With that in mind I have managed to find time in between Tour de France coverage to spend yet more money. I have finally weakened and ordered a caravan mover from Powrwheel Ltd. This will enable the van to be positioned independent of our tow car, even up quite steep slopes. Whilst I pride myself on my caravan reversing abilities, it should give a lot more flexibility when choosing a pitch position. There have been occasions when we’ve had to reject an appealing-looking pitch simply because there wasn’t room for the combined car and caravan to manoeuvre. Movers are also very handy accessories for the elderly and infirm, so I should be fine.
Now, on with Le Tour.
With no fewer than five excursions into foreign territories, this year’s Tour de France seems more like the Tour d’Europe. It kicked off in the Principality of Monaco before whizzing across southern France whence it heads into Spain. Things start favouring the maniacs who like cycling up mountains as it heads back up the Pyrenees into Andorra, before crossing France again and popping into Switzerland and Italy for a couple of stages, just for good measure. The guys are going to have to change money – Switzerland doesn’t do Euros. Due to the overall distances covered, It also seems quite a disjoint route with many transfers using trains and planes between finish and start points.
Be that as it may, with the added spice of the return of Lance Armstrong, it’s been a very exciting first few days. Watching live TV coverage of the tour for several hours a day is largely about regular doses of stunning French scenery to sate the desire to be in France oneself but, being quite keen on cycling myself, I do like watching the professionals at work. Having already given me a good injection of Provence, yesterday’s team time trial, the first I’ve seen, was particularly nail-biting and spun us through some very pleasant scenery in one of my favourite areas, the Languedoc. [Note for the future: Montpellier looks worth a visit.]
The team time trial was sandwiched between two very long flat stages of 196 kms/122 mls. I can’t help but wonder at the ability to cycle such distances day after day at average speeds I can only dream of, subsequently to finish at sprinting speeds that I certainly cannot dream of, even going downhill with a following wind.
With what is currently effectively a dead-heat for the yellow jersey, one featuring that man Armstrong, I wait with bated breath for today’s 196 kms of stunning scenery towards Perpignan.
Well, there goes another Wimbledon and another Great British hope. I’m not sure Andy Murray actually wants or appreciates English support given his previous comments concerning English football but thanks for the nerve-racking, Andy. I spotted another comment on Twitter that made it quite clear that there is at least one Scot who vehemently dislikes the English supporting Andy Murray. According to this idiot, it’s OK for the Scots to (mis)manage the country’s parliament but the English are not allowed to support a Scot. So much for a United Kingdom. Oh, and this ardent Scotsman so loves Scotland that he lives in New Zealand. Go figure! Actually, I much prefer to watch a tense final in which I don’t have a partisan interest so it’s better for both parties that Andy Murray didn’t make it. Unfortunately, the somewhat extended Wimbledon Mens’ Final rather scuppered my plans to watch the first road stage of this year’s Tour de France live so thank technology for video recorders.
Today, with Wimbledon a distant memory, I settled down to enjoy unfettered live coverage of Stage 3 of the Tour de France on ITV4’s interactive satellite service. We’d normally have been enjoying La Belle France ourselves over June and into early July but this year we changed our behaviour and enjoyed a terrific walking tour of Corfu instead. As a result and as a Francophile, I’m feeling a little starved of French scenery and culture. Today’s stage from Marseille to La Grand Motte was to go through some very appealing Provençal scenery that would address at least one of those addictions.
The usual form of a flat (non-mountain) stage in the Tour de France is a leg in which a handful of riders breaks away for most of the race, gets caught by the pack (le peloton) just a few kilometres from the finish, then the sprinters take over in a mad scramble for the line. One has to admire these guys; they can ride 100+ miles cruising at 25 mph, then finish at speeds of 40+ mph over a short dash. I can sometimes cruise at 15 mph over considerably shorter distances.
Today’s flat stage did not follow the usual form. After 3½ hours glued to ITV4’s interactive satellite coverage, cross-winds resulted in its building up to what has to be the most exciting finish I was about to see. The peloton split and the speed built inexorably as the leading contenders began jostling for the upper hand. The excitement of the commentators built up, too. I was on the edge of my seat with less than a kilometre of the 196 kilometres remaining. Then, suddenly … BLAM – there it wasn’t. Cataclysmic change! An inane episode of some ancient series drivel replaced the Tour de France coverage. I pressed all the buttons I could find that would do anything on the controller but all to no avail, it was gone. Ended. Cruelly snatched away in the dying seconds.
At 5 o’clock the transmission apparently automatically switched itself off. Brilliant! Does the BBC break transmission in the middle of the 5th set at Wimbledon? No, of course not. The BBC reschedules other programmes, switches them to another channel, does anything but destroy the excitement of the finale. Would someone care to note the lesson from the professionals?
Still, I got to see a lot of Provence.