Road cycling, like many hobbies and enthusiasms, is one of those niche human interests that incites a hardcore passion in many, but whose details and inner workings remain a mystery to outsiders. We may see riders getting the yellow jersey in the Tour de France and may even know the word ‘peloton’ references an amorphous blob of riders hurtling along in a pack. But for most, the intricacies of gear size and diet, the strategies of team cycling, and the grueling devotion the world’s top riders have to compete in events thousands of kilometers in length is a whole other world. Giving the reader a glimpse of this world through the eyes of a Dutch cyclist in the 1970s, building a beautiful metaphor for the confidences, inferiorities, motivation, suffering, etc. we all feel along with our fellow ‘competitors’ in the process, is Tim Krabbe’s 1978 The Rider.
The Rider tells the story of one Tim Krabbe. Professional by day and road cyclist by weekend, he has some experience and success under his belt, devoting all of his free time to the sport, training and competing in events around Europe. While mixing in bits and pieces of Krabbe’s backstory as it relates to this experience and success, The Rider is the story of one particular 150km race in the Swiss Alps. Winning is important to Krabbe (the rider) as he struggles that day along with his fellow competitors, but of greater importance to Krabbe (the writer*) is Krabbe the rider’s psyche—the way the phases of physical effort changes his mindset, his opinions and feelings about the other riders as they evolve throughout the race, his ego direct and his ego as viewed by himself, his understanding of his own and others’ weaknesses and strengths, the meaning of competition, and other relative ideas.
Due to how close rider is to writer, The Rider is a book that many are likely to call autobiography given both are Krabbe. But that would do the novel, for it is a novel, a disservice. Part biography and part fiction, The Rider is all art. In the simplest, most deceivingly incisive of terms, Krabbe captures the psyche of a man who by turns is running the rat race and taking the leisurely stroll we call life, believing and giving up—situation and circumstance determining where in that spectrum our minds actually rest. It’s cliché to say it’s the journey not the destination, and one may be tempted to say that about The Rider, but again, each of us are motivated by different things to achieve the destination, and that is something The Rider examines in brilliantly human terms.
The metaphor of a long-distance cyclist in the race of life so pure, it may be tempting to dismiss The Rider as simple fiction. But the purity is such that it etches itself in the reader’s mind to be remembered after. Each of us has the same feelings and thoughts as Krabbe’s rider, subsequently building a personal understanding with the book’s race as something transient. The pack of riders with a purpose is just the quietly powerful symbol in this short but impacting novel.