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If there’s one book every cyclist should read, it’s The Rider by Tim Krabbé. Just like knowing the basic skill of how to fix a puncture, this should be mandatory reading for every cyclist. I’m ashamed to admit that it’s taken me this long to read it. I’ve never read anything that captures the essence of the pleasure, the suffering and the insanity of a bike race so perfectly.
“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 friends these days, and those who wish to make use of her charms, she rewards passionately.”
Tim Krabbé details his every thought, delivered kilometer by kilometer during the Tour de Mont Aigoual. Just like a cyclist saves every ounce of energy, Krabbé writes in the same vein. Every single word has significance and nothing is wasted. The book is only 148 pages and went by in a flash. It took me two sessions to read (four if you count the naps on the couch I had in-between each). After reading it I was so inspired to ride I went out in 50km/hr headwinds and pouring rain. I loved every minute of that 6hrs.
Every bike racer will identify with the candid thoughts of Krabbé. A roller coaster of arrogance, toughness, weakness, coalitions and betrayal. His thoughts are woven in with a mix of fascinating pieces of cycling history and anecdotes from his own life.
Like I said, Krabbé doesn’t waste a word. Nearly every paragraph contains innuendos and significance that could only be penned by a seasoned bike rider who has a deep understanding of the sport. If you’ve ever thought about something during a bike race, Krabbé writes it down on paper. I have so many favorite quotes, truisms, and stories from this book I’d have to write something from every page. Here are just a few to give you a taste of what this book is about:
Page 9 | After one kilometer, a minuscule rider with a lack rag-mop attacks: Despuech. Baloney. This race lasts 140 kilometers. Despuech is crazy. He is only showing us that he doesn’t stand a chance in hell. He knows it too, but still it’s a fact: he has to choose between finishing at the back after shining, or finishing at the back after not having shone at all.
Page 15 | It’s too early. Always attack as late as you can, but before the others do.
Page 19 | Bicycle racing is a sport of patience. Racing is licking your opponent’s plate clean before starting on your own. Lebusque will stay out in front for kilometers. Where would we be without Lebusque? Lebusque doesn’t know what racing is.
Page 20 | Every once in a while someone along the road lets us know how far behind we are. A man shouts: ‘Faster!’ He probably thinks bicycle racing is about going fast.
Page 32 | The crowd falls for it every time. How often have I seen people clapping and cheering for a rider who, having been lapped six times, pushes on bravely? It’s an insulting brand of applause – for where does a winning rider get the right to revel in applause if the crowd isn’t obliged to hiss at him when he fails?
Page 41 | Kilometer 44. A sign: COL DE RIESSE, altitiude 920m. Every time I take a pull up front, I feel it: I’m strong today. So what if I attack right here? Then my chances would be reduced. Correct.
Page 53 | Fourty-three nineteen. My gear lever feels like a scab on a wound. During our reconnaissance ride I was using forty-three twenty here. Now I’m sticking to the nineteen, a matter of willpower. My twenty was still as clean as a whistle. Shifting is a kind of painkiller, and therefore the same as giving up. After all, if I wanted to kill my pain, why not choose the most effective method? Road racing is all about generating pain.
Pate 60 | I look at a girl in the crowd. She’s sixteen, she’s pretty. ‘Allez, les sportifs’, she shouts. ‘Un deux un deux.’ Why is she shouting like that? She know Hinault fell into a ravine, but not the names of the classics he won. Classics? She knows everything about Poupou, but she’s never heard of Milan-San Rimo, has no idea what fourty-three nineteen is. What gives her the right to raise her voice?…She’s the generation that no longer cheers for the riders, but for the journalistic cliche she recognizes in them. Now that I’m five centimeters closer, I can see how pretty she really is. I hate her.
Page 65 | My whole life had only one goal: making that last wheel, here, now. I was wasted. But that elusive finish line, eight, seven, six and a half meters in front of me, kept my hope and desire awake. I coughed and slobbered. I remembered the words of advice ‘Shift, when you’re really, truly at the end of your rope, to a higher gear.’ I shifted. A few hysterical kicks on the thirteen, then clenched power of a mortal struggle. I was there. I was sitting on that last wheel. I was in the lead group.
Page 69 | Road racing imitates life, the way it would be without the corruptive influence of civilization. When you see an enemy lying on the ground, what’s your first reaction? To help him to his feet. I road racing, you kick him to death.
Page 73 | As the better sprinter, he is the favorite, and the favorite has to accept that he’s the one open to blackmail.
Page 100 | That I always choose the Bedoin side [of Mt Ventoux] is not because of Simposon, but because that 1958 time trial began there as well. That way I can compare my times with those of the champions. Charly Gaul came in first at 1 hour, 2 minutes and 9 seconds, which is still the record. He was taken from the summit to his hotel in an ambulance…With my best time, I would have been the last of the non-eliminated riders. Krabbé 1.21.50….When I got back to Bedoin it turned out that I had descended from the Ventoux a full three minutes faster than Gaul had climbed it.