Monday, October 12, 2009

Book Review: Thumbs up for "A Dog in a Hat"

Joe Parkin sums up his professional career in Belgium this way: He could ride hard when called upon, but at the end of the day, he had more desire than natural ability. The American journeyman never had a win while riding on mostly second-tier teams in 1987-91. But he left Europe with loads of fascinating, colorful anecdotes about the sport’s personalities, customs and its holy land – Belgium. These descriptions and insights make his book “A Dog in a Hat” (VeloPress, US$21.95) well worth reading.

Parkin won a few races as an amateur in Minnesota and California before he decided to skip college and try to turn pro in Belgium. He was taken in by a bike mechanic, who rented him a room and served as his coach in the town of Ursel. Pro teams got interested in him after a few good results, including a third place in the amateur version of the Het Volk Classic.

He says he achieved a high degree of fluency in Flemish, and he sprinkles phrases from the language throughout the book. One of them is “een hond met een hoed op” or “a dog in a hat,” from which the book gets its title. The phrase means something that looks out of place, like an American racing with the pros in Belgium in the late 1980s.

One of my favorite anecdotes comes from Parkin’s description of his first pro classic, the 310-kilometer Paris-Brussels. Parkin said he was still in the peloton with Sean Kelly as the riders were sizing each other up for the final push with 20 kilometers left. But at the 10- kilometer mark, he got dropped and eventually got swept up by the bus just kilometers away from the finish. The winner – or the “man with the hammer” – was Wim Arras. Parkin ends the chapter with a great statement about how cruel life can be – how the sport and world move on no matter how fast you were on the bike. “Four years later, he (Arras) would be turning wrenches on my bike,” he says.

Parkin can turn a nice phrase when he’s inspired. In a chapter about kermis racing, he says, “If the grand tours are like classical music, kermis racing is punk rock, Belgian style.” He notes that the races are all about the same length, between 150-180 kilometers, and involve circuit courses of about 10 kilometers. He says he figured out why the circuits are this length after watching a race from a cafĂ©. “The time it takes for the pros to cover 10 kilometers is almost exactly the time it takes to order, receive and drink a beer.” The drinkers can hear the race coming, drain their beer and step outside to watch the riders speed by.

In 1989, he signed up with the ADR team, which also featured Greg LeMond, who pulled off his amazing Tour de France victory that same year. But LeMond rode on the A team, while Parkin was relegated to the B team – a bunch of misfits he describes as ADR’s “redheaded stepchildren.”

Another of my favorite anecdotes involves the Belgian great Eddy Planckaert, who also rode for ADR. Parkin says he once arrived at Eddy’s farmhouse about 9 a.m. for a ride and had to wake him up. It was January and Eddy’s last ride was sometime in November. His bike was still caked with months-old mud. But as soon as Eddy started riding, he began complaining about the speed wasn’t fast enough. “A few minutes after we started, he attacked …. Less than a minute after the attack, Eddy was back with us, cursing his bike, his legs, the food he had just eaten, the cold, everything.” He complained they were riding too fast so early in the season and that he wouldn’t train with them again. Parkin insists they were only going 25 kph.

Parkin ends his European career with the IOC-Tulip team. He he constantly battled anemia and low testosterone levels. He recalls that after one tough climbing stage in the Tour de Suisse, he was famished and searched through his jersey pockets for leftover snacks – “squished little sandwiches and pastries in foil wrap” - when he returned to his hotel room. Still hungry, he began digging around in the trash can looking for food that his roommates had discarded. He passed out while still wearing his race kit and later woke to the sound of the team doctor trying to wake him up. The physician said, “This is not good,” before leaving the room. He returned shortly to give Parkin a big injection of Intralipid, which was mostly fat.

After going back to America for good, he rode for U.S. pro teams, including the Coors Light squad. When his road racing career ended in 1994, he recorded some solid results as a mountain biker. Unfortunately, the book doesn't provide many details about how Parkin settled into a civilian life and how he earns a living now. It's also a shame that Parkin didn't stay in touch with many of the people he knew in Belgium, so the book provides no updates about them.

Next: Parkin's low down on Euro doping.

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