Sunday, December 14, 2008
Joe Parkin: A Dog in a Hat
Always keep the Belgian knee warmers away from the private parts.
So goes the inscription on my copy of Joe Parkin's memoir of racing in Belgium, "A Dog in a Hat." It's a simple truth to be sure. Some of the greatest books are built on a succession of such observations. However, it is just such an observation that stands for the very nature of Parkin's look back.
I've known Parkin for more than 10 years, since he was a pro mountain biker for Diamond Back. He spent a winter racing 'cross in my neck of the woods and we crossed paths each weekend. Arguably, one of the best images I ever shot of cyclocross was of him with his bike on his shoulder running like a looter. If I can find that shot, it will run here.
Later, he graciously shared his experience with me as a trusted talking head any time I needed a quote from a former Euro-pro for an article. I respected him because he had done Europe the hard way. To me, going to Belgium and joining a European team is tantamount to climbing Everest without oxygen. While meaning no disrespect to the riders of 7-Eleven and later Motorola and U.S. Postal, in my mind his deep-end jump had PRO style in spades.
These days, my trip to Interbike is incomplete until I catch up with Joe. What I didn't fully appreciate back when I was requesting quotes was the depth of his experience, so I was eager to read his book to find out more. I expected good, but what we've been given is much, much more.
Parkin has written an eloquent and historic volume. It is an unflinching look at pro cycling that is marked by a most mature perspective. It lacks the indignation and emotion-laden rhetoric of those who have written in judgment about doping, which is to say Parkin wrote objectively about his experience. His views are made clear, but he condemns no one; we all have our views on the subject and his incredible grace allows the reader to watch without turning the author's experience into a morality play.
The book is also funny. Parkin has a gift for analogy and comedy that could be utilized should Will Ferrell ever make a movie about bike racing. I laughed out loud as he recounted an episode during the Tour of Switzerland. A hungry bike racer has never been funnier.
And while cycling is its main concern, the book's true subject is the pursuit of a dream. Parkin chased his ambition to be a great pro cyclist and whereas most of us can scarcely fathom the incredible success Lance Armstrong enjoyed, we have all wondered what we might have achieved if we had gained the opportunity to make that jump and pursue what talent we might possess. It is the story that would likely have been the rule for each of us seeking to punch our ticket. In the very uniqueness of his story, Parkin realizes a universality that gives his recollections a resonance with any cyclist.
What marks the book is Parkin himself. Not his story, but his perspective. His acceptance informs his choices, his prose and his immersion in the culture of Belgium. Parkin applies himself with humility to Belgium, to training, to his teammates, and you hope for him, all the while knowing that there is no glorious win, no big-time contract. In anyone else's hands, such an ending would be tragic, but Parkin reminds us what real success is: the acceptance of our friends. That's the true measure of a man.
Do not miss this book.