by Tim Krabbe
published by: Bloomsbury rrp £8.99, in the UK
reviewed by Dave Land
Much has been written about The Rider since it was first published in Dutch in 1978. Despite being fictional, it has become a kind of ‘bible’ for describing what it is to ride a bike, and specifically to race a bike. There has been little printed since that has bettered Krabbe’s descriptions of pain, suffering and the ability to keep pedalling, come what may.
The fictional Tour de Mont Aigoual is the backdrop for Krabbe’s suffering, as he takes on five particular antagonists over the course of the 137 km. It’s a short book, some might call it a novella, and the nature of the course; plateaus, climbs, rolling roads and descents, provides an elegant contrast to the suffering that Krabbe experiences. It is a suffering of his own making, and the mental anguish of being dropped by the group, then finding the energy to jump to a break, carries a hypnotic appeal.
Some may suggest that the talk of different cog sizes dates the book. That’s not my experience, because the numbers don’t mean much to me, it’s all about the experience of riding, of racing, of pitting yourself against others, but ultimately yourself. Krabbé’s mental war carries on with a set of asides, about other races, other experiences with other famous cyclists both on and off the bike. This represents those thinking/unthinking (dare I say existential) moments on the bike. Moments where you seems to come out of a trance, and find yourself further down the road than you were just know, with little recollection of how that happened.
Publisher: Bloomsbury (16 June 2016)
In particular the descriptions of riding downhill stuck with me. Not because I am a particularly bad descender, because I’m not. More that this is the first time fear comes into the equation. The climbs and flats are pain and exhausted effort. The downs are a different dimension, floating on top of the other two. It is an experience externalised, through the gradient, the speed and the equipment. But the fear itself is an internalised experience; despite seeing the rest of the group make up minutes of time over him, Krabbé cannot bring himself to go any faster, or take any more risks.
The Rider holds up extremely well to a modern day audience - an audience that might well be interested to find that Tim Krabbé is the brother of esteemed actor Jeroen Krabbé, the bad guy in the Bond film, The Living Daylights - I cannot believe it is very different for riders in 2018 than it was in 1978. If you’ve ever felt tired on a bicycle, or watched a professional road bike race, then The Rider is definitely worth your time. If you can sit down and read it all one go then so much the better.