Joe Parkin: Come and Gone

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.

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  1. josh

    i totally agree, there was an enormous sense of melancholy in the tone at the end of the book that followed me after finishing it. great read, though i liked dog in a hat a bit more.

  2. Jim

    I liked it and thought it was a pretty good book. Could have maybe used an editor other than Joe, however. I was amazed that he buried the money shot of the book – his discovery that he loved the process of racing more than he cared about winning or other factors – around the 2/3ds point of it.

    The editing doesn’t matter that much, however. The book is worth getting just for his stories about racing and perservering. It was a very good read.

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  4. Alex

    I´ve read a few stories about cyclists going to retirement, and every time I end up with this same melancholic feeling. From the most successful of them all (think Merckx, LeMond or Armstrong) to guys like Parking and down to the most frustrated and bitter ones (think Kimmage), seems to me that the single line common to the post-race life of every hyper-active, friendship-sharing, globe-trotting, hard-training bike racer: when they cross that last finish line, all that´s left is a lifetime of good memories (even and usually from the worst of times), vacancy and depression. Must be really hard to retire from professional bike racing!

    Nice article Padraig, thanks 😉

  5. James

    I enjoyed “A Dog in a Hat” so am looking forward to this new book. “Retiring” from any sporting endeavor is difficult. I played volleyball for years in college and on club teams. I didn’t really choose a time to quit it just sort of happened due to time constraints with work, etc. But, there was a void! I missed the competition since I was pretty good at playing. Cycling never really filled the void because I wasn’t a good racer at all (I always maintained that I lead the team from the back!). Now I just live vicariously through others!

  6. Matt Walsh

    As always, well-written and insighful. I read Dog in a Hat and look forward to reading Come & Gone — even more so after your review. I enjoy Parkin’s writing style which is very matter-of-fact and honest and humorous. I hope to meet Joe sometime. An excellent review.

  7. wvcycling

    One of the less important things that came to mind while reading this book was his mention of a certain titanium DiamondBack mountain bike being one of his favs ever. I have heard the same testimony from several others that raced with him, or raced in that era. I would love to know what made that bike so memorable…

  8. fournwi

    Well done! I look forward to reading his next book as I really enjoyed “A Dog in a Hat”. Interestingly your article and the comments above reminded me of my experiences after finishing playing football in college. At 21 I really hadn’t thought about what a full stop that last game meant. Starting at about 8 years old each fall was another chance to improve and experience the excitement of really intense competition. It wasn’t until I found cycling about ten years later that I found a sport that provided similar experiences. The same need for dedication and practice, the same flow of a group following defined rules & patterns, same thrills & speed, and even similar penalty for mistakes (ending up on your ass). Thanks for reminding me.

  9. David A

    I raced with Joe in Belgium when he first arrived in Flanders. What he never mentions is how dedicated and how hard he raced from the very beginning of his journey to Pro status. He gained the respect of the Belgians watching the races because he liked to ride from the front and attack and attack until the break was established. He was as good as some of the riders on the Belgian national team placing 2nd over 20 times. Unless you have lived and raced in Flanders you will never know the Highs and Lows that can motivate you to ride beyond yourself or send you into a black hole of depression unlike you have ever experianced. The rain, the bone crushing hours of training, your health constantly hanging on a thread, and the non-stop advise from supporters and other “racing experts” Joe Parkin was a very, very good Liefhebber and Pro, don’t let his humble reporting of that era fool you.

  10. Ron

    Thanks for the nice review of the book; I certainly am going to read it myself after this heads up.

    fournwi – Wow! Nice post and I was in a similar situation regarding the end of a lifetime sport. Mine was lacrosse though, and I played from the age of 7 until I graduated college at 21. I was kind of lost there for a few years, missing the challenge, the fun, the competition. I stayed active, but nothing was that exciting.

    A few years ago I picked up my first road bike. Well, now I have too many bikes, ride daily, do group rides, check out sites like this, and have become a full-on cycling wacko. I think I’ve found my lifetime sport and cycling has really filled my need for exercise and physical challenges. I’m not as competitive as I used to be, but I still love seeing how far I can push myself and doing my best to be an agitator in fast group rides.

    I’m quite thankful I found cycling. When sports are your life, for most of it, the transition to post-competition can be extremely difficult, even depressing. Cycling keeps me happy, fit, and sane!

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