Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Tim Krabbé's The Rider

Great books on cycling generally fall under the category of racing history. Whether the race was last year or the last century, recounting the exploits of the greats is usually a requisite ingredient to give a writer something interesting enough to write about with some style. The point behind this assertion is that great cycling books are of a kind; they do not come from the categories of fix-it manuals (as well done as some are), guidebooks or training manuals.

Novels almost never figure in the category of cycling books, good or bad. The Rider, by Tim Krabbé is therefore special for two reasons. The first reason is that it is a novel on cycling. That alone makes it noteworthy, if not automatically worth reading. The second reason The Rider is interesting is the simplest reason why any book is worth reading: It is extraordinarily well written.

Each time I read this book (don’t ask how many times I’ve been through it) I marvel because it captures perfectly the mindset of the racing cyclist. It also captures the otherness of the introspective cyclist, which is, in my estimation, a harder, more ephemeral mindset to communicate, yet he does it crisply from the book’s opening:

"Meyrueis, Lozere, June 26, 1977. Hot and overcast. I take my gear out of the car and put my bike together. Tourists and locals are watching from sidewalk cafes. Non-racers. The emptiness of those lives shocks me."

His Spartan writing style recalls the simple journalism of Hemingway and yet his alienation from such an ordinary pursuit—sitting at a café—is Kafka-esque. It’s an alienation that any dedicated roadie has felt at some point.

The Rider was published in 1978 but wasn't translated into English until 2002 by Sam Garrett. That we had to wait so long to enjoy Krabbé's work of art is tragic.

If you forget for a moment that the story is a novel and just read it as a memoir of a single day—yes, it recounts a single race—and read it as an exploration of the racer’s psyche, it stands up as one of the finest meditations on what it means to race a bicycle ever written—if not the absolute finest. Written as only a true insider could do, the details are as familiar as they are humorous, such as the racer nicknamed le douze in honor of the fact that he rides with a 12-tooth cog just because Eddy Merckx had one.

Krabbé’s insight into the racer’s mentality as evidenced by his ability to gather quotes by the greats and use their words to demonstrate the truth of the belief. He writes: “Bicycle racing is a sport of patience.” True enough. But then he backs it up with my favorite quote on what it is to wait for the right moment to attack: “’Racing is licking your opponent’s plate clean before starting on your own.’ Hennie Kuiper said that. Lebusque will stay out front for kilometers. Where would we be without Lebusque? Lebusque doesn’t know what racing is.”

What Krabbé knows is what only a dedicated racer knows. “If anyone really attacked now, I wouldn’t be able to follow. Can they tell that by looking at me? I’m too exhausted to hide my exhaustion.”

There is a reason why the crew at Rapha have lionized Krabbé’s exploits in the Cevennes. The Tour of Mont Aigoual is the very stuff of myths—a place few cyclists know, Category 1 and 2 climbs, teeth-gritting descents, epic weather, suicidal competitors and of course the eternal calculus of competition.

For the person who has never raced, The Rider will likely scare them the way the dark scares children. For the roadie who never lost the taste for the attack and the drag to the finish, The Rider may be the truest statement you ever read about your life.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is the book to lend to people that think cycling is just 'sport'. I remember picking it up in Victoria, Canada, during the winter when I was out there on a bit of a training camp.

nosferaustin said...

I just read this a couple of weeks ago for the first time. I've never raced but this book made me want to, actually. Extremely well written and very, very hard to put down.

Jim said...

It's not just a great book about racing, it's a great book because it tells hard to tell truths. Krabbe captures many, if not all, of the essential truths of roadracing, including the moments of agony and horror, shocks and fear, the too short moments of little triumphs, and the inevitable letdowns, and the sheer grinding physical and mental suffering. Roadracing is all about truths; each race is a collection of them. There is little certainty in life, but each race will tell you two or three painful, absolute truths - whether you've trained enough, whether you are talented and skilled enough, how you match up to the competition, and whether you wanted it enough and gave it your all on the day. When the races is finished - whether you've podiumed, finished with the pack, limped in alone or abandoned after blowing up, you know the truth about yourself, for certain. Krabbe's book tells the truth about those truths. It is easy for a book to tell engaging lies, or to selectively tell some truths arranging them in artificial fashion; much harder for a book to tell the truth plainly, and to do so artfully. I'm not a good racer, but I am a racer, and when I am old I will pick up "The Rider" and I will remember once again what it was like to race, what it means to race, and I will recall clearly everything that racing brought with it. This book might not be my desert island book, but it would be in the bag were I allowed 3 or 4 books. BTW, I understand Krabbe was a very good amateur racer who took up the sport in his late 20s.

gewilli said...

I've only read it a half dozen times or so. Every time, it is a brilliant inspiration.

I would suggest that it be compulsory reading for this time of the year.

tjh said...

let's just hope they don't make this into a movie as well.

KMY said...

Krabbe was not a one trick pony either his other books are well worth reading. All be it completely unrelated to cycling.

Jess said...

I read it every year this time of the year. Great motivation and fun too. Any other cycling books you like, do share. I'm reading Obree's book now, not too bad. He's had many interesting adventures.
jess@cyclingwebsites.com

Anonymous said...

I just ordered one from Amazon. There a number of new and used ones available there for little money.

Bobke Strut said...

I'm overdue for another read of The Rider. There's truly nothing quite like it out there on the bookshelves.

Rapha has also been planting The Rider seed in my head. About the only thing I can afford from them is Rouleur, and in its 2nd issue there's a lengthy interview with Tim Krabbe well worth reading. Also, they sent out a mini-catalog (more like a print informercial, really) with the Rapha/Condor-sponsored British pro squad doing a ride of the circuit mentioned in The Rider (decked out in Rapha gear, of course and beautifully photographed in b/w). Virtually all of the text is Krabbe talking about his own personal riding experience in that part of France and the inspiration for writing the book. The British pros were charged with completing the circuit in a faster time time than in Krabbe's book. No word on how they faired.

Anette Kiss said...

I have not raced - yet I might add. Still I could relate due to the build-up of the book. I love the way you can follow how his mind wanders as he gets more tired and more exhausted. I have been there. Some times after a long day’s ride I’ve been in such a feeble state, my absurd thoughts made me laugh. I hate the taste of energy bars those says. I need to be better than that. My whole existence tells me that I need to be tougher and stronger so I can continue forever and ever where I want to be – in the saddle.

This has become one of my favourite blog sites. I’m not anywhere near PRO, but it does not hurt to know the rules ;-). Some of your threads are coming through to me the way some parts of “The rider" do. Seems like signs of really good writing to me. You’re not thinking of writing a book together, are you?

DavidJ said...

"The Rider" inspired me to buy a road bike. I had no idea who Eddy Merckx was, forget about Jacques Anquetil. The book affected me in a way similar to Camus's "The Stanger."

Now that I've raced some, the book has a different appeal. I understand the frustration the rider feels with the pretty girl cheering him on who is oblivious to the pain and the purpose of racing. He's too old to turn pro, why does he punish himself? As he says somewhere in the book, if there were no mountains there would still be alpinists.

I love this blog. Thanks.

privateer said...

I recently read it for the first time, and when I finished it, went right back to the start to read again.

So many little details that are spot on. Like the annoying spectator that tells Krabbe he started his sprint too soon. Krabbe knows he's right.

The bit about a "good loser" taking away the victor's glory. This weekend I had some "well-meaning" asshole telling me how he cramped up at the end of the race, couldn't catch me. Fuck you, loser.

Yes, it is an existential short story.

Even better, it's a book about sports that doesn't suck.

Anonymous said...

I Love this book. It makes me want to get on the bike every time i pick it up. Is there a genuine race that you can take part in that covers the same route? I would be greatful for any info from anyone in the know.