The Rider

Cycling. Literature. These are 2 words rarely used in the same sentence. Great minds seldom, if ever, ponder our sport. During the 1920s, Ernest Hemingway was an avid spectator of the six-day bicycle races at Paris’s VĂ©lodrome d’Hiver. Hemingway dragged many friends along (some less than willingly), including John Dos Passos. Unfortunately, Hemingway turned out The Old Man and the Sea, not The Old Man and the Velodrome. My dream is to have a seminal cycling moment woven into the tapestry of an epic tome in the manner of Don Delillo’s superb Underworld. The opening scene, taking place in NYC’s Polo Grounds in 1951 culminating with “the shot heard around the world”, is utterly breathtaking (even though it’s, gasp, baseball). David Foster Wallace also has a predilection for weighty, dense novels such as Infinite Jest, but he’s enamored with tennis. Maybe I can convince Neal Stephenson to take a crack at cycling… Anyway, while Tim Krabbe is hardly on the plane of prose heavyweights such as Don Delillo, Krabbe’s slight novel (it’s on the cusp of being a lengthy novella) The Rider, however, is a work worthy of the literature label (although the competition in the genre of cycling literature is rather insubstantial). The plot encompasses an entire 150 km. race in the foothills of the French Alps from the point of view of a marginally accomplished amateur cyclist who came to the sport too late in life. Oddly enough, or maybe not so oddly enough, the protagonist is also named Tim Krabbe. Throughout the course of the race Krabbe reflects on his previous races, legendary professional cyclists and their successes and failures on the bike, superstitions, and just the random and occasionally bizarre thoughts that course through one’s brain while the body endures episodes of immense suffering. I was amused by Krabbe pondering his tanned, sweaty, beautiful wrists while in a lactic acid induced mental fog on a difficult climb.

If someone unfamiliar with the sport of cycling asked me what racing a bicycle is all about I’d hand them this book. Krabbe was an accomplished Dutch amateur cyclist and his keen insight into the physical as well as psychological facets of the sport are all too evident. Krabbe is probably most well known for writing the novel upon which the excellent film The Vanishing was based. Make sure you see the original Dutch version, not the crappy American re-make. If one pays attention to the radio frequently playing in the background noise, one can hear the play-by-play of Bernard Hinault’s and Joop Zootemelk’s epic duel in the 1980 Tour de France.

Another noteworthy aspect of Krabbe’s life, alluded to in The Rider, is his passion for chess. Before becoming a racing cyclist, Krabbe was one of the best chess players in the Netherlands. While cycling no longer seems to consume his time or thoughts to any notable extent, chess is still a central element of his life. His current project is a website called Tim Krabbe’s Chess Curiosites. I have a casual interest in chess, mostly the human element concerning the freakishly eccentric players throughout history and not so much the actual tactical, move-by-move analysis. While much of the site constitutes analysis which goes right over my head, there is still plenty of interesting articles about chess history, theory, and personalities to keep one busy if there’s spare time to kill.

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