“A Dog in a Hat” has to be one of the best books about pro cycling ever written. Author Joe Parkin took some time to talk to VeloVeritas about life, bike racing, his next book — yes, and Lance!
Joe, thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us; what’s your ‘day job’ these days?
“I do PR for Castelli clothing; I do freelance writing for technical manuals and I keep my blog up to date — “6yearsinaraincape”.
After your continental career ended, was it difficult to adjust to the US way of life, again?
“Very much so!
“I was used to a disciplined way of life, training and racing against some of the best riders in the world, I was racing 130 to 140 times each year; it was almost military in it’s discipline.
“When I came back, there were a lot less races — maybe 40 to 50 — and most were criteriums; I’m not saying that there weren’t good riders in the States, but they weren’t at the level of the Europeans.
“In Belgium I was a blue collar bike racer, I didn’t have to explain to what I did, it’s part of the culture — but in the States I had to explain it to people.”
Would you rather be a pro now or back when you were?
“As far as money goes — now!
“I know what riders of a similar calibre to me are making and I didn’t make anything like that.
“Having said that, I raced alongside the absolute greats — the first rider to chat to me in a friendly way was Robert Millar.
“I lined up against the likes of Joop Zoetemelk, Hennie Kuiper, Lucien Van Impe, Sean Kelly and Roger De Vlaeminck.
“They were heroes of the sport and I consider myself very lucky to have raced against them.”
Changes in the sport for the better, since you raced?
“I think the doping situation is much better; there will always be a way round the tests, if the riders and doctors put their mind to it — it’s the riders who have got to want to race clean, and I think that’s happening.
“The equipment is so much better and so is the training — much more scientific; and there are have been advances in safety.”
“I’m not in favour of race radios; the take the spontaneity out of the sport.
Apart from that, I think the sport continues to be great.
Who do you admire among current pros?
“There are a lot of riders that I have a high regard for; but my favourite stage of the Tour was when young Brice Feillu won, it was the neatest win, nothing calculated, nothing left on the table.
“Bradley Wiggins impressed me in the Tour; being Belgian in my thoughts, I hold Devolder and Boonen in very high regard; Mark Cavendish is phenomenal, exciting, the best sprinter of his generation.”
“With the level of media activity and the entourage that surrounds him, it’s good for cycling, it raises awareness of the sport among lay people and they may go on to be fans.
“I just wonder though, when he’s done with the sport, if there will be a back lash and a vacuum left when all of the hype that surrounds him is gone?”
“I think it’s a necessary evil, with the emphasis more on ‘evil’ than ‘necessary!’
“I don’t understand a lot of the rules; whilst I’m an old curmudgeon and would be happy if everyone rode on steel frames with down tub shifters and toe clips — that’s not good for the industry.
“The component industry puts so much money into the sport, there should be cooperation, not more and more rules about aero equipment.
“And I think for too many years they turned their back on the doping problem — it was the Tax Authorities desire to bust the doctors that lead to the revelations.
“Having said all that, their ambition to make it a more top line sport – along Formula One lines — is admirable.”
The war on dope?
“I’m not deep inside the sport anymore; but back in my day, the controls were a joke.
“I was talking to Brian Holm the other day and he was saying how strict the new controls are — you can’t take anything or sneak anything in to help beat the test.
“Jonathan Vaughter’s team has a good programme and I think that a drug free sport is getting closer — the vast majority of riders are clean now, I think.”
Who did you admire most in your era?
“There were a number, but Sean Kelly, Adrie Van Der Poel and Stephen Roche would be the main three.
“I didn’t know that much about Kelly when I went out there but I met him soon after I turned pro.
“He didn’t look pretty on a bike but he had a huge work ethic; Grand Tours, the Classics and he rode a lot of kermesses — the big riders now wouldn’t do that.
“He was very under stated, no big car, a man of the people — happy to sign autographs three minutes before a classic.
“On paper, Van Der Poel wasn’t a big rider, but he always seemed to get himself into the right place.
“Roche had the biggest heart and soul of any rider I’ve ever seen; I was rooming with Allan Peiper at Tulip when Roche came to see him. He was telling us about the time he missed his start for the TTT in the Tour — he was distraught, so emotional, almost with tears in his eyes.”
Tell us about the timing of your book.
“Roughly three year ago, I got a call from Velo Pres asking if I’d do a chapter Bob Roll’s book, which was due to be re-released.
“I kept putting it off, but eventually I emailed around 3,000 words on a Sunday night — they came back on the Monday and asked if I thought I had enough materiel to write a book.
“I said that I thought I did!”
Have Hollywood been in touch?
“I have been contacted, yes; a friend of mine’s step father hangs with indy film people and ideas are getting tossed around.”
Will there be another book?
“It’s on its way!
“The subject matter begins when I returned to the States and was trying to adapt back to life there and deal with the culture shock of being an American who became Belgian then had to go back to being American again as a mountain bike pro.
“Incidentally, I found the culture of mountain bike racing in the States much closer to the Belgian race scene than road racing in the US.
“The working title is ‘Come and Gone.’: “
How often do you get back to Flanders?
“It’s something I’ve never done; there’s always been some excuse not to do it — but next year the plan is to go and see the Classics with some friends.”
Most satisfying day on the bike?
“The Tour de Suisse 1991; my team mate, Luc Roosen had the yellow jersey and we were defending.
“The organiser wanted to make the stages longer than the UCI rules, so they had maybe 20 — 30 kilometre neutralised stretches, giving a stage distance that day of nearly 300 kilometres.
“There was a break away with 16 or so riders in it, including some GC guy — we kept it at around one-and-a—half to two minutes all day, but then we decided to bring it back for the finish.
“It ended in a huge bunch sprint in Geneva – I’d ridden the entire stage on the front, riding tempo.
“At the finish, I had to be lifted off my bike; Luc Roosen — in the yellow jersey – carried my bag up to the hotel room for me; that gesture was acknowledgment of the job I’d done and it meant a lot to me.”
“The 1988 Worlds; I’d trained specifically for it, ridden strongly in the Tours of Burgos and Belgium and was very motivated.
“I’d done work behind the derny and knew the circuit around Ronse well.
“I’d picked Claude Criquielion as the winner (which he would have been if he’d chosen to go on the right side in the sprint!) and followed him all day, without getting in his way.
“With four laps to go, I punctured; the US team car radio was broken and they’d stopped for a piss — that was the end of that.
“I’m not saying that I’d have been on the podium but; I felt very good on that day.”
Racing as a Master?
“Every once in a while I kick it around a little, but I think I’ll stick to a couple of mountain bike race, now and again — just for fun!”
With thanks to Joe; we look forward to the next book and to bumping into him beside a stretch of cobbles in Flanders, next spring.