Cycling holds a unique niche in the world of sports. It is a delicate balance between rider and machine, between strength and tactics, between the individual and the team, between man and the elements. Anyone who has ever ridden seriously knows that almost any serious ride is an epic journey, an endless series of choices and possibilities, of suffering and pleasure.
To date, I have read nothing that captures the real essence of that experience nearly as well as Tim Krabbé's The Rider, which was originally published in 1978 in Amsterdam and which appeared in English only in 2002. Like a racing bike that has been relieved off all excess weight and trimmed of anything that could increase resistance against the wind, The Rider is prose in its most basic and stripped down form. There is hardly a wasted or misplaced word here: the writing is crisp, powerful, efficient, and compelling.
The little book weighs in at just 148 pages, just a little more than one for each of the 137 kilometers of the Tour de Mont Aigoual, by all rights a nondescript semi-pro bicycle race through the rolling mountains of Cévennes, in south central France. It may not sound like much, but Mr. Krabbé breathes life into it by describing perfectly what goes on inside a racer's head: everything from relevant glimpses at strategy -- in addition to being a strong rider and an even better writer, Mr. Krabbé may be best known as a chess champion, and his eye for tactics and detail shows -- to interesting thoughts about his own athletic career, about philosophy, fantasy, his competitors, and fascinating memories from cycling history.
The book is set in the 1970s, a time that will seem quaint to riders who have become interested in the sport only over the last few years: a period when riders made decisions about strategy rather than have it radioed into their ear pieces, when leather straps and not titanium clips held the shoes to the pedals, and when riders packed half an orange and a few figs in their pockets to fuel the ride rather than the latest scientific miracle mix.
I found it all exhilarating. As I leafed through my copy of the book earlier in order to double check a few facts before writing this review, I found myself happily re-reading some of the more compelling passages. While I was doing so, two (non-cyclist) friends stopped by and I read out loud to them Mr. Krabbé's dramatic account of Charley Gaul's stunning victory in the 1956 Giro d'Italia ... and they were unimpressed.
Which brings me to why I withheld one star from what I think is an excellent book: its appeal is far from universal. Unless you are a rider -- or at the very least, a serious fan of the sport or very close to someone who is a rider -- then I think it will be difficult to appreciate the discussions of the nervousness that accompanies a rapid descent from the mountains or the thought that goes into choosing the right gears.
But if you are a serious (or semi- or formerly-serious) rider, I can't imagine that you wouldn't be as thrilled by this book as I was.
If you do get a copy, my one piece of "strategic" advice would be to keep careful track of the names Mr. Krabbé mentions, famous and otherwise: to an English speaker's ear, many may sound quite similar. In addition to Mr. Krabbé himself we meet riders called Kléber, Koblet, Coppi, Caput, Kübler, and Clemons. And don't even get me started on the mouthful that many Dutch names represent to non-natives. Not that that sort of thing would be much of a stumbling block for anyone accustomed to the rigors of cycling.