This is not a review of the book, but I will summarise it as a stream of consciousness account of what goes through a middle aged cyclist's mind as he takes part in an amateur bicycle race in southern France in 1978. I did not know very much about The Rider before reading it, which is probably why I was caught off guard by its apparently famous opening:
"Hot and overcast. I take my gear out of the car and put my bike together. Tourists and locals are watching from sidewalk cafes. Non-racers. The emptiness of those lives shocks me."
After reading these lines, I shut the book and put it away. Needing something to do, I immediately busied myself with making tea. Was I annoyed? offended? angry? and by whom or what - the writer himself or by the feeling he managed to communicate so successfully?
I review the scene in my mind's eye. So here are the racers, getting ready. And here are some spectators who came to support them. I imagine that one is a school teacher, another an emergency room doctor, another a firefighter, another a war veteran, and so on and so forth. And then I replay it: "The emptiness of those lives shocks me."
In the course of my own life, I've been fortunate enough to live and work in the midst of various "important" people - researchers dedicated to finding treatments for diseases, rescue workers in war-torn countries, politicians who have the power to effect change with a single signature, and fine artists whose work is exhibited in the worlds' greatest museums. Not once have I heard any of them refer to others' lives as empty. If anything, they often question their own choices and complain that their work is not as fulfilling in reality as they had imagined it would be. I've also known serious athletes, who, while passionate about their sport, were not consumed by it to the exclusion of all else. But I do know roadcyclists whose thoughts reflect that famous sentence in The Rider. In fact I've met quite a few.
Amateur bicycle racers and racing aspirants have a reputation for arrogance, for "taking themselves too seriously" and truly believing that cycling is the most important and fulfilling thing in the world. For some time now this has fascinated me. Is it posturing? Are those drawn to roadcyling seeking to construct a life narrative of hardship and heroism in the absence of true hardship in their lives (poverty, illness, war, rape, ethnic persecution)? or, in some cases to distract from that hardship? Or is it the other way around - that something about cycling (what? a chemical it releases?) has such a powerful effect on the body and mind that it eclipses all else and turns perfectly sane people into crazed Ahabs on two wheels?
My curiosity about this is mingled with fear, and ultimately that is probably what made me put down The Rider after the opening passage. Sometimes, when I spend too much time on my roadbike I can feel myself lose perspective in a way I've never lost it before. Not in terms of arrogance per se - for someone with my abilities there is nothing to be arrogant about. But, I don't know, it's as if I can sense the existence of another dimension that I am not sure I want to cross into. Some cyclists I know, they are already there and they are "different." The narrator of The Rider (which I've since read to completion) is certainly there, and he describes that state in devastating detail.