Monday, August 04, 2008

A Dog in a Hat: An American Bike Racer's Story...

A Dog in a Hat: An American Bike Racer's Story of Mud, Drugs, Blood, Betrayal, and Beauty in Belgium By: Joe Parkin

Anyone who has even the most cursory knowledge of cycling has heard of the Tour de France, the granddaddy of all cycling races. And for Americans in present day, the Tour de France and Lance Armstrong go hand in hand. Armstrong's books give a view from the front of the pack and what it's like to be one of the most dominant cyclists in the world. A Dog in a Hat contrastingly provides a view from inside the professional European peloton.

After graduating from high school Parkin determined to become a professional cyclist rather than pursuing college like so many of his peers. Rather than hanging around the US cycling world, he received advice to cut his teeth racing in Belgium. So, after saving up money for plane fare to Belgium, he hopped on a flight and was on his way to becoming a "for real" cyclist.

He begins as an amateur and after performing well in some races, eventually attracts the attention of pro teams. His next year is spent learning the ins and outs of the professional world and making rookie mistakes. Along with learning the cycling world he also learns the Belgian culture and begins picking up on Flemmish and Dutch which are the primary local languages.

The quirky title of the book comes from a local expression basically meaning something out of the ordinary. Parkin learns to look for "a dog in a hat" in races when someone is about to make a break, as well as in general life as he adjusts to the rigors of being a professional cyclist in a foreign country.

While Parkin hears of drug use by cyclists prior to coming to Europe, he witnesses it first hand in many races where fellow teammates and competitors regularly use performance enhancing drugs. He also learns of various sordid methods used to beat drug testing. The reader witnesses this dirty side of the sport through his rookie eyes and sees his struggle to maintain integrity while still performing at a high level.

He also learns about the somewhat controversial part of European races where races are sold. This occurs when a breakaway is in progress and one of the riders pays the others to allow him to win. Though this does not make sense to those with a squeaky clean fairness mentality, the practice occurs regularly in European bike races.

For those uninitiated with the sport of cycling, it is very much team oriented and the book does a good job at explaining the ins and outs of working as a team to get the chosen teammate to the finish line before other teams. Overall, though definitely at the pro level, Parkin is not one of the elite riders and as a result serves as a work horse to allow fellow teammates the ability to rest in his slipstream, help when the main rider has bike trouble, control the pace of the peloton, etc. Parkin works his way up from a being on a low level team to riding on a more respected team by the end of his European career.

Throughout the book, you want to root for him to do well and have success despite some of the modest results. It feels in ways like a "Rudy" story based on his desire and heart to be a great cyclist.

Whether you're a hard core cycling fanatic or are passingly aware of the Tour de France each year, you will enjoy this page turning chronicle of a young man's coming of age as a cyclist in Europe. It might even inspire you to dust off that old bike sitting in the closet and take it for a spin.

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