Sunday 14 September 2008

Book Review: A Dog in A Hat

A Dog in a Hat
by Joe Parkin
Velopress, 2008
ISBN-10: 1934030260
ISBN-13: 978-1934030264
240 pp.

We all have in our own imagination ideas of what pro cycling is all about. When I was at the Tour de France in 2006 I was impressed by the professionalism of everything: the course organization, from barriers to route markings; the television coverage; the team buses–including the one I passed that smelled like a laundromat as I walked by since they were using the on-board washing machines! A Dog in a Hat, the story of an American professional cyclist racing in Europe from 1987 to 1991, has none of these things and it probably gives a better impression of what pro cycling is really like, even today, than the rarified snippets we get from the top-level teams.

Joe Parkin was racing in California as an amateur when he met Team 7-Eleven racer Bob Roll, who told him to go to Belgium to race if he wanted to get serious. The hard-working Mr. Roll, who also wrote the, uh, colourful introduction to the book, is famous for his cycling work ethic and odd behavior, and was right: it is hard to imagine a place where cycling is taken more seriously than Belgium.

So the innocent author makes his way to Europe to Brussels and moves in with the Albert Claeys family in Ursel. Albert, who owned a bar and sometimes drove a truck, was well-known as a sort of godfather to American cyclists in Europe, helping them to get established and find a team, as well as providing a bed.

The book describes in entertaining detail what it is like to be at the bottom of the pro ranks. Mr. Parkin had dreams of becoming King of the Mountains and felt that his talent was most suited to the shorter stage races. But it quickly becomes obvious just how difficult it is to even finish a race, let alone win one. As time goes on, Joe Parkin comes to the realization that he will not be King of the Mountains but has to accept that he is a good worker, a domestique, and that his role is that of a support rider.

Along the way this naive American, who on first hearing Flemish mistook it for Russian, becomes a kind of Belgian-American hybrid, absorbing the language and holding his own in the cycling culture. This is a culture that prizes toughness above all, and in his spare style he talks about the mud, the crashes, the disappointment. At the lowest level the environment is terrible, with talentless teammates, hotel rooms so awful it makes you laugh, and not much money when it actually does get paid. He has no papers to allow him be in Belgium, something that does not trouble team management very much, even when it means he will be deported. He does not shrink from describing the all-pervasive use of drugs in cycling, and the fixing of races. This is bare-bones racing: to get changed for the kermis, the standard Belgian town race, he and his teammates would strip down in some local's living room. They were keen to get the special jerseys (overall, sprinter etc.) in races because it gave them one more clean garment.

The description of the drug use would be hilarious except for the ultimate repercussions. Riders will take anything with minimal concern: the reactions range from getting faster to getting stupid. Doping controls seem minimal at best and team management does nothing to discourage illegal practices.

But as he improves Joe clearly enjoys being a professional–a European pro. Racing against amateurs in the UK’s Milk Race or in races in the United States he is contemptuous of their lack of skill and discipline. When writing to team time trials, he talks of the focus and teamwork needed to succeed. He is proud of being able to control a race, going ahead and setting the pace and hauling back breakaways. Probably his greatest contribution was helping his team leader, Luc Roosen, win the 1991 Tour de Suisse. But in the end there is no new contract forthcoming (even though some of the team leaders consider pooling enough of their own money to let him ride at a minimum wage!) and he returned to the States. In 1992 he watched his teammates ride the Tour de France on television. He never went back to Flanders, and after doing some racing in the United States and then switching to mountain bikes he ended his career in 1997.

At the time of his Belgian adventures, Joe Parkin was one of only a handful of North Americans in European pro racing, all in the shadow of the mighty Greg Lemond who was considered such a superior cyclist that he was seen as some kind of freak, beyond any national classification. The title of this book, “A Dog in a Hat,” is a translation of a Flemish expression meaning something unusual–Joe Parkin was told while racing to look for changes, to look for the dog, to indicate what was happening in the race. As an American racing for a European team in the late 1980s Joe Parkin was a kind of dog in a hat himself. The cycling public is served up stories about Lance Armstrong’s victories over and over again as if the Tour de France is the only race but this plain, self-deprecating memoir has the ring of authenticity at the other end of the sport where even today not all the riders are being paid, the hotels are still bad and the races just as hard.

Available at VeloPress and


Groover said...

Put on my "To read" list. I had never heard of this book before but it sounds worthwhile reading. Thanks for posting this review.

Sprocketboy said...

I only bring you the newest of the new! The book was released about ten days ago. It is fun but there are parts where you don't know whether to laugh or cringe. All in all, it just confirms my view that being a pro cyclist is among the worst professional sports careers. It poured rain all day here today and since nobody is paying me I did not have to ride my bike.

Groover said...

No wonder I had not heard of the book, yet.

Riding in the rain is only fun if you are wet already :-)