Ian O’Riordan: Think you understand the fellowship of the rider? Think again

The Rider by Tim Krabbé encapsulates the Zen of cycling – two wheels to rule them all

There is a fellowship among the riders now which has a power beyond stopping to help with a puncture in Glencree or a broken a chain over Luggala

There is a fellowship among the riders now which has a power beyond stopping to help with a puncture in Glencree or a broken a chain over Luggala

 

“Meyrueis, Lozère, June 26th, 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.”

It was somewhere on the crest of Cruagh Road next to the signs saying the cruellest month was getting soft when something and everything about that perfectly terse and startling introduction came to mind.

That of course being The Rider, by Dutch cyclist and chess master turned author Tim Krabbé, which, like On the Road and The Great Gatsby, deserves to be read on a slow continuous, loop and was completed again this week with all the necessary and compelling insights the book will always offer and contain.

Because this is a book written not just with timeless and tireless simplicity and ease, where every little conflicting reason to get out on the bike still counts, but with a reminder too that just when you think you might understand the fellowship of the rider, it teaches you some more.

It’s no secret to the road cyclist that The Rider is our bidon and bible, the best thing that has ever been penned on either the subjective or objective experience of this art and exercise. To the last word it’s the most truthful and wise and humorous paean to all the pain and pleasure and what has and always will be that unique fellowship of the rider on a road bike.

Krabbé turned 78 this week and, like Vangelis or Dylan, lives a properly enigmatic existence, in his case somewhere in Amsterdam (and good luck trying to get an interview). His style of writing too seems to follow the same bloodlines of JD Salinger, William Hazlitt and John Healy and, even at a mere 148 pages, there is not a wasted word – or thought, for that matter.

Like most great writers or actors, Krabbé never enjoyed even talking about his book, as if that process might somehow degrade it

It was written in the winter of 1978, wasn’t published in English until 2002, and still somehow reads even louder with each passing year, as if Krabbé’s imagination itself is on some sort of continuously reinventing loop. Non-racers or riders may well know Krabbé better for one of his other books, The Vanishing, first published in Dutch in 1984 as Het Gouden Ei (The Golden Egg), the wicked tale of a woman’s kidnapping in the south of France at a highway rest stop and later made into a super Dutch film for which Krabbé co-wrote a script, before a less-tidy American remake in 1993.

Gentle rush

While Krabbé was always adamant he didn’t write The Rider for cyclists – “You don’t have to like whaling to like Moby Dick, and you don’t have to like cycling to like my book” – it certainly helps if you’ve sampled that gentle rush and slow thrill which comes with cycling on the open road, and especially those moments which don’t just bring you closer to the elements around you, but bring you within them.

Like most great writers or actors, Krabbé never enjoyed even talking about his book either, whether as a cult or classic read, as if that process might somehow degrade it. Still, from that opening paragraph, where he looks at the non-riders around him – the emptiness of those lives that shocks him – it is by turns of the page viciously heartfelt and despairingly real and unquestionably all about a bicycle race and the mental and physical struggles contained within.

It’s essentially condensed too into the five-hour amateur bike race that either was or is the mythical Tour de Mont Aigoual, through the high peaks and deep valleys of the Cévennes from where, on a clear day, it is possible to see the Mediterranean Sea and the Pyrenees and the Alps in the one panoramic view.

All suffering is suitably embraced, so listen to this: “The greater the suffering, the greater the pleasure. That is nature’s payback to riders for the homage they pay her by suffering. Velvet pillows, safari parks, sunglasses; people have become woolly mice. Instead of expressing their gratitude for the rain by getting wet, people walk around with umbrellas. Nature is an old lady with few friends these days, and those who wish to make use of her charms, she rewards passionately.”

That rider in front of me happened to be on an electric bike, and we could only smile and laugh at each other as we exchanged positions on the road

There are magnificent revelations too – “on a bike your consciousness is small; the harder you work, the smaller it gets” and “always attack as late as you can, but before the others do” – and it was in here that most riders first discovered why Jacques Anquetil always moved his bidon into his jersey pocket on the mountain climbs. (So that his bike would weigh less, okay?)

Best of all, it captures cycling as that “living, breathing art”, as Laurent Fignon also wrote in his autobiography We Were Young and Carefree (originally published in French, in 2009, as Nous étions jeunes et insouciants). Fignon, my first and not last cycling hero, continued: “That magic of cycling: the simple forward motion from the power in your legs treats you to great bursts of freedom. Your legs and nothing more. That’s the little miracle that is the bike, where man and machine conjoin. It’s a unique invention. The fusion of a man with himself.”

Impressive pace

What brought The Rider to mind on Cruagh Road, Friday morning being cool and not overcast, were two things: slowly and then suddenly, just before that crest of the hill, appeared a rider in front of me moving at impressive pace, and within the space of 20 seconds two cars overtook us both, the first car slowing down deliberately before affording us a comfortably wide berth, the second car then promptly accelerating while still uncomfortably close behind.

Firstly, that rider in front of me happened to be on an electric bike, and we could only smile and laugh at each other as we exchanged positions on the road, perhaps knowing well that other great Krabbé line, “I’m the only rider in the world whose pain I’ve ever felt”, or else just realising this is all part of the fellowship of the rider.

And secondly, while maybe once upon a time thinking The Rider was a sort of them-versus-us, the non-racers or riders versus those of us who, like me, only ride for the sheer pleasure of it, there is a fellowship among the riders now which has a power beyond stopping to help with a puncture in Glencree or a broken chain over Luggala; a fellowship that is utterly indifferent to man and woman, whether on ridiculously fat tyres or impossibly skinny legs, within or without the same group of riders.

The fellowship which extends to just hearing about the misbehaviour of dangerous drivers on the road, particularly given what happened to that lone rider on the Sally Gap in Wicklow last Saturday, when the emptiness of the lives of the people who did it doesn’t shock you, it absolutely disgusts you.

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