Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 148 pages; 2002. Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett.
I am a keen cyclist, of the leisure and commuting variety, and regularly blog about my exploits at London Cycling Diary. But writing about cycling — what it’s like to be on the back of a bike, how it makes you feel and what you experience along the way — isn’t always easy. Which is why I was intrigued by a book billed as “the best evocation of a cycle race ever written”. Of course, it may be the only novel ever written about a cycle race, but that’s beside the point…
Tim Krabbé is a Dutch journalist and author, probably best known for his 1984 novel-turned-film The Vanishing. But he’s also an accomplished chess player and a road cyclist. The Rider, first published in 1978, has developed a bit of a cult following among cycling aficionados. It’s easy to see why. It’s an astonishingly well written fictional account of what it is like to push yourself to the physical limit all in the name of cycle sport.
Despite the fact I’m not a road cyclist, nor particularly interested in the sport beyond watching highlights of The Tour Down Under or the Tour de France, I found it a completely absorbing read, one that can easily be consumed in a couple of hours. But be warned: it will leave you feeling almost as breathless as the cyclist whose every turn of the pedals we follow across 137 kilometres of punishing terrain.
The story is set on June 26, 1977 in which Tim Krabbé (yes, he uses his real name) competes in his 309th road race, the legendary Tour de Mont Aigoual in France. Despite coming to the sport late (he was 29), Krabbé has not wasted any time in getting himself into the European big league, competing against elite athletes who live to cycle and cycle to live.
The Rider has no chapter breaks but Krabbé uses kilometre markers (or milestones) to break up his text. For instance:
Kilometer 75-78. The fields are a dry yellow and light green. Endless fences lean crookedly across the landscape. To keep something out of the wind? Uphill or down, you can’t sort it out, it drives you crazy. We shift, we stand on the pedals when we get too lazy to shift again. The sky up ahead is black. No one is watching us. More than two hours to go.
These bite-sized chunks not only describe the scenery Krabbé flies past on his bicycle, but explain what Krabbé is thinking — or not thinking — about at the time. (“On a bike your consciousness is small. The harder you work, the smaller it gets”, he writes, because cycling in a competitive manner means you only live in the moment: there is no room to think about anything else.)
But sure enough Krabbé’s thoughts turn to how he got into cycling, his training regime, past races and race tactics (being a “wheel sucker” is not one of them). Interestingly, this was a time of limited technology — no bike computers or GPS systems here — so some of what Krabbé writes about is dated (the fact he has to use a stopwatch propped up on a windowsill to measure his lap times is but one example), but it doesn’t take away from the beauty of Krabbé’s story.
But what I loved about this novel is Krabbé’s ability to so perfectly describe that feeling of sheer delight when you are on a saddle and turning the pedals, of how wonderful it feels when you find the right cadence and everything hums along in perfect unison. And while there’s no doubt that much of what he writes about is very intense — the feeling, especially, of watching other cyclists whizz by, leaving you in their wake, and how difficult it is to keep turning the pedals when you haven’t found your “cycling legs” — he captures the camaraderie between cyclists very well and uses black humour to make light of the life and death situations confronted on the road.
Road racing imitates life, the way it would be without the corruptive influence of civilization. When you see an enemy lying on the ground, what’s your first reaction? To help him to his feet. In road racing, you kick him to death.
If you’ve ever wanted to know what it’s like to be stuck in a peloton, or climbing ever so slowly up a massive mountain, or leading the sprint on a bike, then The Rider will let you experience it. And the best bit? Your heart will race, but you won’t even have to crack a sweat.