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.

Comments (16) to “Truth and Soul”

  1. …sounds like i’m in…i’ll be looking for a copy…if bob roll sez it’s real, then i gotta read it…

  2. me too….

  3. Really great job on the Parkin book.
    Going to Interbike to interview Joe Parkin tomorrow at the velopress booth. Look for the interview on in a week or two.

  4. Read the book before the blog. I gave it a bunch of stars. Anyone, whether or not a cyclist, can read this book and appreciate Parkin’s grit and blind loyalty to making it in a tough European sport.

  5. Read the book a few days ago, after reading about it on your site, great evocation of the grind and guts of the Pro game. Incidently, on Ronny Van Holen you can see what the Ronmeister looks like these days on Roland Desmet’s great blog entry for 08/10/08.

  6. Peter, great job on the Parkin book review. I had no idea he’d written a book, and I’d forgotten about the Bob Roll list. Speaking of which, can you scan it (the 51thingstodobeforeyoudie list) and email/post it?


  7. I rode Bikyle bikes in 90 but broke them prior to Worlds. A little known company at the time, Trek, was kind enough to build a few cross frames for use. Kent

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  15. Kent Johnston is a roided out Doper with no engine. Worthless Donkey.

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