Wednesday, August 05, 2009

A Dog in a Hat

My friend lent me this book, by Joe Parkin, a couple of days ago. Joe Parkin is an American who traveled Belgium to race bikes, racing for Belgian teams from 1986-1991. He then raced on the road for a few more years for American teams and raced mountain bikes for a couple years at the end of his career.

The book's pretty well put-together. Rather than trying to shove five years of minutiae into the book, he chooses some specific incidents from different parts of his career and gives them some real time and attention. The book is stitched together with short bits of summary, so it flows quickly but smoothly.

My friend lent it to me because he was interested to know how it compared with my experience of bike racing. The world inhabited by Joe Parkin in his book is one populated by pro cyclists. With the exception of the guys at the top, the racers seem to have either unrealistic dreams of being able to win some races or they've accepted that they're never going to, or at least have a pretty long road ahead. My experience of cycle racing is racing with amateurs, and I don't think that most of us have ambitions any higher than maybe dominating the sport class for a season and moving up to expert. Depending on the race, a lot of riders aren't even planning to move up - a look at the results for my series shows a ton of people who come out for one or two races a season. Parkin's teams sound like once the season starts, they're racing a couple of times a week.

The attitude about riding and training in the book is very different too. The amateur racers I compete with vary in attitude from guys who have very specific, heavy schedules that they follow religiously to guys who just ride their bikes a lot. I think a common pattern is for people to be very serious about their training for a year or two, and then back off due to loss of interest, other commitments, or finding that it's not necessarily effective. The majority of their riding, though, is in training. Parkin and his contemporaries sound like they're spending more saddle time in actual races and their bikes and bodies reflect that. Their attitude about races reflects that too - there are a lot of races described in the book in which Parkin doesn't even finish. By the end of the book, he's working as a very good domestique. He doesn't win races, but does a lot to protect his team's interests. In amateur races, and Parkin mentions this a few times, everybody is out to win the whole race. Parkin doesn't typically expect to, but he ended up wearing the stars and stripes in championship and cup races a few times, so he was clearly an excellent athlete.

The emphasis on the athlete's ability and desire to win and on racing over training is very refreshing and human in a sport that can frequently be somewhat dehumanizing, especially with the emphasis on technology. Parkin suggests that the bikes he and his teammates ride show the dirt and wear of tools used on a daily basis, as opposed to the clean and fetishized bikes one sees in a lot of amateur races and in contemporary professional cycling.

The aspect of the book that really struck a chord with me was the arbitrariness of the events. When I was living in New York and studying as a dancer, a lot of things happened seemingly at random. At auditions, who stayed and who got cut could be very mysterious. Tours, contracts and local gigs all seemed equally senseless, although a lot of that did go to dancers who clearly had more talent. Another way that I identified with Parkin, in fact, was that his career seemed marked by being very good, but not quite good enough to get to the next level. Distribution of talent seems to me to be another way that the worlds of both a professional dancer and a professional cyclist are similar - both groups tend to have a lot of workaholics, because we wish we could be better by virtue of working more or harder, but ultimately there are many things an individual just can't control.

No comments: