I’m pretty sure Joe and I hung out at the same bike shop in Danville, California in the mid 80’s. During that time, Joe was racing road bikes domestically for Coors Light Cycling and mountain bikes for Diamondback Racing. Joe also represented the United States at the World Professional Mountain Bike Championships. Earlier in his career, Joe wore the stars and stripes at the World Professional Road Cycling Championships and the World Cyclocross Championships. The completion of the hat-trick for Parkin.
Come & Gone is the story of an American cyclist who returns home after a strong racing career in Europe (read the PEZ Review here). It’s the follow up to his first book: A Dog in a Hat. Come & Gone takes us on a literary journey filled with such names as Tinker, Tomac, Cadel, McCormack, Grewal and DeMattei. Criteriums, World Cups, USPRO championships and stage races – we follow Joe at each one, sometimes sharing a podium finish with him – but more often sharing the agony of defeat. But to steal the tag line from Come and Gone, its “Blue-Collar Bike Racing in America” and like Joe, its cool.
Matt Wood: Joe, you represented the United States at the World Professional Road Cycling Championships, the World Professional Cyclocross Championships and the World Professional Mountain Bike Championships. That is a nice hat trick of starts. Which race would you ride over again if you had the chance?
Joe Parkin: It’s funny but that fact is one of the few tangible, bragging-rights kind of things I’ve been able to take from my career as a bike racer. I rode the professional world championships in three different disciplines. I don’t think any other American has done that as a pro, and, as specialized as everyone has become, it might just stay that way.
Would I do any of them again? Absolutely. I wouldn’t even care which one. The road worlds, for me, carries the most panache, but I’d throw a stars and stripes jersey over my head for anything else again in a heartbeat.
Matt Wood: Part of the charm of your book was reading the names of many of my heroes: Marc Gullickson, Eric Heiden, Scott Moninger, John Eustice and Mark McCormack. The story about Moninger wanting his Coke in a water bottle was priceless. Can you tell us another story about your experience with one or two these domestic racing legends?
Joe : I think the best story I have in the old memory banks is from back when I was a junior, racing in Northern California. Bob Roll, his girlfriend and I were on our way to someplace in or around Santa Cruz to do a cyclocross race. On the way, though, we detoured to somewhere around Palo Alto, if memory serves, to go see Eric Heiden. Apparently, Heiden had just decked out his house with some sort of speaker system that cost him eight grand—that’s eight thousand dollars of 1985 money. Anyway, we got there and just after Bob went in the doors and windows on his girlfriend’s car started to rattle. The speakers were that powerful.
John Eustice: I just have so much respect for the guy. He was ahead of his time, for sure. John already understood the “business” of cycling when the rest of us were content with a 3-year-old copy of Mirroir du Cyclisme. I once smoked a really expensive cigar with him—in Atlanta, I think.
Matt Wood: I was rooting for you during your quest to make the Olympic mtb team. It seems that bad luck, politics and some poor management ended your chances to go to Atlanta. Obviously, this was a big disappointment for you. How do you think racing in the Olympics might have changed your racing career?
Joe : That’s hard to say. It’s very possible that if I had made the team I might have crashed, flatted or just plain sucked. I think I would have risen to the occasion, however. I think that just the experience of being in the Olympics would have been an incredible one. Seriously, representing your country—I don’t care what the activity—is something I remember very fondly.
But I also look at those wee bits of missed luck as career-changers. Think about Claudio Ciappucci—you would never have heard about him if he hadn’t gotten into a lucky breakaway in the Tour de France he eventually almost won. In fact, had he not attacked Greg LeMond so heavily on the penultimate stage of that Tour, he very well may have pulled off the impossible dream. I don’t mean to suggest that he was not an extremely talented bike racer, but there are many of those guys out there who just need that one lucky break to inspire the rest of their career.
It is impossible to say, but I believe even an Olympic berth would have inspired me to go just a little bit harder, and maybe my career would have lasted a few more years. But then maybe I wouldn’t have discovered competitive shooting, maybe I wouldn’t have gone to work for Castelli—maybe it would have changed my life enough so that you and I wouldn’t even be having this conversation right now. I am pretty happy with how it has all turned out.
Matt Wood: I thought this was a great line in the book about your racing experience in Belgium: “I learned that I could control races and ride well, really well in the service of the sports greatest riders, my focus shifted from wanting to see what could be to simply wanting to be the greatest domestique I could possibly be.” It seemed more challenging for you to find a purpose for your racing domestically. In the end, were you satisfied with your domestic career?
Joe : Not really. I loved racing mountain bikes, and I really enjoyed riding for Len Pettyjohn on the Coors team, but I really didn’t like road racing in America. I’ve been beaten up a bit for that tone in A Dog in a Hat because, I think, people think I am being a snob or judging the American riders as second rate. It’s simply a different style of racing and a different lifestyle. I much preferred the European version of the sport. Plus, it was then, and is now, the pinnacle of the sport. Period.
Think of it this way: Would you rather race for a second-rate F1 team or the most dominant team in the Indy Car Series? I, personally, would take whatever I could get, but I bet Danica Patrick would jump on the F1 ride given the chance.
Matt Wood: There is a very thin line between a top ten finish and a DNF. It seemed like you were constantly walking a tight rope trying to maintain a fitness level to be competitive. Do you miss the constant battle and the rewards a high level of fitness bring?
Joe : Yes. Absolutely. I ride mountain bikes with people now who think I am in good shape. I can only laugh. The level of fitness that the guys in the Tour have, right now, is otherworldly, and I miss it.
Matt Wood: Northern California in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s developed some great cycling talent. What was it about the San Francisco Bay Area that attracted so many great domestic and international riders during this time period?
Joe : Of course, the smart-ass answer is that the SF Bay Area is the greatest place on Earth.
Honestly, though, I think it is because the riding is so good. The culture of Northern California is just about perfect for bike riding. There were all of these guys there, old hippies, who had discovered bike riding in the late 60s and early 70s. By the time my generation had come onto the scene, these guys had mastered racing and were able and willing to mentor us young-uns along. I also think a great debt of gratitude is owed to Bob Liebold. Velo Promo, Bob’s company, put on so many races! I mean, we were racing all of the time. Without that real competition experience, we would never have gotten past wearing goofy caps and talking about strange foreign bike races we didn’t really even understand.
Get your copy of Come & Gone: A True Story of Blue-Collar Bike Racing in America
by Joe Parkin
208 pp., VeloPress, paperback, 2010
Suggested price: $21.95
• Read more of Matt’s interviews at his website: Veloprints.com