“Non-racers. The emptiness of those lives shocks me.”
As a kind of early Christmas gift this year, my wife gave me a translated copy of Tim Krabbé’s classic Dutch novel, ‘The Rider’. I cracked it same day and had it read cover to cover in very short order, save some note taking I did for this post. Not only is the subject right up my alley these days, but the dry, humorous writing style and tension –building structure makes it a page-turner – I loved it. ‘The Rider’ is a first-hand account of one road race, Krabbé’s 309th amateur race, the Tour de Mont Aigoual and his all out attempt to crush his arch enemy Barthélemy, and finally chalk up a win. It only took a couple pages and I had to know how it ended!
Tim Krabbé, a notable Dutch chess player and writer was 29 years old when he decided to take up road racing, a passion he would wrestle with deeply. And it’s the extreme highs and lows, his intense love-hate relationship with cycling that is at this novel’s core. Personally, I could identify with a lot of it, from the pure joy of riding, to the pain and suffering of pushing the body right to its limits. Krabbé expresses his true nature while exposing his private thoughts during the Tour de Mont Aigoual, while also reflecting back on both past races of his own, and historical moments in road racing history. Beyond Krabbé’s inability to truly answer his own question, why in the face of so much hardship he even races at all, he explores his fears, his insecurities, his frustrations as well as his desire and strengths, which allow him to compete at the top of his race category.
Set in the mid 1970s, ‘The Rider’ is also a window into what the Europe’s road race scene was like back in the day of legends like Merckx. Krabbé takes time to write about the details, like his race diet of Evian, figs, oranges and sugar cubes, his race clothing, including suspenders and even some of the painstaking lengths riders needed to go to for even simple things like properly measuring out the distance of their training routes – no such thing as GPS in those days I guess. Krabbé also delves candidly into the intricate strategy of the peleton, the distain for the wheel-sucker, the psychology and art of the uphill breakaway, dealing with the fear of high speed descents, the advantages of clubs vs. secret alliances, and the need for patience before a sprint and what he called ‘brio’, or what I understand as the guts you need once that sprint starts; its eye-opening and Krabbé spins it all together in an engaging read. If you’re into racing at all, I highly recommend it. It might also make a great Xmas gift for that special bike-nut in your life.