PEZ Bookshelf: The Cyclist and His Shadow
While perhaps not noted for high intellectual firepower, the peloton has produced a few memorable works of literature, although there are many sports journalists who produce stylish books. One of everyone’s favourites is Tim Krabbê’s “The Rider,” capturing the thoughts of a racer competing in a high-level amateur event in France. Paul Fournel’s “Need for the Bike” also has charm equal to its elegance but now we have a new contender in the rather narrow field of short, thoughtful, non-illustrated volumes about cycling with the arrival of “The Cyclist and His Shadow,” by a former French pro racer, Olivier Haralambon.
The book opens with two sections worth the reading: a foreword by the late (and much-lamented) Richard Moore, one of the founders of The Cycling Podcast, and a Translator’s Introduction by François Thomazeau, a French sports journalist and novelist. They met at a lunch on the last day of the Tour de France in 2020 in Paris and during the course of the meal cycling books were discussed. Moore mentioned “The Rider” as the best cycling book while Thomazeau (who had never read it!) dismissed it, claiming that 2017’s “Le Coureur et son ombre,” was the best. So of course Moore has the chance to read the manuscript of Thomazeau’s translation and discovers that “the writing is dazzling. It is audacious and at the same time intimate, starting with an invitation to you, the reader, to “ride along with me because I want to open up my skull.” He calls it “a book about obsession, the nobility of suffering and striving for perfection” and concludes his foreword with “Reading this book, I can see and understand cyclists and cycling, including myself, in new ways.”
The translator notes that he has “seldom read such a deep and precise introspection, not into the mind and heart of Olivier as a person but into what turned him into a member of a very special species: a rider. It is deeply personal, sometimes obscure, oddly philosophical and certainly very French.” And he refers to the author’s comment that cycling is much more than sport. More than a way of life, it is a different way of being.
This is a pretty heavy burden for such a slim volume to bear. “The Cyclist and His Shadow” is subtitled “A Memoir” but in fact it is not really so much about Olivier Haralambon but a meditation on cycling—the asceticism of racers, their equipment, their pain, their perception of the world around. Haralambon was a pro racer for a decade,although he admits to being a mediocre one, after which he studied philosophy and became a sports journalist, an altogether unusual career path. There are some personal reminiscences, particularly in the earlier chapters (and all the chapters in this book are short) but they devolve quickly into reflections on bike racing or bicycles or cycling in general. While he describes his first childhood race and the atmosphere around small-town amateur events in France, there is nothing specific about his other races or the progress of his career or recollections of particular teams.
Each of the chapters has a specific focus and standouts include a poetic description of the peloton as a beast snaking its way through the landscape: “It stretches and curls up, extends and contracts, it moves along the bumps and bends, but as long as they do not spill all over the place like marbles from a torn bag, two hundred fidgety brushes paint the scales of a fabulous monster, like the dragon of a Chinese New Year.” He writes of the intimacy of team life for riders: “Two hundred days a year, they share rooms and scents brought back in their suitcases from all parts of the world. They hang their laundry and their bandages as if they were camping in the desert, lie in their beds with their legs raised against the wall, put cream on their burnt noses, and spend a long time calling home, when they have one.”
As explanatory as what life is like for pro racers, there is much in the book that appeals to those who will never earn a living on a bike. The chapter “Grace and Disgrace” is about that moment on the bicycle when everything comes together, a moment that most of us will experience fleetingly:
He is on top of his game because he is no longer his own boss. It is though the harmony he created with the might of his will was now replacing him. He is like the zen archers, who worked so hard to let “something inside of them shoot in their place.” He is his own spectator and enjoys the show. Something has broken and he is spurred by that something else he has been praying for with all his strength. He is no longer on the deciding end, he feels like the tension itself, he dances on the tightrope, above time.
He writes movingly of a night criterium race, of the physiques of cyclists, of beauty in the form of Alberto Contador climbing, or a different kind of beauty, the successful ugliness of Chris Froome’s riding, the knife-edge of performance and the data of performance versus the feeling of it. And throughout there are inferences that the author has aged so that the bike does not respond as it once did, memories of finer accomplishments receding.
From all this introspection (thankfully, it avoids the trap of pretentiousness), the book offers a very different final chapter, “The Old Man.” It is a superbly written account, in only five pages, painting a portrait of an old club rider, probably the most moving piece of cycling literature extant. There is much in “The Cyclist and His Shadow” that is clinical observation but also things that touch the heart, accounting for the ways that the bicycle truly does lead one into a different way of thinking.
Cycling is not a choice. It is as imperative as desire and love. Like that of a lover, the mussed-up hair of the would-be rider stood on end and his legs failed him at the first sight of a bike. From that moment, there was only one fate left to contemplate: to court, marry, absorb, incorporate that promise of speed.
“The Cyclist and His Shadow” is a remarkable book and deserves its place alongside “The Rider” in terms of thoughtfulness and probably surpasses it in terms of the beauty of its writing. It will reward repeated readings to savour its language. Deeply personal? Somewhat obscure? Oddly philosophical? Yes, and unique.
“The Cyclist and His Shadow” by Olivier Haralambon
Translated by François Thomazeau
Foreword by Richard Moore
123 pages, softbound
A Univocal Book, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 2022
Retail Price: US$19.95
*** “The Cyclist and His Shadow” by Olivier Haralambon is available from AMAZON.COM HERE. ***