Racing cyclists are not commonly regarded as a literary bunch, yet there is one novel that wins near-universal acclaim for its passionate and insightful account of one hot and overcast day’s racing in the Cévennes region of southern France in the summer of 1977. That novel is The Rider, written by Dutch writer, chess player and cyclist Tim Krabbé.
I travelled to Amsterdam on a bleak, grey winter’s day to visit him in his tower-block eyrie, where between cups of vanilla tea he revealed the true story behind his cycling masterwork, hidden aspects of his noir classic The Vanishing, his plans for a new cycling book, and how he came back to racing – and winning – after a break of nearly 25 years.
The Rider is a novel that has captured the imagination of so many readers, both cyclists and non-cyclists. How did it develop and what’s its secret?
I wrote it when I was still a racer in the winter of 1977-78. I thought it was the essence of literature – the urge to tell people about the strange things you have seen. My trip to the cycling world was certainly strange because I had not started it at the normal age; I only entered that very interesting and very nice world at 30.
I had never been a sportsman before, but I had been dreaming about cycling since I was a little boy. I got to know cycling pretty well, and I thought it seemed like a good subject for a novel. So I just did it.
Over the years it turned out to be regarded as some sort of classic in Holland. And, of course, I feel immensely honoured that people organised the now annual Ronde de Tim Krabbé on the route of the race, originally to commemorate the book’s 25th birthday.
Honesty is the secret, I think. I did not use cycling as a metaphor for anything. It is just about cycling. Perhaps, though, that makes it a metaphor, because I hear from enough people who say that ‘I read your The Rider, and I know nothing of sports at all, but I loved the book.’
So there must be some reflection of the human condition?
But I never had that in mind. I just wanted to write about cycling. And this honesty of not using it for something – not trying to use it as a metaphor – just writing about what it is… that’s what makes it a good book.
Many cyclists are fascinated by the question of where the autobiography ends and where the fiction begins. How much of the race is based on real events?
Well, that’s all right with me: the more you think that I have invented it, the better writer I would have been! The race is, in fact, very close to reality.
In fact, all of those things I describe in the book have taken place. I always say that I have no obligation to reality at all when I am writing a book.
On the other hand, I can tell you that I lived in the Gard in France on several occasions. I must have stayed there in total for about a year. And I raced there, and won a few races there, but I did not win this one…
The route, of course, exists around the village of Meyrueis in the Cévennes, but the actual race?
Sure! But I changed the development of the race, because it was not really very interesting. It was just a race where the strong riders remained in the front, and the weaker ones dropped away, until we were just four. In the real race, I was also second.
In a similar fashion?
No, not at all. In reality, I would have probably been beaten anyway. We were the same four guys that I described – that is a pretty linear description of these guys. But one of them was stronger than me in the sprints and he had not been working very hard.
I looked up ‘Stéphan’ in the summer, who was also in real life my trainer. Although he is 80 now, he is still indignant about how little work ‘Reilhan’ did in that race – that is a race which was 30 years ago now! He was still angry about how little work he had done, and how I should have won the race!
How did ‘Reilhan’ escape in the finale?
I can’t remember now in detail how the race really went, but I’m pretty sure that we arrived just the four of us, but there were two non-sprinters who were not in it. It’s not a long stretch from the last curve in the centre of Meyrueis. When you go from the second of the two bridges, it’s about 250 metres to the finish line, and I think that I just made sure I was the first to go through the last curve and started sprinting there because that was my strength. I was not a real sprinter. I am not really able to make a ‘jump’. I was a good sprinter in the sense where it pays to be stupid! I was a sprinter in the style of Hinault or Merckx – because of their immense strength, they were able to go to the front with 500 metres to go and just give it everything – and they won sometimes. So that’s what I always tried to do as well. But I made a mistake, I remember, in thinking that the line was closer than it was, so I stopped sprinting too early. There’s no rider who hasn’t done that at some time…
And he beat me. But he would have beaten me anyway, as I remember it. The sprint I described in The Rider is a very clichéd sprint, but it happened to me in another race in France, where I was only caught in the last five metres or so.
Yeah – it happens all the time. It happened to me this season – not always for first place. But what can you say…?
So are most of the characters based on rivals?
Some of them are linear characters – like Kléber, like Barthélemy. Some others are similar to guys I raced with, while some are invented or are maybe combinations.
And the unnamed rider from Cycles Goff?
[Deadpan] He doesn’t exist.
And the mystery man in the Molteni jersey?
He also doesn’t exist. It’s like it happens in races, you know? You see guys that you’ve never seen before, and you have to give them a name for yourself.
One of the delights of The Rider are the insights from the history of cycling. I love the stories about Anquetil, and especially the reflections of Dutch legend Gerrie Knetemann on the need to be philosophical when dropped.
Knetemann was a member of my club, and there was one winter when we trained many, many hours together. Sometimes for hours, we’d ride side by side and talk.
He died just a year ago. He was a very intelligent guy with a lot of crystal-clear insights about cycling and everything around it. I remembered a lot from those talks, and I used some of it for my book.
Can it be something of a millstone being the author of such a famous book as The Rider?
No, not at all. I have one other book in Dutch that is also regarded as a classic, The Vanishing, so it’s not a problem.
…possibly the most arresting thriller I’ve ever read…
But it is not meant as a thriller! I know nothing about thrillers. I don’t read them, I don’t write them. I feel a bit disappointed when people want to attach this word to my books because then they feel I should obey certain rules. I just write books. I think up a story and try to write it as well as I can. That’s all I do.
In more clumsy hands, The Vanishing could have been three or four times the length and nowhere near as good.
That’s the second time in my life I’ve received that complement! A Belgian reviewer wrote about The Vanishing (and I always quote that as the best review I ever had!) that: ‘A lesser writer would have made a 300-page book out of this idea.’
There always appear to be hidden angles in your writing…
There are hidden jokes in all of my books. I mean, you have an obligation to work your field in as much detail as you can! There are lots of little jokes that no one has ever seen. For example, the character Lemorne in The Vanishing. The initial of his first name is important because it is the same as Rex’s. That’s why Saskia wants to buy the key-fob. It is, in different ways, her love for Rex that is central to her fate. It’s also an important part of the book that she does not have enough franc pieces for the machine because she has buried the franc pieces to seal their love. That’s why she comes into contact with Lemorne, and then she sees the keyring with an ‘R’.
I liked the name Lemorne – which I made up – because it might exist. It’s a turn around of Le Norme which just means ‘the norm’. There are all sorts of little jokes in that book which no one has ever seen. Like just before he is planning this thing, he goes on a holiday with his family to Normandy, which is also a hint at ‘normalcy’. It is all there to be seen, but you don’t have to see it; it’s OK with me.
How do you feel about the films that have been made of it?
The Dutch one is very good, but it could have been better. The American film was, well, Hollywood trash. It is completely pathetic.
In the Dutch version, I enjoyed the clips of the Tour De France on the radio and on TV in the background at the service station.
It was meant as a sort of suspense, because you know that she was about to be abducted – when Fignon takes the yellow jersey from Hinault – but it didn’t work out that way. And then there is a sentence, which you can make out if you know it, where Hinault says in French, ‘I’m not buried so easily’ – which is a signal of the impending doom.
You dislike being pigeon-holed as a thriller writer?
Yes. I write vastly different books – it’s impossible to pin me down. Here in Holland, I’m known as a writer-cyclist-chess player, because chess is one of my other things that is still pretty important in my life. I was a competitive chess player. I was a much better chess player than I was a cyclist. For some years, I was among the top 20 in Holland, but never in the top 10.
So you’d describe yourself as a novelist?
Just a writer.
So, what is the essence of chess for you?
It is just like cycling: it is a sport. It is a game where you can win or lose; you are attracted by the emotions of winning and losing. I’m often asked: ‘What a strange combination: chess and cycling?’ But I reply that it is not so strange when you think that soccer players are always playing cards on their training camps. It’s the same thing! They like games – that’s why they’ve become good soccer players. It’s a logical combination of a physical sport and a mental sport.
You talk about ‘Artistic Chess’…
You have a section of chess where people compose problems and end-game studies for the sake of beauty.
Such as the ‘Bottomless Pit’ problem you write about in the short story Master Jacobson?
Ah! The Bottomless Pit does exist. It was composed by someone who tried to compose another chess problem called the Babson Task, which I also write about extensively on my website. The Babson Task was a mythical problem that could be formulated abstractly, but no one had been able to compose a position where it could be shown correctly.
All the greats in this section of chess had tried to make a position where everything that should happen in the Babson Task does happen. But no one was able to do it until 1983 when a young guy – well, he was 26; a soccer trainer of all people somewhere in Russia – suddenly achieved the Babson Task with incomparable elegance. It was fantastic!
I looked up this guy some years ago in Kazan, in Tatarstan, where he lived. I wrote a book about this guy and his solution, The Man Who Would Make the Babson Task, but it is only in Dutch (it has not been translated). I mean, this is a subject without any commercial interest!
Reading your books, fate seems to play a very great part. But I am not sure whether you believe people make their own fate, or whether they are simply in the hands of fate?
All I do in my books is write stories and leave all the abstract thoughts to the readers. I have all sorts of ideas for stories – 200 or 300 on my computer – but you will never find a subject like ‘fate’. Those things just creep in by themselves. I don’t know what I think about fate, or the human condition. What I do is take an anecdote, make a story out of it, combine it with another anecdote, and so make a story that I think that I would like to read myself.
I write entirely for myself. I think it is a normal thing to do as a writer. I feel an urge to make things, to create things. The chess problems I produce are a pretty good metaphor. They are completely devoid of any social meaning. You can’t make any money from it; there’s a very small audience for it even worldwide. That’s essentially the way I write my books. I think up a story that appeals to me in some way – and then I go.
I hope it appeals to other people, but I do not do it for them. I like it if they see things in those stories, but I do not have to agree with what they see.
Are you frustrated when readers don’t see what you see?
I’m a little bit frustrated about my new book, Enn geode dag voor de Ezel (A Good Day for the Donkey). All the reviewers – even the good ones – seem to have missed my central idea of the story that two men somehow act together as one person but without knowing it: one wishes something done and the other does it.
They don’t know each other, but it is a very exact thing. Then, later, they meet by chance. They are having a coffee in a café on the other side of the world, but they are brought together in a very logical way. But that logical way has been missed by all these reviewers, even if it’s in the title of the book – A Good Day for the Donkey. There’s a donkey in the book that makes them come together. But all the reviewers say it’s too much of a coincidence. But it’s not a coincidence.
But I should listen to my own credo that the book is not owned by the writer any more, but is the readers’ book. If they can’t see it, it’s not there. I can see it, but if they miss it, or read something else into it, it’s up to them.
And, of course, I must say it has nothing to do with cycling at all! It is very difficult to say what it is about. On the surface, the title could be ‘Crime and Reward’. While writing it, I re-read Crime and Punishment to see if I could get any ideas there, but I didn’t. Someone kills a bad person, and, via some very complicated workings in the story, he is rewarded for it by becoming happy. So people say, ‘It is the first time you wrote something that is socially relevant.’
Do you plan to write about cycling again?
I do have plans now. I have a very good friend who used to be a very good pro – Martin Ducrot, who won a Tour de France stage in 1985. I got to know him because we were riding in my races. The veterans and some ‘Amateurs B’ often rode together because they were about the same strength. I met this very strange guy there. He was younger than me; I was then 35 or 36, and he was 20 or 21, and he rode without any insight to cycling. He was just so incredibly strong that he sometimes took a lap by himself! Very quickly, he went on and I didn’t meet him in races anymore, but we always remained friends: we occasionally wrote to each other and met from time to time, and he visited my Tour this year. We have a plan for an email book, where we write to each other about cycling. He’s a good writer. He wrote a very good book about his participation in the 1987 Tour de France.
Do you suffer from your new books being compared to The Cave, The Vanishing or The Rider?
No, not at all. Of course, they compare them, and it’s nice to know that they remember those old books, but I am extremely happy that those books which are 26 years old and 21 years old, respectively, are still alive, still have new printings each year, are still being translated. The Rider will be out next year in Germany.
It has never been published in Germany?
No. It has never been published in France, either! But maybe that’s not so strange as the French are very chauvinistic. Cycling is one of those things that is half-Belgian and half-French, with maybe a drop of Italian – it’s certainly not Dutch! It’s a Catholic sport: it’s French-Belgian-Italian. So they’re not going to listen to some bloke from Holland who pretends to have seen right to the core of cycling!
What do you think of British cycling writing?
I must say I think that English cycling literature is very good, better generally than the Dutch and others. The people who write about it are good writers who know their trade: 20 is very good; 17’s book is good; I did not like Tim Hilton very much; I liked 30’s book about Tom Simpson.
So now you’ve come back to riding and racing after nearly 25 years away?
Well, it was all because of the Ronde de Tim Krabbé. I was contacted by a guy who had discovered that my book, The Rider, was then 25 years old, and he wanted to do something to commemorate it. He wanted to organise a randonnée, a week of touring culminating in a ride that is described in the book.
I, of course, told them, ‘Well, very nice, but I’m not in shape any more, but I will come and be a guest and talk, but I cannot participate in it.’ So I went there weighing 110kg. It was very well and lovingly organised, and the people there were very nice. But I was extremely jealous! That was really suffering! I was sitting in the car all day watching these guys riding my roads, and they were riding there because they had been my training roads.
One of the organisers convinced me that as I had really raced reasonably well 25 years ago, then, although I was nearly 60, it should be possible in principle to come back to some level. So I decided to do it. I am pretty good at taking this kind of decision and living up to it. The first thing I did after I returned home from that Tour was to stand on my scales and it showed 110kg. The next day, I climbed on my bicycle – which was a historic bicycle then…
At the end of 2004, I did my first race in 25 years, but it was on a very easy circuit where everybody could follow. But, at the end, I decided to sprint. I used to be a pretty good sprinter. And I said to myself, ‘Let’s see what I can do.’ It was a very big pack of perhaps 150 riders; the over-50 riders were going to have their final sprint one lap before the end.
I was where I had been all race, in 100th place or something like that. So I said, ‘Let’s see if I can get in front’ – and that was easy… and now I was at the front – and I mean, in the first 30 or something – ‘Let’s see if I can sprint.’ And I was eighth! I was very, very happy with that. I got one of these cups!
So then the urge to go on was born. I was told that not only were there 50+ races, but 60+ races, too. Last season, I started with the intention of only racing very near Amsterdam, but very quickly I did all the races; so, in the end, I was third in the classification of 60+ races. So I was among the best 10 in Holland right now! But it was only my first season…
And you’re continuing to train for next season?
Ah yes. You know you are going down steeply because of your age, but then maybe I’m going up steeply because I had been away from it for such a long time.
I won one 60+ race last year. I think, this year, there will be 35 races for us, so I will be happy if I win three or four [this year]. I would love them to have longer races, because I was the type of guy who always got better near the end. If they had 100km races, they wouldn’t drop me.
Would you consider riding the L’Etape du Tour?
Oh sure, it could be interesting. On my Tour, we do some tough stages of 140km, so I could do the distance. We also did Ventoux two years ago, not too badly. My best time from years ago was 1 hour and 22 minutes, and now it was 1 hour and 57 minutes. But since then, I have come up 10%, so I could do about 1:45. My Tour, the Ronde, was very good last June; it’s so lovingly organised. I’m really looking forward to going there again in the summer.
[Krabbé disappears and returns with a Cycles Goff jersey.]
I’ve had hundreds of postcards from Meyrueis from people who’ve gone there with a copy of the book in their back pocket. This jersey was made by a bunch of cycle-tourists from the south of Holland. They came to a lecture I gave there, and they gave me this shirt, which I think is wonderful. But even before this – 10 or 15 years ago – there was someone who sent me a picture of him passing the sign to Meyrueis also wearing a Cycles Goff jersey!
You obviously take great delight in these things.
Of course. It’s the greatest compliment that people can pay to any writer – to go to some place and live the idea of your book.
Interview first published in issue 2 of 1 magazine. The Rider by Tim Krabbé is published by Bloomsbury in both hardback and paperback editions, available from June 16, 2016