“On a bike, your consciousness is small”: a book review

“Meyrueis, Lozère, 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 cafés. Non-racers. The emptiness of those lives shocks me.”

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That’s the opening paragraph of Tim Krabbé’s novel, De Renner (1978), translated out of the Dutch by Sam Garrett for a 2002 Bloomsbury paperback, The Rider (0-7475-5941-4; £6.99). Instantly, we are at the beginning of the action: the novel will follow, kilometre by kilometre, a top amateur race in the Gorges du Tarn region of France. And we are thrown just as decisively into the protagonist’s state of mind – the monomania of the racing cyclist, who scorns everyone but those who, among his own kind, race in the way he recognises and esteems.

Rod MacFadyen lent me a copy of this novel late last year. It is a book that should be read within the duration of the race it describes. As the kilometres and the cols go by, the narrator (Tim Krabbé indulgently re-imagined by himself as a real contender) is in the breakaway group that must produce the race winner. With him, finally, are a fellow spirit, Kléber (‘He lives to ride’), an immensely strong veteran, Lebusque, and a wheelsucker ominously impervious to all admonitions, the youthful Reilhan. Around Krabbé, a wraith-like peloton of the great riders travel along with the hero, as their examples, their adages, and his fantasies of emulation goad and sustain him. The rhythm of the book in part captures the growing exhaustion of the hero, as his reveries become increasingly prominent as he rides to his physical limit. As only the best stories can bring about, the reader is in conflict between taking the time to enjoy sufficiently the insightfulness of every page, and the urge to rush ahead to reach the finish – will he get it, the big win that his choice in life has led him to and now brought him in sight of, the win he deserves?

The Rider is immensely convincing: this race had to have happened, and had to have been ridden out exactly as told. About half way through my reading, I decided that I had to follow the narrative on a map as well, and only when I found that I could exactly follow the race in the Michelin road atlas of France, and see the kilometerage of the race coming exactly off the page, did I think that I was actually looking at an imaginative writer’s research. Further research of my own into the author himself revealed that he had indeed been intensely fascinated with cycling, but in his prime was just too bulky a rider to have been ‘de Renner’ of the novel.

‘The rider’, whose body is a subject as deeply fascinating to him as his mind. He describes training harder and harder, and says of his body as it adapts to carry out his will, ‘I was touched by its loyalty’. He attacks in the race, and says this (and this is typical of Krabbé’s vividity) – ‘The decision catches me off guard. The way you can mull endlessly over getting up in the morning – and suddenly find yourself standing next to the bed. Your body got up, and you were in it’. ‘Why do I do it?’ he asks himself, over and over, amid the epic suffering that an 85 mile race over long climbs can inflict. And he allows himself an unrestrained expression of bike sentiment by way of answer: ‘after the finish all the suffering turns to memories of pleasure, and the greater the suffering, the greater the pleasure. That is Nature’s pay-back to riders for the homage they pay her by suffering.’ People in general, he reflects ‘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…’

And isn’t it true, that many people go through life just ignorant of what their bodies can do, while the bike, in our otherwise over-comfortable lives, informs us exactly about what we might achieve in a proper ordeal?

‘I am a hero, you see’, reflects our hero: the novel admits us to that private confession. Does the novel know about a cost in this solipsistic self-realisation? Krabbé’s other novels are The Vanishing and The Cave. As a professional academic, I’d never let a small detail like never having read either of them stop me forming a surmise about them. What you remember from the former novel (in film form) is that the hero, so as to know, consents to have the abductor of his girlfriend repeat on him whatever it was that happened: and he wakes up from a sedative drug buried alive in a coffin. You choose to enter a cave, a cave doesn’t just happen to you: the hero of de Grot is an academic who descends into drug smuggling, loses his moral bearings in pursuit of money to fund an excavation. Krabbé has to be interested in the self-knowledge found among decisions made against normal inclination, and a kind of liberation amid vanishing options.

The rider traverses an immense landscape, but is the prisoner of his own obsession: at one point, the alienation expressed in that opening paragraph flashes out in sexual form, in his sudden hatred of a pretty girl whose encouraging shout interrupts his reverie, and draws his bilious attention. His chosen form of fulfilment may or may not arrive at the end of 137 kilometres.

The author’s main fame is as a chess expert, who has assembled a collection of the most amazing chess moves of all time. The Rider makes some explicit analogies, in its attention to the fluctuations of a race: a racer, like a chess player, can always make a sacrificial move. We see move countering move, the attempts to make the opponent make the wrong play, the disbelief when a great position evaporates. Always, Krabbé writes brilliantly about the opacities of decision-making. The hero cites Henri Pélissier’s impossible imperative: ‘Always attack as late as you can, but before the others do’.

You will all know that the Dutch love their cycling, and also, being an intelligent people, they love the literature in their language. This, charmingly, has precipitated the fictional ‘Tour de Mont Aiguoal’ into reality. The race that Krabbé invented now exists, at least as a cyclo-sportive, when hundreds of Dutch enthusiasts enact on the real roads the pages they read. Krabbé himself apparently had the salutary experience of realising that he was simply too overweight (at its first running) to attempt to ride the route on which he had imagined himself contesting a race win. He has since, got into good enough shape to participate in his own dream. This is nice, but in the end, has to be an instance of the reality being somehow more fictional than the utterly authentic fiction that inspired it: Krabbé’s brilliance dooms him to having been more of a road racer when writing a book than he could ever be when riding the roads in actuality.

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