The ongoing Tour de France is the most novelistic of sporting events: There is ample character development with riders responding to three weeks of brutal tests; plenty of intrigue with opportunistic alliances and rivalries springing up; masterful set pieces like ascents up the denuded landscape of Mt. Ventoux and group sprints through medieval towns; villains, be they deranged fans sprinkling the road with tire-puncturing tacks or a certain disgraced Texan; some upstairs-downstairs class tensions between aristocratic team leaders and their toiling, water bottle-ferrying domestiques; and finally, a romance between man and exquisitely engineered, custom-fitted and gorgeous machine.
Having already belabored the comparison, I’ll simply point out that the joys of watching the Tour and reading, say, a bit of Stendhal every day are not dissimilar, not least because both, however gripping, are inevitably plagued by longueurs. In some ways, the novel is a form about managing downtime, conserving energy to expend it more forcefully later, which strikes me as a good way to describe the riders sheltered in the peloton.
By contrast, Tim Krabbé’s revered The Rider is for those who like their drama condensed rather than parceled out over several weeks. The short novella is the autobiographical story of Krabbé’s experience at the one-day Tour of Mont Aigoual, “the sweetest, toughest race of the season.” Among his more colorfully drawn opponents are a muscular rider who “looks like the giant who was always throwing Chaplin out of restaurants”; a lithe climbing specialist (and bank teller) whose favorite opponent is himself; and Krabbé’s arch-nemesis, the “wheel sucker” Reilhan, a promising talent and perpetual drafter (that is, one who conserves energy by sitting in a rider’s slipstream) who finds “the idea of doing anyone even the slightest favor” intolerable.
Krabbé despises the “golden boy” Reilhan, but looks upon the few spectators on course with equal scorn. Spying a beautiful young woman, he instantly assigns her to the “generation of emblems” who is merely cheering for the “journalistic cliché” of the rider rather than the rider himself; finely attuned to such distinctions, the tetchy Krabbé gives himself over to a delightfully withering assessment: “Now that I’m five centimeters closer, I can see how pretty she really is. I hate her.” (He prefers the grazing cows who don’t bother to hide their indifference.)
“No worse way to follow a road race than to be in it,” notes Krabbé, as if constructing the narrative is as difficult as the race itself. Riders sprint off early and disappear from view, and he cannot be certain how far ahead they are or if he will eventually spy them up ahead with a “feeling of impropriety: like accidentally catching a glimpse of a woman in the nude.” The race takes the leaders approximately four and one half hours, though time in racing is subjective: “Three more minutes. Oh, how easy it will look on paper,” Krabbé wryly notes of the race’s final kilometers, which to him feel like an eternity.
The Tour covers 137 kilometers and traverses the Cévennes mountain range in Southern France, a region where as late as 1950, “some of the Catholic inhabitants thought Huguenots had only one eye, in the middle of their forehead…” These secluded high plateaus prove to be a wonderful setting for Krabbé’s depiction of road racing as a kind of anti-Enlightenment reaction, an imitation of life “without the corruptive influence of civilization.” The ordered procession of kilometers around which the narrative is organized fails to stem the race’s frequent illogical elements, how rival riders engage in “mutual self-destruction” and decisions are just as likely to be made through prudence as rashness: “Suddenly I know that I’m going to attack. The decision catches me off guard.”
In a wonderful chapter in his book-length study of the bike-obsessed Beckett, Hugh Kenner describes what he calls the “Cartesian Centaur,” more prosaically a man on a bike, a being who “rises clear of the muddle in which Descartes leaves the mind-body relationship. The intelligence guides, the mobile wonder obeys, and there is no mysterious interpenetration of function.” Krabbé steps in to re-muddle things, staging a Cartesian battle between body and mind. Describing one of his fellow riders, he writes:
Lebusque is really only a body. In fact, he’s not a good racer. People are made up of two parts: a mind and a body. Of the two, the mind, of course, is the rider.
But the rider is a very peculiar kind of mind, at once supremely rational and supremely irrational.
Any account of endurance sports must capture the descent into a personal, highly motivated, and masochistic madness, one that derives its impetus from defying, or rather ignoring, logic: “I’m only giving it everything I’ve got because no one says I have to. Only when there are arguments for something can there be arguments against it.” (Krabbé’s most famous novel, The Vanishing, delved into motiveless malignity rather than motiveless exertion.)
Krabbé writes that he “started on this sport fifteen years too late,” and one gets the sense that his reputation as the “scourge of the peloton” stems from his desire to make up for lost time. At times he sounds like a Raymond Chandler character: “We straighten up, drift along, fifteen seconds to breathe just for the fun of it.” Indeed, there is something similar about the respective codes of honor among noir private detectives and semi-professional cyclists. Marlowe would doubtless be as disgusted by Reilhan’s free-riding as Krabbé and his fellow races are.
Krabbé is also not without that amour-propre defining most athletes, from the biggest stars to weekend warriors:
I view my wrists, stretched out in front of me to the bars, straight as ramrods. They’ve become so tanned, almost black in the wrinkles. The little hairs lie next to each other in wet rows, pointing away from me. I find my wrists incredibly beautiful.
Vanity of vanities! What does man gain by the toil under which he toils under the sun? Beautiful, tanned wrists apparently.
The Rider is often cited as the best book on cycling, its quotes about pain and suffering and endurance and honor quoted admiringly. Certainly, Krabbé’s notions of honor and courage are exhilarating, but they are also a little ridiculous, which only adds to the book’s charm. Krabbé sets the tone early on by proclaiming to be shocked by the emptiness of non-racers’ lives. After an extended paean to suffering in which he has shown his own literary prowess, he concludes: “Suffering you need; literature is baloney.” Debating whether to shift into a lower gear on a mountain becomes a competitive as well as a moral dilemma: “Shifting is a kind of painkiller, and therefore the same as giving up.” And a final piece of bombast: “Being a good loser is a despicable evasion, an insult to the sporting spirit. All good losers should be barred from practicing as port.” Each statement strikes me as being a bit silly while also demonstrating an incontrovertible truth that “strikes to the soul of the rider.”
Sports writers often appeal to the chivalric tradition to capture the rare character of the most accomplished athletes; the best instinctually grasp that Don Quixote furnishes a more fitting model — noble and absurd — than those bona fide knights of medieval romances. Of the legendary Jacques Anquetil, who would move his water bottle from his bike to the back of his jersey before climbs in the mistaken view that it lightened his bike, Krabbé, in a Quixotic formulation, notes that “What Anquetil needed was faith. And nothing is better for a firm and solid faith than being in the wrong.”
What makes The Rider a particularly appealing sports novel is that for all his seriousness, Krabbé knows how to let the air out of his inflated rhetoric. Lebusque, the courageous but poor racer, makes one last, not-so-vicious “attack” 130 kilometers in: “…he bobs past us like an old, rotten surfboard.” And our noble, long suffering hero who pours his life into the trial? “You sprinted like a jackass,” notes one spectator. The harsh critic makes no mention of the rider’s beautiful wrists.