Mud, Sweat and Cobbles – Professional Racing in 1980s Belgium


 

As Good A Cycling Book as You'll Find...

 

A Dog in A Hat

By Joe Parkin (Velo Press, 2008)

Review by Jeffrey Morseburg

Joe Parkin’s book A Dog in a Hat is the best personal account of professional bicycle racing that I have read by an American cyclist.  It is a wry, honest and gritty view of life on the small, under-funded teams that used to make up most of the professional peloton.  Because Parkin’s name is known only to those who knew him on the European cycling circuit in the 1980s or from his days racing here in the United States a few years later, he is not a public figure with a carefully-crafted image to protect.  This allows him to tell his story without vanity and to be wryly honest about his experiences. Additionally, A Dog in a Hat is not one of those ghost written or “as told to” sort of books, so Parkin’s natural storytelling ability comes through.

Joe Parkin started racing as a Junior in Northern California and quickly fell in love with the beauty and history of the sport. Like American baseball, bicycle racing has a century and a half of tradition. It has a lore and language all its own.  This colorful history is one of the reasons some of us are attracted to cycling.  Like baseball, cycling has known beauty, sensation and yes, scandal.  And, like baseball, virtually all of the media attention is concentrated on the major leagues of the sport. The fascinating stories of men on their way up to the “show,” slipping down from the top ranks, or those who don’t have the talent or opportunity to get to the major leagues of cycling are rarely told.  A Dog in a Hat is a welcome exception.

 

Every Professional Had His "Hero" Post Card

 

Through the pages of the American and European cycling magazines young Joe Parkin became fascinated with the world of European professional racing. An adaptive young man whose family had moved frequently while he was growing up, in his late teens he finally ended up in Northern California, where there was a semblance of a good racing scene.  While Parkin had shown some talent as an under-18 year old junior cyclist, the United States Cycling Federation’s development program, based in Colorado Springs and run by eastern Europeans, held no interest for him.  Instead, he reasoned that if he wanted to become a professional bicycle racer he might as well move to Europe rather than knock around the domestic amateur circuit with its steady diet of round-the-block criteriums and occasional circuit races.

Fortuitously, he met Bob Roll, who was then one of the lesser-known members of the groundbreaking 7/11 Cycling Team.  The 7/11 boys, decked out in their indelibly distinctive Christmas colored jerseys, dominated domestic amateur racing in the two years leading up to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. Then they turned pro.  Southland Corporation, the parent company of 7/11, poured millions of dollars into cycling over a number of years, building the Olympic Velodrome in Carson and the track at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs as well as funding the first professionally run road team that had ever been fielded in the United States.  When they came to town, the 7/11 riders rolled in custom painted vans rather than the collection of broken down cars and ancient, smoking VW Microbusses that were common in California. When veteran riders like Tom Schuler, who only knew the lean side of the sport, signed with 7/11, they probably thought they had died and gone to heaven, but the younger riders thought this was the way things were supposed to be.  They were kitted out in the finest Descente clothing, rode custom painted bicycles and had mechanics and masseurs to care for them.

Bob Roll didn’t seem like a typical 7/11 rider, but 7/11 director Jim Ochowicz probably realized that he was tough enough to handle European racing and could be the type of blue collar worker he needed on a team full of stateside stars.  His legendary antics also kept the team loose.  Roll was an unforgettable character, and even down in Southern California rumors about him abounded. Before he inked a contract with 7/11, it was said he lived in a car and ate out of trash dumpsters, riding night and day, rain and shine so that he could become a hardened racer. Even though Roll didn’t have any single outstanding quality as a rider, his ability to endure pain allowed him to become a professional domestique, as the worker-bees of cycling are known.  More than anything, Roll didn’t seem to care to conform and so he would be just the sort of mentor a young cyclist would have chosen.  In 1985, when Parkin asked him about how to go becoming a professional rider, Roll’s advice differed radically from what virtually any club officer or cycling official in the states would have given.  Roll didn’t tell Parkin how to become a coach’s pet in the land of the Olympic Training Center, with its prison-like dormitory housing, but to strike out for Europe on his own, to try his hand at the world of hard-bitten Belgian bicycle racing.

 

On Just the Right Day, Old Belgium Can Be Beautiful...

 

In the fall of 1985, young Joe Parkin informed his shocked parents he was going to postpone college and move to Belgium. While his father couldn’t understand his decision, his mother was supportive.  It takes a sense of adventure and a lot of determination to move to a foreign country to pursue a completely new life, but the young cyclist was “all in” and ready to roll the dice with his future.  Parkin began working three menial jobs in order to save enough money to give him a toehold on his dream, and by the late spring of 1986 he was ready.

 

Belgium is Usually Mossy and Damp...

 

At the time Joe Parkin moved to Europe to race bicycles, Americans were a rarity on the cycling scene, a bit of an exotic foreign species. Even the riders of the vaunted 7/11 Team, which had a number of successes in their first year of European racing, were not really living in Europe.  Instead they lived and trained in the United States and Canada and then parachuted into into Europe for extended swings.

Since the 1970s, there had only been a handful of riders from the United States who had actually lived and raced anywhere in Europe.  Roger Young and Mike Neel had raced in a number of amateur Six Days in 1972, and Neel returned to Europe and settled in Italy, where he later raced professionally. In the mid-1970s, Californian Tom Sneddon competed in “Stayer” events on the track and competed on the road for the Belgian Flandria team. Californians George Mount and Johnathan Boyer both rode as amateurs in Europe and were signed to professional contracts. And, in the early 1980s, a number of American riders including Mike Chylinski, Chris Carmicahel and Bob Roll had raced in amateur events in Belgium and Holland, gaining valuable experience in the hard-knocks world of Flemish cycling.

 

Slip, Sliding Away on the Ancient Cobbles

 

In 1986, when Joe Parkin moved to Europe, an American cyclist named Greg Lemond was the center of attention.  Lemond grew up in the Reno/Lake Tahoe area and began cycling to train for skiing, but soon discovered he had a tremendous talent for the two-wheeled sport. He quickly became a Junior National Champion, Junior World Champion and then an Olympian, whose dreams of his gold medal destiny were crushed by President Carter’s Olympic Boycott.  Lemond did well enough in a few amateur races in 1980 that he was signed to a contract by Renault-Gitane, the team led by the cycling strategist Cyrille Guimard and headed by Tour de France Champion Bernard Hinault. The young rider with the all-American looks soon set the European cycling world on fire, winning the Tour ‘Avenir, the Coors Classic the Dauphine-Libere and in 1983, the World Cycling Championships and the Super Prestige Pernod award for the world’s top professional cyclist.  Lemond rode his first Tour de France in 1984 in support of Hinault and finished 3rd; he was second in 1985, and in 1986, the year Parkin moved to Belgium, he was ready to ascend to the top step of the ladder.  While the Europeans were smart enough to understand that cyclists did not grow on trees in the United States, his success at least gave Americans a credibility and a marketability that they did not have before.

Parkin arrived in Belgium with little understanding of the country or the language; in fact he mistook the first Flemish he heard for Russian.  Now, the author of Dog in a Hat tells his story in a straightforward way without the meandering or asides that are typical of a many of British writers.  This has the advantage of bringing the reader into the story because he or she is discovering life along with the author, but it doesn’t provide any context or a back-story.  To many Americans, indeed, even some other Europeans, Belgium is known only as a tiny European country that Brussels is the capital of and Brussels is only recognized because it is the city where NATO and the European Union is based.

 

The Ronde van Vlaanderen, The Ultimate Day in the Life of Every Flemish Cyclist and Cycling Fan

 

My friends in Flanders laugh when I describe Belgium in a tongue-in-cheek way as “a country with no reason to be that serves as a model for a union that has no reason to exist,” but I think that sums things up.  Belgium is actually an interesting little nation that was formed in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. It was designed to serve as a buffer between France on the South and the Netherlands on the North. The new Belgian nation, which was previously the southern provinces of the Netherlands, may have been initially happy to be clipped off from the Dutch union because the Dutch were mainly Calvinst and they were by contrast Catholic.  Unfortunately for Belgium, however, the little nation was riven by two linguistic and cultural groups.  In the South there are the landlocked-Walloons who once spoke the Walloon language (a romance language that evolved from Roman and was related to French) and now speak French.  In the North, there are the Flemings or Flemish who speak Vlaams, a language the Dutch, whose language it really is, will insist doesn’t exist.

 

The Flemish Symbol is the Lion, Which Shows You How the Riders See Themselves...

 

Now, as we will see, all this had an effect on bicycle racing in little Belgium.   From the beginning, it was difficult for Belgians to see themselves as a nation.  The French speakers in the south felt they were and should remain superior and worked to dominate the nation from Brussels, which is a French-speaking island located in the Northern half of the country where the Flemish language and culture predominate.   The Walloons made French the official language and attempted to reduce Vlaams to a local dialect.  As the industrial age dawned, virtually all of the economic development happened in Wallonia, making Flanders a poorer, agriculturally based society.  Throughout the 19th century the Flemings grew more and more resentful of the arranged marriage with the Walloons.   The Flemish grew up on tales of grievance, grievance at the hands of the Spanish overlords who had occupied the low countries for so long, the Dutch across the border, the French to the south and finally, their Walloon countrymen.  So, the Flemish were long brought up that they had something to prove, and for decades this came out with every stroke of the pedals on the cobbles.  Even when smooth paving took over the rest of the world, the rough-hewn cobbles themselves became a symbol of Flanders: the rest of the world can ride on smoothly paved roads, we can master the wet, mossy cobbles!

 

The Old Guild Houses Were Located Along the Canals of the Historic Flemish Cities - Ghent

 

Ironically, in that early age of globalization during the 14th through 16th centuries, it was not the cities in what is now Southern Belgium that reigned supreme, but the great Flemish “guild cities” on the waterways – Brugge, Antwerp and Ghent. They became famous throughout Europe as centers for arts, crafts and learning.  By the time the Germans decided to use Belgium as a convenient stomping ground for their left turns into France in the fateful summers of 1914 and 1940, the divide between the Flemish and the Walloons was so great that some of the Flemings sided with the hated Germans.  The one thing that all this adversity did to the Flemish was to create a hard-bitten sense of independence and toughness in them, and we should underline toughness.  Gradually, in the years after World War II, the Flemish began to demand equal treatment under the law and linguistic equality. The Flemish cities, located along the huge waterways and canals, gradually became more prosperous than the south, and the balance of power has steadily shifted.

 

A Face Just as Hard as the "Stones"...Alberic "Briek" Schotte, Who Rode Twenty Tours of Flanders and Was The Last of the Pre-War Men of Flandria

 

When bicycle racing started in the late 19th century, the bicycles were primitive, single-speed affairs, making the flat ground of Belgium ideal for the single day “classic” races that were just beginning.  In these spring events, often held in the rain or even snow flurries, the riders could pedal furiously across the cobbled roads, and when they came to the sharp, incredibly steep hills the Flemish call “walls,” they could dismount cyclo-cross style and carry their bike over whatever portion of the hill was too steep or slippery to ride up.  One of these events, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the “Doyenne de les Classiques” was first run way back in 1894. It takes place in the heavily forested part of Belgium known as the Ardennes, in the beautiful Southeast of the country.  Its profile, with all the steep climbs, looks like a crocodile’s teeth.

 

Tour of Flanders - The Climbs Are Short, Steep and Often Muddy

 

While bicycle racing is popular in both the Flemish and French provinces of Belgium and Belgians are schooled in both languages, amateur riders prefer to race with what they see as their own people.  This linguistic divide between the Flemish and French speakers was so great that when Eddy Merckx – who is a Fleming – had part of his marriage ceremony performed in French, it was the object of controversy. Historically, most of the great Belgian road cyclists have been Flemish “hard men” like Eddy Merckx, Rik Van Steenbergen, Rik Van Looy, Briek Schotte, Alfons Schepers, Freddy Maertens, Herman Van Springel, Stan Ockers, Roger DeVlaeminck and Johan Museeuw.  The great Flemish classics include Het Volk, which is the traditional season opener, Ghent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders (known in Flemish as the Ronde van Vlaanderen), which began in 1913.  When you watch the Ronde on television, you will see many of the spectators waving huge yellow flags with a stylized gothic lion on them.  This lion is the symbol of Flanders and the fans will be hoping, hoping not for a Belgian victory but for a Flemish win in the race that every rider from Flanders wants to win more than any single-day event.

 

In the Gutter - Bicycle Racing in Flanders, St. Niklaas, Summer, 1983, Jeffrey Morseburg Photograph

 

It was in the typical small Flemish village of Ursel that Joe Parkin found himself when he arrived in Belgium.  Roll had given him the name of a veteran cycling supporter named Albert Claeys, who had worked for the 7/11 and ran a small café. Fortunately, Claeys and his wife took the young American in and so he had someone who knew the Flemish cycling scene to help him adjust to a life that bore little relation to anything he had known before.  The little pub that the Claeys ran was a typical Belgian affair, located at a small crossroads, with a gas station and business on the ground floor and the family quarters upstairs.  Joe Parkin spent the next five years of his life living under the steeply pitched roof of the third floor of the Sportswereld Café.

Part Deux Coming Soon…

Rating: 5 Stars

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