The Rider by Tim Krabbe’
Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett
A common theme in the six to 14 hours a day I spend thinking about cycling is this conundrum: How to get better without becoming (any more) dickish. I’m not saying strong cyclists are all a bunch of jerks. I know plenty who aren’t. But it’s a slippery slope.
There’s a narcissism in training past a certain point. And a lot of the tactics of road racing spring from selfishness. Hoard your matches; burn your neighbors’.
The “good” cyclist can easily become an ungainly combination of the peacock and the wood tick. A vain sucker of veins. A real winner. (I sure would like to be good. But, Lordy, I don’t want to be that guy.)
I’ve never read a book that cuts a straighter line to the heart of this problem, nor one that pulls cycling’s glory and vainglory apart better than the 1978 short memoir of the Dutch cyclist, Tim Krabbé: The Rider. Translated to English in 2002 by Sam Garrett, this concise memoir offers a kilometer-by-kilometer summary of the otherwise forgotten 1977 Tour de Mont Aigoual. Interspersed with that retelling are revealing asides about cycling history and Krabbé’s own development. We come to understand him as a bit of a peacock, a bit of a wood tick, and a whole lot of that rarest artist-athlete—a writer and rider sensitive to the difference between winning and riding grandly.
It takes Krabbé only three and a half lines to assemble both his race bike and his character. “Tourists and locals are watching from the sidewalk cafés. Non-riders. The emptiness of those lives shocks me.”
OK, so the guy’s got some jerkishness. But he’s honest. We clip in knowing we’re about to race up and down mountains with him as our eyeballs. And our like or dislike of his character becomes just excess weight. Best to discard it and concentrate on following his wheel.
Fans don’t exactly make out well in Krabbé’s telling. Around kilometer 25, “A man shouts: ‘Faster!’ Probably thinks bicycle racing is about going fast.” Well, you can color me stupid because, silly me, I did, too. But in Krabbé’s description, we come to understand that races are won, not necessarily by the strongest, but often by the racer who has been the most miserly with his strength in staying amongst the leaders.
“Racing is licking your opponent’s plate clean before starting on your own.”
But there are table manners, even among wood ticks. Wheel suck your way to first and you’ll win the trophy—and the label: wheel sucker.
A week after Krabbé’s Tour de Mont Aigoual came the 1977 Tour de France. Krabbé described a key stage in which Lucien Van Impe threatened to tear the yellow jersey away from Bernard Thévenet and destroy any chance for contender Hennie Kuiper. Kuiper put himself behind Thévenet and sat there, refusing to pull to help reel in Van Impe. So Thévenet worked alone in yellow, dragging a wood tick with him.
On the last mountain, Kuiper cashed in his savings, passing Thévenet, catching Van Impe and winning the stage. But Thévenet turned himself inside out, limited his losses, and defended the yellow jersey clear to Paris.
“And no matter how Kuiper had advanced his chances of winning the Tour by hanging on Thévenet’s wheel, he had destroyed every chance of winning the Tour grandly,” Krabbé wrote.
“Thévenet won it grandly.”
There lies the answer to my cycling conundrum. It is neither dickish nor vain to say with your bicycle, “Look here. This is everything I got. Maybe it’s enough and maybe it’s not. But this is me. This is me giving it hell.”
When Krabbé puts down everything he’s got at the end of the Tour de Mont Aigoual, what unfurls isn’t a peacock’s tail. It’s something far grander than that.