"Boring Tour," I said. "The Dutch have given up and the Brits have sent a computer-driven team."
whatever else the bicycle is, it excels in its role as a catalyst; perhaps its finest hour. even on saturday lunchtimes at debbie's, when full of visitors unknown to yours truly, almost without fail, someone will either make mention of my mode of dress, or refer to some aspect of cycling in order to open the lines of communication. it makes a welcome change from discussions concerning the weather.
but it also brings together entirely un-like-minded people. on my perambulations through bridgend woods this past saturday, while stationary to allow a gent on a bicycle with following dog to pass, he stopped to converse about the relative merits of different tyres. though i know the chap only well enough to say "hi in the passing, i seriously doubt that any other words would have been exchanged had we not both been astride bicycles.
even when minding my own cup of coffee, the standard guilt-driven opener most often concerns the conversant's adherence to the bicycle as transport when of considerably younger years. and judging by the physique of many, they'd have been well advised to have continued their velocipedinal activities well into their senior years.
bert wagendorp's ventoux is perhaps the prime example. i often worry greatly when presented with a work of cycling fiction, that the narrative will be solely concerned with the racing milieu, picking the best bits from the best races, and resulting in our hero beating the all odds stacked against him/her finally winning the plaudits of all concerned. along the way, there will undoubtedly be inaccuracies that will irritate pedants such as myself.
ventoux is nothing like that. it's excellent. aside from a marvellously designed cover, the bicycle is superbly portrayed in its guise as catalyst.
you may have already sussed that the author is not of english origin; in point of fact, he's dutch. this paperback edition, published by world editions, is the 2015 translation (excellently handled by paul vincent) of wagendorp's 2013 novel, a book that has sold over 140,000 copies in the netherlands. since i'm attempting to review a book that i thoroughly recommend you read for yourself, i'm consciously trying not to reveal salient aspects of the plot. no spoiler alerts need apply.
very basically the story concerns a disparate group of dutch school friends, brought together by varying degrees of affection for the racing bicycle. as can probably be gleaned from the book's title, the story hinges on their youthful ascent and subsequent descent of mont ventoux. a situation that occurs during this pilgrimage to the giant of provence predicates their return in later life to once more ride to the weather station, as a form of exegisis. throughout the intervening years, during which several suffer the iniquities that life can bestow upon the unwary, the bicycle and the mountain remain as both light and shadow in all their respective lives.
"When I turned 40, I stopped smoking, got my old Batavus out of the shed, and began cleaning it up. It was, may I say, one of my better decisions. On the bike I began slowly but surely to realize that you can go right, but also left."
the trappings are all in place: the archetypal cycling novel of all time is surely tim krabbé's the rider and it's a clever ploy to have fiction quote fiction by mentioning the latter in ventoux. "The urge to sit on a racing bike 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."
and perhaps solely in an attempt to cement the book's cycling credentials "(I) ordered a Rapha jersey. Do you know it? Brilliant, really brilliant. Merino wool. And a silk bandana. If I'm going cycling, of course I want to look well groomed. That's what they call it, isn't it? it's a credibility of which i'm sure imperial works would wholeheartedly approve, but its place in the narrative does not for one minute, come across as contrived.
in fact, ventoux is so convincingly written that contrivance is a factor that never once rears its potentially ugly head. the storyline is well conceived with an unsuspected twist as it draws to a close. the characters are thoroughly and naturally believable, as are their various interactions, while the book's 285 pages provide compulsive reading from page one.
in fact the only feature of the book that left a quizzical thought, was a quote on the back cover. according to nrc handelsblad (?), the novel is "hilarious, stirring, feel-good". the word stirring might just be seen as applicable, but i have serious doubts over the other two descriptions. i do recall finding the occasional passage raising a snigger, but hilarious might be stretching credibility a tad too far. the fact that the narrative is built around the ventoux and bicycles may qualify it as 'feel-good' but it's not an apellation i would have applied. maybe they were talking about something else entirely?
if you think of yourself in any way as a road cyclist, you need to acquire and read a copy of this book. it places a subtle, yet apparently deliberate emphasis on the bicycle's place in the firmament, yet transcends its subject matter; it can be read and enjoyed every bit as much by those who could care less about dario pegoretti's flare with steel tubing (Plays only jazz in his workshop.") or the provenance of a "1977 Raleigh."
"You can't talk about that on the telephone. The Beatles never got together again on the telephone.'
'They never got together again at all."
"That's what I mean."