The Rider: Revealed – Bike Magazine Australia

Words by Tom Vanderbilt.  Photography by Rudd Baan.

They are, almost certainly, the most famous words ever written in any book about cycling:

“Meyrueis, 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.”

They are, of course, the opening words in Tim Krabbe’s ‘The Rider’, the cycling memoir masquerading as novel, originally published in the Netherlands in 1978. They perfectly set the tone for the book itself: laconic, filled with diary-like, banal observations, but then subtly exploding into terse kernels of truth, pathos, and caustic humour.

The Rider, which did not appear in English until 2002, has become a touchstone in cycling, passed like samizdat among a clandestine tribe. It wasn’t long after I set about trying to ride a bike seriously that I began to hear what sounded like a secret knock: “Have you read The Rider?”

For the uninitiated – and oh, what pleasures await! – The Rider, all 148 pages of it, as lean and purposeful as a time-trial bike in a wind tunnel, is a kilometre-by-kilometre account of an amateur bike race in a sleepy corner of the south of France in the summer of 1977.

The “rider” the book follows is one “Tim Krabbe” as, over the course of five hours, he engages in a protracted struggle, mental as much as physical, in the Tour de Mont Aigoual. The race, now lost to history, once wound its way through the cols and valleys of the Cevennes.

His antagonists are a group of breakaway riders: his rival Barthelemy; the friendly Despuech, whose “specialty was the sprint for sixth place; in that he was truly invincible”; the “wheel-sucker” Reilhan; and the mysterious future pro in the “Cycles Goff” jersey.

What makes The Rider so great – beyond the immediate dramatic arc of its sporting narrative – is the way it captures, at such short length, the entirety of the cycling experience.

There are the little Zen koans of wisdom about race tactics: “Always attack as late as you can, but before the others do.” There are the litanies about what goes on (or does not) in a rider’s mind: “On a bike your consciousness is small. The harder you work, the smaller it gets.” There are the quirky rituals riders go through, like new bar tape “for morale”, or how Jacques Anquetil was said to move his bidon to his jersey pocket on climbs so his bike would weigh less.

Suffering is celebrated (“I’m the only rider in the world whose pain I’ve ever felt”), but secrets are also confessed – like silently wishing for a puncture so you could just end the suffering with dignity. There are the brief asides that perfectly illuminate the oft-perverse dynamics of the sport; e.g. the 1976 Tour of Flanders, when Freddy Maertens and Roger de Vlaeminck let a group of escapees go because neither wanted to help his rival win – hence they both lost.

And, lastly, the Nietzschean fulminations about the soft underbelly of modern life. “People have become woolly mice,” Krabbe writes. “They still have bodies that can walk for five days and four nights through a desert of snow, without food, but they accept praise for having taken a one-hour bicycle ride.”

The book more than gets under your skin, it gets into your blood. The journalist Max Leonard, author of Lanterne Rouge and Higher Calling, tells me that he read The Rider “pretty early on”, and then, years later, when he reread it, “got really annoyed and disappointed” to find that much of what he considered to be his own original thoughts about cycling were “things I had just assimilated from the book”.

Rereading it myself recently, I found myself nodding in agreement at any number of things I had forgotten from the book, but often experienced in real life. Like how a fellow racer in the Tour de Mont Aigoual tells our rider at the start line how little time he has had to train. “All riders say that, always,” writes Krabbe. “As if they’re afraid to be judged by that part of their ability they can actually take credit for.”

The book has had a wide and profound influence. Laurens ten Dam, the Dutch pro rider with Team Sunweb, recounts via telephone from his team bus at the Tour of the Basque Country this past spring, that when he was growing up, as a fan of racing but not yet a racer, information about cycling, in those pre-internet days, was a bit thin on the ground. He haunted the library.

“There was nothing but books about cycling,” he says. “And everything you could get in your hands was like gold.” One of those books was The Rider, which he says he has “reread like 10 times”. While his younger, non-Dutch teammates may be less aware of it, ten Dam says: “Every Dutch guy who’s a little into cycling knows the first five sentences of the book.”

The book’s cult began to spread more widely when, after more than two decades, it was translated into English (wonderfully, by Sam Garrett). That only happened once Krabbe – already well known in the Netherlands as not only a novelist, but also a chess master – had become relatively famous, following the film adaptation of his book The Vanishing, the disturbing tale of a woman’s kidnapping in the south of France at a rest stop (in the film, on which he has a writing credit, the couple has bikes on the roof, and the Tour de France plays on the radio in the background).

One of the people who discovered The Rider when it finally appeared in English was Simon Mottram, the founder and CEO of Rapha. The translation was published just as Mottram was putting together ideas for his new company. “I read it cover to cover in two hours and thought, thank God, somebody has totally articulated – totally nailed – the fundamental appeal of road cycling and road racing,” he says.

The book was mainlined right into the company’s DNA. For its first photo shoot – the first of the soon-to-be-iconic paeans to beautifully lit, grainy suffering – it sent two riders and a crew to the very site of Krabbe’s race. All new Rapha employees are given two books: Built to Last, a business book, and The Rider.

“All of bike racing is in that book,” he says. In Rapha’s early days, the company even sold it on its website, where Mottram says it sold more briskly than on Amazon. “To say we are fans,” he says, “would be an understatement.”

Mottram has always thought the book would make the “perfect” film. “The film would be interesting to people who weren’t cyclists,” he says. “Because it’s actually about suffering, and application, and struggling against yourself.”

Film rights actually have been purchased by a film composer named Michael Rohatyn. As I discover when I call him, he lives on my very Brooklyn block. While not a fanatical rider himself, he sees in The Rider “the potential for a great sports movie, like Downhill Racer.”

It could have been about tennis, he says, about anything. “This is really about mental breakdown and self-punishment and that feeling of frustration of being who you are.”

Krabbe writes in The Rider, as he is eclipsed by the pack in a flashback to a race before the one in France: “I’d given up a few thousand hours of my life to prove that I belonged with them, and now it turned out that this was not the case.” (As for the film, Rohatyn says, “It’s moving along.”)

Simply talking about the book, says Rapha’s Mottram, “makes me think I need to go out and ride it again.” He means read it, of course, but the slip, Freudian perhaps, is entirely understandable. For nothing else you will read feels as much like riding.

On a crisp spring morning, I am on a bike waiting at an intersection in Zeeburg, a neighborhood on Amsterdam’s east side, watching the city’s teeming two-wheeled morning commute. “Tom?” I hear, as Tim Krabbe rolls up on an Eddy Merckx road bike, tanned, thin, with no sunglasses, his bushy, grey-flecked eyebrows and twinkling eyes peeking out from his helmet.

He looks both ways, then rolls through the red light, motioning me forward. “I’m known,” he says, as we settle in, two abreast, “for not waiting for red lights.”

With the 40th anniversary of The Rider approaching, I had come to Amsterdam to catch up with this writer/racer/chess master, who has always been something of an enigma. Could he still be riding? What does he make of the book’s curious four-decade journey? Which of the characters in the book were real, and which were ghosts of Krabbe’s imagination?

We’re heading to the meeting spot of the Tuesday ride with his cycling club, the Windjammers, a wide-ranging group of locals (Dutch nationals and expats). Krabbe tells me that, as of last December, he has “retired” from the Windjammers’ “A” squad, as he terms it, which does a harder, faster ride on Thursdays. In my honour, however, in addition to the fact that he will be turning 74 this Thursday, he has agreed to do both.

The ride is a 45-mile loop around the “waterlands” north of the city. It’s all narrow roads, flat green polders, some archetypal tulips, tidy houses on canals, cows, minor ascents of earthen dikes, and wind – the legendary “Dutch mountains” and “Dutch descents”. The first thing I notice about Krabbe is how strong he is, unafraid to take lengthy pulls up front, even to take on a sprint or two.

As the ride continues, I never seem to find him alongside me so I watch from a distance as he banters and jokes with the peloton, mostly in Dutch, a combination of slightly cantankerous (and essentially deaf in one ear) elder statesman and merry prankster.

Paul Santen, a former Dutch Basketball League player and now a sports marketer who helped found the group a few years back (the name, he says, is a mashup of Holland’s seafaring past, the fact that many of its riders seemed to be tall – like the ships – and the idea that “that’s what we do, we literally jam the wind”), tells me, as we stop at a member’s farmhouse midride for coffee and cake, that he met Krabbe one day six years ago by chance at a red light.

“One of the few that he stopped for,” he jokes. Santen, well aware of who he was, invited him to join the group. “He was still racing,” he says, “and he said he’d be happy to join.” On the first ride, Krabbe crashed and badly bruised his ribs. “I thought, oh no, not him,” says Santen. “He’ll never ride with us again.”

After finally quitting racing in 2012, Krabbe kept riding with the Windjammers – and kept crashing (five times last year). “He’s a man of steel,” Santen says, in a tone of sober awe. At Krabbe’s “retirement” dinner, a Windjammers member (a musician) penned a Dylan knockoff, “Jamming in the Wind,” as a tribute (sample lyric, in honour of his erratic way-finding: “How many roads did he try in the North, before he knew his way around?”)

In Amsterdam, everyone seemed to have heard of Tim Krabbe – for different reasons. The manager at the Rapha store tells me she used to ride with the Windjammers. “Oh, yes, Tim!” When I told a professor at a local polytechnic I was meeting Krabbe, he said: “The chess player?”

A friend I had dinner with smiled in recognition and said “Het Gouden Ei!” (or, The Golden Egg, the original title of The Vanishing). Someone else pointed out that Krabbe had written the Boekenweekgeschenk – the “book gift” that is given away with every bookstore purchase during an annual literary festival in the Netherlands.

One night, at De Kring, a members-only literary club to which I had wrangled an invitation (Krabbe himself is a member), an older man in a tweed suit, after he had asked why I was in town, said “ah, De Renner” – as The Rider is known in the Netherlands.

After the ride, Krabbe – this man of many guises – and I return to his apartment, on a high floor of a large, modern black high-rise on KNSM Island, in the city’s far eastern reaches, one of a series of infill projects constructed on islands originally built to deflect waves. His living room is dominated by a sweeping view of the IJ River and the flat waterlands beyond.

“This is the widest part of the water,” he says, gesturing below. “Where cruise ships turn around. It takes them three-quarters of an hour.” When he was married (“luckily,” he notes, “my ex-wife is one of my most important friends”), he lived in a narrow canal house on the Leidsegracht, in the city’s centre. “It was very nice, but in some ways it was like a cage – on the brightest summer day, you needed artificial light.”

I get the sense that he likes being in this watery aerie, far from the town centre (but close to the best cycling), where he can work on his next book (“800 pages,” he jokes), play internet chess, and slip out for Windjammers rides. On the wall is a painting of a boy, which Krabbe tells me is of his son, Esra, painted by Tim’s father.

When he was in his teens, Esra (until then a “completely non-academic guy,” Krabbe says), developed an obsession with Japanese games and martial arts. It was no passing fancy: He began to learn the language and then moved to Tokyo to attend high school. He still lives in Japan, speaks Japanese better than Dutch, and, carrying his father’s athletic genes, has done competitive karate and kickboxing. Last August, Esra and his wife had twins, adding another facet to Krabbe’s profile: grandfather.

Krabbe was born in Amsterdam to an artistic family. His father was a noted painter, his mother a translator. His brother, Jeroen, is a well-known actor (among other roles, the archetypal Bond villain in The Living Daylights). Krabbe had two early passions, writing and chess.

His first novel was published, to some success, when he was 23, even as he was on the competitive chess circuit, playing in the finals of the Dutch championships. Sensing that he wasn’t quite good enough to make it at the very top levels, he gradually began to withdraw from competitive chess.

And besides, something else was beginning to occupy his time, and his mind: cycling. He had always been interested, as a spectator, in racing, but he began, in the early 1970s, to test himself with solo time trials, trying to top a friend’s time on a route. Of course, in the era before GPS and Strava, even figuring out the exact length of a route was a challenge.

In a passage in The Rider (which, like most of it, he says, is true), he describes riding with a bag of matchsticks. Every 100 pedal strokes, he would drop a match. At the end, he counted the leftover matches, multiplied by one hundred, multiplied all that by 5.39 – a figure taken from the gearing ratio and the wheel circumference – and had his exact length. “I’ve always been a numbers guy,” he says, shrugging (small wonder, then, to find him on Strava, with some 39,000 lifetime miles).

He broke his friend’s record on a hybrid bike, wearing tennis shoes, in the early 1970s. “I noticed that I wasn’t that bad.” The training got more serious. A new, not fully elite-level racing category for amateurs was unveiled in the Netherlands. “I think with real top-level amateurs I would have been dropped too many times to start to like it,” he says.

The education came quick. “I didn’t even know what type of race I’d be racing.” He was dreaming, he says, of the Tour de France, climbing Mont Ventoux. Instead, he got brutal Dutch criteriums, 100 laps, 400 corners – “every corner was a sprint!”

But results began to come, 12th or 13th out of fields of 80. “I got in breakaways, I got in decisive breakaways. It was great!” After a few years, he moved to France, with the idea of combining writing and riding. The latter seemed to take over. In 1977, he had the “essential writer’s thought: I experienced something strange and interesting – so let’s write about it!” That something was cycling.

He wrote The Rider in the winter of 1977-78. “The race in the book was my 309th race,” he says (he keeps a diary of all his rides). “I knew I could not win the race, of course,” Krabbe says. “That would have been a disgusting book. But I knew I had to play some important part.” The race in The Rider is, he says, “90 to 95 percent real. If I had to change reality for the sake of a good story, I did,” he says. “With every novel, you’re not a domestique of reality. You’re the boss of the story.”

He sent it to a publishing friend interested in literary sports books. But upon its release, he says, he insisted he did not want to be interviewed in the sports pages of newspapers. He wanted it to be thought of, simply, as a novel. “I did not write it for cyclists,” he says. 

“You don’t have to like whaling to like Moby Dick, and you don’t have to like cycling to like my book,” he says. “Of course, it helps!”

The book landed in the Dutch Top 10. He was invited to write newspaper columns on cycling, offer commentary on the big races. But in 1980, he called it quits on racing. “I stopped, rather suddenly, because,” he says, fidgeting with a small pile of toothpicks, that he long ago broke into pieces, on the table before him, “I was aware there were other forms of life.”

Almost from the start, The Rider became something more than a book. It became a rite of passage. Krabbe began to receive postcards from Dutch cyclists who had done the route of The Rider. Over time, these pilgrimages became more regular, more popular, and more official.

When I talked to Max Leonard, he was on the verge of taking some journalists down, on behalf of Rapha, to ride the route (not for the first time). Leonard describes the area as “rustic,” a bit “spooky,” and doesn’t think “you could really ask for more from a 137-kilometre ride – fantastic scenery, no cars whatsoever, flats with beautiful meadows.”

As described in the book, the topography messes with your head. “You do all of your flat riding at the top,” says Leonard, “then go down into deep valleys, and up again.” As Krabbe writes: “The cols here are made of air and lie upside-down in the landscape.”

In 2003, on the 25th anniversary of The Rider, fans of the book organized a Tour de Tim Krabbe, which became an annual event in the 2000s. As part of the festivities, Krabbe, then 60, and a self-described “fat, old guy,” was riding the route – in a car.

“I started to get really jealous of these guys,” he says. “They were riding my roads.” He idly began talking to someone about training. “He said, if you’re really prepared to work for it, then you can do it.” And so his “second riding life” began. He started running to lose weight (“it’s more efficient”), then began entering master’s races.

This culminated in a second-place finish in the World Championships in Austria. “I could have been world champion!” he says, laughing. “It would have been a little ridiculous, age 65 plus – but there were guys from all over the world.”

His strength on the bike is evident on the harder Thursday Windjammers ride. After a long winter on the indoor trainer, I find it unnerving to be barreling down narrow Dutch lanes, my sight obscured, the warnings called out in Dutch, the group packed tight as canned mackerel, half-wheeling and all, fighting the savage headwind blowing in from the North Sea. As Krabbe writes in The Rider, “If there’s one thing Dutchmen know how to do, it’s form a paceline.” 

At some point, we turn onto another broad, flat road, this time attacked by a merciless scything crosswind. The group slips instantly, silently into an echelon formation; unprepared for the shift, I find myself isolated, and then spit out the back, dropped by this cagey grandfather and his mates.

Back at his apartment, I challenge the master to a few games of chess. Again I fall to a strategic blunder. “The queen can also go backwards,” he says, sighing, as he captures a key piece. There is a well-worn saying in chess, “the winner of the game is the person who makes the next-to-last-mistake.”

I tell him it sounds like something from bike racing – like someone attacking too early on a big climb. Does he see a comparison? He wrinkles his face and makes a guttural “bah” noise that signals an oncoming blast of invective. “Once you start explaining things you degrade them. They’re only what they are in themselves.”

Chess, he thunders, is “absolutely not a sign of intelligence!” It is not a metaphor. What makes it interesting are the discrete moves that can hardly be explained to people who do not play.

Similarly, the Krabbe of The Rider is always lamenting the inability of the outsider to comprehend the tactics, or motivations, of riders. Why risk a mass sprint for seventh place, he wonders.

“How long before I run into someone who knows how good that was?” When a man watching the race shouts “Faster!” Krabbe responds with pity: “Probably thinks bicycle racing is about going fast.” A girl who shouts “Allez!” triggers a rant about how racing has become just another cliche.

“Never will I be able to make it clear to her that I don’t race because I wanted to lose weight, because turning 30 horrified me, because I was dissatisfied with cafe life, because I wanted to write this book, or because of anything else at all,” he wrote. Why, then, does he do it? “Purely and simply because it’s road racing.”

That same fierce purity animates The Rider. “That’s what makes it a good book,” he says, pounding the table. “If I’m allowed to say that. It’s not an excuse for something else, it does not have a social background, it does not try to say anything about humanity. It’s just about a race.”

The way Moby Dick was just about a whale.

Copyright © 2016 Rodale Inc.