Cycling novel gives insight into mind of athlete

The Rider

The Rider

By Tim Krabbé. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2003. 148 pages. ISBN: 9781582342900.

It’s been a very, very long time since I’ve read a book about sports, so Tim Krabbé’s The Rider got to break the spell. First published in 1978, the book is considered a classic in the bicycling world.

An article in a recent issue of Bicycling magazine brought the book to my attention. I was one of the “uninitiated” who had never read The Rider — or even heard of it.

The semi-autobiographical novel tells the story of Krabbé’s participation in the 137-kilometer Tour de Mont Aigoual, a cycling race in the south of France. The story is based on one of the races in which he participated and is “90 to 95 percent real,” according to the Bicycling article. As he pedals, the author relays not just his emotions and cycling insights, but also tells the reader a bit about the history and lore of the sport. As Krabbé struggles up long climbs or ponders the risks of going too fast downhill, we see the relationship between what his legs are doing and what his brain is thinking. Cycling races, it turns out, are not necessarily about solitary efforts to pedal faster and stronger than everybody else. Strategy and personal challenges go hand in hand. Psyching out a fellow rider, or giving him or her encouragement, is part of the game. And sometimes losing is winning.

Whether on rural roads in western Wisconsin or along Latvia’s A2 heading from Rīga toward Sigulda, I have seen lots of riders decked out in cycling gear zipping along on their training runs. I can’t quite picture myself among them. Certainly, I don’t think I would ever participate in a cycling race. However, Krabbé did. Better known as a writer (see the best-seller The Vanishing) and an accomplished chess player, he took to serious cycling relatively late. Krabbé, who was born in 1943, turned out to be rather good, according to Tim Krabbé — Rider, a short documentary released in 2014.

The book reads quickly, in part because it’s just 148 pages, in part because the story is well-told and well-paced. Krabbé uses kilometers rather than chapters as touchstones. The effect is wonderful, as if we are riding alongside and are privy to all that is going on in his mind and body.

The Rider was first published in the Netherlands. In 2002, the book finally appeared in English thanks to a translation by Sam Garrett, who also has translated Dutch writer Herman Koch’s The Dinner and Gerard Reve’s The Evenings.