“Nice Suits”

Way back in the ’70s, prior to my baptism into The Church of the Big Ring, my existence was defined by big air on BMX bikes and sheer velocity on skateboards.

But nothing…NOTHING…I ever did compares to these freaks. This video has been making the rounds and I’m just stunned. And awestruck. And laughing my ass off with glee.

Truth and Soul

Cover of Joe Parkin's book A Dog in a HatA Dog in a Hat: An American Bike Racer’s Story of Mud, Drugs, Blood, Betrayal, and Beauty in Belgium by Joe Parkin.

The April 17, 2000 issue of VeloNews closed with a typically fervent Bob Roll screed entitled “51 Things To Do Before You Die”. Part Martin Luther’s The Ninety-Five Theses, part Roy Batty’s Tears in the Rain speech near the close of Blade Runner, part Unabomber Manifesto, Roll lays out a grandiose array of activities which collectively define the essence of soul cycling (or at least replicate Bob Roll’s life’s quest for enlightenment). There’s quite a bit of intercontinental travel involved, expensive equipment purchases, some tasks are quite physically painful, other items involve a serious investment of time, and more than a few may result in being arrested if witnessed by law enforcement personnel.

Of course, a few of the things to do before you die are quite simple to achieve. Every list needs some low-hanging fruit to motivate the masses. The easiest to check off is this one:

34. Count eight seconds. Imagine, Greg LeMond beat Laurent Fignon by this margin in a race that is three weeks long.

Done? Well, now only have 50 Things To Do Before You Die.

And thanks to VeloPress, the 2nd easiest task to achieve on the list is only $21.95 away:

36. Learn from Joe Parkin’s life story.

I’m not sure if Roll’s list had anything to do with Parkin finally putting pen to paper to detail his 6 years of hard living/hard racing in Belgium, but it’s completely apropos that Bob Roll penned the foreword seeing as how it was Roll’s words which propelled a wide-eyed, 19-year old Parkin to venture across the pond to Flanders and metamorphize into the wraith-thin Lone Biker of the Apocalypse Roll randomly encounters along the Schelde canal bike path five years later.

And what exactly is there to learn from Joe Parkin’s life story?

The Joe Parkin Archives of Professional Cycling is rather sparse. In fact, the collective contents would hardly fill up a decent-sized messenger bag:

My souvenirs are a handful of photographs, two pieces of fan mail, one Tulip team riding jacket, and a trophy from my amateur days. The magazine articles and photographs of me can be counted on one hand. The money has long been spent.

There’s not much too to glean from the physical evidence, but Parkin’s prose fills in all the cracks . Quite simply, the man’s tough as nails and chose the absolute hardest way to break into European professional cycling: just showing up in Ghent with a bike, a duffel bag of clothes, three months worth of cash, and a phone number to call scrawled on a scrap of paper. It sounds remarkably familiar to the tale of a certain Mac Canon–in fact several key characters play a role in each tale (Allan Peiper, Johan Lammerts, Eddy Planckaert)–except Parkin chose to sign on the dotted line and remain in Belgium for 4 1/2 years of professional cycling.

It’s quite a challenge for a cyclist with talent and desire to come to grips with the reality that victory at the professional level is nigh unlikely if not out and out impossible and that careers can be made in service of others who win, and win consistently. Finding exactly where and how he could fit into a team became Parkin’s mission.

And here’s some random, fun facts I learned from Joe Parkin’s life story:

  • Flemish fans are a fickle bunch and only like winners. Joe Parkin finished just one Monument of Cycling in his career (the 1988 edition of Paris-Roubaix, 26 minutes back in 74th place and about 1 foot shy of DFL honors) and that race is also the only time he crossed the finish line of a bike race covered in beer. Said Parkin, “…we were the clown show that existed only to be heckled”.
  • What might have been. Every cyclist’s 20/20 hindsight lament. And Parkin had a couple of major letdowns. First, Parkin was feeling pretty frisky in the 1988 world pro road championships but was denied the chance at an endgame due to an untimely flat. He was Claude Criquielion’s shadow that day, and had to witness the Bauer/Criquielion/Fondriest meltdown from the sidelines instead of the other side of the fence. Second, Parkin nearly pulled off a top 15 finish in the 1991 world pro cyclocross championships. You just have to read it to believe it, but the stars nearly aligned that day until Parkin crashed spectacularly with about 10 minutes to go. And it never hurts to have Adri Van Der Poel as a teammate on your pro road team to train with and receive some insider ‘cross knowledge. It would be ten more years before another American, Marc Gullickson, did finish in the top 15.
  • The hair. Evidently, Parkin influenced some big-gun Euro pros (such as Eddy Planckaert, who had a bizarre conversation with Parkin about handguns) to embrace what Parkin called his “white trash” look. Business in the front…party in the back. But man oh man, Joe, you just have to know when to stop. At least Parkin sees the humor in it these days.
  • Ronny Van Holen. I joked about my obsession with Mr. Van Holen a while ago, and lo and behold he turns up as Parkin’s teammate for two years. And now I know the rest of the story.
  • This is outside the realm of A Dog in a Hat, but how exactly does Johan Lammerts end up on Scott-BiKyle in his last year as a professional? Just click on his name and read his palmares. Also on that team was Roger Honneger who ended up 7th in the 1991 pro ‘cross worlds in which Parkin crashed out of the top 15 with 10 minutes to go. And yet another reference from the ‘91 pro ‘cross worlds is that Parkin lined up next to the only other American in the race, Kent Johnston, who may or may not have been rocking a BiKyle rig. A small world indeed.
  • Praise from Belgian director sportifs is as rare and precious as diamonds.

I had a notion in the late ’80s that I should get my ass to Belgium and find out once and for all if I had the grit, predilection, and temperament to find my way as a professional. It never happened. Not even close. But I’m glad that brave souls such as Parkin headed to Flanders, lived like monks, and truly tested themselves in a manner beyond anything possible on this side of the Atlantic.

Bob Roll considers Parkin’s work “the most authentic ever written about making a two-wheeled living as a pro cyclist in Europe” and I’m inclined to agree. He also chimed in with “feel free to fuck off and die” if one takes umbrage with Parkin’s tale (how’s that for literary criticism!). I’m sure he’s tracking down those who gave the book a lowly 2 star rating on Amazon this very moment. But I’d venture that anyone who’s a devotee of the Bobke Strut experience is appropriately wired to truly appreciate living (or re-living) the squalid truth of late ’80s Euro pro shenanigans.

King of the World

The US team assembles prior to the 1983 Professional World Championship Road Race
Calm before the storm.
(l-r) John Patterson, Greg LeMond, Eric Fetch, Gavin Chilcott, Jonathan Boyer, John Eustice | Photo ©: Assos clothing ad

September 4, 1983. Altenrhein, Switzerland. Twenty five years ago today, Greg LeMond laid waste to the cream of the world’s professional peloton en route to his first professional world championship. In a stunning display of patience, tactics, cunning, verve, and nerve seemingly beyond his 22 years, Greg LeMond finished the 270 km championship event in 7:01:21, 1:11 ahead of his nearest competitor–a margin of victory yet to be equalled or exceeded since. In fact, you’d have to go back to Vittorio Adorni in 1968 before you’d find a larger margin of victory. Including Adorni, only four world champions post-WWII have had more distance between themselves and 2nd place than LeMond.

One of LeMond’s early mentors, Eddy B., was fortunate enough to witness history in the making first hand and chronicled LeMond’s victory in this clinical, analytic manner:

As smart as [Giuseppe] Saronni was in 1982, that’s how smart Greg LeMond was in 1983. He gave us an incredible show at the World Professional Championship in Switzerland. I was so happy to be there and watch him do everything perfectly to earn that victory.

LeMond became visible at the front after the halfway point. He knew that nothing important would happen in the first 100 km–it never does in pro races because they are so long (this one was 270 km). At midrace a dozen riders moved off the front and LeMond was right there. He saw potential danger because Phil Anderson was involved, but it was too early. LeMond pulled through but didn’t work hard, and the group was caught after about 25 km.

Next, seven riders escaped and this time LeMond was not with them. The gap reached three minutes before the field began its chase. All seven riders were from different nations, so no team was interested in trying to block. LeMond was a beneficiary–it meant he did not have to exert himself to close the gap. He let the work be done by the Italians, who seemed intent on getting Saronni into position for another championship. In a way, the 1982 table had been turned.

With less than 40 km to go, six of the seven riders were caught. A Swiss remained out front, but his lead was shrinking. Now LeMond made his move. He attacked and only two riders, an Italian and a Spaniard, were able to go with him. The field had just completed the long chase and LeMond caught it off guard. It was the classic bridge. He jumped away instantly and powered right into contact. Then he kept the pressure on. He pushed hard because he was feeling good and the end was close. He believed he could succeed. He also was lucky, because he got some unintentional but valuable help from the Italian team. It went on the front of the field to block because the Italian in the group, [Moreno] Argentin, was a strong sprinter. His team figured he would beat the other three at the finish.

Again LeMond did the right thing. He kept the pace hard on the hills to take the speed out of Argentin and the others. He was glad for their help on the descents and flats, but didn’t need want them conserving any energy. He knew they would get no help from his draft on the climbs, so he willingly set a fast pace. They had to ride very hard to stay with him. The tactic worked well.

Maybe too well, I thought, when first the Swiss and then the Italian lost contact. I feared it was too early to drop Argentin because it would make the Italians stop blocking. The door would be open for a strong chase by the field. This made me very nervous. But LeMond sensed that keeping Argentin would cost him too much time. There came a point when he felt it was better to gamble his strength against the response of the field. He took the challenge.

Now it was LeMond and the Spaniard. Behind them the Italians knew the game was over and several of them abandoned. The chases began, but they failed to pose a serious threat. The field was almost a minute and a half behind–too far back if LeMond could maintain a strong pace to the finish. Again he was very smart. He knew he could drop the Spaniard, [Faustino] Ruperez, if he attacked him on the climbs, but he also knew that Ruperez was still strong enough to help him make time on the descents and flats. So LeMond waited until the final 15 km lap had started. Then he pulled away from Ruperez on a hill, using only as much energy as necessary. From there it was a time trial to the finish line. LeMond was wonderful! He did not lose a second during the lap and he arrived more than one minute ahead of the next rider. It was one of the largest winning margins in recent World Championships. LeMond left nothing to chance. In 1982 he finished second to a sprinter, in 1983 he made sure the sprinters were nowhere close.

Bicycle Road Racing. Edward Borysewicz. Velo-News Corporation, Brattleboro, VT. 1985. 144-146.

1983 Worlds Tidbits:
1. For a superb account of the race through Greg LeMond’s eyes, read John Wilcockson’s feature (Part 1, Part 2) about that special day in Switzerland. I don’t think I ever really knew how tight LeMond and Phil Anderson were, and how they prepped & tackled the race together.
2. Jonathan Boyer was the only other American finisher (30th place).
3. Gitane is particularly proud of LeMond.
4. Some ‘83 worlds footage, among other things.
5. To the victor goes the spoils. What could be sweeter than to rock the Koppenberg on a training ride ensconced in the rainbow jersey?

Greg LeMond takes on the Koppenberg
The opening spread of Greg LeMond’s first feature article in Sports Illustrated | Photo ©: Sports Illustrated. September 3, 1984. pgs. 54-55

Rare Groove: The Bill Walton Chronicles

Bill Walton on arguably the largest track bike in the world. Photo from Eddy B's Bicycle Road Racing book. When it comes to sportswriting, David Halberstam resides in a world of his own.

Halberstam penned one of my all time favorite works of journalism, The Amateurs: The Story of Four Young Men and Their Quest for an Olympic Gold Medal, a book which seemed to leap off the shelves of a dusty used book store collection and soon became spot welded into my cerebellum back in my high school days. I’ve been a fan of rowing ever since, even dabbled in the sport while I was abroad in Ireland during college (training with a few freaks, and I mean freaks, of nature on the Irish national team), and the recently concluded Beijing Olympics again sparked my memories of the sport (and of The Amateurs). If my body was the archetypical rower’s physique who knows what direction I would have taken, but stubby legs and a dearth of opportunity stateside torpedoed that proposition.

But the sportswriting which Halberstam is likely most know for is The Breaks of the Game, the embedded chronicle of the 1979-1980 Portland Trailblazers’ tumultuous NBA season, a book recently brought to my attention by one of the most fascinatingly cryptic and esoteric insider sports blogs anywhere: Free Darko. And little did I know, tucked away near the book’s conclusion, would be a single sentence which got me thinking about Bill Walton:

One night a San Diego sportswriter, covering a bicycle race at a local arena [the San Diego velodrome] because Olympic skater Eric Heiden was supposed to be competing, was astounded to see Bill Walton there, careening around the track at breakneck speed. pg. 347.

The iconoclastic Bill Walton–champion collegiate and professional basketball player, vegetarian, peace activist, pot smoker, Deadhead, musician–has been and always will be a cyclist, too. Poking around a bit online led me to the introduction of Walton’s book, Bill Walton’s Total Book of Bicycling, in which his fascination with cycling was fully elaborated (including his time spent training with future 1980 Olympic track cyclists in San Diego).

My first derailleur bike was a green Bertin, which I bought because it was the tallest bike I could find - about a 25 1/2″ frame, I think. It came from Hans Ort’s Westwood bike shop, and they fixed me up with an extra-long seatpost which let me stretch out my legs for the first time in years. It also gave me a pretty radical position on the bike, since the handlebars were about five inches below the seat. After buying the Bertin, I took to dropping in at Hans’ shop when I had free time, and it was there that I found out about more serious cycling. I went out on rides with the guys who were racing, and through this I learned to respect the sport and the people involved in it. On the bike I was no star, just one of the group.

In college I got in the habit of riding quite frequently, especially in summer. Usually 40-60 mile rides, long enough to loosen up and unwind. I would do that probably four days a week during the summer. A couple of hundred miles a week, probably. I never consciously rode for fitness, but I know now that those rides were very beneficial in a variety of ways. I’m sure they gave me stamina and leg strength without putting stress on my knees and feet, and it never felt like work. It was the kind of activity that settled me down. I’ve always had to respect what a good ride can do for my mood. Going out on a bike is my idea of an excellent way to enjoy a sunny day. Being outside, getting into the movement and joy of the bike - it’s very satisfying to me, that feeling of freedom.

I took advantage of something else about the bicycle then, too: the privacy. There were a lot of basketball fans at UCLA and it could be difficult to cope with this at times. Between playing basketball and attending classes, I needed to get away, so I rode around campus rather walking. On the bike I was a lot less vulnerable, you might say; I was moving too fast for conversation. The bike gave me time by myself to digest the experiences I was having, and this was really important to me.

I finally hammered that poor Bertin to the point where I needed something new, and was lucky enough to meet a British professional rider named Norman Hill. He runs the Vancouver velodrome now, but at the time he was associated with the Falcon team. He arranged for me to get a road and a track bike. These Falcons were a necessity, actually; my size and weight were wrong for any stock bike. The were made of stronger tubing and had less flex; and I could feel the difference, especially when hammering a big gear or climbing hills off the saddle. My first ride with the track bike was a completely new experience, and I found I was still learning a lot about bicycles. These bikes were still a little on the small side, though; manufacturers aren’t geared up for out-size frames, basically. I measure out to a 29 1/2” frame, which creates all sorts of problems for the builder.

I might still be riding those Falcons except for a coincidence that brought me in contact with the 1980 Olympic track team, which moved to San Diego for quite some period of time to be near our velodrome. Harvey Nitz, Eric Heiden Mark Gorski, Brent Emery, John Beckmann, Dave Grylls - I can’t remember all the names - they were at a hotel near my house, and I’d go out with them, riding my Falcons. I learned a lot chasing them down the road, and missed them when they left. At that time, Eddy Borysewicz, the National coach, did me an important favor, by measuring me and arranging for Ted Kirkbride, who also built the American Masi bicycles, to build me a pair of bikes that really fit. Ted sent to England for special heavy tubing normally used on tandem bicycles, then built me both a road and a track bike, and they were just fine. It way my first experience with what it’s like to be on a bicycle that really fits and has good rigidity, and I can vouch for the advantages of this.

I’m not sure what was in the water in California which led freaky big, ex-UCLA centers to so completely and publicly embrace cross training (remember Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s big screen debut?), but I think it’s pretty cool that Bill Walton to this day is still a fixture, a rather unmistakeable fixture, on the Southern California cycling scene. And if Cycle Sport ever brings back their Rare Groove series of features, Bill Walton would be a shoe-in for inclusion.

Here’s some additional Bill Walton references for your perusing pleasure:

  • Dave Moulton has the full skinny about the Ted Kirkbride-built custom frames. Damn that bike is HUGE!
  • From the Sports Illustrated vault: a sportswriter tags along (sort of) on a 2-day, 150-mile bicycle ride with Bill Walton in 1977. There’s shades of Svein Tuft tucked away in there.
  • A bit more about Walton’s 150-mile ride, which was captured in a documentary.
  • Even more about the documentary
  • Walton has ridden the last three editions of the Death Valley Century.
  • A 1974 Time article with mentions of cycling in general, Walton’s racing aspirations, and mentor Norman Hill.
  • Random Bill Walton sighting.