I recently tried to read Joe Parkin’s A Dog in a Hat: An American Bike Racer’s Story of Mud, Drugs, Blood, Betrayal, and Beauty in Belgium (VeloPress, 2008). I say tried because, in the end, I just couldn’t do it. I was only about sixty pages shy of the end, but I was finding it a chore just to open it.
I first learned of the book by way of a review on Austin Bike Blog. The review was quite favorable. Most other mentions of the book I’ve read seem to agree. To be sure, there were a few things I did enjoy about the book. The occasional depictions of tour routes made me want to travel, and the first-hand descriptions of races made me want to ride — fast and with a group. Moreover, the bulk of the stories that make up the book are Joe’s recollections of not winning. There’s something kind of cool about that. As cliché as it sounds, stories like these do a good job of helping readers understand and appreciate that bicycling in this way and at this level is (or at least can be) something very existential.
Nevertheless, in an era of constant exposé and behind-the-scenes looks, I’ve grown weary of the naked truth (especially when one considers we can never really do anything more than exchange one myth for another — and I’m not using myth in a pejorative sense). Having already lost baseball to steroids, I just wasn’t quite ready to get the skinny on doping. In the case of the former, I haven’t lost my interest in or love for the game at all. I’ve merely adjusted where I tune in. It’s the professionalization of the thing that creates problems. So now I favor high school, college, minor league, and church softball games over ESPN and teams with multi-billion-dollar corporate-named coliseums that beg cities for tax funding and then charge those same tax-paying fans seven-bucks for a beer so they can pay players enough money to subsidize the GDP of small developing countries. I digress, but my thinking translates to pro cycling as well. The point is two-fold. First, it goes without saying that this book hardly reflects all that counts for cycling, or even racing for that matter. Second, I still love bikes and cycling in all their countless forms, which includes racing. My ever-growing distaste for organized, professionalized sports notwithstanding, I’ve found my interest in bicycle racing kindled of late (albeit, solely as a spectator and not as a participant). Revolution 22 has whet my appetite for track racing (click here for some great video), and I’m looking forward to the upcoming Tour de California and other stage races. But it is now and will likely always remain a side interest at best.
I read the book because I have this habit of “getting into things” whole hog, so to speak. It’s a stupid, silly thing I do. But sooner or later, I realize (usually) that I’m doing something for the wrong reason, and/or that such-and-such a thing just isn’t important to me. In this case, as much as I love bikes, I also deeply appreciate good writing (and loathe drivel to the same degree — my own drivel excluded of course). I’m not a fan of autobiographies, especially those that are ghost written, but it turns out, there’s a lot of autobiography in the genre of bicycling literature. Pity that.
One last thought on A Dog in a Hat, bicycle racing, and cycling in general. I have always been drawn more to team sports than to individual competition. Cycling, in all its forms, is often, I think, perceived as an individual, solitary endeavor. True, there is a powerful sense of self-reliance and personal effort in bike riding of any kind, and it’s a beautiful characteristic. But as with all pursuits, community runs deep in and around bicycles and cycling. Perhaps one of the coolest things to read about in A Dog in a Hat and to see in the velodrome video clips I’ve been watching lately is the team dimension, especially the part of it that recognizes one’s absolutely primary responsibility in a given stage may be solely to ensure that someone else goes faster or is able to pedal a little more easily for while. Nice.
Moving on, I am intrigued by The Rider by Tim Krabbé (Bloomsbury, 2003). In the words of The New Yorker (reprinted on amazon.com), “In immediate, living prose, Krabbé, a novelist as well as a cyclist, takes us with him, inch by inch, as he rides the hundred-and-thirty-seven-kilometre Tour de Mont Aigoual, a course through the mountains that is better known as one of the cruellest stages of the Tour de France.” I am a student of narrative theory, and while I still have little interest in autobiography I do have a curious fascination with Ulysses-like attempts to chronicle real time, as it were. Unfortunately, The Rider is not part of our local library’s collection. So I’ll either have to purchase a copy, or else hope that some happy reader, overcome with feelings of generosity, good will, and thankfulness for all I give so selflessly to this blog, throws a copy in the mail to me.
Meanwhile, I’m reading David V. Herlihy’s book, Bicycle: The History (Yale University Press, 2004), which I discovered thanks to a post on Social Biking Blog. It looks very promising. I’ll post a review when I’m finished.