De Renner

De Renner

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?

 

 

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15 comments

  1. scott g.

    Well there is “Tomorrow we ride”, which is by Jean Bobet, about him and his brother.
    a dual lens memoir. It sits next to “The Rider” on my shelf.

  2. Eric

    Funny, I just started my annual re-read of the Rider; happily sad how much I forget every year so I can enjoy the book all over again! I suppose the answer is that although there may be many writers who can ride as well as Krabbe, there are few riders who can write as well as him, or think that their interior dialogue while riding is worth writing about. To me, the power of the book comes from its intense internal focus. As the title states, it is about the rider, not the race. There are a number of good fiction books about racing and races — The Race by Dave Shields is one — but they tend to be set in the Tour de France or professional ranks, while Krabbe’s story of an amateur racer racing an amateur race for no other reason that it is there gives it personal power and insight into human character that gives the story a deeper power than most cycling books (or other books for that matter).

  3. Andrew

    “Before it had become a signpost for the Rapha aesthetic, The Rider was an unknown tale”

    Just not the case. It was passed from friend to friend in my circles for years and years … usually delivered with breathless urgency: “You’ve GOT to read this. It’s the best articulation ever of the cycling experience (racing or just riding).”


    1. Author
      Padraig

      That’s nice to hear, but how were you reading it prior to 2002? I’d heard of the book in the mid-’90s, but as I don’t speak a word of Dutch, I just figured I’d never have the opportunity to read it.

  4. Gary

    I was also impacted by Bill Strickland’s “10 Points”. A deeply personal story, well written, and insightful if not somewhat wincing towards the end. He, like you Patrick, has the inner strength to explore his issues and both of you are to be commended for it.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Here, here; 10 Points has not gotten its due. It’s a harrowing story. Strickland needed more than just guts to write that.

  5. Bill Cochran

    Padraig, I have ridden all the climbs in the book, and can attest it’s a rough go…
    Can’t imagine doing it with the gearing used in the story!! If you’d like the beta on the area I’m your guy 🙂

  6. Fausto

    The Yellow Jersey, The Rider, Dog in a Hat. Those are my top 3 for both the description of what riding is about and the writers inner search.

  7. Neil Winkelmann

    “Non-racers. The emptiness of those lives shocks me.”

    That’s my favourite line from the book. I feel it will resonate with anyone who draws a significant part of their identity from cycling.

  8. Robot

    I started a cycling novel once, years ago. I got about three chapters written. I’m pretty sure it was awful. A friend of mine read it and thought so. You can tell he’s a friend because he told me straight. HA!!

  9. David Arnold

    I raced and lived near many of the little villages in Belgium Krabbe mentioned in The Rider. I rode in the top 20 in a lot of them. I also saw some the Dutch Pros he told about race in Kermesses. The sub-culture of cycle racing always amazes me!

  10. Jay

    I purchased a copy last fall and failed to read it over the winter. I will dust it off and read it so I can weigh in with my thoughts. Thanks for the reminder…

  11. Paul S.

    I am definitely going to refer back to this post for my reading list… I’m not sure it’s literature of the quality mentioned here, but I recently finished the English translation “The Black Jersey”, and found the personal dynamics inside the peloton a really fascinating part of the story. I recommended it to my dad (Le Tour was required watching in my household growing up). Has anyone else read it? I’d be interested in hearing how it stacks up.

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