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.

The Mother of All Pub Crawls

Cover of Wielercafes in Vlaanderen by Walter RottiersMy final evening in Belgium this past November was spent in Brussels conversing with a couple of native Flandriens in a smoky, Flemish bar. While we touched on a variety of subjects, the heart of our conversation dwelled on two topics near and dear to my heart: beer and pro cycling (more specifically, this evening, all things beer and pro cycling in Flanders). I was reminded of that particular conversation this past weekend while noticing a sure sign of spring in North Carolina–the sudden proliferation of daffodils emerging overnight en-masse as if by magic. To my Flandrien friends the telltale harbinger of spring was represented by one annual, blockbuster event: Het Volk (occurring the same day all of our daffodils sprouted this side of the Atlantic). It was with almost religious fervor that they spoke of Het Volk, ensuing hints of blue sky and warmer weather, and the steady crescendo of racing throughout March culminating in early April with the largest event on the Flandrien calendar: The Ronde…part Super Bowl, part Fourth of July, part Holy Day.

I heard tales from years past of seeing Het Volk, Gent-Wevelgem, and the Ronde in person—of daring driving and insider, back-road knowledge put to the test in order to view the parcours from multiple bergs before navigating to the finish line. More recently, however, the insanity of seeing the races in person grew too much to negotiate and the races were instead viewed via television from the comfort of their favorite bars. Which brings me to a phenomenon of Flanders chronicled in a book purchased at the Ronde museum…the ubiquity of wielercafes throughout Flanders. One hundred twenty one, to be precise. 121 bars devoted in one way or another to pro cycling whether owned by an ex-pro, a fan club of current pros, or just cafes owned and operated by die-hard cycling fans. Wielercafes in Vlaanderen investigates them all and provides the raw materials to string together the pub crawl to end all pub crawls. I propose one fine tune the Vlaams, get the liver in tip-top shape, and hit about 3 or 4 wielercafes per day for the entire Spring Classic season. And document it all Zane Lamprey style for the posterity’s sake. Word.

(If you just want the bare bones facts, here’s the master list.)

Cyclocross World Cup-Koksijde…The full story, Part 2

Cyclocross World Cup-Koksijde…The full story, Part 1

Zesdaagse Vlaanderen-Gent…Night Two–the full story

Everyone who loves professional cycling should spend at least one evening in the Kuipke.

The evening’s race schedule:

6:30pm UIV Cup: Flying 1 lap TT (166 m) and 200 lap madison
8:05pm Pro team introductions
8:30pm 60 lap points race
8:50pm Madison miss-and-out
9:10pm Flying 1 lap TT (166 m): Team 13 first…Team 1 last
9:30pm Madison: 40 minutes + 10 laps
10:15pm Break…cheesy singing performed by Gary Hagger, definitely time to re-load on beer and brats.
10:35pm Derny heat #1 (teams 7-12): 60 laps
10:50pm Miss-and-out
11:05pm Derny heat #2 (teams 1-6): 60 laps
11:20pm Flying 500 m TT: Team 13 first…Team 1 last
11:45pm Supersprint: Madison miss-and-out until 6 teams remain + 10 laps
12:00am Derny final
12:15am Scratch race (everyone except those who just competed in the derny final)
12:25am Madison: 30 minutes + 10 laps

Cyclocross World Cup-Koksijde

World Champion Erwin Vervecken emerged from his camper fully kitted out and proceeded to check the tire pressure on one of his four bikes. No pressure gauges for Erwin…it was assessed simply by pressing his palm down on the tire and letting the mechanic know whether air needed to be added or released. World Champions do not pump their own tires, or even let air out…truly the essence of PRO.

I’ve returned from Belgium and will have much more to say about the World Cup at Koksijde as well as the 6 Days of Ghent. I’ve got about 120 photos all together from both events plus two short video clips from Koksijde.

2007 Zesdaagse Vlaanderen-Gent…Wednesday Night

As Mac Canon previously stated, “50 degree banking, baby!” The electronic screen above the track shows the results of the UIV Cup flying lap TT still in-progress.

Pictured are 1 of 2 American teams taking place in the UIV Cup, an espoir precursor to the pro event, at the 6 Days of Ghent. Fore is Guy East, rear is Austin Carroll. Unfortunately for these guys, Austin Carroll ate it hard near the end of their 200 lap madison and he was taken away in a stretcher with a separated shoulder. At this point I was purchasing bratwurst and beer and I totally missed the incident. And as you can see, if you’re not racing the pro event you don’t get a bunk to set up shop. It’s uber low budget all the way…folding chairs, duffle bags, and rollers out in the open on the infield.

The pros are taking processional laps for approximately 25 minutes as all 13 teams are introduced. They form a tight double paceline with the teams in reverse order (ie…team 13 at the front down to team 1 at the rear). The announcers run down the palmares of the team on the front, once completed that team pulls up high on the track and waves to the crowd for one lap, then they drift to the rear in order for the next team to get their due. At this point it’s pretty early in the intro laps…the team in the solid red jerseys near the rear of the double paceline are Team #2: Iljo Keisse (the local Gent hero) and teammate Robert Bartko (a German with tree-trunk legs). Behind them in white are Team #1: the Swiss duo of Bruno Risi/Franco Marvulli. It’s only 8pm-ish…the stands didn’t fill up until the first madison, the fourth event of the evening, got underway at about 9:30pm. Racing went until 1am.


Greetings from the Ronde van Vlaanderen Museum in Oudenaarde. My efforts to hot wire this rig and rage throughout the Flemish Ardennes proved unsuccessful. And those Freddy Maertens Flandria bikes on the roof were awesome. First generation 1970s Dura-Ace, awesome PRO graphics, I started hearing voices, “take me to the Koppenberg, the Paterberg, the mud, the cowshit, the rain…just get me off the roof”. Instead, I just rode the computer simulator in the museum up the Muur. I nearly hocked up a lung trying to hold 350 watts.

Who knew there were different kinds of pave stones. There was a fascinating old b&w video about how Belgian miners made cobbles.


I’m in Gent, Belgium this week. First up on the “things to do before I die” list is catching a night of the 6 Days of Gent. That will be Wednesday evening…I’ll be drinking beer in the center of the track all night. Next up on the list is a ‘cross World Cup in Belgium…so it’s off to Koskijde on Saturday. Tomorrow my mission is to ride from Gent to Oundenaarde and back so I can ascend the Koppenberg. And not pull a Skibby.