Book Review: Ventoux

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Ventoux by Bert Wagendorp

Ventoux by Bert Wagendorp

A big deal in the Netherlands, Ventoux was made into a film and now it’s been translated into English. Good timing with the mountain is set to feature in Paris-Nice and the Tour de France. But is this a cycling book?

“When I turned 40, I stopped smoking, got my old Batavus out of the shed, and began cleaning it up. It was, may I say, one of my better decisions. On the bike I began slowly but surely to realize that you can go right, but also left. That you can always take the same route, but you can also choose a different one.”

It’s the story of childhood friends reunited. The early scenes of adolescence often have cycling in the background. Five teenage boys meet a girl in a park on a summer’s day to form the group that will eventually travel to Mont Ventoux. As they stare at the girl there’s a radio playing in the background with the commentary of Peter Winnen’s stage win on Alpe d’Huez. This gives extra references for cycling reader but also supplies historical cues that make the fiction more factual.

Peter Winnen winning

Without giving the story away, it’s the story of friends to make it to Mont Ventoux only for something to happen on the mountain that splits them apart until their reunion 30 years later. It’s got that clipped Dutch prose that you might know from Tim Krabbé’s “The Rider”. Another similarity to The Rider is the way the text jumps back and forth from the present to the past to develop the story. Just as Krabbé’s tale flits between the race in progress to tell all sorts of side stories, whether the author’s past or anecdotes about racing cyclists, Ventoux diverts to past moments in the characters lives to add depth.

If you’ve seen the film “Sideways” or read Rex Pickett’s original book then there’s a similarity here, a mid-life crisis played out among the vineyards of the Ventoux instead of California and with Rapha and a Pegoretti instead of merlot and cabernet sauvignon. There’s a note of Nick Hornby too with the middle-aged laments and frequent references to music: the release date of a Joe Jackson LP matters in a tiny way to the story. There are little ironies like the character David who’s father owns a travel agency and lives in an apartment above the shop. Sometimes this goes a little too far, the characters having a reunion includes a crime correspondent and a criminal; a physics boffin and a poet; a girl who grew up in a strict religious family and a boy who lived on a brothel barge. This is six characters in search of probability although it’s more apparent to the reviewer thinking of structure than the reader immersed in the book.

We were 18. Eighteen. What is it? The most beautiful age? The most tragic?

Can or should we try to visit the past? This is a central theme of the book and not just the return to Mont Ventoux. Friendships and music appear in the tales of the past, modern life seems cast in a colder light, the reunion is interrupted by complicated by iPhones and lawyers. But it all works out, perhaps too much with an ending that’s cheesier than a busy day in Alkmaar’s market square  – near where the central character lives – and it ends with the feel of one of those movie endings where the studio used a test audience to contrive a happy outcome.

Is this for the non-cyclist? Yes and this is not a cycling novel nor a sports story, it just uses the bicycle and Mont Ventoux as dramatic props. What is the Ventoux with its altitude and barren rocky summit but the opposite of the Netherlands? There are few technical references, there’s one mention of a 42 tooth chainring and the characters discuss how to clean a chain at one point. If anything the harder part for anglophone readers are the little cultural assumptions that are fine for a Dutch audience such as mentions to Peter Winnen or Gerrie Knetemann, names probably familiar to middle-aged Dutchmen who grew up with Theo Koomen’s rabid radio rantings but probably unfamiliar to those who are newer to the sport or just younger.

The Verdict: this would not have been read nor reviewed had it been called “Matterhorn” and used rock climbing or “Kilimanjaro” and about hiking. It’s not a sports story even if it uses Mont Ventoux and for every time Tom Simpson reference there’s one for Petrarch or Lynyrd Skynyrd. Still it is an easy read with the tight prose and the familiar setting and use of the bicycle makes for an interesting meditation on youth and friends from the past. If you want to read about Mont Ventoux there are other books but if you want a light novel with bicycles and music try this and you’ll soon be turning the pages and caught in the suspense.

  • Note: the publishers World Editions sent an electronic copy of this book for review. It is available as a paperback in English
  • If you’re tempted to watch the film instead, resist. The trailer looks suggestive of a straight to DVD effort and critics have given mediocre reviews with a consensus that the book is superior. The irony is that Wagendorp was originally asked to write a film script and it’s from this that the book emerged.

More book reviews and suggestions at inrng.com/books

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noel February 18, 2016 at 11:06 am

Thanks Inrng – Richard Williams gave this a good write-up in the Guardian recently (it’s on his shortlist of outstanding literary novels in which sport plays a significant role) so it’s one I’m saving up for the summer.

Ecky Thump February 18, 2016 at 11:39 am

Are you sweeping chimneys at sixpence a go Noel? 😉
The book’s on Amazon at £6.17 used and £10 something new paperback.

Alex February 18, 2016 at 11:58 am

Think your notion of saving is perhaps different to Noels.. he might just want to read it in the summer…

DeeJay February 18, 2016 at 12:17 pm

Fun fact: former pro rider Rob Harmeling plays a tiny part in the movie as the father of one of the boys.

Ron February 18, 2016 at 12:45 pm

The film indeed doesn’t come close to the book. Recently watched it and I felt like it had large background gaps. I know that’s normal with books being filmed, but it just lost allot of things that made the book so good/interesting. The only nice thing about the movie is seeing the region again, which immediately wanted me to go back there.

Paul Jakma February 18, 2016 at 1:46 pm

Picked this up (the dutch version) last year while passing through Schiphol. It’s OK. Little bit of a heavy hand on the sentimentality, though that’s perhaps a general dutch thing. Also pushing the bounds of plausibility in a few places too. Was still a mostly pleasant read overall, though I probably wouldn’t read it again. Maybe I was just hoping for it to be more of a cycling book.

Helped to keep my dutch ticking over though. 😉

Kjetil February 18, 2016 at 6:43 pm

Thanks for that, inrng. “a light novel with bicycles and music ” and “an easy read with the tight prose” is just up my alley.

MattF February 19, 2016 at 8:52 am

Meanwhile, in the world of pro cycling, three races are running concurrently… Just a comment inrng not criticism! I read everything you publish.

Cameron Harris February 19, 2016 at 9:36 am

Shame that the english version isn’t available in e-book – I went looking for it on the Play Store last week.

INRNG, what language was your electronic version in?

The Inner Ring February 19, 2016 at 9:38 am

It was a PDF copy for review only.

Cameron Harris February 19, 2016 at 9:52 am

Bugger. Thanks for the quick reply (to my first ever INRNG comment) though!

Keith warmington February 19, 2016 at 9:46 am

I bought it after reading Richard Williams review in the guardian.It has a quirkiness that reminds me a bit of Tim Krabbe,and I agree that it s tightly written . The cycling references make you smile if you’re a cyclist and they,re well done too. I think it will fit Noel,s bill as a good holiday read.

DJ February 19, 2016 at 5:03 pm

It’s an entertaining enough read (although maybe a bit too Dutch for others) and the book is definitely better than the film. But it doesn’t come close to Tim Krabbé. But then again, what does?

Ken February 19, 2016 at 6:04 pm

If your local bookstore — if you are lucky enough to have that endangered species — needs help in finding this book, the ISBN is 9789462380554.
Also, an iPad search will reveal another book with the same title but by Jeremy Whittle is due for release later this year.

Ian February 22, 2016 at 11:49 am

Thanks for this Inrng – I run a cycling film club (Leeds Bicycle Film Club) where I show a monthly film that features the bike, I alternate between feature films and documentaries. I didn’t know about this film so that’s one to add to my list to show.

Dave Thomas February 22, 2016 at 8:27 pm

Interesting review, Inner Ring! And I enjoyed Richard Williams’ piece, too. He is surprised by the shortage of (literary) novels in which sport plays a significant role – his list of favs includes ‘The Rider.’

If anyone is interested in reading my Tour de France novel – ‘The Great Loop’ – it’s available on Kindle. Set just before the First World War, it tells the story of Gustave Charrier, a young isolé who finds himself out of his depth while competing against the old sharks of the peloton. It got a good review on the other great racing website – Podium Cafe.

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