The Rider by Tim Krabbe is a bicycling book that will appeal to more than just hardcore cycling fans. In fact, The Rider is the best sports book I’ve ever read. This slim fast-paced novel follows bicycle racer Tim Krabbe on a grueling one-day race in mountainous France. Krabbe chronicles the cat and mouse strategy of cycling; the competitive camaraderie; the blinding physical pain; the superstitions; and the internal stream of consciousness battle that takes place as a rider pushes themselves to the limit.
I know a bit about bicycling because … I ride. Since the age of 13 I’ve been rewarded with great personal victories like riding from Philadelphia to Long Beach Island with my Dad and finishing the Mount Diablo Challenge in 1:25:10. I’ve also fought back from pain and tragedy, pushing through exhaustion and getting back on the road after being hit by a car.
Bicycling gives you perspective and insight that you translate to your life and career. Yes, it all sounds very new age and perhaps you’ve heard other athletes lecture monotonously about the subject. But it is … the truth. When you crest the summit of a mountain or finish a 100 mile century ride there is an immense sense of accomplishment. Not just for the actual deed but for how you overcame your own weaknesses. You think about all the times your body wanted you to stop and how many times the lesser part of your nature shouted persistently and persuasively: “turn around, you can’t do it, just give up, there’s no shame in stopping.”
Tim Krabbe captures this perfectly in The Rider. No other bicycling book I’ve read details that roller coaster of emotions and the ebb and flow of pain, determination and elation that is cycling. Even those not into bicycling will be drawn into this personal battle and will want to know how the race turns out. Does Krabbe win? This can’t fail plot device is executed with precision.
Amid all of this the hardcore cyclist is treated to anecdotes and references to some of the most revered names of cycling such as Merckx, Anquetil and Coppi. One of my favorites comes at the beginning of the novel:
Jacques Anquetil, five-time winner of the Tour de France, used to take his water bottle out of it’s holder before every climb and stick it in the back pocket of his jersey. Ab Geldermans, his Dutch lieutenant, watched him do that for years, until finally he couldn’t stand it any more and asked him why. And Anquetil explained.
A rider, said Anquetil, is made up of two parts, a person and a bike. The bike, of course, is the instrument the person uses to go faster, but its weight also slows him down. That really counts when the going gets tough, and in climbing the thing is to make sure the bike is as light as possible. A good way to do that is: take the bidon out of its holder.
So, at the start of every climb, Anquetil moved his water bottle from its holder to his back pocket. Clear enough.
This is such a perfect way to illustrate the ways in which cyclists deceive themselves in order to succeed. On the face this makes no sense at all, but as a rider, I can absolutely understand the ‘value’ of this behavior.
The style of The Rider also makes it an easy read. The short journal like entries that document the kilometer by kilometer progress throughout the race are tight, visceral and compelling. The prose isn’t detailed or overblown. It matches the dichotomous experience of the rider, mixing an economy of words with free association.
First published in Holland in 1978, it took and obscene 14 years until The Rider was translated into English. Now is your chance to read The Rider by Tim Krabbe. It is entertaining, informative and inspirational to both cyclists and non-cyclists.
Now … off for a ride of my own.