I don’t remember where I heard about The Rider by Tim Krabbé. I feel like a broken record lately, how many times have I begun a post “I don’t remember where I heard about this book…”? It is beginning to get ridiculous and I should just stop. Does anyone even care how I found out about a book? I think I am just being lazy with opening sentences.
The Rider is anything but lazy. Along with being a chess champion and novelist, Krabbé also had a career as a professional bicycle racer. He got started in racing late in life at the age of thirty. Thirty is not old but to begin racing professionally at that age, not very common. He had talent though and made a good showing. This book is a kind of memoir of his racing and is it ever good.
The brilliance of the book is how it is structured. Krabbé begins with his arrival before the Tour de Mont Aigoual, a 137 kilometer race that climbs one of the highest peaks in the Cévennes. It is June 26, 1977, cool and cloudy. All the other riders are gathering and warming up. We get some of the dirt on who is good at doing what, who is young and ambitious and who has been around a long time and starting to lose their edge. We get pre-race jitters. They line up and then they are off.
And the narrative changes to a different time in Krabbé’s life in 1973. And then we are back in the race at kilometers 25-30 and back and forth the narrative goes between the race and the events that got him there, past races, past sports experiences when he was a child, histories of other riders and races. Having the narrative of one race interspersed with other things really works to ratchet up the suspense and by the time it gets to the end of the race I didn’t want to put the book down.
You may wonder what anyone could possibly have to say about a 137 kilometer bicycle race. I did. But wow, is it interesting. We get an insider’s view of what it is like to ride in the peloton — I was surprised to learn how much they talk to each other, just chatting to pass the time. We also get racing strategy — most of the time it has nothing to do with how fast you can go. We learn about how terrifying it is to descend mountains on curving, wet roads. And we learn about what it means to suffer on the bike.
I read a lot about suffering and cycling, a lot of cyclists glorify it. Strava even lets you assign a suffer score to your rides as though the more you suffer the better cyclist you are. I have never understood about the suffering. I understand a little better now.
When you are racing 137 kilometers through the mountains there will be suffering. Your legs are going to hurt and many times you are going to feel as though you have nothing left but the race is not over yet and you can’t quit so somehow you find the will to keep pedaling; pedaling up the mountain, through the wind and the rain and the rain that turns to snow and the cold that settles into you in spite of how hard you are working so that you can’t even feel your hands on your handlebars anymore and can’t feel whether or not you are actually squeezing the brakes enough to keep you from crashing as you get ready to go through a sharp downhill turn on a wet road, can’t feel your feet or your face, or anything but the pain in your tired, cold legs that somehow keep pedaling.
I’ve heard before that bicycle road racing is all about who can suffer the most and longest. It now makes more sense. If racing is about suffering then why do it? Valid question. Krabbé says alpinists have it easy, when asked why they climb mountains and they say “because it is there,” people let them off the hook as though their reason has some deep and mystical meaning. Cyclists have no simple answer and can’t easily explain why they do what they do. It’s multiple reasons, because they can, because it is a challenge, because it is a test of will, because
after the finish all suffering turns to memories of pleasure, and the greater the suffering, the greater the pleasure. That is Nature’s payback to riders for the homage they pay her by suffering. Velvet pillows, safari parks, sunglasses: people have become woolly mice. They still have bodies that can walk for five days and four nights through a desert of snow, without food, but they accept praise for having taken a one-hour bicycle ride. ‘Good for you.’ Instead of expressing their gratitude for the rain by getting wet, people walk around with umbrellas. Nature is an old lady with few suitors these days, and those who wish to make use of her charms she rewards passionately.
He also calls suffering an art.
Doesn’t that make you want to jump on a bike and ride?
The only other book about cycling I have ever read is Lance Armstrong’s It’s Not About the Bike. I read it long before he admitted to doping when he was still an amazing cyclist with an amazing story. It was a good book as far as the story goes, the writing itself was straightforward and so-so and I am pretty sure Armstrong had help writing it. Krabbé’s book is so much better. It reads almost like a suspense novel. And it is good not just because the story is interesting but because it is well-written too.
You don’t have to be a cyclist to enjoy the book but it certainly helps. But even if you don’t ride a bike and just enjoy being a spectator the book is a lot of fun. Krabbé is Dutch. I’ll have to check if my library has any of his novels that have been translated into English and give one a try. If you know of any other good books about cycling, I’d love to hear about them, fiction or nonfiction!