I don’t have a bedside table. Actually, I do have a bedside table, but I’m not sure exactly where it is. My partner and I recently moved house—from a tiny East Brunswick unit into a place two or three times bigger, down in Portarlington. (Where? Exactly.) We’ve been too busy to unpack properly, and the spare room is a trash-heap of oversized stripy plastic bags and obscurely labelled boxes and hopefully my bedside table. I have no idea where my socks are, or my undies, but meanwhile our precious books have all been taken out of their boxes and filed, alphabetically, lovingly, in a carefully considered and taxonomically disaggregated fashion.
When I got to the travel section, I spent way too long debating whether or not Tim Krabbé’s The Rider (1978) should be filed under Travel or not. Strictly speaking, The Rider is a cycle racing book: on its back cover it says ‘SPORTS’. But no one puts Krabbé in a corner! The Rider is a miniature epic, one of the best books I read last year—and definitely the most helpful. At the time I was trying to write my own book about the experience of cycling a really long way for no particular reason. I was struggling to convey the visceral, adrenal, repetitive twinge-and-throb of it all. From the first short paragraph, Krabbé does exactly that:
Meyrueis, Lozère, 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 sidewalk cafés. Non-racers. The emptiness of those lives shocks me …
I was instantly hooked. The emptiness of those lives shocks me?! You’ve got to be kidding…but at the same time, that’s probably what it’s like. By the final page I was utterly convinced. The narrator, a laconic fellow called Tim Krabbé, takes you on a 137-kilometre cycle race in 132 pages of taut, ironic prose. The Tour de Mont Aiguoal is four and a half hours long; the book takes about four and a half hours to read. This makes The Rider an almost perfect real-time evocation of the long-distance cycling experience—especially if you read the whole thing in one sitting. Which you should.
Krabbé pours so much into this slim book. He captures the masochism of road racing, the mock-heroics, the pointlessness, the addictiveness. Why? ‘Because after the finish all the suffering turns to memories of pleasure, and the greater the suffering, the greater the pleasure.’ This is arguably the truest, most beautiful sentence ever written about endurance activities. It applies to yuppy Ironmen and hippy hikers alike—and it resonates deeply with someone who suffered his way across northern Mongolia for the hell of it, simultaneously hating and loving every minute of it. This voluntary courting of pain, this mortification of the flesh and its ego-bolstering effects, all this stuff is central to western capitalist culture, like Buddhism’s perverse, lycra-clad shadow side. As Krabbé has it: ‘Road-racing is all about generating pain.’ All life is suffering? Bring it on!
I reread The Rider as I wrote and rewrote Mörön to Mörön. Tim Krabbé inspired me to intersperse my writing sessions with twenty-kilometre spins around the block, to make sure my body remembered how cycling actually feels, rather than my brain getting carried away with some abstracted literary idea of how it should feel. Meanwhile, I typed out sentence after paragraph from Krabbé’s book, to try and get a tangible sense of how it must have felt to write such wonderful words.
I’ve read a few books since The Rider, but none of them have stayed with me in quite the same way—certainly not Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, which comes across as readable but ultimately pedestrian after reading Krabbé. Whether you file it under Travel, Sport or Fiction, The Rider is really in a class of its own.
A couple of days ago a package arrived. It was The Vanishing (1984), Krabbé’s novel about love and kidnapping and dark creepy obsession. I’m scared it’s not going to be as good as The Rider—there’s no cyclists on the cover, just an empty petrol station forecourt—but even so I’m going to put it next to the dirty T-shirt, the Otis Redding CD and the two bottles of herbal sleeping pills on the carpet of my lack-of-bedside table.
Tom Doig is a writer, performer, editor and moron. Mörön to Mörön: two men, two bikes, one Mongolian misadventure is his first book, out now with Allen & Unwin.