Joe Parkin's book A Dog in a Hat is a memoir of his time as a professional racer in Belgium in the 80s. It is an unblinking look at the culture of racing at the time, and is a great read.
schmalz You were one of the first US pros to seek a professional racing path through Belgium. How did you decide on that?
Parkin Mostly it was on the advice of Bob Roll. I'd gotten to know Bob living in California, and he suggested that's where I should go. He'd been racing for the 7 Eleven team, so he knew some of the mechanics, one of the road directors, assistant directors working with the 7 Eleven team at that time, was an ex professional bike racer living in Belgium, Belgian citizen. So he just had some contacts, the team was based there. He had ridden and raced, Bob had ridden and raced in Switzerland and Italy a little bit as an amateur, and he suggested I go to Belgium. Everything I'd seen about the country, about the cycling culture of the country, the magazines, as they were at that time, kinda suggested that that would be a cool place to go.
schmalz You seem to really have blazed a path there. I don't think that there were a lot of Americans there that you could find or ride with when you were there, were there?
Parkin It's one of those things, that at the time, a lot of people, not many people had the idea of trying to go and make a living at it. So a lot of guys would go to Belgium, certainly before me, and while I was there, and after me, with the idea that they would just treat it like an education. They would go for three weeks or a month or whatever, and they could come back to the States and kick everybody's ass. But I think Belgium, again, before me and since, was often overlooked as a place to go and learn the craft, because it's not Italy, it's not France, but the cool thing about Belgium is that you can just go ride. You don't have to be on a team, you can just go do races as an individual racer, which is not the same as in many other countries.
schmalz And you did get to be very ensconced in the culture. I remember one of the passages in the book, you were in a kermesse, do you pronounce it kermis or kermesse?
Parkin Yep, Kermis.
schmalz And you spell it the Belgian way too, instead of the French way.
Parkin I spell it the Flemish way. The French way would be what you normally see in magazines, kermesse. But since that word is such a...that form of racing is so Flemish, I always thought it was better to spell it in the Flemish way.
schmalz Yeah, and you get to stick it to the French a little bit too, so...
Parkin Yep, exactly!
schmalz I remember when you told the stories about how the races would go, and oddly enough you can't change in or around your car in Belgium, which seems like an odd law. But you would all change in houses or garages or little shops, and you were telling a story about how you would change in someone's kitchen.
Parkin Yeah, quite often we would change in a kitchen or even back courtyards, it's really weird.
schmalz It's funny, it goes to show how much the sport is a national sport for Belgium, that they're willing to have the riders into their homes, their garages, and let them change. It's part of the culture there.
Parkin Right, absolutely. It is a poor country, and the people who...that's one of the great things about the sport of cycling, it's a sport that's brought to the people. It is such a popular sport in that country. There is one pro kermis race every single day from...gosh I want to say about the middle of May through probably September.
schmalz That's amazing. You were telling the story of some racers who were in the kitchen, they were actually shooting themselves up with something in the ktichen, right?
Parkin Yeah, at the time it was very common. I can't speak to what the sport has become, I have no firsthand knowledge of that now, but back then, yeah, the amphetamines were widely used in the kermis races. The amazing thing about it is, when you shoot a guy with amphetamines, he just wants to keep attacking. In many cases, they can't attack as hard as they could before, before they were shot up. But they just want to keep going, it's frustrating.
schmalz You said that the guys that were taking amphetamines just got dumber.
Parkin Yeah, they do, they really do. In my own experience with that, was that, you feel so good that you just make these stupid mistakes. 'Cause you wanna chase that attack down again and again and again. It's really funny. One of the neat things was that I learned to tell who was doped because guys who couldn't a word of English all of a sudden could speak English to me, and wanted to speak English with me...
schmalz They're probably talking to their handlebars, too.
Parkin Pretty much, yeah.
schmalz Your case was interesting 'cause you were in a break in a, I think you described it as a semi-classic, and you were feeling poorly, and then didn't your director give you something on the road?
Parkin Yep, they gave me, I don't know if you've ever seen the old, you used to probably see these bottles, they were almost the shape of a hip flask, they were kinda rounded and plastic, usually had some kind of a cork or plastic stopper, so you don't have to screw anything off...
Parkin And that's what they handed me. It was always really common to see something like that, or carry something like that. In many cases, or most cases, there's nothing illegal in it. So they handed me a little bottle, and I didn't think anything of it. 'Cause that was something that had happened in the past.
schmalz So did you find out...could you tell right away it was amphetamines, or you thought it was at the time?
Parkin You know, it was one of those things where I was feeling bad, they handed it to me, there's always the chance that you could be given something, and if you quit grabbing bottles, or quit grabbing handups from the car just because there was the possibility of that happening, you'd never drink again, you know? So I just...
schmalz But you had the feeling that, well, "this isn't B12 that they've give me".
Parkin Right, when they, they gave it to me, and I have to say that I started feeling REALLY good in less than five minutes. What's amazing is that your position on the bike changed. I was all of a sudden just sitting upright, really comfortable, and I looked down at my legs and they kinda started to almost shine, and I got goosebumps as well. And that's a typical...we always used to laugh when we saw a guy in a race with goosebumps, that meant that he was jacked on speed.
schmalz That's interesting. Then you said that you actually did get stupid and didn't ride a very smart race after that.
Parkin Correct. That is correct. Rode like an idiot.
schmalz Did you ever feel that the guys that were taking amphetamines were cheating you out of any results, or did you just realize it was part of the game and they probably weren't going to last very long anyways.
Parkin You know, I felt that for a while, probably for the first year and a half, that I was pro, maybe less than that. I always felt like I was being cheated, how was I going to be able to be competitive with these guys that were able to attack over and over again, because I was certainly training and racing as many races as they were or harder than they were, whatever. But after a while I learned to use the whole, that whole system to my advantage. That type of racing is very regional, and you have to learn the flow of those races, how to react, when the breakaway is going to go away and that sort of thing. That's one of the biggest things for Americans that go over there, or when I would see the 7 Eleven guys, later the Motorola guys, they didn't know how the race was going to flow. It wasn't like a normal point to point stage race, anything like that. They're circuits, you see who's good in the race, you see what teams are there, the complete teams... You really learn how the race is going to flow, if it's going to come down to a big sprint, if there's going to be a breakaway. And I definitely learned how to work the guys that were doped to my advantage as much as possible.
schmalz And you learned to know who was willing to make a deal and who was going to pay out that day, also.
Parkin Yeah, you figure that out pretty quickly. The kermis races are quite often bought and sold, it's never just a "Here's some money and roll over and die" kind of thing, it's more of a buying a teammate on the road.
schmalz What percentage of those races do you think there were no deals made? Would it be half and half?
Parkin I would say that probably 50% of the races there's some sort of a deal somewhere or another. Typically I would say if a sprint wins a race, a guy who's a true sprinter wins the race and he has one teammate in the breakaway with him, then there's no deal. That's straight up racing. If a non sprinter wins a race solo, or against a couple of other guys who are also non sprinters, there's probably a better than average possibility that there was some sort of agreement that happened. And you know what, sometimes there's no money that exchanges hands, sometimes it's "you helped me last week, I'm gonna help you this week". I know of a couple of classics that while I couldn't swear to it, it seems to me that one rider won Tour of Flanders, and the other rider that was with him won Paris Roubaix.
schmalz It seems like at the higher level races you're going to have less chance of someone making a dollar offer on the road, whereas they might, like you said, offer to work together at the next race. I think the higher the stakes the less likely they are to do that.
Parkin There's still some money that changes hands...
schmalz...or maybe it's more expensive!
Parkin It's a lot more expensive. I know of a certain classic that was purchased in 19... I want to say '88 or '89, for about 20 grand.
schmalz Was it purchased beforehand or was it on the road?
Parkin No no, those races are...there's too many good guys. So in that case you've got the three or four or five riders in the world on that day in a breakaway together, and it really becomes a case where "I can't beat you", or "I like you better than the other two guys, so let's do something together", something like that. It's very much a last minute deal, it's never a case where, at least in my own personal experience, it's never ever a case where if I was faster than you, and you try to buy the race from me, that I'm going to go ahead and sell it to you. If I'm faster than you I'm winning the race.
schmalz Then why take the money, you can just win it anyway.
Parkin It really comes down more to, there's two or three of us in the breakaway, I'm the fastest one, and everyone knows that, there's no incentive for the other two guys to keep riding. So, they might be under team orders to not ride if there's another faster member of their team back there. If you know you're going to lose, if everyone goes to the line together and it's a sprint finish, you're probably going to be looking to make some sort of a deal so that you can make some extra money out of the race, or still have the chance to win.
schmalz Sure. I've always been obsessed with Abdujaparov, who raced over there. Did you race against Abdujaparov at all?
schmalz Was he just a madman just like everyone said? What was the story behind him?
Parkin Yeah. Very much so. He...
schmalz He had a frightening look on his face in the race. He just seemed like he was not anyone you would want to mess with.
Parkin Yeah, I'm trying to think when we would've raced together...I think he turned pro in '90 or '91, so I didn't have a very long history with the guy, didn't personally know him, but I was in some breakaways in some smaller races with him. A lot of those eastern bloc riders when the wall came down and all of those eastern europeans were coming into the pro peloton, they all were like that. They were real robotic in their demeanor. I had a teammate Olaf Jentzche, he was an East German. The two of them, they could've been brothers, they both had that psycho look to them. You look at all those guys, they all look kinda hard like that.
schmalz Not really a lot of fun to be around...
Parkin Actually, no! Not fun to be around. Fun to watch race, not to go have a beer with.
schmalz Your career spanned the gap between where it was riders taking amphetamines, and the beginnings of riders taking EPO in the peloton. And I think you wrote that the doctor offered you EPO but you couldn't afford it.
Parkin Mmm hmmm.
schmalz So you probably avoided, the early days of EPO, it just seemed like the people taking it weren't aware of its effect, and then would fall asleep and die.
Parkin Yeah. Poverty definitely saved my life.
schmalz Was EPO on the banned list at the time?
Parkin It was not. It was not on the banned list, and obviously, once it did go on the doping list, couldn't be detected even, for a long time.
schmalz It seemed like it actually had a greater effect on racers. As you were saying the amphetamines would turn guys into idiots, where EPO could really help, and it didn't have the say, uh, 'making you into an idiot' side effect.
Parkin Correct. Absolutely. And it really has changed the way that the...even if you compare the way the riders look now, compared to the way we looked in the '80's and before...back then the legs were bigger, and the guys looked more muscular. And now, the riders are looking more overall athletic, but yet smaller. The oxygen uptake is so much greater on those drugs that they can turn the pedals over faster. Back in the day...I always thought it was funny when you look at a rider like Jan Ullrich climb, compared to everyone else it looked like he was pedaling so slowly, and yet if you look at the way they pedaled in the Merckx era, the '80's...you look at Greg Lemond climb, he pedals slower than Ullrich ever did. So, it has changed the way races are written. Even the guys that don't or didn't partake of the EPO type drugs, they all had to learn how to pedal faster and to ride differently, so...
schmalz Yeah they had to match the style in order to be competitve.
schmalz I think that you were teammates with Lemond, but you didn't spend a lot of time with him, you were on ADR together correct?
Parkin We were kind of on different squads. ADR had...in a way it was kind of cheating...it was one big team, but they split the team in two and they gave the second team a different sponsor. Instead of eight or ten riders in a race we would go to the starting line with sixteen or twenty, and we would ride as a team.
schmalz I think that Greg Lemond feels that once people started taking EPO, that they sort of, um, ended his career, or that he wasn't able to compete because he wasn't willing to take it. From what I've heard him say about it, I've never talked to him about it. I think he feels that suddenly everybody, guys that he was beating the year before, was dropping him on climbs, where he was basically doing the same training he was doing before, and I think he's still a little ticked off about that.
Parkin There were a lot of riders during that period of time who suddenly were not competitive and felt slighted, trying to remember, there was a french rider, I can't remember his name right now, who started whistle blowing a lot. There were a lot of guys...before EPO, nobody was talking about the drug. Everybody was talking about it, but nobody was saying anything and nobody was pointing any fingers. Then EPO came around, and everybody started pointing fingers. And I can't speak to...I was never the rider who would've...I honestly never would've never known the difference if I was riding with somebody who wasn't on EPO last year and then they were on EPO this year. When you're riding on the flats, riding the kind of races that I did and did well in, or in the rolls, in the hilly races that I did, I was never in the front to be, to get dropped, and if I did get dropped, I would've been on a category 1 or 2 climb, it wouldn't have been totally surprising. I never got that first hand experience that all of a sudden that guys were going so much faster. And I think also they didn't perfect the EPO technology, it didn't become an epidemic until I was already gone from Europe.
schmalz It speaks to the effectiveness of it if the people that aren't on it are going to complain, because it's putting them at a competitive disadvantage.
Parkin Yeah, true. From what I've heard...I never did, I know a few people who did...from what I've heard it really was a wonder drug. It's really incredible.
schmalz I wanna hear a little bit about when you first went to Belgium and you went to the mysterious doctor's office, and they put you on the mystery machine to find out if you had any cycling potential. Any idea what that machine was?
Parkin What we did was, I just laid on a table and they check my vitals. They were looking at an old EKG machine, some other stuff like that. When they did the testing, that was an actual ergometer test, VO2 test, so it wasn't really anything mysterious. It was just that the surroundings were very cold, and I was suspicious of everything that was going on. My awareness was heightened, I was a little crazy at the time.
schmalz I was expecting some doctor with black rubber gloves and one of those balls with the lightning strikes, very Dr. Frankenstein thing...
Parkin It wasn't far from that, to be honest. It was just very cold, very clinical, you can imagine a nineteen year old kid, these guys are speaking this language that doesn't sound like anything I've ever heard, they're talking and laughing amongst themselves. It was all very serious. If I had sucked in the testing, if I didn't have any VO2 capacity, couldn't push any watts, they were gonna kick me to the curb.
schmalz That's the unfortunately the nature professional racing. If you don't have the physical talent, like most professional sports, you're just not going to start. It's the same as hitting a curveball, running a forty in football. If you can't do it you're not going to get in.
schmalz So what happened to you after racing? I can't imagine you're still in the cycling industry. Are you?
Parkin No, I was in the cycling industry...I hung up the cleats about mid year '98, and I went to work for Castelli. I worked for Castelli for 7 or 8 years. Quit working for Castelli and then I've been working in motor sports the last couple of years.
schmalz How did you make that transition? That makes some sense and no sense at the same time.
Parkin It's a funny story, actually. When I quit, when I was working for Castelli, we were the United States arm of Castelli. We took on another product, we weren't a distributor per se, but we did take on another product from Italy, called Evervit. The nutritional stuff. I started thinking that that was something that would be interesting to motocross racers, car racers. Met Paul Tracy at the trade show at Interbike, and we kinda got to be friends. I got into racing circles a little bit from that, went to work for this company that developed a line of luggage very specific to race car drivers, and talk about a niche market. They just kinda turned me loose, "go make this stuff popular".
schmalz Do you think that if you were still in the cycling industry you would've written this book the way it was written?
Parkin Oh yeah, for sure! My contract was up in September, so I'm not working for this company in motor sports any more, I'm actually hoping to get back in the cycling industry. Maybe ten, fifteen years ago if I'd written that book there would've been some professional repercussions, but I think now, what a lot of people know, I don't think there's such a problem. I don't know that I'll ever get a job as a director sportif in Europe, after what I wrote, but that wasn't something I was looking forward to anyway.
schmalz You wouldn't be a victim of what you call the "lycra wall of silence"?
Parkin No, I think it's a little different now. A lot of the stories I tell in the book, they're so old they might not even 100% apply to what's going on now. I don't know there are as many deals, certainly with the globalization of cycling, I would have to imagine that a lot of the way that races are written have changed. Now you just don't have French and Flemish and Italian speakers in the peloton. You have a lot of English and Eastern languages being spoken.
schmalz And it seems now, if a rider's going to try to do any doping shenanigans, they search out doctors and products themselves, it doesn't come from the directors, the way it happened before when you were racing. I don't know if this is the case with everybody, but it seems to have gone that way. Do you think that's kind of the way it's going?
Parkin I would say at the top level, during my day, it was still very much, if you were a top level rider, and you wanted to do some very potent doping program or protocol, you'd still seek out the help of a very good doctor. The teams, I was never on a team that really had...there was never a "hey, you gotta do this". I know there were teams where when you signed a contract, there was a clause in the contract that said you have to follow our medical protocol. That was certainly something that I never saw and when you get a director handing you anything that is illegal or it seems like it might be illegal, those are pretty small teams.
schmalz I do remember in the book, when your parents came to see you at, I think, Het Volk, I think the director gave you a couple of pills that you had to decide whether to take or not.
Parkin Yep. It was Flèche Brabançonne or Brabantse Pijl, they handed me some stuff, you're right, I had to make up mind whether I was going to do it or not. I was not a doping virgin at that point, but it was something I didn't want to do. It was a moral and ethical dilemma, whether I should do that or not. I'm glad that I kept it as clean as I did...
schmalz You had a great line in the book, you said you could tell your parents you had a bad day and look them in the eye, or you could stare at their feet while they congratulated you. I think that sums it up pretty well.
schmalz Well, this is all the time we have, unfortunately, but thanks for a great book and thanks for being so forthcoming, I appreciate it.
Parkin Thank you.