As the days grow shorter and the snowbanks begin to pile up, cyclists in my neck of the woods head indoors to wind trainers or spin class to keep the legs moving until the warmer weather returns.
Winter is also a great time to catch up on some reading and there have been some good cycling related books published and from time to time I’ll share my thoughts on them with you.
Belgium is renowned for being a cold, miserable, wet place where the bad roads can take their toll on your body and bike and the North Sea cross winds will split a peleton to shreds. Yet as cyclists many of us dream of the chance to ride in the land of the great ones. Merckx, De Vlaeminck, Boonen and Gilbert. All greats. All Belgians. All kick ass.
And Belgium is where the great races are too. If it takes a figure skater to win the Tour de France, it takes a hockey tough guy to win the Tour of Flanders or Het Volk. Racing in Belgium is for the hard men of the sport and the country shows respect for men who race over the cobbles. Especially the Flemmish.
Joe Parkin heard the call of the cobbles in the 1980s made his pilgrimage to the land of mussels and frites to make a name for himself as a pro cyclist. He tells his tale, warts and all in “A Dog in a Hat, an American Bike Racer’s Story of Mud, Drugs, Blood, Betrayal and Beauty in Belgium”.
As a 19 year old California racer, Parkin was having some good local success and at the urging of Bob Roll, rolled the dice and went to Belgium with next to no money in his pocket, ready to break into the pro ransk.
What follows is an eye opening account of how cruel pro cycling can be. Fixed races, sadistic Directeur Sportifs, the politics of the peleton and drugs. And oh, the drugs. This book is pre-Festina affair and the world of cycling was a different beast than it is today. Parkin walks us through local Kermis races where preparation could involve dipping into the “Belgian pot” for a little boost.
“In those days, if a rider planned on being “good” for the race, then exactly fifteen minutes before the start a syringe would come out. Some clear liquid would be sucked up into it from any number of different ampoules and injected, either subcutaneously or intravenously. If injected subcutaneously, the substance was usually a low grade amphetamine. Injecting it this way would create little time-release bumps under the skin that riders called “bolleketten” , which basically means “little rocket balls”.”
Parkin endures the Kermis scene with it’s fixed races and crazed Flemmish riders running on hot sauce and eventually lands a pro contract. What follows is an engaging look behind the scenes of pro cycling. Rivalries with team mates, double dealing team owners and the relentless suffering that comes along with the sport.
Yet for Parkin there seems to be some kind of romance in all of it. He seems to find some kind of beauty in all of it. Maybe that’s why in the end, it feels like a breakup when Parkin makes the decision to return to America. Belgium was his mistress and they just couldn’t work it out.
A Dog in a Hat is a great read for any cyclist and anybody interested in the history behind our sport. It’s a well told tale with a well known cast of characters like Plankaert, Hoste and de Wolf carried out over the pave of the Ardennes.
A Dog in a Hat is from Velopress who bring us a lot of great cycling books. The book has been out for a few years now but has a timeless quality to it. Joe Parkin also released “Come and Gone” which chronicles his time back in America extending his racing career on the continental circuit.
Until next time, ride to eat and eat to ride.
The bald biker.