For all the reading I do (less now…less than I should, anyway), I had never read The Rider by Tim Krabbé. As a bike racer who has now read the book, I know that this was border-line sacrilege. I will not waste time with a synopsis of the book, for I cannot put it in better words than Krabbé has already done. I wish more to dissect the wonder that is the book.
First and foremost, is the ever-present notion that being a Rider is more about the mental element than the physical. Or perhaps more correct is the idea that the mental element leads the Rider through the physical; for it is by committing to the mental aspect that the Rider increases physical limits.
Krabbé delves into this thesis many different ways. The first comes from Willie Hamilton, who was the first person to push the hour record over 40 kph. Krabbé states that Hamilton was paced by a dot of light projected around the track and was subsequently disqualified. While I cannot find any evidence of Hamilton being disqualified, in fact his 40.781kph record is recognized everywhere I have researched, the point of the mental aspect (chasing a beam of light) pushing the physical is clearly evident.
The second point that Krabbé makes is about the fantastical stories told about bike racers. He points to several examples: 1.) The belief that Jacques Antuetil used to take his water bottle out if its holder before every climb and place it in his jersey pocket to lighten his bike, 2.) The idea that Charly Gaul performed better on cold, rainy days because he was addicted to the suffering, and 3.) The statue of Tom Simpson on Mt. Ventoux, who died of heat exhaustion during the 13th stage of the 1967 Tour de France, is placed at 1.5k before the finish.
In each case, Krabbé points to the falsehood of the statement to further glorify the subject. Proof comes from the fact that nearly all photos of Antuetil on climbs has his bottles in its holder (not that moving it around changes anything anyway), Gaul’s body performed better on cold and rainy days do to the increased oxygen levels (his coach attested to this), and the fact that footage of Simpson has him collapsing 3k before the finish.
Krabbé points this out not so much as to debunk the stories, but to further illustrate how the mental aspect matters so much to racers, even when they are thinking about other racers. By tweaking the stories a bit, the Rider is forced to dig deeper within him when he needs motivation the most—just like a beam of light projected on the track, compelling him to suffer better.
Krabbé himself echoes that notion in his own writing. While the vast majority of what appears in The Rider is indeed fact (Especially about the actual exploits in the Tour de Mont Aigoual), he does tweak ideas here and there to make a point. The most noticeable (to me anyway) is when Krabbé talks about Charly Gaul losing 15 minutes in the 1958 Tour de France following diabolical climb up Mt. Ventoux. Krabbé states that on the 21st stage, one marked with torrential rain and cold, Gaul flew off the front to take back all his lost time, which set him up to win the Tour.
In reality, while Gaul did claw back the majority of his lost time during the stage (coming in 8 minutes ahead of the next rider), it was in the 74k time trial two stages later where Gaul would secure the win. Is this a small detail, yes, but omitting such does add to the mystique of Gaul’s addiction to bad weather suffering.
Lastly, is the mental struggle against competitors. In The Rider, Krabbé tells of a personal battle between himself and Reilhan, where the one marks the other, refusing to work together, or at all, if it benefits the other. This illustrates another mental aspect of the sport, one of race tactics, as well as personal feuds. There are a plethora of examples of this backbiting resulting in both race favorites being marked right off the podium (Krabbé illustrates some, the list is ever longer).
Is it prudent to not work if there is the chance that your opponent sucks your wheel to the finish and out sprints you? Is it more dignified to drain yourself with the miniscule chance that you can drop your opponent before the sprint? The answer to each of those questions is personal and mental. Both evoke the image of Ouroboros.
It is truly amazing what this book manages to convey in 150 pages. I could easily write a 150-page dissertation on the points in the book that are fresh, original, pertinent, and amazingly eloquent.
In a recent tweet, Bill Strickland noted that The Rider is single-handedly the best cycling book out there, adding, “That book is so damn good sometimes I hate it. How does he *do* that? Seems near-impossible.” As a bike racer and small-time blogger, I have to agree. Krabbé’s words are both succinct, yet complexly mellifluous; and he seems to do so without trying.
For me, the most amazing part of The Rider is that it seems to be one of the first examples of a text that both illustrates the bike racing mentality and resonates with audiences in a timeless fashion. As Strickland points out, it is almost a silver bullet for those that write about bike racing though, for what can you say that Krabbé already has not.
In that way Krabbé is to race literature what Poe was to crime literature.