Passion on two wheels

KrabbeHow do you respond when someone says, “Bicycling is good exercise; that must be what keeps you so slim.” Or when someone asks, “How do you occupy your mind while cycling? Don’t you get bored?”

One response is to acknowledge the comments and then change the conversation since the passion that drives hard-core cyclists is difficult to explain to those who have never experienced it. Another response is to suggest books that portray the spirit of strong, passionate cycling. Two I like are Tim Krabbé’s The Rider and Mike Magnuson’s Heft on Wheels: A Field Guide to Doing a 180. On their covers, one book is described as “a cycling classic” and the other as “so much fun you’re nearly tempted to skip your next ride and keep turning the pages.”

On the surface, these two narratives differ sharply. Krabbé is a Dutch chess player and novelist who in his youth was an amateur bicycle racer. First published in 1978 in Dutch, his book is described as a sports novel or autobiographical novel. He builds his story around a single race—the mythical Tour de Mont Aigoual in 1977. Magnuson, a novelist, essayist, and teacher of creative writing at Southern Illinois University, tells about one year of his life when he changed from being the fat man who couldn’t keep up on the group rides at Carbondale Cycle to the one who on many nights was strongest of them all.

Krabbé’s story combines a minute-by-minute account of one race with flashbacks from The Rider’s several-year history of competitive cycling. Heroes in the story include some of the great names of European cycling. In contrast, Magnuson sketches his life-long fascination with cycling and intertwines a second plot, his twenty-five years of chain-smoking, hard drinking, and Double Whoppers with cheese.

MagnusonIf there is a hero in Magnuson’s transformation, it is the Lance Armstrong who, following recovery from cancer, slogged his way up Boone Mountain in a driving rain and decided to pedal back down instead of giving up his bike and his career as a competitive cyclist. And also a man named Saki, now deceased, who was the heart and soul of Carbondale Cycle and its gang of skinny, aggressive, care-for-one-another cyclists. (On my one visit to Carbondale a few years ago, Saki befriended even me, despite the fact that I couldn’t keep up with the guys on an easy evening ride.)

The one thing about these two books that makes them alike, despite their differences, is that they reveal how the mind works when cycling is near the center of a rider’s being. No matter how brutal the body game of cycling, for Krabbé and Magnuson the mind game challenges even more. Even though it is always affected by the glucose and oxygen supplied by its bodily host, cognitive power still commands, controls, and overrides the muscles that beg for relief.   Read more…Passion on Two Wheels

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