Revisiting ‘The Rider’

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Tim Krabbé’s book ‘The Rider’ captures the essence of bike racing like no other. It is a profound novel that really struck a chord the first time I read it, and I encourage every student of cycling to take a few hours out to study it.

A few weeks ago my mate Ian Walton asked if we wanted to come and retrace the race route that the book is based upon. Sadly I couldn’t join but I asked Ian if he’d write something about his journey along this legendary route.

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Long before I left behind a comfortable life with a successful, comfortable career in Australia, recreating the route of the race in ‘The Rider’, Tim Krabbé’s seminal cycling novel, had been something I knew I would do. When I did leave, to live in Barcelona and pursue a life around cycling and photography, I knew I was moving closer to that. It took almost four years though. Plans made, changed, cancelled. The wait was worth it.

From the day the plans were locked in, a re-reading of the book for the umpteenth time invigorated me and heightened the anticipation. It made the excursion, with friends oft excursed with, different. The book came alive knowing we would be rolling the same roads, seeing the same villages, the same “elephant grey rocks” the same climbs and descents.

I wondered if any of the people we would see on our ride would be the same that were beside the road of the race in the book. It’s a novel, I know, but based on truths; so maybe.

We assembled in the barrio of Eixample, Barcelona for the four-hour drive to Meyrueis in the Cévennes. The start of Tour du Mont Aigoual.

A 3pm depart became a 4pm depart; the fault of all three of us, all of us running late. It wasn’t a race though — like all our rides it was always more about the journey, the shared experience. The two of us up front chatted excitedly while the one in the back, with a hangover from a visiting old friend the night before, slept. Better today, than tomorrow for Mont Aigoual.

Being France, we knew we should try and eat before it was too late. As Spanish residents we are accustomed to eating late but all too aware that in France kitchens often close far earlier. Lessons learnt from starving evenings in the past. Slightly more anxious was the voice from the backseat, perhaps that hangover was still making itself heard …

Some 30 or 40km before Meyrueis, we made a stop in a small village with two restaurants. Parked, we wandered over to the chosen one, and I saw a sign. “Mont Aigoual 35km”. We had arrived.

Just seeing the name, we had arrived. The obvious questions leapt forth: were we on the route already? No, surely not, but close. Or maybe … check? No, let’s find out tomorrow …

This excitement bubbled as the delicious, cheap, but slightly small dishes were served and with a pression – Leffe Blonde, a good sign – accompanying them. Thoughts of ordering a second menu were bandied around (“big day tomorrow”) we held firm on one though.

Arriving in Meyrueis did not disappoint. A lovely village, still bustling at 9pm or so – our food fears were for nothing – alongside a river running through its heart. Mountains all around. Thoughts of the book were in my head as we meandered down the main street by the river. Is that Mont Aigoual there? This here, this must be the bridge in the book …

“… two ninety-degree turns, with only a little bridge in between …”

… the corner he wants to lead out of to win.

We take our bikes off the car – the “antlers off the roof” –and check in. We ponder: one more pression? Oui! Sadly not Leffe. Off to bed. Early start.

We were prompt to breakfast, but tardiness again took hold over chatter, chocolate croissants and terrible coffee. My mates hadn’t learned previous lessons, or chose to flout them in vain hope. I had a tea. Wise.

Time to ride. ‘Stolen’ chocolate croissants in pockets wrapped in napkins. Krabbé took five figs –would my 2 croissants be enough? No chance.

The click of our pedals different from in the book of 1977 where I imagined the leathery, earthy, slide of toe clips. However, we had the same searing heat as Krabbé. We were riding 14 days before that dated in the book — the 12th, not the 26th, of June. The day had the same hallmarks. The heat and humidity with potential storms later. And with that, off we rolled, through the village and into the gorge…

“… to the left is the river with it’s rock wall beyond, to the right more rocks; we’re riding through a gorge in the highlands of the Cévennes: The Gorge de la Jonte …”

Our own little peloton of three. And what a gorge. The Gorge de la Jonte is stunningly beautiful. What a perfect start to a ride. Some 20-30km of steady downhill, but not freewheeling downhill. A downhill you could work at if you felt fit to do so. A perfect warm up after that second pression. One too many really.

A winding road, through a stunning gorge, with ever steepening sides, knowing full well we had to climb one of those sides sooner or later …

“… another thirty kilometers, at Les Vignes …”

But then it gets better. The Jonte – the small river that create Les Gorges de la Jonte – is our companion until about 15 or 20km. Then we leave the waterway behind …

“…at a town where people clapped us as we turn right, and now we’re riding along the Tarn…”

The Tarn is bigger and the gorges it has created are simply breathtaking …

“…the most beautiful canyon in Europe…”

Then, the ride starts in earnest.

“… Kilometer 31. A sign. Les Vignes”

The first climb, the switchbacks out of the gorges’ basin. As I climbed — as often I climb in my current home in Catalunya at this time of year — I look down at my sweat-drenched wrists and tanned arms. I get a sense of having something of a real cyclist about me. Maybe even dream of a professional appearance, if not form.

This is a legacy of the book as well. More quotes floating in my mind. It seems sometimes my senses and perceptions are heightened and twisted when on the bike. A meditation causes by escape and fatigue perhaps. I am often quickly brought back to reality and my own form, by the next switchback or mate sailing past me up the climb. As happened on the climb out of the Gorge du Tarn.

On paper, it doesn’t seem the hardest route to roll around. Kilometres and metres climbed, however, often don’t tell the whole tale. And we kept saying that to race it must have been hell. No real rest points, ‘heavy’ roads, hard effort descents, steep climbs and long false flats. Ah yes, the dreaded “faux plat” after the tough climb dragged on and on, with the seemingly ever-present headwinds, the poppies and 100m markers that are observed in the book.

We stuck to the route as best we could from knowing the book, our customary printed map, notes and village names. It’s a nice figure of eight, allowing a pit stop if you fancy fresh clothes from the start point. That we did, briefly and swiftly, along with a pastry snack, before heading off again on the second loop out toward Mont Aigoual itself.

Still, as we approached Trèves there was a unanimous call for a coffee stop. Why not? That’s how we ride. Not a race today. Next one we find, sure. So, in tiny Trèves, we got lucky with a fry up cafe with seats on the street and locals munching away.

The base of the pre-climb to Mont Aigoual, but far enough away from the real climb start. Perfect. And it was a Nespresso machine so the coffee would be ok. Coffee, Orangina and water bottles charged from the delightfully friendly hostess and it was off up Aigoual.

“… Do I move my bidon to my pocket from the cage…?”

You never reach the top on the route. We had the option to skirt up to the top. But the point was the route, so we stuck to it and belted down the descent back to Meyrueis and the bridge to cross towards the finish line. For us no race finish line, but more pastries and fizzy drinks, in the nick of time with ever more threatening storm clouds above.

With antlers back on the roof it was a dash back to Barcelona. As we headed back I had a chance to reflect a little. Mont Aigoual itself, for me was a nice climb, very nice, though not great. The whole ride was outstanding and had everything. Combining the start down the incredible gorges with the vertiginous switchback climbs back out, through the false flat to Mont Aigoiual, interspersed with nice villages, coffee and pastries.

The way I was able to constantly place myself in our three-rider peloton, as if I were Krabbé, recognising elements from the book as I rode them, made for a unique experience. A special ride and one which is already pencilled in to be an annual pilgrimage on our Gents’ Ride calendar. It will be interesting to see how the experience will feel the second time around.

Some weeks after the ride, I have once again read the book. With fresh eyes and a new perspective. I now see myself in the book in some way, like I saw the book on the ride as I rode it. It’s almost like reading a book again after watching the movie – you place the actor in your mind’s eye. Only the actor in this case is far less attractive and star studded.

It is yet another gift from this combined experience of riding and creative art that is the ‘The Rider’. A gift that keeps on giving, long after you have done the ride. You can relive it any time you want just by picking up Tim Krabbé’s work, wherever you are, escaping back to Meyrueis and Mont Aigoual.

The approximate route of the race that took place in Tim Krabbé’s ‘The Rider’ can be found here

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