16 Jun 2020

The Rider | Tim Krabbe

I discovered this (apparently cult-classic, published in 1978) short novel when Simon Mottram, the founder of Rapha, kept citing it in an interview as the kernel of inspiration for Rapha’s brand and ethos. He spoke of The Rider so matter of factly, like it was just a part of the air that we cyclists breathe. So I looked it up on the spot, thinking I’d just add it to my queue to read later. But after reading the opening passage, I was hooked and read the entire thing straight through:

Meyruies, Lozere, June 26, 1977. Hot and overcast. I take my gear out of the
car and put my bike together. Tourists and locals are watching from sidewalk cafes. Non-racers. The emptiness of those lives shocks me.

What a way to open! This dry, blunt humor is both deadly serious and yet somehow self-abasing all at once, and it immediately sucked me in. I was compelled by how unapologetically author Tim Krabbe (also our main character) distills his devotion to the sport of cycling.

In The Rider, we don’t get chapters, we get kilometer markers, as our author and titular rider Tim Krabbe marks his progress through the road race he is recounting: the Tour de Mont Aigoual, his 309th race, this one being 134 kilometers, four cols, and four and a half hours long, working its way up and over Mont Aigoual in the South of France, the “sweetest, toughest race of the season”.

The Tour de Mont Aigoual is the sweetest, toughest race of the season.

What follows, then, is the interior monologue of the rider: what is happening in the race, right when it happens, from Krabbe’s perspective. This of course includes the events of the race: the “continuously shifting braid of the peloton”; breakaways forming and then getting caught; a break finally sticking; tactics on the climbs and crashes on the descents; the changing weather; rivals puncturing at the worst possible moment; the sprint into the finish… the ebb and flow is absolutely engrossing, at least to this avid cyclist, and I was compulsively turning the pages and staying up past my bedtime to see what happens next. Krabbe in the lead; Krabbe gets caught… oh no, the Cycles Goff rider has gained a many-minute advantage! Who is that rider anyways?

It’s possible this would all be excruciatingly boring to the non-cyclist, but I don’t think so, because ultimately it is something much more universal, the struggle against self, that forms the bedrock of The Rider. As Krabbe himself put it, “You don’t have to like whaling to like Moby Dick. And you don’t have to like cycling to like my book. Of course, it helps.”

Cyclist or not, we get to traverse the raw and ever-changing interior mental and emotional landscape of the rider, as mercurial as the parcours of the race, darting from supreme confidence to crippling fear; from enjoying the pleasure of fellow riders’ company to despising their presence; from soaring hopefulness to utter despair… through all this, Krabbe captures the essence of cycling. People ask me why I ride, and I will probably always be chasing the evolving answer, but at the very least I can now simply point them to The Rider. It’s all here.

In that same interview, Krabbe asserts that “Once you start explaining things you degrade them. They’re only what they are in themselves.” And so to that end, I’ll simply say that I cycle because I can, and I’ll conclude by selecting some passages that really resonated with my own experiences in cycling:

‘Good legs?’ the guy beside me asks. ‘We’ll see. And you?’

This nervous energy is so familiar; it can be found on every start line of every race everywhere. It’s so pointless, this back and forth, but we can’t help ourselves! By the time we’re lining up at the start, everyone is what they are. You’ve either trained or you haven’t; you either feel good or you don’t. I hate this banter, because it just adds to the edge and anticipation I’m already feeling. Leave me be! Don’t impose your insecurities on me! Don’t invoke mine!

The first climb won’t be for another thirty kilometers, at Les Vignes. I’m longing for it, just like when I’m doing it I’ll long for it to be over.

So true. This might be the central paradox of climbing. It can be so excruciating — your heart rate and breathing on the limit; your legs screaming; stinging sweat rolling into your eyes; the tendons in your forearms aching as you desperately tug on the bars; the tarmac seemingly touching your nose as you round a really steep ramp and head into the next switchback… I daydream about this peak experience, yearn for it, and then at some point will become desperate for it to be over. It’s the arc that matters; you need the anticipation to prepare for the suffering, and you need the suffering to enjoy the triumph of completion.

The riders had little opportunity to admire the breathtaking landscape.

This is always a source of guilt for me, especially on my “adventure” rides where I’m intentionally seeking out new routes and scenery instead of just trying to hammer out a solid training ride. Shouldn’t I be absorbing the scenery more? Shouldn’t I stop to take more photos?

The truth, though, is that flying past that breathtaking scenery enhances it in its own way. The oxygen debt and endorphins amplify the landscape’s beauty; whipping down Page Mill Road such that I can only safely cast a quick, sideways glance out over Silicon Valley only serves to make the view that much rarer and more exquisite; the sound and feeling of the wind rushing over me pairs with the visual input in a way that makes it more striking… there have been times when I have stopped to take a picture only to find the view somehow diminished… there is magic in the motion, turning a meadow of tall, dead, yellow grass into a beautiful tapestry whirring by.

Keep the steer steady, going slow here. The way I see it, your handlebars move forward and you just have to make sure you don’t let go. You need strong arms for that. I view my wrists, stretched out in front of me to the bars, straight as ramrods. They’ve become so tanned, almost black in the wrinkles. The little hairs lie next to each other in wet rows, pointing away from me. I find my wrists incredibly beautiful. I climb.

I find this to be so funny. Cyclists can be such vain creatures. And while I can’t say I’ve ever admired my own wrists, I must admit to similar thoughts: looking down as I pedal an even cadence and marveling at how strong my legs look. Or maybe cursing how weak they look. It just depends upon how I’m feeling on the climb. I’ve even had both thoughts on the very same climb…

Cycling is in many ways the pursuit of perfection, and since such a huge component of this perfection stems from the rider’s own physique, it’s natural and almost impossible not to reflect on our own body. It’s weird to acknowledge it out loud, but doing so is a way of constantly measuring and marking our tangible progress.

A hard stretch of hill. I’m not going to shift down, though, I come up off the
saddle, I’m pushing it. One more kilometer to climb. It’s so incredibly
pitiful that I ever wanted to do this, but now I’m stuck with it.

The essence of climbing. It’s so true — that eager excitement for a big climb, and then I settle into it, and the agony starts, but I bear it, and carry on, and then it’s too much, and my power drops, but now I’m committed. I’m closer to the top than the bottom. Turning around would be defeat. The self-loathing, to want to do this, but to then have to suffer so when I do. To have to slowly wind my way up. Ah, to climb.

When I withdrew to Anduze in 1973 for my first period of cyclo-literary
hermitry, I believed that, while cycling, I would come up with thoughts and
ideas for the stories I’d be writing the rest of the time. Fat chance. The
rest of my time I spent jotting in my cycling logbook and keeping statistics
on my distances and times, and while cycling I thought of nothing at all.

I wrestle with the exact same dilemma. You’d think that all the time on the bike is “down time” when you can constructively and actively think about your brain work, but you can’t, really. A hard ride is too demanding and a recreational ride too liberating to productively “work the problem” while on your bike. And once you become committed to cycling, it somehow manages to start filling up more and more of your life while you’re off your bike too: for Krabbe, jotting in his logbook; for the modern-day rider (me!), scrutinizing Strava. And reading about cycling. And planning my next ride. And, and, and…

On a bike your consciousness is small. The harder you work, the smaller it gets.

This underscores the therapeutic aspect of cycling and how it can be a form of meditation. I experience this shrinking of consciousness when riding. The riding demands being present, and especially as it gets harder, it can invoke the coveted and elusive state of flow. My world becomes the immediate sphere around my bike, and my purpose becomes the road before me. There is something very pure and gratifying in this.

I think this ties into why cycling has become so essential to my personal wellbeing. It’s a conduit for processing who I am right now. If I’m feeling happy, I can celebrate and amplify that on a care-free ride. If I’m feeling sad, I can reflect in quiet solitude. If I’m confused about why I’m feeling a certain way, I can do a long, slow endurance ride and just keep turning things over and over until the answer falls out. If I’m nervous about something coming up in the rest of my life, or if I’m angry, or if I’m frustrated, I can just go wring myself out on the climbs. Climbing can solve just about anything for me.

When I get cut off from cycling for whatever reason (normally because life gets busy), I get cut off from this open dialogue with myself. My wellbeing suffers.

Sometimes I can steer conscious thought on a ride, but mostly I have really dumb and small thoughts. Or hyper-focused, micro-thoughts, thoughts like: I should shift. I should shift back. I’m thirsty. This climb is going great. Sometimes I strive to empty my mind and experience no thought: if something is bothering me and I can’t even escape it out on my ride, then I’m really in trouble. Mind control. Perfect quiescence. Protect my personal sovereignty.

I rarely have intricate thoughts while riding, but stuff does seem to sift out over the course of a ride and by the time I finish I’ve at least prepared the canvas, even if I haven’t painted anything.

I try to return from a ride a better person than when I set out.

Four more kilometers uphill. I put my hand in my back pocket, pull out a fig. A drop of sweat on the inside of Barthélemy’s glasses magnifies this action. The firm ripple of sinew with which that Krabbé lifts a fig, like it was nothing!

This is hilarious, but gets at something deeper. How cycling on our limit can amplify our self-confidence and self-pleasure. It’s the little things.

Bicycle racing is a hard sport. A rider’s body has to ripen; it’s also a mature sport. The average winner of the Tour de France is twenty-nine years old. You do have the occasional prodigy, but those who mean him well keep him from exhibiting it. In 1977, the nineteen-year-old Italian Saronni was one of those. He skipped over all kinds of phases and was right away one of the so-many best riders in the world. Publicity! His managers wanted him to ride the Giro d’Italia. Saronni himself thought that was a wonderful idea. But, shortly before the race, he broke his collarbone. ‘The best thing that happened to Saronni in 1977,’ Merckx said later, ‘was that he broke his collarbone.’

The Rider seamlessly weaves fiction, semi-fiction, non-fiction and history all throughout. And one more bit of history, exquisitely rendered, that I can’t leave out:

Maertens and De Vlaeminck were bitter rivals. ‘De Vlaeminck is the one who let them go,’ Maertens figured quite rightly. ‘So it’s up to him to bridge the gap.’ He waited. The gap grew and grew. ‘He wants to win, so let him bridge the gap,’ thought Maertens. ‘He wants to win, so let him bridge the gap,’ thought De Vlaeminck. Both of them knew that the one who finally bridged the gap would use up energy to his rival’s benefit. What mattered now was: staying patient. Both riders stayed patient: bravo. The winner of the 1976 Tour of Flanders was Walter Planckaert.

Too good.

A disturbing thought: I’m being followed by people who are gliding along warm and motionless, and who may actually be bored to tears.

Krabbe is referring to the coaches and support staff in the “team” cars here, who follow along behind the racers. This contrast underscores the heightened and amplified experience that the physical strain of cycling affords us. People often ask: “How do you ride for so long; isn’t it boring?”

Well, not when it feels so agonizingly great and you are doing everything you can just to sustain it! I think this is why watching road cycling is so much more interesting to cyclists: we can imagine what the rider might be feeling, thinking… I admire non-cyclists who enjoy watching cycling because I think it speaks to a certain degree of empathy. They identify with the rider even though they are not one, and they imagine what the rider is going through even though they have not gone through it themself.

A cow. It’s not watching.

Krabbe’s remark as he passes the only potential spectator in sight. This is so funny to me (having passed by many a disinterested cow up in Petaluma) and highlights how pointless it all is. It’s simultaneously the most and least important thing in the world, racing bikes….

I’m not having any trouble with these curves, I’m much too tired now to worry about matters of life and death. This is about something completely different: about me winning this race.

I descend so much better when I’m able to just let go. Ironically, I find it’s safest when I’m not worrying about safety. When I stop worrying, I start flowing smoothly through the bends, in control, and get down in no time.

In interviews with riders that I’ve read and in conversations I’ve had with them, the same thing always comes up: the best part was the suffering.

The suffering provides the meaning. The suffering empowers me to finish the ride with a bit more than I started with. The suffering is what brings the personal fulfillment; the agency. The suffering is the necessary contrast, the counterbalance that makes the subsequent relaxing that much sweeter.

And then you’re at the summit. You look out over the land; you drink a bit; a ruddy sense of well-being courses through your whole body, and a great desire wells up in you to climb this mountain again some day.