The Rider

The Rider

Tim Krabbé’s novel De Renner is a classic of cycling literature. Known as “The Rider” in English, this is semi-autobiographical account of a race in the Lozère and Mont Aigoual. A first person account, it takes you into Krabbé’s mind as he battles to win the tough race. At times there’s action but like any bike race there also moments when strange thoughts come into your head and Krabbé details the way his mind wanders along the parcours.

It’s impossible to find a bad review of this book. Over at Cyclingtips, Wade writes “just like knowing the basic skill of how to fix a puncture, this should be mandatory reading for every cyclist” and I’m minded to agree. If you’re reading The Inner Ring, chances are that you’ll like The Rider. There’s a mix of history, anecdote, observation and bike race action that combine to make it readable again and again.

From my personal perspective is that the book is incredibly real. Observations on rural France from the roadside are precise and still valid today. If I pick up the book, I’m suddenly back in a race and there’s a touch of adrenalin with each turn of the page. You feel like you want to sit down and read this with a water bottle nearby.

The only possible criticism is that Krabbé’s thoughts are too polished in a bike race. Yes my mind might wander but to more practical things like whether I’ve got enough food at home as opposed to reflections on Hennie Kuiper or Mont Ventoux. But that’s why the book is good, it is escapism in every sense.

Dutch and English, and now Spanish
Originally written in Dutch, there English translation in English by Sam Garrett is first-rate. I’m told there’s a Spanish version available now too. A friend is learning English and I gave him a copy of the book. He loved it, more so since Krabbé’s prose is so simple and clear. It’s almost worth learning English just to read the book. I’ve spoken to Krabbé to ask about a French version of the book but, dommage, there are no plans. A real shame since the book would find a ready market in France and beyond.

Indeed the book has a cult-like following with Dutch fans revisiting the real-life location of the race, taking in the great local roads and recreating scenes from the race. Krabbé has himself accompanied people on a cycle tour to give them a local flavour. Similarly the book has been an inspiration to Simon Mottram, founder of British cycle clothing label Rapha, whose brand inspired by the idea of “glory through suffering” and the About page on the Rapha website quotes directly from The Rider.

As seen on screen
Krabbé isn’t just famous for this book. He’s written several and one novel was turned into a film, The Vanishing. Originally made in 1988, the film features cycling in the backdrop as many scenes take place with radio or TV coverage of the Tour de France as a background sound. It’s a creepy and sinister tale of kidnap and murder made worse by the fact that the viewer knows what is going to happen in the film. The Vanishing was remade by Hollywood in 1993 but everyone’s said it’s not a good film. The original is worth watching. But The Rider can’t be made into a film, it works purely as a literary device. It could make a very good audio book given the right person to read it.

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23 thoughts on “The Rider”

  1. PErhaps interesting for Dutch fans on the Inner Ring, he also wrote 2 books with several cyclingstories (4 wielerverhalen & 43 wielerverhalen) and a short cyclingstory called “de scherprechter van Korfoe” for the annual Dutch books promotion week.

  2. I second that. I must have read this one 6 or 7 years ago and it was indeed a nice and captivating read. One thing I clearly remember that Tim refers to a well known rider all the time, without giving his name. It drove me nuts to no end at the time! I bet I am not alone in my curiosity for who he is or was, fiction or not.

    And that’s this book in a nutshell: the line between fiction and notion of it being fiction disappears.

    What also stands out in my memory is his description of a rider who firmly believed he’d climb faster when the road went up by putting his bidon from the bidon holder into his back-pocket, thus carrying less weight around. He wrote it is such a convincing way, you’d believe it right away 🙂

    FYI: Tim Krabbe is brother of Jeroen Krabbe, the actor/director.

  3. I’ve read it at least ten times.
    And will read it every year or two until my death.
    Absolutely the best bike racing novel ever written.

    If your teammates or friends still don’t “get” racing, buy them The Rider.

  4. Directly above my pc, on a bookshelf, is a copy of The Rider, I have had it for a month or so now, I am keeping it for a holiday, deferred gratification. But I have looked at the first page and straight away in the first paragraph I see written, “Non-racers. The emptiness of those lives shocks me.” I am sucked in straight away, yes I can remember as a fit young coureur thinking arrogantly, exactly those thoughts. I have quickly put the book back on the shelf, it will be better read somewhere warmer more relaxed than north east england, on a cold day in March.

  5. I know its been said, but it really is the best description of a bike race and cycling I’ve ever read. Really gets under the skin and articulates the inner psyche of all racing cyclists.

  6. Although it’s written in the 1970’s it’s absolutely timeless. There’s one brief paragraph near the start where one of his competitors is mulling over which 6 cogs to use, and we go- ”huh, only 6?” but otherwise it could be any race, in any era, at any level. Wonderful writing.

  7. Eric: thanks, quotes like “I toss my street clothes onto the back seat, look at the folds they make when they land. They’ll stay that way until I put them on again, or until an official gathers them together after I’ve died in the race” are great, you could write an essay alone examining this sentence.

    Tom: thanks, I knew he was a keen cyclist but not the other stories.

    Alex: thanks, good to know. The French are missing out!

    To everyone else: it’s almost frustrating that nobody has a bad word to say, I’d like to hear from someone who doesn’t like it!

  8. I’ve been considering doing a fan translation of the English version to Swedish, but it remains a project for the future. Great book and no, I don’t have anything bad to say about it!

  9. “To say that the race is the metaphor for life is to miss the point. The race is everything. It obliterates whatever isn’t racing. Life is the metaphor for the race.”

    Also an amazing chess player! Which far (physically) from chess, but also can turn to be all-consuming.

    Great that it’ll be translated to Spanish – will tell all my mates in Mexico!

  10. Hah! No negative reviews from this guy. Great book. As said above, one that can be read and re-read, even a page or 2 at a time.

  11. Possibly the only way to find a negative review of the book might be to get a non-cyclist to read it. Even then I’d imagine it’s hard to resist. Anyone one who has raced, or at least sprinted for a town sign on a club run, will identify with every word. I love this book.

    The route is worth riding if you get the chance – Mont Aigoual is a nice climb. I’ve only ridden half of it – all my riding companions managed to take a spill half way through the ride so we had to cut it short. I’m going back in a few weeks and looking forward to it.

    It’s not fiction, but I’m always re-reading Paul Fournel’s ‘Need for the Bike’. He also captures cycling wonderfully with words.

  12. My copy just arrived and while a couple of years older than our man’s 29 when he took up racing it has stoked my fires. A brilliant read and i’m only 40 odd pages in.

  13. If all you’ve read by Krabbe is The Rider (which, sad to say, I have no bad words about, I loved it), you’re missing out.

    After reading The Rider, I read The Vanishing and The Cave – both were excellent.

  14. I am mid-way through Krabbe’s race ( bought upon Inrng recommendation) and feel tempted to have a go to translate it into Polish.
    I like it a lot.

    • I’m glad to hear it’s going well.

      It would translate well into Polish but it could be hard work to keep the language as economical as Krabbé does. Don’t forget if you’re reading the English that original is in Dutch.

  15. Correct, I guess after every section it would be good to go for an exhaustive ride, with text still fresh in head and rethink some phrases during 160 heartbeats per minute to find more “out-of-breath” equivalent

  16. I’m fantastically grateful for your bringing this book to my attention – I bought it, read it, and started it again already, in the same week! A masterpiece of economy and power. Now i have to try it out on my non-cycling wife, to see if she “gets it” – big armchair road race fan, so we’ll see.

    And I’d also say that I love your blog, the quality of writing, both yours and the contributors/commentators is excellent. How do I get any work done?! And there’s a Twitter feed – I’m doomed.


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