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.