The Rider in Winter

I have a few minor resolutions for the future.

Stop writing a journal (I’ve been ignoring my journal anyway) and start writing a writer’s notebook. An hour each morning, after breakfast and over coffee. Before work-work begins.

Eat more vegetables.

Do some core work.

Such very bourgeois resolutions!

It sure still feels like the off-season. Last Sunday, I went on my first bike ride in two weeks. I went by myself, for 2.5 hours, up Tunnel, down Redwood, up Pinehurst. I rode the mark of the infinity symbol on the mountain. The weather was cool but sunny. I could get into this winter-in-California thing. More frequent rains wash the air very clear and make the sunny days count. It’s not so much the cold that sends the cue that it’s winter as the quality of light. The shadows are long at 3 p.m.

I’m getting a real fondness for descending Tunnel. Plenty of people coming up as I was going down. Well exercised, high on body chemicals, I thought, ‘Hello, my spandex brothers and sisters!’

Still, it’s definitely the off-season. It gets dark early, it’s cold in the house, and psychological resistance to exercise is high. I’m not as strong as I was. Sometimes I jog half-assedly. Sometimes Jesse and I go to 9 p.m. yoga. It feels good and it’s better than nothing. It’s also fine and seasonal to cram into a warm room full of other people at night, to drive off the cold and the darkness with shared sweat and giggles and farts. (Someone started making actual baby noises during happy baby last night. It broke the room up.) Still, all those years I thought that yoga was sufficient exercise? Benighted years. I like yoga, but my heart and lungs know better now.

This time is making me grateful for the existence of the R12 as a goal. A randonneuring thing: at least one 200-kilometer brevet each month. I may do the easiest ones I can find, in the winter, but it gives me something to try to do. I am now at R2 (October, November). I’ll be R3 if I make the “last chance” ride from Davis to Auburn on December 31. If I want to play roulette with the weather like that. Fail to get a brevet completed in December and I’m back to R nothing.

In heady pursuits, I just read “The Rider” by Tim Krabbé (1978, translated from the Dutch). It’s a short, gem-like book. If there’s a better piece of bicycling literature out there, I’d like to know about it.

Tim Krabbé on suffering:

“In interviews with riders that I’ve read and in conversations that I’ve had with them, the same thing always comes up: the best part was the suffering. In Amsterdam I once trained with a Canadian rider who was living in Holland. A notorious creampuff: in the sterile art of track racing he was Canadian champion in at least six disciplines, but when it came to toughing it out on the road he didn’t have the character.
The sky turned black, the water in the ditch rippled, a heavy storm broke loose. The Canadian sat up straight, raised his arms to heaven and shouted: ‘Rain! Soak me! Ooh, rain, soak me, make me wet!’
How can that be: suffering is suffering, isn’t it?
In 1910, Milan—San Remo was won by a rider who spent half an hour in a mountain hut, hiding from a snowstorm. Man, did he suffer!
In 1919, Brussels—Amiens was won by a rider who rode the last forty kilometers with a flat front tire. Talk about suffering! He arrived at 11.30 at night, with a ninety-minute lead on the only other two riders who finished the race. The day had been like night, trees had whipped back and forth, farmers were blown back into their barns, there were hailstones, bomb craters from the war, crossroads where the gendarmes had run away, and riders had to climb onto one another’s shoulders to wipe clean the muddied road signs.
Oh, to have been a rider then. Because after the finish all the suffering turns into memories of pleasure, and the greater the suffering, the greater the pleasure. That is Nature’s payback to riders for the homage they pay her by suffering. Velvet pillows, safari parks, sunglasses: people have become woolly mice. They still have bodies that can walk for five days and four nights through a desert of snow, without food, but they accept praise for having taken a one-hour bicycle ride. ‘Good for you.’ Instead of expressing their gratitude for the rain by getting wet, people walk around with umbrellas. Nature is an old lay with few suitors these days, and those who wish to make use of her charms she rewards passionately.
That’s why there are riders.
Suffering you need; literature is baloney.”

Tim Krabbé on what goes through a rider’s head:

“When I withdrew to Anduze in 1973 for my first period of cyclo-literary hermitry, I believed that, while cycling, I would come up with thoughts and ideas for the stories I’d be writing the rest of the time. Fat chance. The rest of my time I spent jotting in my cycling logbook and keeping statistics on my distances and times, and while cycling I thought of nothing at all.
On a bike your consciousness is small. The harder you work, the smaller it gets. Every thought that arises is immediately and utterly true, every unexpected event is something you’d known all along would happen but had only forgotten for a moment. A pounding riff from a song, a bit of long division that starts over and over, a magnified anger at someone, is enough to fill your thoughts.
During the race, what goes around in the rider’s mind is a monolithic ball bearing, so smooth, so uniform, you can’t even see it spin. Its almost perfect lack of surface structure ensures that it strikes nothing that might end up in the white circulation of thought. Almost nothing, that is—sometimes a microscopic flaw still manages to strike a chord. From race number 203 (evening criterium at Groot Ammers, May 30, 1975) I remember the sound brr-ink, pronounced as two syllables, that popped into my mind at the same street corner, twenty, thirty, sixty laps long, that I ruminated over, the way tongue and teeth can play with a half-forgotten wad of gum a feature film long, until I was back at that corner and brr-ink was refreshed in its original form.
Why not some other corner? Why brr-ink? We know little of the workings of the human mind, as a mass-murderer’s lawyer once told the courtroom.
I once gave myself the assignment of inventing a completely random word. Completely random, is that possible? All of a sudden, there it was: Battoowoo Greekgreek.
Battoowoo Greekgreek. Is that a name? I don’t know anyone who answers to that. No one will ever be able to tell me where Battoowoo Greekgreek came from. A few million years of evolution haven’t resulted in brains that can understand themselves. Why is there, somewhere along a training route near Amsterdam, an elm that reminds me of the chess grandmaster Jan Hein Donner? Every time I see that elm I think ‘Donner,’ and then I see him before me ten meters tall.’”

Krabbé—also a chess-player, and therefore likely Jesse’s soul-brother—is virulently anti-fitness, or at least, he has a high disdain for anything as degraded as “fitness” as a goal. He’s interested in strenuosity, skill, improvement; competing with oneself, beating others; toughness and extremis; simultaneous mortification and elevation of the flesh. The dynamics of pain. Cycling lore. Imagining his connection to the greats of the past (and creating dry humor out of it). The catalog of famous-cyclist dreams! Self-analysis masquerading as outward pursuit. Like any great book, a whiff of death and a crack at transcendence.

Do yourself an off-season favor and read it.

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