Monday, October 06, 2008

Review - A Dog in a Hat

The ultimate flahute book. Tiger is behind, wondering why I'm not playing with him.

At Interbike one of the things I got to do was to go searching for a book signing. I (briefly) met Dave Shields at a Philly and bought his novel The Race, which he obligingly signed. Since then, to honor authors and their efforts, I decided I'd buy a book if they were doing a signing. Yes, I had to be somewhat interested in the book, but it wouldn't take much.

So when I read that some ex-pro named Joe Parkin would be signing his book, A Dog in a Hat, I decided I'd hit the booth at the appropriate time.

I had no idea how rewarding this would be.

First off, the name Joe Parkin rang a bell or two. He raced in Belgium, if I recalled, and he was one of the pioneers. Before Lemond, if I recalled correctly (I didn't). Since, in recent history, only a few American riders performed in Europe, and only one really did before Lemond (Jock Boyer), I figured this was a guy who was fighting in the trenches, duking it out with the unseen and cutthroat kermese racers.

I got to the line, almost cut everyone, and then settled in at the back of a surprisingly long line. The missus and I patiently waited. I bought the book and flipped to the thin dark line of pictures always present in any autobiographical type book. I flipped through them and saw some famous riders. More famous riders. Then some guy in a Tulip outfit.

Tulip, by the way, rocked. They had probably the first truly obnoxious team kit, they had some awesome riders, and they were Dutch, so I felt some kinship with the team (I lived in Holland for a while).

Joe Parkin, it seems, raced for Tulip.

That's about when we got to the front of the line. Joe signed my book. His hand trembled a bit while he scrawled some stuff on my book.

"Enjoy the read"? Not "Hit that 53x12" or something equally cool and inspirational? I had no idea what was coming.

And we walked away. I wasn't sure exactly what happened because I didn't know who Joe was, except he'd earned the right to wear Tulip colors. With a race in a couple hours though, I was in no shape mentally to think about reading a book that had to do with a dog and a hat.

I cracked the book at some point after the end of the show, before we left Vegas. Read the intro by Bob Roll.

Now, when you think about guys who are totally into something, you think of, say, what's his name in Breaking Away. Speaking Italian, idolizing the Cinzano team, and pretending to be an Italian student studying in Indiana.

But he knew he wasn't all that. He knew his place, he knew the realities of the world.

When I started racing, I too dreamed about racing in Holland, doing Paris Roubaix, crazy stuff. I wished all the roads in my town were cobbles, and I went as far as to go out training when it was raining, on dirt roads, so my bike would look like it'd just gone through the Hell of the North. But I spoke English, went to high school in the US, and thought about moving to California, not Flanders.

But Joe, he got lost in that world. For real. Check out part of the forward:

"Jongen, ik ben Joo."

When I read that page, I immediately thought of Apocalypse Now. Joe was Captain Willard. He went deep, but not as deep as he might have, and he pulled back, somehow, and made it back to, well, Interbike in 2008.

"When I was home after my first tour, it was worse. I'd wake up and there'd be nothing."
"When I was here, I wanted to be there; when I was there, all I could think of was getting back into the jungle. I'm here a week now... waiting for a mission... getting softer; every minute I stay in this room, I get weaker..."

"Each time I looked around, the walls moved in a little tighter."

Although those are Willard's quotes from the movie, based on the book, they could have come from Joe's mouth. He lost himself in that Flemish part of Belgium. Became one of them, inseparable from the fabric that defines Classic racing.

Just like Apocalypse Now defined war movies, A Dog In A Hat defines bike racing literature. There may be more successful racers writing stuff out there, more revealing details revealed by others, and yet more books on bike racing in general, but this book, this book transcends the sport. It is about life and how utterly merciless life can be.

You ache and hope that things get better, but it's apparent that it just can't happen. When I finished the book, on the plane on the way back from Vegas, I was mentally and emotionally exhausted.

But you know what?

When we got off the plane and felt the moisture in the air, the rain falling lightly, the darkness, my fatigue, I thought about the life I'd just read.

And I wanted to get on my bike.

I wanted to feel the spray hitting my feet, slowly bleeding into my booties. I wanted to feel that hint of a slip as I pedaled over pavement stripes, leaves, and little bits of sand. I could almost taste the sweat dripping down my face, the diluted sweat-rain mixture that ends up on you on every rainy ride. I could even see the 32 hole box section rimmed wheels under me, the tubulars (sidewalls grey with brake pad tears) bouncing from one bump to another.

I wanted to be in Belgium, slipping and sliding over the cobbles, in a strung out field, with 100 k of racing in front of me, gale force winds blowing, my legs burning with effort.

I wanted to be like Joe.

P.S. One of the first things I learned is that it's not a "kermese". It's "kermi".


Doctor Who said...

I was over at a friend's a few days ago and read with pleasure an excerpt of this book in the latest VN. It's now on my list of must-buys. I'm too young to remember anything from that era of cycling, but that whole time fascinates me, what with the drama of modern PEDs, the slow creep of Americans coming over to the Continent, and those fantastic flourescent paintjobs and kits.

Thanks for the great review and reminisces.

Anonymous said...

I'd been toying with getting this book; now it's on the "definitely buy" list. Thanks for an excellent review and a small taste of what awaits.

Anonymous said...

Great review and choice of words. Awesome comparison to Apocolypse Now, too.

Joe Marinelli said...

This is the second great review I've heard about this book. Now it is a must buy!

Anonymous said...

I hear that if you have an amazon click through link thing, you get cash if we buy the book... which I just did after reading this. just looking out for you, dude.

Aki said...

Thanks all. This post has been stewing on my brain for a bit.

And for Anon, last one, thanks :) I have a link now at the bottom of the page. I'll make it nicer later but for now that'll do.

TrueBlue said...

Got it Mon afternoon.
Finished it Monday night.

The first half was fantastic and brought up stirring memories of my time on the Kermis circuit. The cutthroat world of a dirty sport.

The second half got a bit discombobulated, but will keep the avid racer enthused.

Joe's adventure is one very few have survived long enough to tell. Most guys either made it to the highest level, or succumbed and came back to the US domestic circuit. Only a handful stayed put, eeking out a small wage and embracing the Belgie culture.

-- Starr