I first read Tim Krabbé’s The Rider in 2002, very shortly after it was translated into English, from the Dutch, in which it was originally published as De Renner. Before it had become a signpost for the Rapha aesthetic, The Rider was an unknown tale with no heraldry and devoid of any attached mythology. I was free to connect with it or not. But connect I did.
For those who have not yet read it, The Rider takes place in a single day. The story, ostensibly, is of one bike race and begins with our narrator pulling up and parking at the venue and ends on his drive home. It’s a compact story with a small cast of characters racing through the Cevennes Mountains in Central France. I’ve traced the course on a map; it’s beastly.
While the story, as I said, purports to be about a single bike race, the vast majority of the book takes place in the past, as the rider recalls the moments in his life that led to him participating in the race. There’s his first bike ride. His first attempt at a time trial. His first bike race. And a litany of games we play in our head—I’m the first person to ride through that light. No one else will ever be the first person through that light at this time of day on this day.
What fascinated me about the book when I first read it, but didn’t have the ability to articulate at the time was how it was a vehicle to capture the sum total of Krabbe’s received wisdom and range of his experience. It’s this aspect of The Rider that has sustained the book, giving it a depth and breadth that books about a particular race, racer or era can’t capture. Sure, The Rider is about one race, but what the book is really about is everything our narrator knows about bike racing. It is, in an unusual way, a repository of race wisdom, as much as it is an accounting of the development of a racer and the many experiences and epiphanies that lit his way.
What I’m curious about is why there aren’t other books that have managed to aggregate a broader sense of what bike racing teaches a cyclist, or what cycling teaches a person about life. Memoir and biography seem unlikely to serve as this vehicle because those books are written through the lens of a single rider.
But in fiction the author has the opportunity to make his protagonist as experienced or as new has he wants. He can know as much about cycling as the author knows, or more, if he’s willing to do his research. Not only can his characters chase down a breakaway or attack the peloton and stay away or not, they can play out truisms, discover epiphanies, suffer perfectly-timed crashes, illnesses or betrayals.
So why aren’t there more novels about cycling? Forget whether the cannon is good or not (little of what has been written is memorable), I’m curious about why there isn’t a greater quantity of any quality.
This would have been a good vehicle for the FGR™, but as that’s Robot’s ride, not mine, I’ve got to roll from the shop and just see who latches on. What I’m certain of is that the RKP readers are the only population to whom I could pose this question. And the answer can’t be as education-dependent as the fact that nearly everyone who writes about cycling went to J-school, can it?