A Dog In A Hat, Joe Parkin (2008)

Drugs, deals and dissapointment in the late 1980s on the backroads of Flanders

VeloPress 9781934030264 205pp $21.95

Joe Parkin’s cycle racing career was sufficiently low-key for few people to have noticed him while he was riding and fewer still to remember him now. He left his native United States as a teenage amateur in 1986 and rode in Belgium until the end of the 1991 season – clocking up five years as a pro. His working life consisted of smaller stage races, a handful of classics, and a steady diet of kermesses. He won nothing, rarely placed in even the top ten, and only occasionally put in efforts for the team that merit recording.

Despite this, he did achieve something exceptional. Simply to have propelled himself to Flanders and made a life there required a singular determination and courage. That he managed to sustain himself in such a gruelling sport, in an alien world, long after the dream of podium places was over also marks him out.

He has also produced a readable, and affecting memoir of his time chasing the peloton through the Flemish wind. He has a good eye for the peculiarities of Belgian life – and an ear for idioms of the language of Flanders. The book’s title, for example, comes from a phrase denoting unusual site that denotes that something is amiss.

There is now a growing literature of professional cycle racing disappointment – Paul Kimmage’s Rough Ride, for example is broadly coterminous, Tony Hewson’s In Search Of Stardom tells a similar tale of life in France during the 1950s.

There is not much in this book, apart from cycling. We don’t learn what sort of family the author came from, not what career options he gave up to ride his bike. A girlfriend makes a fleeting appearance, but disappears having witnessed Parkin being manhandled by his soigneur.

His tales of life in the drug-fuelled world of lower league Belgian cycling where most victories are bought serves as scant advertisement for the life that he chose – but as a collection of tales from the battle front, its a diverting read.

Here he is on the one occasion that he admits to taking drugs – something to which he says that in general he was a conscientious objector.

“I am pretty sure Superman could leap tall buildings and see through walls and all that because he was jacked to the gills on amphetamine. I was countering my competitors’ attacks even before they thought about making them. I was inflicting excruciating pain on every inch of my body, but I didn’t care. It was amazing!

Unfortunately, each of my new strengths was outweighed by the fact that I was also becoming more stupid by the second. In reacting to my competitors before they could even attack, I was doing more work than I needed to. I was controlling the race in such a way that it was actually easier on them. If we’d been racing in Las Vegas, I would have been the drunk at the poker game trying to go all-in on a pair of twos after showing everyone else my cards.”

Once again, Parkin lost. By recording his two-wheeled travails, however, he as probably done more to make a lasting mark than did most of the journeyman rouleurs.

PS Nov 10

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