My friend Micki used to ride the gritty roads of Guangzhou with me. Now she’s living the dream, working in Europe and doing things like enjoying a curbside view of the Tour de France as it makes its way through Spa, Belgium. Micki recently shared a bunch of fantastic photos, a wonderful collage of the riders and the fans – or tifosi – who love our beautiful sport and will wait hours just to get a glimpse of the peloton fly by. The above image is my favorite. Micki really captured the boys’ posture of anticipation: torsos leaning, knees bent, eyes fixed down the road. I bet the little guy in green banged up his elbow the day before in a kermis.
The picture also reminded me of the recent advertising campaign by the Belgian bike maker Ridley. One ad shows a motley group of people, mostly working class folks of every age, dressed in winter coats, standing on the side of the road in a drab town on a bitterly cold early spring afternoon, waiting for the riders. The ad slogan reads, “We are Belgium.” Cycling geeks in America will get the ad. But it would be lost on most normal people in the U.S. They still don’t know that Belgium is the holy land of cycling.
The photo also got me thinking about a funny anecdote in Joe Parkin’s latest book, “Come and Gone.” He likes to talk about how the average Belgian child has a deeper understanding and appreciation of cycling than the average American. In his book, he describes how after he finished his racing career in Belgium, he was competing in a U.S. event. He was trying to catch up with the lead group, and he wanted to know how far up the road the leaders were. So he asked a spectator, “What’s the time?” And the person replied, “1:45 p.m.” (or some other time, I can’t remember exactly). Parkin says that in Belgium, fans will instinctively time the gap between the leaders. Kids who don’t wear watches will count it out in their heads and yell it out to the riders. “Thousand one, thousand two, thousand three…”
Please enjoy a few more of Micki’s pics:
I was delighted to see this photo of my favorite rider, Sylvain Chavanel. On Saturday, Paul Sherwen shared an interesting factoid about the French rider. Chavanel is actually of Spanish descent. His family moved to France during the Spanish Civil War. Chavanel is having a great tour. As usual, he’s one of the most aggressive riders and is always looking for a way to animate the race. And he has already won two stages and spent a day in yellow!
Old, young, men, women, fat, skinny…they’re all out there. Fantastic.
When I saw this photo, I blurted out, “Spartacus!” Micki really got the money shot for the day.
Hmmm, wait a minute. Maybe THIS is what the two boys were eagerly anticipating. The Haribo candy truck!
Posted: July 17th, 2010 | Author: wafflesandsteel | Filed under: Belgium, Joe Parkin, Sylvain Chavanel, Tour de France | 1 Comment »
Joe Parkin’s new book, “Come & Gone,” reminded me of how we used to pack ice coolers with beer for college parties. We’d put the micro brews and Euro beers on the top layer. At the bottom, we’d put the cheap beer – stuff people wouldn’t mind drinking because they were too drunk to care near the party’s end. Parkin’s first book, “A Dog in a Hat,” about the six years he spent breaking into the pro ranks in Belgium, is the Chimay. His latest book is a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. It’s OK if you enjoyed the Parkin party so much that you’re happy to hang around for the second half to explore the bottom of the cooler. But it’s not something you’ll want to savor or think about too long. Like the title, the book often seems tired and flat.
Parkin returned to the U.S. in 1991, and the first few chapters of “Come & Gone” describe his culture shock as he tried to readjust to American life. He settled in Minneapolis and tried to resume his career as a road racer. I enjoyed his descriptions of how he tried to train through the frigid Minnesota winters. He struggled to get a contract with a good team and got stuck on a few second-tier squads before eventually getting picked up by the Coors Light powerhouse.
He’s definitely an oddball. The book features a Coors Light team photo of Parkin with a full-blown mullet. Wasn’t that hairstyle laughably out of style by the 90s? On a long roadtrip in the South, he buys an albino ferret at a mall and brings his new pet aboard the team bus.
Parkin left the road scene to race as a pro in the mountain biking circuit, which was booming in the 90s. He had a few good results as he bounced from team to team. But he misses the podium in most races because of frustrating mechanicals, bad legs or bone-headed mistakes. In one race, he seems certain to get a top place but he blows up in the end because he forgot to hydrate – an amazingly stupid mistake for a such a veteran pro.
I generally enjoyed Parkin’s book, but it wasn’t nearly half as interesting as “Dog in a Hat.”
(“Come & Gone,” Velo Press, US$21.29, 179 pages.)
Posted: May 24th, 2010 | Author: wafflesandsteel | Filed under: Book review, Joe Parkin | No Comments »
Posted: October 14th, 2009 | Author: wafflesandsteel | Filed under: amphetamines, doping, EPO, Joe Parkin, kermis | No Comments »
Like many cycling fans, I’m tired of reading about doping. That’s partly why the first half of my review of “A Dog in a Hat” was drug free. But Joe Parkin’s book has so many insights and anecdotes about how pervasive doping was in cycling during his day that I thought it was worthwhile to break out the interesting bits for this part of the review.
Parkin says he tried to resist the pressure to dope, though he describes at least one occasion when he took a little something.
He says to prepare for a kermis race, he usually just had three delicious tarts from the local bakery, half a Coke, lukewarm tea in his bottle “and a couple of Animine (caffeine) tablets in the pockets just in case.”
One of the strangest things he saw during his pro career happened before his first kermis. It’s illegal for racers to change into their team kit in or around their cars. So riders have to find a homeowner in the neighborhood who will let them use their garage, kitchen or living room for a locker room. Parkin was allowed into one home, where a third-year Dutch pro was already set up in the kitchen. About an hour before the race, the Dutchman took out a syringe and began injecting a clear liquid into his arm. Parkin says, “Ten seconds later, he started giggling like a 4 year old and pointed to the hair on the arm he injected … He was apparently hoping we’d enjoy the sight of hair standing on end as much as he did. Five minutes later, he did it again, and then again and again after that. After each injection, he was equally amazed.”
Parkin says that for some kermis racers, the competition was just an excuse to take amphetamines. When they were jacked on speed, they weren’t necessarily able to ride faster. But he says they had no inhibitions; they were always ready to go, attacking again and again. They also tended to speak English more.
Just like there’s a “Blue Code of Silence” in the police force, Parkin says there was a “Lycra Code of Silence.” As an American, he already stuck out a lot and he didn’t want to attract more attention by flying the clean-bike-racer flag. He also said many of his teammates, managers, friends and fans would consider not taking drugs as a refusal to give 100 percent to the team. It might get him left off the roster for races.
In one race, Parkin was struggling with stomach problems when his team car pulled up and he was handed a small plastic bottle with a cork. He was instructed to drink half of it and save the rest for later if he needed it. He says it tasted like a cocktail of Coke, a syrupy sugar drink called Champ and something chalky. Within minutes of drinking it, he was at the front of the group, climbing with ease. He says goose bumps started forming on his legs along with sweat with a baby oil-like sheen. He stayed at the front, setting a tempo that was torturing riders who have won classics and Tour de France stages. “I was inflicting excruciating pain on every inch of my body, but I didn’t care. It was amazing,” he says. But he didn’t go with the last attack, and when it was clear he wouldn’t win the race, he decided to stay off the podium so that he could avoid doping controls. Only the top three riders and two random picks would get tested. He says a doctor once told him that a well-trained rider can perform at 85 percent of his potential. But a well-trained athlete on amphetamines can perform at 105 percent.
Near the end of his Euro career, Parkin’s team doctor approached him with a new drug called erythropoietin, the now famous EPO. The physician thought the drug would help Parkin with the anemia that plagued him throughout his career. The big problem was that the drug cost nearly US$1,000 per month, and Parkin couldn’t afford it. He says his poverty probably saved his life. Doctors had yet to figure out how to safely administer EPO and riders from Holland and Belgium were dying left and right.
Joe Parkin sums up his professional career in Belgium this way: He could ride hard when called upon, but at the end of the day, he had more desire than natural ability. The American journeyman never had a win while riding on mostly second-tier teams in 1987-91. But he left Europe with loads of fascinating, colorful anecdotes about the sport’s personalities, customs and its holy land – Belgium. These descriptions and insights make his book “A Dog in a Hat” (VeloPress, US$21.95) well worth reading.
Parkin won a few races as an amateur in Minnesota and California before he decided to skip college and try to turn pro in Belgium. He was taken in by a bike mechanic, who rented him a room and served as his coach in the town of Ursel. Pro teams got interested in him after a few good results, including a third place in the amateur version of the Het Volk Classic.
He says he achieved a high degree of fluency in Flemish, and he sprinkles phrases from the language throughout the book. One of them is “een hond met een hoed op” or “a dog in a hat,” from which the book gets its title. The phrase means something that looks out of place, like an American racing with the pros in Belgium in the late 1980s.
One of my favorite anecdotes comes from Parkin’s description of his first pro classic, the 310-kilometer Paris-Brussels. Parkin said he was still in the peloton with Sean Kelly as the riders were sizing each other up for the final push with 20 kilometers left. But at the 10- kilometer mark, he got dropped and eventually got swept up by the bus just kilometers away from the finish. The winner – or the “man with the hammer” – was Wim Arras. Parkin ends the chapter with a great statement about how cruel life can be – how the sport and world move on no matter how fast you were on the bike. “Four years later, he (Arras) would be turning wrenches on my bike,” he says.
Parkin can turn a nice phrase when he’s inspired. In a chapter about kermis racing, he says, “If the grand tours are like classical music, kermis racing is punk rock, Belgian style.” He notes that the races are all about the same length, between 150-180 kilometers, and involve circuit courses of about 10 kilometers. He says he figured out why the circuits are this length after watching a race from a café. “The time it takes for the pros to cover 10 kilometers is almost exactly the time it takes to order, receive and drink a beer.” The drinkers can hear the race coming, drain their beer and step outside to watch the riders speed by.
In 1989, he signed up with the ADR team, which also featured Greg LeMond, who pulled off his amazing Tour de France victory that same year. But LeMond rode on the A team, while Parkin was relegated to the B team – a bunch of misfits he describes as ADR’s “redheaded stepchildren.”
Another of my favorite anecdotes involves the Belgian great Eddy Planckaert, who also rode for ADR. Parkin says he once arrived at Eddy’s farmhouse about 9 a.m. for a ride and had to wake him up. It was January and Eddy’s last ride was sometime in November. His bike was still caked with months-old mud. But as soon as Eddy started riding, he began complaining about the speed wasn’t fast enough. “A few minutes after we started, he attacked …. Less than a minute after the attack, Eddy was back with us, cursing his bike, his legs, the food he had just eaten, the cold, everything.” He complained they were riding too fast so early in the season and that he wouldn’t train with them again. Parkin insists they were only going 25 kph.
Parkin ends his European career with the IOC-Tulip team. He he constantly battled anemia and low testosterone levels. He recalls that after one tough climbing stage in the Tour de Suisse, he was famished and searched through his jersey pockets for leftover snacks – “squished little sandwiches and pastries in foil wrap” – when he returned to his hotel room. Still hungry, he began digging around in the trash can looking for food that his roommates had discarded. He passed out while still wearing his race kit and later woke to the sound of the team doctor trying to wake him up. The physician said, “This is not good,” before leaving the room. He returned shortly to give Parkin a big injection of Intralipid, which was mostly fat.
After going back to America for good, he rode for U.S. pro teams, including the Coors Light squad. When his road racing career ended in 1994, he recorded some solid results as a mountain biker. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t provide many details about how Parkin settled into a civilian life and how he earns a living now. It’s also a shame that Parkin didn’t stay in touch with many of the people he knew in Belgium, so the book provides no updates about them.
Next: Parkin’s low down on Euro doping.
Posted: October 12th, 2009 | Author: wafflesandsteel | Filed under: Belgium, Eddy Planckaert, Flemish, Greg Lemond, Intralipid, Joe Parkin | No Comments »