The Rider

A man shouts: ‘Faster!’ Probably thinks bicycle racing is about going fast.

They are, of course, the opening words in Tim Krabbé’s The Rider, the cycling memoir masquerading as novel, originally published in the Netherlands in 1978. They perfectly set the tone for the book itself: laconic, filled with diary-like, banal observations, but then subtly exploding into terse kernels of truth, pathos, and caustic humor.

The Rider, which did not appear in English until 2002, has become a touchstone in cycling, passed like samizdat among a clandestine tribe.

Think You Understand ‘The Rider’? Think Again

I recently read The Rider. I had heard about it but was never moved to pick it up until I watched this video, which I had barely even started before I was either interrupted, or decided to immediately go read the book before I proceeded. I think now, looking back, it was a mix of both. I immediately looked up the book, purchased it, and started reading it, forgetting entirely about the (excellent) little film until tonight.

In any case, The Rider might have, probably has, immediately moved into my top five favorite books. (I don’t officially have a top five favorite books, so I’m not sure which book it would have displaced from the list.)

Here are the bits I highlighted.

Page 5:

People are made up of two parts: a mind and a body. Of the two, the mind, of course, is the rider. That this mind has recourse to two instruments, a body and a bicycle - both of which have to be as light as possible - doesn’t really matter. What Anquetil needed was faith. And nothing is better for a firm and solid faith than being in the wrong.

Page 10:

In 1898, an American, Hamilton, first pushed the World Hour Record to over forty kilometers. But his achievement was never officially recognized. Why? Because he’d let himself be paced by a dot of light…With Hamilton’s disqualification, the Union Cycliste Internationale was the first sporting federation to officially recognize the existence of the sportsman’s psyche.

Page 19:

Bicycle racing is boring, all of a sudden I remember thinking that last time too. So why do I do it? Why are you climbing that mountain? Because it’s there, says the alpinist.

Page 20:

A man shouts: ‘Faster!’ Probably thinks bicycle racing is about going fast.

This was definitely one of my favorite lines from the book.

Page 29:

‘You guys need to suffer more, get dirtier; you should arrive at the top in a casket, that’s what we pay you for,’ I say. ‘No,’ Knetemann says, ‘you guys need to describe it more compellingly.’ He can’t explain to me, no more than he’s ever been able to in newspaper interviews, why he’s such a good climber, but not on the highest cols. I try to draw him out about the horror of the moment he gets dropped, the moment he sees the others riding away from him. Doesn’t it make him want to weep in pain and sorrow?

‘No,’ Knetemann says. ‘It’s too bad, sure, but at a certain point you just can’t do it. And when you can’t do it any more, you get dropped. Too bad. Nothing to make a fuss about.’

…My brains are getting ready to squish out of my ears like gravy rolls.

Page 32:

It’s so incredibly pitiful that I ever wanted to do this, but now I’m stuck with it.

Page 33:

On a bike your consciousness is small. The harder you work, the smaller it gets. Every thought that arises is immediately and utterly true, every unexpected event is something you’d known all along but had only forgotten for a moment.

age 47:

Only three weeks ago, during the Dauphiné Libéré, the young up-and-coming Hinault flew out of a curve, into a ravine. Gone. At that moment the French TV audience had every reason to assume that he was lying down there with a broken back. Then he climbed up, was given another bike, rode on, won the stage and went on to win the Dauphiné Libéré. A star for ever. Hinault had gone into that ravine as a rider, but came out a vedette, and the entire operation had lasted no more than fifteen seconds.

Page 81:

I’m not the man who invented the wheel first, I’m the one who invented it most often.

Page 94:

…sometimes you reach the end of something only because you forget for a moment that it isn’t over yet.

Page 113:

…after the finish all the suffering turns to memories of pleasure, and 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. They 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. ‘Good for you.’ Instead of expressing their gratitude for the rain by getting wet, people walk around with umbrellas. Nature is an old lady with few suitors these days, and those who wish to make use of her charms she rewards passionately.

Page 127:

Suffering is an art. Like the downhills, it’s a non-athletic art in which the great champions nevertheless outstrip all amateurs.

Page 128:

Jan Janssen: now there was a man who knew how to hit bottom! He’d sink his teeth into the wheel in front of him and grind until everything went black. He gnashed his way across the mountains, and sometimes after a stage he would fall, bicycle and all, against the crush barrier, unable to speak a word for the next ten minutes. Character.

Page 130:

The champions have better bikes, more expensive shoes, many more pairs of cycling shorts than we do, but they have the same roads.

Page 133:

Always the illusion that somewhere the future is already fixed, that you’re just not allowed to know it yet. But you’re riding into the void.

Page 135:

I already know the outcome, and at the same time I know: the future won’t be outfoxed by anything, not even by my certainty.

Page 137:

When everything in you is confident, you can think whatever you like.