I Don’t Know Why I Love the Tour de France

I don’t know quite why I love the Tour de France so much. These days I never get on a bike, and when I used to do it, I chose mountain-biking, not road-cycling. That was, until a move to the city put paid to my weekend forays into the countryside.

As the TDF once more hoves into view, starting this Saturday in Utrecht, I prepare myself mentally for the ITV coverage, with the highlight show on each night over the twenty-one stage route, with its bewitching Kraftwerk-a-like theme tune and the glorious sound of Actual Liverpudlian Accents providing the commentary.

I do think my love of TDF is something to do with the easy camaraderie from commentators Phil Liggett, Chris Boardman, Gary Imlach and Ned Boulting. Imlach’s beautifully crafted summarising is nothing short of genius. Every year I get a crush on this man who is invisible to the world until these precious three weeks come round, when, with perfectly coiffed hair blowing gently in the Alpine winds, Gary provides us with the all-important summary to the day’s proceedings.

The Imlach Image: Cycling Weekly

The Imlach
Image: Cycling Weekly

Then there are the cyclists themselves. Nearly all of them are on Twitter, a practice established by Lance Armstrong who called out tweets to his manager in the car alongside as he was going. We now get to follow their commentary as they put themselves through what must surely be one of the most gruelling tests of human endurance on the planet. I do follow them during the rest of the year, but during the TDF, it’s something special. A heightened state of tweeting.

It’s also something to do with their bizarre names. I don’t think there’s any other sport where you get a smorgasbord of names like Thor Hushovd, Tejay Van Garderen, Edvard Boasson Hagen and Ryder Hesjedal listed continuously by a range of Scouse accents. And don’t get me started on the weird and wonderful team names, with Cofidis fighting it out with Etixx-Quick Step, Movistar, Katusha, and Orica Green-Edge. I love the music of all of this, as the battle makes its way towards the final stage at the Champs Elysées.

Then there’s the unexpected detail en route, with the overhead cameras suddenly alighting on an interchangeable European hilltop monastery, followed by a quick soundfact from The Liggett. And the crowds surging in towards the riders as they climb the vertiginous Mont Ventoux or Alpe D’Huez, when I find myself shouting at the TV at some dolt in a polka-dot onesie attempting to get a selfie with Andy Schleck.

Image via Gunaxin

TDF regular, ‘El Diablo’ aka Dieter ‘Didi’ Senft (Image via Gunaxin)

Talking of polka dots… Which sport chooses to put its heroic top mountain-climber in a polka-dot jersey? Cycling. Somehow it doesn’t quite go with the scale of the achievement, but at least you get two beautiful French women kissing your cheeks while you’re wearing it at the end of the stage (not my favourite bit of the TDF, I might add).

Frenchman Anthony Charteau celebrates on the winner's podium after winning the polka dot jersey for top mountain rider at this year's Tour de France in Paris on July 25, 2010.  Spaniard Alberto Contador won the race, his third Tour de France title in the last four years.   UPI/David Silpa

Anthony Charteau on the winner’s podium after winning the polka dot jersey at Tour de France 2010. UPI/David Silpa

Those climbing sequences are my favourite. The never-ending twists and turns of the Alps, the expressions on the faces of the riders as they initiate a breakaway from the main group or ‘peloton’ to take the lead, or stay doggedly behind the leader (Maillot Jaune), riding in his slipstream. How they unzip their tops to reveal scrawny bird-like chests on the way up, and zip-up on the way down, grabbing protein bars and water as they go from the cars beside them while negotiating the crowds.

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Chris Froome climbing Mont Ventoux in 2013 (Image: Getty Images)

Then come the moments when the sprinters burst through on the flat sections, their bikes lurching like pistons from side to side as they try and secure the Green Jersey. I love how the teams support their sprinters, or their hill-climbers, to make sure their guys win a particular stage that is designed for their personal skillset. Froome’s support of Wiggins in 2012 was nothing short of legendary.

Bradley Wiggins brings it home in the Maillot Jaune in 2012. From left: Tejay Van Garderen, Bradley Wiggins, Peter Sagan, Thomas Voeckler (Image: CNN)

It’s the one sport where I don’t particularly care about nationality. Yes, I loved it when Bradley Wiggins won, but when I attended the Grand Départ in Yorkshire last year, I loved seeing Vincenzo ‘Nibbles’ Nibali winning the Sheffield stage. What was exciting was seeing the power, skill and determination in a group of athletes, while being part of a bit of France on tour – they even imported the gendarme to police the race in Yorkshire.

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Me in the VIP area in Sheffield Arena, at the TDF14 finishing line

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Vincenzo Nibali hammering across the Sheffield finishing line in #TDF14

So, really, I *do* know why I love the Tour de France and I can’t wait for TDF15 to begin. It’s the Eurovision of sport, and event TV is its genre. Oh, and did I mention that some of the guys are really good-looking?

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How to Go on Holiday on Your Own

I seem to be part of a zeitgeist for solo travel, with more and more people than ever opting to take their vacations on their own, even if they’re in a couple. I’ve been doing it for five years now, and I’m addicted. On my own, I can holiday at my own pace and I can choose to be with other people, or not. I’ve found the freedom exhilarating.

The first holiday, to Thailand, was a huge test for me. I spent the first three days in the hotel, too scared to go outside. But once I did, encouraged by friends texting me, I found the world was waiting for me.

Here are my top tips on solo travel:

Start just outside your comfort zone

The jetty at the Amari Phuket

The jetty at the Amari Phuket

Book your first solo holiday in an all-inclusive hotel, or wherever you feel safe. Just flying far away on your own is stressful enough so be nice to yourself by booking a safe haven at the other end. You can then be more adventurous when you’re there but have a base to return to. I asked Trailfinders to find me a lovely hotel in Thailand, and when I got there, I got upgraded to a seafront room. I then used the hotel as a base for trips, so I could see the lie of the land. You can read my review here.

Book lots of trips

Me, exhilarated on my first Thai boat trip

Me, exhilarated on my first Thai boat trip

If you’re not on a group holiday (I choose not to join those) then book day trips. My favourite thing is a boat trip and I’ve met so many great people while on them, often women who are on their own. I tend to alternate between days by the pool/beach and day trips. It gives the holiday a bit of pace, and gives you a chance to talk to people over the course of a day, and potentially meet them again as a dinner companion.

Let preconceptions go

Riding an elephant

Riding an elephant

Most of us arrive in countries with preconceptions about the culture and we need to form our own. You will find that the things you find most alien, or are scared of, become ridiculously normal and tame after a few days. Beware of scare-mongering. Most people are too afraid to go away on their own and look for reasons why they shouldn’t. Research your destination and know what you’re in for, but draw your own conclusions about it.

Prepare for the Rollercoaster

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A solo holiday is a rollercoaster. You will experience days when an unexpected meeting or event propels you into a state of high excitement, followed by days where nothing happens and you start to feel sorry for yourself. Know that it will happen and embrace the Rollercoaster. Don’t rely on other people for your holiday highs – they will happen when you least expect, and usually just at the point you wish you hadn’t gone away on your own.

Take lots of books

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Books are the solo travel companion you can rely on in any setting. At the airport, on the beach, at lunch or dinner on your own, even Happy Hour in the hotel. Have your book with you and you can lose yourself in it, and stop focusing on your alone-ness. Make sure you have enough to see you through the holiday and a potential flight delay.

Share your experience

Inhabitant of Monkey Island

Inhabitant of Monkey Island

If you’re like me, you want to share your experience on social media, and use it as a travelogue and a form of companionship. Wifi-allowing, think of your holiday as a window onto the world that you can share with others – there is a whole community doing it on Instagram, for instance, and you can be one of them.

Enjoy the journey

Pubu the naughty elephant with his mahout

Pubu the naughty elephant with his mahout

I’ve found that the journey to my destination on my own is an adventure in itself. From the moment you step out of your door on the way to the airport or train station, you are doing something amazing. Most people can’t even go for a walk on their own.

Realise that people are envious of you

In Koh Samui with Bo and Su.

In Koh Samui with Bo and Su.

You will find, at lunch, dinner, or any other ‘social’ occasion on holiday, that people will look at you. They won’t be able to believe that you are brave enough to go on holiday on your own. But you are. And you can smile back at them, safe in the knowledge that they wish they were you.

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Drive Forward

I spent yesterday evening mock-interviewing young care-leavers to help them practice their interview skills. It’s part of an initiative by the Drive Forward Foundation, a charity that supports 16-26-year-old people who are leaving care, and gives them the right tools to move forward in their lives.

I was staggered by the self-motivation shown by these young people. All of yesterday’s group had completed degrees on subjects such as Business Law. One was doing an MA on how being a looked-after child impacts on their education. The statistics, she said, painted a picture that was overwhelmingly negative, and depended largely on a social worker or teacher who ‘cared’ about that particular young person. And there she was, sitting in front of me, talking about her MA.

I asked another delegate to give me three words to describe himself and he said, ‘self-motivated, confident and forward-thinking’. I asked him about the latter and why he chose it. He told me he’d had to push himself really hard to get where he now was, and I could see it glittering in the eyes of this young man sitting opposite me. We talked about the ways his experience as a looked-after child could be discussed in an interview situation and he said he would always raise it, as an example of how self-motivated he is, that he has managed to get this far in life against challenging odds.

In a previous group I met young people that were very different to these ones. One, a young Romanian man who wanted to work as a carpenter. The thing that glittered in his eyes was a defiance and a determination to get work and work hard.  He’d found work on a building site in London and I daren’t ask what remuneration or treatment he might have received. I could see it written on his face.

Helping young people move forward is something I feel passionate about and Drive Forward is giving me the opportunity to give something back. They’re always looking for motivational, professional speakers or fundraisers so get involved if you feel the same as me. If you are a business that would like to become a partner of the charity or donate to it, then get more details here.

Walking is the Way Forward

Walking is having a moment, isn’t it? Well, it is for me.

It started last year when I read a piece by journalist Polly Vernon on how she’s incorporated at least three hours’ walking into her life every day since 2003 – it keeps her fit, slim and her headspace clear. I found myself wondering how long it would take to walk into central London from my home north-west London and Google Maps told me it would be 75 minutes. It seemed like an age, given that I was used to hopping on a bus or a tube and whizzing in under half an hour. But once I started doing it I became hooked, and time passes so quickly when I’m walking, it all seems like a bit of a lovely dream when I get to my destination.

I’ve noticed that I’m gravitating to books about walking, too, and they’re inspiring me more and more. I’ve just finished The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce and cried with the joy and grief of his journey. I’ve always loved travel writing and whilst I’ve enjoyed books about people cycling or taking trains or motorbikes across vast continents, I’ve never really read walking books. The first one to inspire me was Cheryl Strayed‘s Wild. I first heard the author on the radio (while walking!) reading extracts from her book. She walked the Pacific Crest Trail on her own – over a thousand miles from the Mojave desert to Washington State. Reese Witherspoon picked up the movie rights and made a film I wanted to leap into almost as much as the book – I want a Walk of One’s Own.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed (Atlantic)

Wild by Cheryl Strayed (Atlantic)

Then came the wonderful Robert Macfarlane, whom I’ve only just discovered this year. I usually confine my travel reading to foreign lands. Why would I want to read about travelling around Britain? I want to stretch my horizons when I read, not limit them. But I was oh so wrong. Macfarlane’s incredibly intelligent writing in The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (2012, Penguin) has opened up a world that is right on my doorstep. He follows ancient tracks around the world but seems at his most spiritually enlightened on British soil, or on ancient sea trails.

The Old Ways (Penguin)

The Old Ways (Penguin)

I’ve now bought his earlier work, The Wild Places (2007, Granta) and I can’t wait to join him again as he seeks out the wildernesses in Britain and Ireland. The last time I felt like this about a travel author was when I discovered Paul Theroux (Louis’ dad) who is still the One and Only for me.

The Wild Places (Granta)

The Wild Places (Granta)

So now I’m contemplating a Walk of One’s Own. I’m going to walk around the Isle of Wight at the end of July, 69km over four days, five nights. I’m going to tweet it, blog it, review it, Instagram it, and 4G-allowing, Periscope it. I’m now a seasoned solo traveller so the thought of doing this on my own is exciting. I’ve been to Thailand, Turkey, Egypt and the Middle East on my own and blogged about those experiences elsewhere. But what will happen on my own doorstep? Whom will I meet? Where will I stay? Will I collapse after walking 16 miles a day? What will the weather throw at me?

Bring it on. I hope you will join me as I go. More details to come, but in the meantime, here’s my Top Ten Travel Books reading list (excluding the above). Note that all but one of the authors are men – that’s another blog post!

The Old Patagonian Express by Paul Theroux (Penguin)

Moods of Future Joys by Alastair Humphreys (Eye)

McCarthy’s Bar by Pete McCarthy (Sceptre)

The Full Montezuma by Peter Moore (Transworld)

The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin (Vintage)

Sea Room by Adam Nicolson (HarperCollins)

Hokkaido Highway Blues by Will Ferguson (Canongate)

Duende by Jason Webster (Black Swan)

Jupiter’s Travels by Ted Simon (Penguin)

The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara (HarperPerennial)

Information is Beautiful

The wonderful news that William Grill won the Kate Greenaway Medal for Illustration today made me whoop with joy, for illustrated non-fiction books are having a renaissance, and it’s about time. As Grill is purported to have said, non fiction is seen as ‘unglamorous’ next to fiction and picture books and it doesn’t have to be that way. As someone whose career has involved the publishing of Horrible Histories and all its satellite series, I say ‘amen’ and ‘I hear you’ to that. We haven’t had such a great a non-fiction moment since Dragonology first hit the scene back in 2003 from Templar. Filled with wheels, tabs, flaps and fold-outs, not to mention ‘jewels’ set into the covers, these books set the standard for a type of gift non fiction that everyone suddenly started to aspire to.

Dragonology (Templar)

Dragonology (Templar)

Dragonology (Templar)

Dragonology (Templar)

We all started doing versions of the ‘ologies’ until the 2008 recession hit us, print costs went sky-high and no one would pay £19.99 for a book any more. In children’s books at least, the emphasis suddenly went from pop-up carousels and feats of paper-engineering to ‘straight’ books, and even fewer illustrated ones. Every publisher knows that B-format black-and-white fiction is where the money and the profit is at, so the ship steered well away from high-production-value non fiction and gift books. Happily for us, the digital-induced renaissance in high-quality gift books is giving non fiction another moment. I noticed it first appearing in 2013 with Maps (Big Picture Press), the beautifully illustrated atlas by Alexandra Mizielinska and Daniel Mizielinski.

Maps – Big Picture Press

Maps – Big Picture Press

Maps – Big Picture Press

Maps – Big Picture Press

We were all stunned by the intricately rendered artwork by the Bologna Ragazzi-winning couple, clearly the work of many months. It has spawned a new genre of nostalgically illustrated large-format gift books, most notably in 2014, Animalium (Big Picture Press) by Jenny Broom and Katie Scott, and Wide-Eyed Editions’ Atlas of Adventures (Rachel Williams & Lucy Netherland) and Nature’s Day (Danielle Kroll & Kay Maguire).

Animalium (Big Picture Press)

Animalium (Big Picture Press)

In adult books, another sort of non-fiction renaissance is happening as illustrated publishers compete for gift-book slots with lavishly bound, be-ribboned, embossed and gilded-edged titles, such as Where Chefs Eat (Phaidon) and my favourite, Tequila Mockingbird (Running Press).

Where Chefs Eat (Phaidon)

Where Chefs Eat (Phaidon)

Tequila Mockingbird (Running Press)

Tequila Mockingbird (Running Press)

I’ve been told that Waterstones buyers won’t even look at a non-fiction Christmas gift title unless it has all the bells and whistles, and indeed publishers are creating bespoke special editions for them. The conversations happening between editors, designers, production controllers and printers are in a really interesting place right now as they look beyond traditional book formats, trying to outdo the competition with the next big widget. Of course, Information is Beautiful (HarperCollins, 2009) and the follow-up Knowledge is Beautiful by David McCandless was the game-changer in the adult world for non fiction. Purely and simply, his infographics presented information in such a visually accessible way, they are beautiful in themselves. His books provide ‘learning by stealth’ for adults and both of his books deserve a place on every bookshelf, and in every gift-givers list. No widgets required – the artistry is simply on the page.

Information is Beautiful (HarperCollins)

Information is Beautiful (HarperCollins)

With the emphasis on gift books to collect and treasure as objects, I predict that the non-fiction future is beautiful.

Why are we so anxious about reading?

There’s a lot of anxiety about reading these days. There’s my own anxiety about losing my ‘reading mojo’ a couple of years ago when I was going through a stressful time, and more recently friends are telling me that they can’t get into a novel because their mind is distracted by social media and their attention span has been reduced to the level of a gnat.

(What is the attention span of a gnat? Just wondering).

Anyway, I think we are in the midst of a Reading Anxiety Epidemic. I know that I can only really get into a novel while on holiday, when wifi access is limited and my mind is free of distraction. If I read a novel at home, it is fitful and stop-starty – not the ideal way to immerse myself in a literary work.

When I talk to people about their reading they are often really worried that they haven’t read a book in ages, or can’t find the time to devote to it, yet they continue to stack up paperbacks on their bulging bookshelves or add ebooks to their Kindle wishlist. Just to add to the guilt.

The same people are often plagued by the books they’ve never read – usually the ‘classics’ – and then they start Ulysses and can’t get beyond ten pages. That then stops them reading anything else because they feel they ‘must’ finish Ulysses before being ‘allowed’ to read something ‘trashy’. (Define trashy, I say).

The two female friends I spoke to seemed very worried about online distractions, their gnat-like attention spans and the growing pile of books in the corner. One of them had even worked out how many books she’d read if they only read one per year for the rest of her life, and was already anxious that it wasn’t nearly enough. What is enough?

The percentages on Kindle help some people tick off their reading in a satisfying way – for me and other people it’s about seeing the chunk of pages we’ve read and marking how far we have to go with a bookmark or, dare I say it, a folded corner. But this implies that we think of reading as a chore, or an achievement, rather than simply a pleasurable experience. Why is that? Why do we think we must read, as opposed to just doing it? And why do we think we must read Ulysses before we can read mass-market fiction?

I think we know that our inner lives are enriched by the experience of reading a book, and our horizons broadened. We know that it enriches our vocabulary and makes us see the world in other ways. It is the process of inhabiting another human brain for days, and coming out enlightened. It is harder work than watching TV – we have to fully engage with the world we are presented with and it inhabits us as we inhabit it. If we read something we think is ‘trash’ we enjoy it, but know it’s not quite doing the same job.

We know we’re in the middle of an epidemic because everyone has started referring to the time it takes to read something. First came the ‘short read’ and the ‘long read’ – I’m still a little unclear on what the timings are on those – and now we’re into an era of timed reading.

Lauren Laverne’s new initiative, The Pool, has organised its features into timed-reading slots for ‘women who are too busy to browse’ (should that be ‘too busy to read?’). Similarly, curated feed site Medium displays a read-time for every post. (I assume these are based on an average reading speed – some people I know are fast skimmers, others take much longer).

If the idea here is to gravitate from a one-minute read to a 12-minute read – which I do regularly on those sites – then I wonder if our ‘gateway’ back to more contented reading lives is via something we’ll enjoy and read quickly, rather than a Tolstoy epic. That’s how I got my reading mojo back.

So whether it’s the new novel Grey by E L James or a bit of Brad Meltzer, we could start by opening up our poor short-circuiting brains and giving them a break from Ulysses. Put all the lists of what we should read that we are bombarded with to one side and start with what we actually want to read.

I’m interested to hear about other people’s reading anxieties, why you think we have them and what you’re doing to combat if you think we should.