There aren’t many good novels about cycling. While millions of words of print have been devoted to its rich heritage and past, it’s strange that few writers have been able to capture the essence of the bike and our love for it in fiction. Ventoux by Bert Wagendorp goes some way to address that balance - at last a beautifully rich story with cycling at its heart.
Ventoux came about when Wagendorp, a Dutch sports journalist, was asked to work on a film script about four middle aged men who want to conquer Mont Ventoux on their bikes. Working on the project with a number of other writers collaboratively, he went away to work on his own novel, using some of the themes from the film script but adding several layers of depth that a novel can encompass and a film can’t.
The result is a moving, funny and tragic story that explores themes of love, betrayal, jealousy, loyalty, friendship and male rivalry as four middle aged men who had grown up together revisit their past and the shared love they have for the beautiful Laura.
Bart, the narrator of the story, is a crime journalist for a national paper. Divorced, and trying to make sense of his life as his daughter reaches adulthood, he re establishes contact with Andre, his childhood friend who has just escaped a prison sentence for drug dealing. They begin cycling together again and, as they do so, revisit their past and the tight circle of friends they formed growing up in a provincial town in Holland.
Part of the group is Joost, an eminent physicist, facing professional humiliation and shame for plagiarism and David, a Surinamese immigrant who has taken over his father’s travel agency. Wagendorp skillfully and seamlessly weaves us in and out of the present to the past and back again as his characters reminisce about their special friendship.
Back in the early eighties this disparate group of teenagers are joined by Peter, an aspiring poet whose parents run a brothel on a barge. Soon they meet Laura with whom each one of them falls hopelessly in love.
Sure enough, on a cycling trip to Mont Ventoux that the six friends embark on there is a terrible and tragic accident that splits up the group for 30 years. In late middle age, the remnants of this circle revisit the great mountain to look for answers to what happened on that terrible day and hopefully, lay some ghosts to rest. As they do so they are joined by the long lost Laura who reveals a secret that makes sense of some of the events that befell this close knit bunch.
There are some moments of great depth and sorrow interspersed with comic moments and light touches in this book. Wagendorp really captures the way that men can slip from moments of brevity to the opposite pole with a flippant comment and light-hearted insult that only trusted friends can pull off.
The characters are well drawn and distinct: Bart with his melancholia, Joost and his know-it-all pronouncements, Andre and his male banter, and David who is always caring and looking after everyone. Like all good friends they bicker and argue about all sorts from how to clean a bike chain to more meaningful subjects as they seek to make sense of where they have got to in life. Meanwhile, David the peace-maker tries to make everything all right.
Of course, being a novel about Ventoux and cycling there are plenty of descriptions of cycling and the moments of clarity and introspection that every cyclist has experienced when climbing and then descending a great mountain. As Bart toils up Mont Ventoux on his personal journey to conquer, not just the mountain but his inner demons, he experiences that feeling we have all had: in top form one minute and hopeless the next, the camaraderie with your fellow riders, the internal mental struggle we have to overcome and the determination required to reach the top.
Ventoux is that rare commodity indeed: a thought provoking, moving piece of fiction with cycling and one of its most iconic climbs as a catalyst and centrepiece for the story. Bart Hoffman, its main character and narrator, is such a genuine mouthpiece for the tale, his thoughts ringing true and clear. It’s not just that Wagendorp only changed one letter of his name from Bert to Bart that we know this really is the author’s voice, and it’s this that brings the story and characters to life. It’s an extraordinary novel that stands out as a great piece of fiction. No wonder it’s sold over 140,000 copies.