If it is true that the greatest truths of our lives are revealed during times of adversity, then Joe Parkin knows a good deal more truth than I do. As cyclists, most of us have come to believe that suffering is a pursuit in which we learn as much about ourselves as we do the world around us. Those truths are relative, changing from rider to rider, making each new revelation a private affair.
What sustained Joe as a bike racer, feeding him hope enough to keep his mind open to possibility and believing that each new race was something other than a foregone conclusion is the book’s great mystery. And mystery it stays, teasing us through each page turned. What drives his belief that a big win is still possible that his career trajectory might still arc upward hardly matters; what buoyed him might not work for you or me.
It is his hope that makes this book so fascinating. Because his name didn’t become household, even bike-race-household in the way that John Tomac’s name did, you know at the outset that his story will end in something other than triumph.
Many of his performances are easy to identify with: the unexpectedly good form, the unexplainable misery, the occasional on-cue delivery, the unsurprising detonation. Most riders would tire of the needle-in-a-haystack hunt, yet Joe perseveres.
I may have looked forward to this book even more than most who read A Dog in a Hat. I met Joe in 1995 when he was with Diamond Back Racing racing cyclocross in New England. I’d do the C race and then split my time between offering neutral support (with ace wrench Merlyn Townley) and shooting the A race.
One of my favorite images I ever shot of cyclocross was of Joe at the UMASS ‘cross race that year. His bike was on his shoulder as his motion was highlighted by a blur of trees behind him, and while he wasn’t winning (that was Frankie McCormack with brother Mark in tow), Joe was hauling ass.
That winter I covered the snowy ‘cross nationals at Leicester, Mass., for VeloNews and wound up playing a role in getting Joe and teammate Gunnar Shogren reinstated following their relegations from eighth and ninth to the last two places for their method of bike change in the pits. I pointed folks at USA Cycling to videotape showing that most of the riders in the top-10 had used the same technique of dropping their bike on entering the pits and picking up a fresh one at the exit, giving them a few steps relieved of the weight of their bikes. Joe and Gunnar had been unfairly singled out. I’m not sure Joe was aware of it, but I was in contact with DBR team manager Keith Ketterer as the events wound to their satisfying conclusion.
My recollection of that fall and winter was that Joe was unfailingly nice. He was humble, prepared and knowledgeable. The only thing he seemed to lack was that big win, the one that makes people just nod nonchalantly with an ‘I saw that coming’ air. Seeing that fall through his eyes shows just what reserves of hope he possessed.
My favorite moment in the book was his description of the confidence that comes with form. Joe writes:
A rider in form can comfortably ride just about any bike. The seat position can be wrong, the handlebars can be too small—it really doesn’t matter. A rider in form simply gets on and goes because the feeling of form—the perfect combination of physical and emotional fitness—creates an almost euphoric state in which pain and suffering of racing a bike become life-giving, and equipment hindrances cease to even register. A rider in form can crash, get up, and chase for as long as it takes, while one without form will never progress beyond staring at the torn handlebar tape.
In keeping with the humility that marks both A Dog in a Hat and Come and Gone, he closes his career by writing, “Only champion bike racers get to retire. The rest of us just quit.”
It’s a passage that is at once hilarious (I’ve known far too many amateur racers who “retired”) and unspeakably sad because it is the sunset of a dream. That sadness lingers, at least it has with me. Here we have a decent, hard-working guy, a guy who dared to look within. He simply ran out of opportunities before he ran out of hope. The world usually beats the hope from us before we run out of opportunity. It’s enough to make your heart ache.