This post is part of the UK Blog Tour for Dutch Book Week 2020.
Today I’m featuring something I’m very much looking forward to reading in the near future. A book of mystery on a mountain top ….
During the summer of 1982, six friends–five boys, one girl–climb the legendary Mont Ventoux on their bicycles. A tragic accident claims the life of one of them, the promising poet Peter. Thirty years later, the others find themselves travelling into their past, with their racing bicycles strapped to the car roof, and their inner demons trailing behind them, off to the Provence again. What exactly happened on that mountain thirty years ago, and why are they going back?
And here’s a short scene-setting extract that’s drawn me in even further through the mention of Tim Krabbé’s The Rider. Not that I’ve read it, but I read The Vanishing pre-blog. It remains the scariest novella I’ve ever read. I wonder how the suspense of Ventoux will compare.
In 1970, Eddy Merckx won his second Tour de France. I was 6, watching TV with my father, and saw Merckx, the cycling marvel. ‘The cannibal,’ said my father. ‘So young and already so good. He’s going to sweep the board. No one can compete with him.’
I reversed the handlebars on my bike and did a circuit through the neighbourhood. I imagined that I was Merckx on the Tourmalet. I looked back: no one! I’d left them all for dead. I stopped outside André’s house.
He was lying on the sofa reading a Billy’s Boots comic.
‘André, let’s be racing cyclists.’
‘Let’s be racing cyclists like Eddy Merckx. You know, from the Tour. We’ll reverse your handlebars, too.’
‘My father’s already a racing cyclist. I’m going to be a footballer.’
It was the first time that one of us didn’t immediately jump aboard the other’s fantasy.
‘Shame.’ If André didn’t want to know about cycling, there was no point in my getting involved. ‘Swim?’
But the seed was sown that summer. From that moment on, cycling catered for years to my need for heroes.
The urge to sit on a racing bike again came back later. That was after I had read The Rider by Tim Krabbé. I was 15, read it at one sitting, and knew instantly what I had to do. True, it would have been better if I had pursued the sport from the age of 6, but Merckx was a late starter, too.
I took my savings out of the bank, borrowed another two hundred guilders from my mother, and bought a Batavus from Van Spankeren’s cycle shop. Joost and André looked at me pityingly. Cycling was still a sport for thickos who shouted unintelligibly into the microphone. But I didn’t care. I joined a training group that left from the Zaadmarkt every Sunday morning for a ride of about eighty kilometres. The guys gave me some funny looks the first time. They immediately commented on my unshaven legs and my football shorts, but they accepted it for this once.
Afterward, they started riding me into the ground. I had kept up for about ten kilometres when I saw them pulling away from me. They didn’t look back; of course they knew it would happen, it was an initiation ritual. During the following week I rode out a couple of times by myself, hoping that it would go better the next Sunday. I actually could keep up for a little longer in my new cycling shorts, but not that much longer.
On the fifth Sunday we went to the Montferland. On the way, Kees Nales told me that he had climbed Mont Ventoux. Mont Ventoux! I knew the mountain from the stories about Tommy Simpson, the Jesus of cycling, who suffered for all doping sinners and died on the Bare Mountain.
But Kees Nales had survived. I was deeply impressed and resolved there and then, as our wheels whooshed towards Montferland, that I must also climb Mont Ventoux.
‘How was it,’ I asked, ‘Mont Ventoux?’
‘Had you trained a lot for it?’
‘Nah.’ I didn’t yet know that cyclists always say that they’ve done scarcely any training.
‘Do you think I could do it?’
Kees looked at my legs, which still weren’t shaven. ‘You don’t look like a climber. More of a sprinter, if you ask me.’
We got to Beek. Just outside the village, in the Peeskesweg, was a steep length of asphalt. The lads immediately stood out of their saddles and started sprinting up. Only Kees Naleslooked around one more time to see whether I wasn’t perhaps a sprinter, after all. But I knew after the first hundred metres. I felt the strength draining out of my legs.
‘I’m not a climber, dammit,’ I shouted, as a kind of indictment of the Creator. No one heard.
At the top, the lads stood waiting until I arrived. They looked at me pityingly. Couldn’t climb, poor sod.
‘I thought so,’ said Kees Nales. ‘Too heavy and no climbing muscles.’
A little further on they went up the Eltenberg. It was a bit steeper and longer than the Peeske. They didn’t even wait for me at the top. I decided to cycle alone from then on. I tried to get André onto his father’s old bike, but failed.
Cycling is a sport of the imagination. On my own, I was the talented one, and my unshaven legs didn’t matter. Others rode me and my fantasy into the ground.