The Rider was written by Tim Krabbé in 1978, and, although not translated to English for decades after, is now considered a must-read among cyclists. One review for British daily The Guardian went so far as to suggest that “nothing better is ever likely to be written on the subjective experience of cycle-racing.” (Madly enough, this may just prove true.)
In fact, Krabbé is so precise in his art form that he renders valuable lessons for any athlete—wisdom so practical that it transcends his sport, even when he doesn’t realize it. So, after reading it with tremendous pleasure once, I returned to “The Rider” to dig out some of Krabbé’s most precious gems.
1. “Tourists and locals are watching from sidewalk cafés. Non-racers. The emptiness of those lives shocks me.”
Krabbé drops this marvel in the very first paragraph of his novel, perfectly setting the tone and pace for the rest of his masterpiece. He is baffled that some would choose to not pursue athletic ambition in their lives.
The lesson? Competing can provide a unique and rich sense of fulfillment and pride, regardless of outcome.
2. “Why are you climbing that mountain? Because it’s there, says the alpinist.”
Krabbé did not invent this mindset, of course, but he describes it as succinctly as one can. Humans do not need a reason to try something—even if to others an endeavour seems pointless, endless, impossible, dangerous, or even all of the above—because it’s an innate curiosity. We possess a primal need to explore (both out in the world and within ourselves). Athletics can make us feel more human, which in turn can help us better understand ourselves.
The lesson? Do not be ashamed of zealous commitment to your craft. Instead, wear it like a badge of honour.
3. “The pain is gone; I forget it.”
There are many forms of pain Krabbé experiences during his multi-hour Tour de Mont Aigoual; in this instance, he has been stung by a bee. But there is no suggestion that this unfortunate event will disturb the racer’s pursuit. Indeed, by the next sentence, Krabbé has already returned his attention to what’s next.
The lesson? Krabbé concludes: “After the finish all the suffering turns to memories of pleasure—and the greater the suffering, the greater the pleasure.”
4. “I find my wrists incredibly beautiful. I climb.”
At this point at the novel, Krabbé is deep into the race’s first climb, going into extravagant detail about his arms and wrists—he is climbing, after all, so what else can he write about in that moment? That trance-like mode of consciousness is essential for riders to grind through relentless incline.
The lesson? When you’re on the brink of total failure, finding and committing to a rhythm can help the body manage its energy crisis. Focus on your breathing, not the pain (which, it’s worth remembering, is only temporary.)
5. “I trained harder and harder. My body began achieving things I’d no longer thought possible. I was touched by its loyalty.”
Krabbé was by no means a purebred athlete. In fact, before he was a racer, he was a chess player. But once he realized the potential of his body he never looked back. “I had neglected it for so long,” Krabbé admitted of his body, “but there were no hard feelings: it seemed only pleased to have me call on it again.”
The lesson? It’s never too late to take fitness seriously. Hard, smart training can transform anyone at any stage of their lives.