PEZ Interviews: Joe Parkin
Joe was among the first wave of American riders to make the huge leap across the pond and into the deep end of pro bike racing in the mid 1980’s. As an outsider from all aspects, he made his way, made friends, and made a living. His tale is now published as A Dog In A Hat, and we talked to the man who lived it all…
Billed as “An American bike racer’s story of mud, drugs, blood, betrayal and beauty in Belgium” – Joe Parkin’s book A Dog In A Hat, is a savoury memoir of his racing life as a pro, which started in bleak northern Europe in the days of big hair, day-glo, and Flock of Seagulls. It was a time before carbon fiber, race radios and EPO.
But as Joe describes, the times were no less innocent. The sport was rife with dirty rotten scoundrels both on his team and other teams, a less sophisticated but no less enthusiastic doping element, foreign culture hardships and even some success. Joe’s candor is a refreshing read and entertaining as hell – I peeled through the book in a few nights and always wanted to know what was coming next.
There’s something very approachable about the underdog, the guy who works as hard as anyone, but never achieves the stardom we all chase. This book is worth a read, and we’re pleased to present this interview by Matt Wood.
– Richard Pestes, Publisher
PEZ: When I spoke with Bob Roll last year, he mentioned he was proud of how his racing career helped make the transition easier for other North American cyclists into the European peloton. Do you think your racing career also helped American cyclists?
Joe: To be fair, a lot of the riders in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s never went to Europe…To go to Europe and get your ass kicked on a regular basis was probably not attractive to a lot of guys. When I went over, I wanted to find out if I could make it. I think the fact that we did it, hung out with the Europeans and integrated into the culture a little bit added some credibility for future generations of Americans.
I obviously have not ridden in the European peloton for a really really long time, but I would have to imagine that English is a widely spoken language now with Lance, and Floyd, Tyler Hamilton and Levi and George Hincapie. I think that Greg LeMond was the one who made it easier for a lot of the rest. LeMond was the first guy to make it easy for Americans over there because he was so good that the European teams were willing to look at guys like me.
Joe was on hand at Interbike to sign copies of his new book.
PEZ: It is well known that many Americans have had trouble with the transition into the European peloton and culture. Why do you think you were able to race, develop friendships and create an identity for yourself in Europe where others failed?
Joe: My dad worked for Pontiac Motor Division and General Motors. Growing up in the 70’s we were basically military brats because General Motors moved their employees around so much. We moved about every year and Ѕ and I went to about 11 different schools. It was hard for me to make friends quickly or a lot of long lasting friendships. I really don’t have any childhood friends. Going to Europe was just another move for me.
It was also easy to go to Europe because I wanted it so badly. I made up my mind that if I was going to get on an airplane for 14 hours I was going to go as far as I could. Albert, the man that I lived with while I was there; he basically told me that; ‘If you do what I tell you to do – if you want to be a European cyclist we will have no problems. But I need you to give it 100%.” I think also that my parents were a little older when they had me. They come from a generation where you respect your elders. So I just wanted to respect the culture.
PEZ: I spoke with Dirk Demol last year about his win at Paris Roubaix in 1988. He said he never felt as good as he did that day. At 21, you were the youngest rider to finish that historic race. Tell us a story about that day.
Joe: Paris Roubaix was the first race I saw on TV. I saw it for the first time in ’84. It seemed like the ultimate race. I got to do it as an amateur the year before. So, I rode the amateur version in 1987. And that was a magical experience. And then to be on the starting line, I still own a VHS copy of the CBS coverage. And you can see me if you know what your are looking for. I am waving at the camera as we are rolling out.
You honestly can’t describe to anyone what the cobblestones are like. On TV or any type of film coverage, the cobblestones don’t look that bad. But they are unbelievable. When they get wet your bike starts going sideways for no reason. I downplayed my ride at Paris Roubaix a little bit because we just road to the finish. We were not racing anymore.
When I rode Paris Roubaix as a professional – that particular race, I literally watched that break away go away. And I had been in a little break away just before that and it got absorbed. I really was not riding all that great, but I felt that my only chance to get on TV was to be in an early breakaway. And I remember when that breakaway with Dirk Demol went away. And I thought this could be kind of dangerous. But I did not think it would stay away.
The main group just shut down – we were literally going so slow! I remember hearing that it was 6 minutes, 10 –12 minutes – like immediately. The only thing I can say about that particular race is that most of the English speaking people that I have spoken to who saw that race thought that Thomas Wegmuller would have won if he did not get the bag caught in his wheel.
No, Demol was a fast sprinter! He’s fast! Wegmuller was amazingly strong but not that smart. Wegmuller had been doing a fairly large share of the work. Whenever we saw Thomas we said “ride everything dead” because he always went really hard. People down play those kinds of victories, but Demol won. He was the first person across the line. They had to take huge chances; there were riders who on paper were better than Demol in that break away. He kept from flatting and crashing. He kept out of trouble.
PEZ: Talk about the Russian and East German dominance of international cycling and why you hated this influence on the craft of bicycle racing?
Joe: Watching the Russian and East German system, the way that they raced. It wasn’t beautiful to me. You would see the old pictures of Coppi, and even LeMond and Museeuw. Some how there is a romance about it. Where as when I spoke about the Russians and East Germans, they were just a lot more brutal.
I am a big fan of baseball. And the reason that I like baseball is because when you watch good baseball players, they’re cocky and there is elegance to it. Really good athletes in anything make what they are doing look elegant and pretty. And I was never able to see that in the East Germans. It was really all about brutality. There really didn’t seem to be any teamwork. They were essentially professional bike racers racing as amateurs.
Unfortunately some of the not so cool things in cycling today are of a direct result of that. When lots of UCI points became an absolute necessity for keeping your job, riders who really were just domestiques started working for their team leaders less and racing for 23rd place. That seems to me to have made racing amateurish, as a whole. I remember watching the Postal Service and Discovery Channel teams dominate the Tour and thinking, “Way to go Bruyneel!” It seemed like the old-school team structure had been reinvented.
I think much of my dislike for the Eastern European system also stems from my frustration with the USCF and their Eastern European coaching staff of the day. I still wish that guys like me would have had the opportunity to ride for one of the US National teams as an amateur.
I wrote off the USCF and was racing as a pro before Chris Carmichael took over as head coach for the USCF. He was utilizing some of the guys who went over to race in Europe on their own. I think he saw the value in this based upon his own experiences racing in Europe. I just thought it was the most ridiculous thing that I was able to send a resume of 1st, 2nd and 3rd place results but the coaches before Carmichael came along didn’t even want to consider it. I can’t speak so much to the way races are ridden today, but back then there was a definite value to having proven you could race in the wind and rain and cold. Plenty of riders who had racked up better results in States than I ever did turned tail and went home after just a few weeks on the continent.
PEZ: You spoke about the differences between racing in Europe and America. And that you found it difficult racing in America. Can you talk a little more about that?
Joe: First and foremost, even though I was never on the United States Postal Service team or one of the absolute top tier teams, there is such a high level of professionalism…….even with the lower teams. When I was at a stage race, I would come out of the hotel and all of the bicycles would be lined up. And before every race, I would grab a bottle of water and act like I was blessing all of the bikes. And everyone is wearing the same thing. It was almost like we were drilled that on this day we are all going to wear leg warmers. It was so regimented and uniform, and there was a higher level of pride.
Coming back to the States immediately I was riding for a medium level team and the mechanics were paid but they were volunteers. They did not believe in washing the bikes with water. I liked white tape on my handlebars, and I would supply boxes of white cloth tape. I got that to some degree with the Coors’s team because the mechanics there were cool. And Len Pettyjohn is a very intelligent and disciplined individual. But the racing was not the same because it was pro-am racing. And not everyone was a pro. So you were racing against a guy who might have the skills to make it some day if he did not have a full time job. And that was kind of weird, because I was a full time bike racer. But it was really just the style of racing. I would liken it to my job now, which requires me to work with racecar drivers. I know very top level ex-formula one drivers who have taken three steps back. And you can see it in their demeanor. It’s just not the same.
PEZ: This book is ultimately about drug abuse in the European peloton, selling races to the highest bidder, buying and selling riders like cheap commodities. Do you agree and if so, how did you cope with this ugly side of racing?
Joe: I think I would agree with that assessment. I found the sport itself however transcends all of that. I still believe that it is the most beautiful sport in the world. There is something about cycling…. there is beauty and there is pain and suffering and there are dirty deals and drugs. For me to deal with that… when I was first there, I saw the drug deals, I saw everything first hand and it bothered me. And it bothered me to a great extent because I felt like – ok how am I going to be competitive with it? How am I going to win a grand tour if I am not doing the same thing?
At least for me, I came to the realization that I could do all of that stuff and I still am not going to win a grand tour. But I still liked riding my bike. Going back to baseball, I got to do stuff for a great portion of my adult life that people wished they could do. No, I did not get paid well, and I did not win anything huge, but I had a great time doing it. You know about the drug stuff, I have personally abused my body a lot more since I left cycling then when I was riding and I know that the business world is not exactly fair. So, it kind of makes cycling like a lot of other things, it’s just prettier.
• Joe’s book is available now at VeloPress – and worth read.
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