I DID TELL JOE PARKIN TO GO TO BELGIUM. I DID NOT, HOWEVER, tell him to stay.
But Joe stayed so long I began to wonder what the hell ever happened to him. Then about five years later I saw him coming toward me on the Schelde canal bike path. Now, you see a lot of cyclists on the canal, but there is no mistaking a profi for any of the beer-bellied supporters or even the desperado amateurs. The profis have an aloofness about their pedaling that shows true disdain for the wind, rain, or effort needed to propel themselves down the road. This rider approaching me at warp speed had all that in spades. he also had the emaciated skeletal silhouette many profis have. In fact, this dude was a wraith, with the gnarly skinny that only European pros possess. When the rider slowed and U-turned in front of me and said, “oy, Bobke,” I thought it was one of the spooky Flemish pros who had been pulverizing me for the majority of my adult life. The rider said, “Jongen, ik ben Joo.” “huh?” I said. “Um” (long pause), “um” (longer pause). “It’s Joe Parkin.” “Holy shit, don’t lie!” I yelled. “Joe! Where have you been?” “Hier . . . um . . . I’ve been here,” said Joe. “Whoa, dude, you scared me,” I said. After much chuckling, Joe explained in a rather cryptic mix of Flemish pro speak and half-remembered English that he was making a good living at kermesses, semiclassics, and smaller stage races. I said, “Are you insane?” Joe said, “maybe,” not even half joking. At this stage in Joe’s career, he was a true Vlaamse-man. Joe had gotten himself so deep into the fabric of the Flemish pro life, I feared he might not make it out. But as you can read in this vivid account of the hardships and triumphs of pro racing in Belgium, Joe not only survived but thrived in the toughest of all cycling environments. This is what I saw in Joe when we first met. And this is what I meant when I advised him to abandon the remedial form of four-square crit racing that prevailed in the States in the 1980s.
Joe was no longer the rheumatoid doughy tosser type that ruled Stateside racing in those days. he was an avenging angel of misery and, best of all, not a starry-eyed regional time trial champ with delusions of grandeur about to be sent home in a pain-induced coma after falling asleep in a crosswind battle. No, Joe knew the score. Joe had become the inside skinny. Joe was a twelve-toothed assassin.What was it in those bleak landscapes that carved the fat off Joe’s carcass like vultures around a kill? The weeks, months, and years of isolation in Belgium? The vicious, epic races that were virtually unknown by Americans then but are now part of our own cycling lore? The ancient, semi-illusionary dialect of a downtrodden people who revere cyclists as beacons of hope and cultural pride? The food, the dirty deals, the pig-shit toothpaste, the twofaced team managers, the smoky bars, homicidal teammates, and demented competitors? All these things and many more that you will read carved Joe into a missile of sinew, veins, sunken eyes, narrow shoulders, skinny arms, and huge ass and legs typical of a survivor of the toughest game on two wheels. You should count yourself lucky to have stumbled across a treasure map from the old country of forgotten dreams and buried riches. In Belgium, bike racing rules, and I am not surprised in the least that Joe Parkin was a Flemish prince. I have a rather ominous premonition that many a cycling fan will take umbrage with the grittier side of our sport that Joe writes about. If you do, you do not deserve to read this book. For everyone else, you may now read and be enlightened and entertained by the most authentic book ever written about making a two-wheeled living as a pro cyclist in Europe.