The Rider by Tim Krabbe

Arguably the most famous date in literary fiction is June 16, 1904…Bloomsday…the single day James Joyce steers protagonists Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus throughout the streets of Dublin. “Ulysses” is a fearsomely lengthy, legendary tome: dense, complex, employing different literary styles for each of the 18 chapters, the object of a landmark obscenity trial. Yet it’s also a love affair with his native Dublin, penned in exile. Says Joyce, “I want to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book.” Buried hundreds of pages into the book, the date is revealed to the reader in a solitary mention. And why June 16, 1904? It was the day of Joyce’s first date with his wife-to-be Nora Barnacle.

The Rider. By Tim Krabbe.

The Rider. By Tim Krabbe. A book every cyclist should read.

Style-wise, Tim Krabbe’s elegantly crafted novella “The Rider” is the anti-Ulysses: stripped down prose, crisp sentences, a sleek and svelte 148 pages in length. It, too, takes place on a solitary day, June 26, 1977, revealed in the very first sentence. Thirty-eight years ago today, in fact. It’s a book which can be comfortably digested in a single sitting. It’s a book which definitively addresses what it means to be a racing cyclist. And it’s a book which will stay with you for as long as your passion for cycling flickers.

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.

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 is 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 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.

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