Joe Parkin's time in Belgium makes him someone of whom I could easily think of a hundred questions to ask. But so as not to be a jerk, I narrowed it down to nine or so, depending on how you count. Here is our email interview, verbatim, in which you can get a sense of how fun it might be to talk with the author for a few hours.
PdC: Joe, thanks for taking the time to answer these. My first question concerns the Northern Classics [Podium Cafe readers tend to be HUGE classics fans]. How much did you know about these races before you moved to Belgium? Did they turn out at all like you had imagined? Which one-day Belgian race was your favorite and/or best chance to do well?
JP: You know, I thought I knew a bit about them, based upon the fact that I had seen Paris-Roubaix on American television and had seen the photos of these races in Winning Magazine. I was excited to ride them but really the grand tours were what I thought I wanted to ride at the time. My thought was that as "flat" as most of the these races are, that they must not be all that hard. It turns out I was young and dumb. They are brutally hard and it sort of takes a year or two just to figure them out. The one race I rode decently in was Gent-Wevelgem. I think it is because there is so much side wind - I liked the side wind.
PdC: What was it like having an official fan club/pub? Did you interact with them much? Why would they care about a young American racer?
JP: It really wasn't all that amazing but fun to think about. A lot of the top amateurs have their own stickers that you'd see on car windows and other such memorobelia. Mine, I think was a little more relaxed. I did interact with the folks quite a bit as I liked to hang out in the cafe a bit - until the smoke got to me. I got more advice from these people than I possible could ever use (even if I wanted to). As an American, I was something really of a novelty and so I think the people wanted to see me perform - I think it was almost more of a freakshow act sometimes than actual interest in what I was doing as a racer.
PdC: You describe a couple episodes involving breakaways where someone tried to buy a win. Naturally we've heard of this happening before, but I'm wondering, is this the rule for breakaways involving lesser-known riders from rival teams? Do such breakaways ever simply race it out, or is it usually just a show?
JP: I think this activity in cycling is really just an unfortunate byproduct of top-level racing. In a flat race without any wind or hills, certain things really need to come together to make a breakaway stick. Buying some help usually just means the rider or riders being paid off are willing to ride as if in a team time trial. It also means that they won't chase the intended winner for a few seconds after he has made his "winning move". You never just roll over and play dead, though. I have sprinted so hard to try and win a race that I have previously sold - it is incredible! If you think about it, even without the "deal" in place, there are breakaways that move together just fine, all the way to the end of the race. These situations are really no different than if money has changed hands (or will later) as all parties in the breakaway decide for a while to become teammates of sort, to escape the bigger peloton.
PdC: Continuing on this, you describe an episode in the Milk Race where you and Neskens simply stopped racing fairly close to the line, because you didn't expect to win and he didn't want to tow you along. Can you describe the emotional experience of this clash of ambitions? I think for us fans, it's always a little confusing that a guy would rather get swallowed up by the pack than get second.
JP: Oh, it definitely wasn't my idea to give up. I would have taken second place in a heartbeat but my marching orders were to drop Neskens or stop riding. I was a good team rider - it was both a strength and a weakness. Jose (de Cauwer) wanted me to stop riding and so I did. Emotionally, it was both heartbreaking and sort of a big "fuck you" to the rest of the riders in the peloton. We both embodied win at all costs in this case. I am sure the amateurs in the field were thinking we both had gone insane.
PdC: You mention doping on a couple occasions, but don't devote all that much of the book to it. Is this because doping wasn't the story in your races, or because you'd rather write about something else? I recall LeMond saying that around 1991 the peloton suddenly got mysteriously faster, and he seems convinced that the big EPO era began around this time. Did you get the same impression overall?
JP: Yeah, I could have written another 200-something pages on doping but I really don't feel it would have benefitted anybody. Doping exists. It will most likely always exist, but that really does not take away from the sheer harsh beauty that is professional cycling. I don't recall quite the same change in the speed of the peloton at that time, but I have heard others talk about it in years after that. I know there were guys who got mysteriously faster, out of the clear blue, but I did not view it as an epidemic at that point.
PdC: You seemed to have slid comfortably into a domestique role. [Even us low amateurs can appreciate the beauty of teamwork, by the way.] Was this hard for you, or did you see it as your big chance?
JP: I had gotten to know some of the other good domestiques in the pro peloton and liked these guys quite a bit. I got tired of always being told I had failed because I did not make the winning break or worse, didn't win the race. Once I slotted into the helper role, I was able to ride well all of the time. I did my job and it was other riders' jobs to win. I gave it everything I had at the time and so it was satisfying work to me. I think that if I had stayed for another few seasons, I would have achieved some real notoriety in this role.
PdC: In the end you fell out of the scene rather abruptly, despite the fact that your directors looked pretty highly on your abilities and your work ethic (e.g., "my American Joe"). In retrospect, why did you not get offers when other riders (presumably a lot of guys who weren't as valuable) did get work? Is it harder for Americans to get lower-ranking jobs in Europe? Was it team politics?
JP: It was the time of the big UCI points purge. Riders without many points were being let go even if they were good helpers like I was. In the Tulip case, I think a lot of it had to do with Ludo Voeten, the team's business manager. Ludo was a crude asshole with a rather unhealthy misogynistic outlook. I didn't laugh at his jokes and thought he was a jerk. I think his regard for me was equally low. This definitely had something to do with not being back on the team, but the bottom line is that I did not have enough of the valuable points, and that opened the door for other riders to come in.
PdC: Do you follow the European scene at all now? If so, has it changed beyond all recognition?
JP: I really don't follow it all that much, I am ashamed to say. I watch it more like I do every other sport I watch - with a respect for what they are doing and appreciation of the way they all make it look so cool, but I definitely cannot tell you who is who out there anymore.
PdC: One last question: what involvement do you have in cycling these days?
JP: These days I enjoy promoting the book and riding mountain bikes with my girlfriend Elayna. I have worked for the past two years in motorsports marketing and am hoping to find work in the cycling industry again - it feels the most like home to me.