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The Rider, by Tim Krabbé

If you've been reading these bookshelf stories over the past few months, you may have noticed that I think a lot of cycling books are poorly written. I wish that publishers of cycling books would pay a bit more attention to the readability of their product, treat them as books first and books about cycling second. I wish there were more authors of the calibre of Benjo Maso and Bill Strickland and William Fotheringham. I wish there were more memoirs as accomplished as Laurent Fignon's. And I wish there were more cycling novels of the calibre of Tim Krabbé's The Rider.

The Rider - Time KrabbeTitle: The Rider (De Renner)
Author: Tim Krabbé (trans: Sam Garrett)
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Year: 1978 (trans: 2002)
Pages: 148
Order: Bloomsbury
What it is: The (American) English translation of Krabbé cult cycling novel, De Renner.
Strengths: Krabbé's prose is taut, pared down, stripped of excess flourishes.
Don't ask me, I love this book and am blind to its defects.

Over the past six months, in which I've tried to write about current and classic cycling books, there's a few I've been avoiding. Sometimes you like something too much to be in any way objective about it. So whatever I'm about to tell you about why The Rider is so good, you can't trust me. I won't even pretend to be objective when it comes to this book.

To counter that, let me point you at The Complete Review, where you'll find a round-up of reviews, as well their own take on The Rider. While describing it as "a great example of what a sports-book can be" they do find it has one major flaw: "given that it is now hard to believe that any world-class road-racer of the past decades didn't rely heavily on performance-enhancing products the purity of the sport as described by Krabbé does look a bit too idyllic to be believable."

I'll confess another reason for shying away from The Rider: there's an awful lot of pretentious shite been written about this book. Try this: "He could have been a wheel, and how hath execration come to mimic a vitamin deficiency slaked? Advanced velocity is a choir of exultation that resides in the veins and arteries. Perfect pitch, hissing tires and air disturbed chorally by spokes, calling out to one's receptive mind like a loon on a dark lake." If I ever meet the man who wrote that I'm going to whack him upside the head with a rolled up copy of l'Equipe. Hopefully what follows here won't give you cause to want to do the same to me.

Before looking at the book itself, a quick word about the author. The usual biographical sketch of Krabbé tells of his chess playing and a couple of his other novels, one of which birthed a cult art house film and its crass American remake. If you want more, read Jane Sullivan's profile-cum-interview for the The Age, from back in 2006. One point from that interview worth noting is Krabbé's liking for Haruki Murakami and Paul Auster. Murakami might come to your mind for his What I Think About When I Think About Running. The Rider is things Krabbé thinks about when he thinks about riding.

Auster is relevant, for the way he sometimes places himself inside his own novels. Krabbé's narrator is called Tim Krabbé and shares many traits with the author himself. So you'll often see The Rider described as being either autobiographical or a memoir masquerading as a novel. Most novelists I've met hate when you do that and point out how such a reductive description is an insult to the power of the imagination. Novel writing courses are, after all, called creative writing courses. There is nothing creative in writing non-fiction, or certainly that seems to be the suggestion. And because that pisses me off, normally I'll happily wind a novelist up by asking about a story's basis in reality, suggesting the novel is more an act of memory than imagination.

The Rider though is an act of the imagination and not of memory. It shouldn't be confused with memoir or autobiography. William Fotheringham, commenting on the way Krabbé's rider lets his mind wander this way and that over the course of the novel, makes the observation that "if any cyclist actually thought that much he'd be too distracted to compete." But the point for most of us who love The Rider is that Krabbé's wandering imagination feels real. Most of us, I think, will identify with moments from the narrative. What Krabbé has done is render reality the way we wish it were, not necessarily the way it is.

So what's The Rider about then? It's a fictionalised account of the 1977 Tour de Mont Aigoual, a one-hundred-and-thirty-seven kilometre club race through the Cévennes, down in the South of France. Four-and-a-half hours' racing for its fifty-three amateur competitors. Mont Aigoual is real, a fifteen-hundred metre bump that occasionally features in the Tour de France and other races. But 1977? Thirty-three years on, that feels unreal.

Back then brake-cables snaked up over your handlebars. Gear levers were mounted on your down-tube. Shifting was by feel, like finding the biting point between the clutch and the accelerator on a motorcar. Blocks had six cogs on them. Jerseys and shorts were woollen. You protected your head with a little cotton casquette. And your feet were held on the pedal by cleats in your shoe, little metal cages and those leather straps you sometimes use to hold your spare tube behind your saddle. It was a positively antediluvian time. How people coped with such antiquated equipment I don't know.

Foreign as all that may seem, all the real action in The Rider takes place in the head of Krabbé's rider. Take away your own Oakleys and your hardshell and you'll recognise that head clearly, it hasn't changed much down through the years. It's the stuff that goes through the head of Krabbé's rider that makes The Rider such a fun read. Stuff that goes through his head during the race, and stuff that goes through his head as he recounts the race. You've got bits of the race itself mixed with memories of earlier races. Bits of cycling lore sit side-by-side with observations on cycling, cyclists and roadside fans.

The bits of cycling lore I love. Cycling is all about story telling. All that stuff that happens on the road, that's just the basic raw material for the construction of cycling stories. We love the myths of our sport. Take a story Krabbé tells of Jacques Anquetil. On a climb, Maître Jacques would take his bidon from its cage and place it in the pocket of his jersey. Eventually, a team-mate, Ab Geldermans, had to ask him why: "A rider, Anquetil said, 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."

What really works - for me at least - is the elegance with which Krabbé drops the lore into the tale. Take that Anquetil story. There's a purpose to it, it's not just a moment of light relief. It's a story about the power of belief: "What Anquetil needed was faith. And nothing is better for a firm and solid faith than being in the wrong. [...] If they'd forbidden Anquetil to put his bidon in his back pocket, he would never have won the Tour de France."

There's another part to that Anquetil story, offered more than a hundred pages on. Krabbé had been told the tale by Geldermans. But when he started to pay attention to pictures of Anquetil climbing, he noticed the bidon was always in its cage, not Anquetil's back pocket: "Geldermans' story strikes to the soul of the rider, and is therefore true. Those pictures are inaccurate." Similarly, Krabbé  notes how the monument to Tom Simpson on the Ventoux is sited more than a kilometre further up the mountain from where the Briton died: "Rightly so. More tragic. The facts miss the heart of the matter; to give us a clear picture, the facts need a vehicle, an anecdote." And there you have one of the themes of The Rider. It's a story about story telling, told through telling stories.

Krabbé squeezes in a lot of old cycling lore. But he does it by letting it grow organically out of the basic story, it's not lore just for the sake of lore. He retells the story of Oskar Egg, crawling around a vélodrome on his hands and knees with a yard stick, in order to measure the track's length. He drops that in when talking of his early days as a cyclist, in an age before speedometers held all the answers and he wanted to know how far he'd cycled. Or he tells the story of Bernard Hinault flying off the road in the 1977 Dauphiné Libéré, scrambling up out of a ravine, mounting a new bike and going on to win the stage and the race itself. That tale is told when he talks of his own fear of crashing on a descent. There's an elegance to the way Krabbé delivers these stories, makes them fit his bigger story.

There's another part of Krabbé's elegance I like. He talks about cycling the way a cyclist talks about cycling. Something I hate about a lot of cycling books - particularly a lot of the recent ones - is the way everything is explained for the non-cyclist. The word peloton is explained. The physics of drafting is explained. Everything is explained. Every time I pick up one of those books I feel like the author is treating me like an idiot. I understand that they're writing for a non-cycling audience, but I still hate the way everything is dumbed down to first principles. Krabbé too is writing for non-cyclists. But when he explains the physics of drafting he does so by burying it in stories from his first races. His explanations come by the by. They're part of the tale.

Here I should also mention Sam Garret's translation. It goes without saying that I've never read the original Dutch novel, De Renner. Dutch is all Greek to me and I think I've previously demonstrated my incompetence with it. I don't know how true Garrett's translation is, but I do know it feels real. Garrett obviously has a feel for the sport. He doesn't translate bidon into water-bottle, or peloton into pack. And he doesn't even translate kilometres into miles. If you've ever read Richard Howard's translation of Roland Barthes' Tour de France essay, you'll know what a piss-poor effort a non-cyclist can make of rendering continental cycling-speak into English. Garrett does not fall into that trap.

Is The Rider about anything beyond being a story of a rider in a race, or a tale about telling tales? Yes, but don't let that put you off. If all you want is a novel about cycling laced with cycling lore, you don't have to take anything more from The Rider than that. If you're looking for more, take this passage, from midway or so through the race, when Krabbé and another rider are suffering on a climb. Ahead of them is a group of fans:

"I look at a girl in the group. She's sixteen, she's pretty. ‘Allez, les sportifs', she shouts. ‘Un deux un deux.' Why is she shouting that? She knows Hinault fell into a ravine, but not the names of the classics he won. Classics? She knows everything about Poupou, but she's never heard of Milan-San Remo, has no idea what forty-three nineteen is. What gives her the right to raise her voice? In the two of us she sees the twin exponents of the Coke-It's-The-Real-Thing equation. She's the generation that no longer cheers for the riders, but for the journalistic cliché she recognises in them. Now that I'm five centimetres closer, I can see how pretty she really is. I hate her. For her, road racing no longer exists. Road racing has gone into the cement mixer of journalism and come out again as the courage of the lone rider, as Poupou, doping doping, today the domestique must shine, Simpson on Mont Ventoux. She belongs to the generation of emblems."

The negativity of that passage is not representative of the tone of the book. So why do I offer it? Maybe it's his comment about the cement mixer of journalism. Krabbé's rider is also a cycling journalist. He covered the 1976 Paris-Roubaix: "I found out then how right they are when they say that reporters see nothing." Later, he tells of riding one day with Gerrie Knetemann, a club run Knet turned up for. They talk as they ride and the talk turns to climbing. "You guys need to suffer more, get dirtier," he tells Knet, "you should arrive at the top in a casket, that's what we pay you for." Knet disagrees: "No, you guys need to describe it more compellingly." Krabbé's rider is not just a consumer of journalism. He's a creator of it too.

I also offer that passage for his explanation of why he hates that girl. There's something ageless about it. It reminds me of things Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote three or four decades earlier in those novels of his about flying that weren't really about flying. The explanation still strikes a chord today. Americans will recognise it from the Armstrong era. Britons may recognise it from their current Olympian era. Those of you who hate being dubbed middle-aged men in lycra will definitely recognise it. "Never will I be able to make clear to her that I don't race because I wanted to lose weight, because turning thirty horrified me, because I was dissatisfied with café life, because of anything else at all, but purely and simply because it's road racing."

A part of what Krabbé tries to do in The Rider is explain why he rides: "Bicycle racing is boring, all of a sudden I remember thinking that last time too. So why do I do it? Why are you climbing that mountain? Because it's there, says the alpinist." But the alpinist doesn't climb just because the mountain is there: "The alpinist's will is not so petty that it needs something as random as the shape of the earth's crust in order to exist." So why then does he ride? He talks of one of his friends in the race, Kléber, who "never attacks, and because there's always someone who can stick with him and beat him in the sprint, he's never won a race. He has no panache, no brio, no courage. He lives to ride."

Maybe he just rides because of the stories riding enables him to tell.

* * * * *

Hmmnnn. Roland Barthes. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Paul Auster. Pretentious? Moi? Here, have a rolled up newspaper.