Book Report: A Dog in a Hat, by Joe Parkin

9:13 PM


If I can't bike outside, at least I can read about cyclists. 

This book has been sitting on my shelf for a couple of years, and after Neil reminded me of it in a comment, I decided it was time to read “an American bike racer’s story of mud, drugs, blood, betrayal, and beauty in Belgium.”  Essentially, a memoir of Parkin’s career as a European domestique.  This isn’t the story of a hardscrabble cyclist who raised himself from poor beginnings to become one of the greatest of all time (no musical montages in this work), but rather a guy who loved something he was quite good at, made a play to do it professionally, and found that after five years of focused-distraction, he achieved enough significance that it barely registered when he slipped back to the states. 

I should begin by saying I am a connoisseur of the sports movie.  It began when I was a little kid watching Chariots of Fire, The Black Stallion, and Running Brave, and it continues to this day (we just watched Warrior this past weekend).  I don’t even care that the plot lines are often predictable and the dialogue is cheesy to an extreme, I will always get a lump in my throat when the athlete pulls it together, against all odds, and triumphs in the end (as the musical score swells in the background).

Parkin’s book is much, much more real. 


His life in Belgium is chaotic, and you wonder how anyone could become a great cyclist when there is so much else that needs navigating – language, culture, contracts, politics.  Even the drug culture pales in comparison to the confusing world of team deals, shifting loyalties, and ultimately, finding one’s role in the world of cycling.  For Parkin, it was not as a grand tour general classification rider, but rather as the one who beats himself silly (to use a tired, cycling cliché: turns himself inside out) to promote the winning chances of other riders on his team. 

What surprised me about Parkin’s story was how he was so clearly a student of cycling tactics, but appeared to be fairly clueless about training.  His plan for getting into racing form can be boiled down to racing hard, then racing hard.  (The one odd exception to his fuzzy recollection is gear ratios – he pretty much remembers what gear he was in during every race and workout…)  Given today’s obsession with power-taps and crazy computer-graphs you upload to some competitive social networking site, I suppose it could be refreshing to read about a guy who just loves to go out and hammer.  In the end, though, the teams seemed to be only marginally concerned with training, as the riders were disposable.  Not able to do what the team wants?  No problem, there are always plenty of riders willing to step in…

A Dog in a Hat is pretty much the anti-inspirational sports story in some regards, but it was great just the same because of how clearly he loves riding, and how well he can describe that love.  Whether he is describing a race in terms of a rock concert, or detailing the slow-motion insanity of a cyclocross fail/fall, Parkin has an eye for detail, and a knack for creating a vibrant visual image. 

So, the book got me through two crappy, non-cycling days.  Might have to head to the library to select more cycling books to get me through the rest of February (and maybe March)…he does have a follow-up book: Come and Gone.

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