Home » The Old Man and The Bike: Tim Krabbe’s The Rider

The Old Man and The Bike: Tim Krabbe’s The Rider

The Rider by Tim Krabbe

“Death is a vedette, but we like him to keep his appearances functional.”

“Nature is an old lady with few suitors these days, and those who wish to make use of her charms she rewards passionately.”

The Rider by Tim Krabbe is my most recommended and most gifted book of all time.

The Rider earned this distinction because it is a book I feel just as confident recommending to individuals who read 50 books a year as I do to those who haven’t touched a book since their required high school reading. You can easily read it in an afternoon.

The entirety of The Rider takes place during the course of a 5-hour amateur bicycle in the French Cévennes. Krabbe and the other riders traverse the cols and valleys of the 1977 Tour de Mont Aigoua, a race entirely un-notable and lost to history save for its preservation in this novel.

As with any mountain road bicycle race, the course is grueling and, with unapologetically stereotypical European gusto, Krabbe relishes in the pain. Krabbe was championship chess player and, mile by mile, he turns his analytical mind to the subtle strategy of the sport, the character of the course, the essence of competition, his own psyche, and the nature of man.

Like Christopher McDougall’s Born To Run, The Rider literally propelled me into physical action immediately after reading it.

The Rider deserves a comparison to Hemingway’s The Old Man in the Sea. Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for his novella (also a book a reader of any level can complete in an afternoon). Krabbe won no literary acclaim of note.

Still, I stake that The Rider holds its own against Hemmingway’s masterpiece in content and quality, if not in composition.

The Rider and The Old Man In The Sea share much in common. They are simple books, built around a singular trial. In their simplicity, they ruminate on deep life truths. They share a fierce purity. Pain and endurance are central themes. Ego, arrogance, and determination as distilled to their essentials. There are flairs of hero worship. Both protagonists, with their own flavors of expertise and naivete, ultimately enjoy a Pyrrhic victory.

(Which is the better novel? It’s the one you’d think, but you can judge for yourself in a Saturday.)

Here are a few of my favorite quotes from The Rider. If the opening words of the novel intrigue you — the first quote bellow — pick up The Rider and ride along with Krabbe.


The Rider by Tim Krabbe

The Rider quote

Meyrueis, Lozere, June 26, 1977. Hot and overcast, I take my gear out of the car and put my bike together. Tourists and locals are watching from the sidewalk cafes. Non-racers. The emptiness of those lives shocks me.

Good riders? Bad riders? You can tell good riders by their faces, bad riders by their faces too — but that only goes for riders you already know.

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 of 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 sold truth than being in the wrong.

He shrugs and starts telling me how little time he has to train. All riders say that, always. As if they’re afraid to be judged by that part of their ability they can actually take credit for.

After one kilometer, a minuscule rider with a black rag-mop attacks: Despuech. Baloney This race lasts 140 kilometers. Despuech is crazy. Despuech is only showing us that he doesn’t have 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. Dozens of riders are now thinking the word ‘Despuech’, and people along the route will clap for him. And later all the riders will slide over him, like a net over an undersized fish.

Walking speed. The real race hasn’t started yet. The first climb won’t be for another thirty kilometers, at Les Vignes. I’m longing for it, just like when I’m doing it I’ll long for it to be over.

But ever since I saw a rider meticulously peeling a banana with both hands on a downhill stretch at 65 kilometers an hour, I’m no longer afraid of crashes from riding no-hands. You can take a dive anytime, of course, but riders can do anything on their bikes. Thirsty racers sometimes even discover that their bidon has been stolen from the holder.

Henri Pelissier once said: “Always attack as late as you can, but before the others do.

I have an aversion to the expression ‘allowed to escape’, because it usually comes from people who have no notion of the tremendous power needed for that ‘being allowed to’, but it’s a fact: no trio of riders could ever escape and stay away from an unwilling peloton in the first kilometers of a flat race.

Bicycle racing is a sport of patience. ‘Racing is licking your opponent’s plate clean before starting on your own.’

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.

Everywhere I come, the lead riders have been there before me: it’s like being handed a newspaper with the front page torn off. No worse way to follow a road race than to be in it.

In one gulp I toss down 3600000000000000000000000 water molecules, thousands of which are in by body even now.

Climbing is a rhythm, a trance; you have to rock your organs’ protests back to sleep.

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 we rows, pointing away from me. I find my wrists incredibly beautiful. / I climb. / What I can do, no other animal can: be the other and admire myself.

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 to revel in applause if the crowd obligated to hiss at him when he fails?

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 about all along but had only forgotten for a moment. A pounding riff from a song, a bit of long division that starts over and over, a magnified anger at someone, is enough to fill your thoughts.

I stopped doing everything else, I trained harder and harder, my body began achieving things I’d no longer thought possible. I was touched by its loyalty. I had neglected it for so long, but there were no hard feelings, it seemed only pleased to have me call on it again.

Nothing hisses quite so sweetly as a rival’s puncture.

The trajectory they follow has an animal grace, lending itself to mathematical expression in a formula of no more than four symbols — for mine you’d need a whole scratch pad of last minute corrections.

I see the lenses of Barthelemy’s specs, the way he looked at me when he went past. Contempt. He awards me handicaps as he sees fit, lets me horse around with my newfound powers like a farmer with a Cadillac he won in the sweepstakes.

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.

I also chew on a sentence from the handbook for aspiring road racers: ‘It’s hard to make your jump with a mouth full of sweets.

We pass Despuech… In one fold of his grimace lies an apology for his body, as though that were some other person, someone we shouldn’t be too hard on.

Bicycle racing is a hard sport. A rider’s body has to ripen; it’s also a mature sport.

They disappear around another curve right away, but I’ve zeroed in on them. A mysterious beast with five backs that I was sure had to exist — and now, as a reward for tribulations whose onset I can no longer recall, I’m allowed to see it.

Coppi, Bartali, Lebusque, Kleber, I’ve never felt their pain. I’m the only rider in the world whose pain I’ve ever felt; that make a pretty unique individual.

I look at a girl in the group. She’s sixteen. She’s pretty… She’s the generation that no longer cheers for the riders but for the journalistic cliche she recognizes in them… She belongs to the generation of emblems… I hate her… Never will I be able to make clear to her that I don’t race because I wanted to lose weight, because turning thirty horrified me, because I was dissatisfied with cafe life, because I wanted to write this book, or because of anything else at all, but purely and simply because it’s road racing… Really, if I wanted that pretty girl to understand me, there’s only one thing I can do: become champion of the world.

When a runner faints, his will sees to it that that happens after the finish line. That’s how it’s been since the soldier of Marathon. The runner has the added advantage of a finish line which, when he can go no further, will also go no further, while I, the rider, had to cope with a finish line that took advantage of my powerlessness to make its escape. On the other hand, to my advantage was that I only had to stay linked to consciousness through one little crack to keep myself upright and rolling on.

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. / In road racing you kick him to death.

A village, appearing suddenly out of a wrinkle in the plateau. The smell of manure, farmers on a low wall, a dog that jumps around in it kennel and then begins a ferocious sprint in our direction, rudely interrupted by the tautening of its chain. / Forgetfulness.

Oh, the wondrous powers in a man that only come to light thanks to rivalry!

Death is a vedette, but we like him to keep his appearances functional.

Pain isn’t a signal to quit, fear isn’t either, but there are things a rider senses he is free to regard as circumstances beyond his control.

Behind me the sound of a car approaching slowly… A disturbing thought: I’m being followed by people who are gliding along warm and motionless, and who may actually be bored to tears.

Why are we riding on? If you ask an alpinist why he climbs a mountain he’ll reply: ‘Because it’s there.’ / As far as I know, no one has ever pointed out what nonsense that is. The alpinist’s will isn’t prompted by the mountain, it’s there even without a mountain. The alpinist’s will is not so petty that it needs something as random as the shape’s crust in order to exist. Even if the earth were as flat as a billiard ball, there would still be alpinists: the true alpinists. The true alpinist would actually be so ashamed to have his will molded by things of an order so low as mountains. So only one question could rightly be asked of the true alpinist: why do you never climb mountains?

Kilometer 92-93. Barthelemy. He twists hard, back and forth, he looks over his shoulder, he shifts, his chain rattles across the sprockets in search of the miracles ger that will erase his pain.

We are five men hanging motionless by our fingertips from a high windowsill, waiting until someone has to let go. Occasionally we lick the mud from our lips.

Behind me and to one side, Reilhan, oh well, a friend too. That smile of his, it’s diluted by no more than a drop of amazement at how easily it’s all going. Class. I have to turn my head to see the rider from Cycles Goff. He’s having a hard time. Every kick he gives is by the skin of his teeth, even I can see that. If you threw a penny at him, he’d be out of the race. The Man with the Hammer should give him a whack, strictly on humanitarian grounds.

Indeed, Kleber has speeded up a little. During our test ride, he’d dropped me kilometers ago. He always drops me on the climbs when we’re training. As he slides away from me then, a sentence for my cycling log formulates itself: ‘Saw no use in following his tempo and let him go.’ But during the race I stay with him. Because I want to. Cold, rain, kilometers, mud; when I want something, I can do it. / I am a hero you see.

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

Suddenly I know that I’m going to attack. The decision catches me off guard. The way you can mull endlessly over getting up in the morning — and suddenly find yourself standing next to the bed. Your body got up and you weren’t in it.

Three more seconds. Entire worlds can be thought it three seconds.

I’m gone, I shift, I lean on it, this is the jump you can always make, the pain is a march by protestors who’ve forgotten to paint their signs.

In interviews with riders that I’ve read and in conversations I’ve had with them, the same thing always comes up: the best part was the suffering.

Because after the finish 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 to her by suffering.

Nature is an old lady with few suitors these days, and those who wish to make use of her charms she rewards passionately.

The facts miss the heart of the matter; to give us a clear picture, the facts need a vehicle, the anecdote.

When Geldermans told me that Anquetil always moved his water bottle to his back pocket during climbs, so his bike would be lighter, I began paying attention. I noticed that in all the old pictures of Anquetil climbing, his bidon is always in its holder. That’s straining at gnats. Gelderman’s story strikes to the soul of the rider, and is therefore true. / Those pictures are inaccurate.

Suddenly it dawns on me: this is my chance to take the final, most distinguished step in the hierarchy of road racing: from winning to letting win.

How often, fighting away in a long-beaten peloton that nonetheless lay down a hellish tempo I could barely follow, have I longed for a flat tire? A puncture, permission from beyond to stop the dying. / For years, something kept me from talking to other riders about that longing, but when I did it turned out that they all knew the feeling. A lot of praying goes into the peloton, especially to God and to Linda. Please let me get a puncture. But the speed of prayer has its limits, so the rider occasionally resorts to more drastic measures. He pounds his wheels through potholes, through gravel, searches for sharp rocks and, perchance, when he has a race to ride but not morale, he’ll even mount a carefully selected tube that’s ready to blow.

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

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

…sprinting can be as convoluted as espionage. There are a thousand different sprints and a thousand kinds of sprinters.

Road racing takes nerve.

At any given moment, every human being has at his disposal a brief, intense death struggle that doesn’t hurt and which lasts twelve seconds. That’s the animal sprint. Of all the things that prevent the rider from achieving the speed of light during those twelve seconds, pain is not one.


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