A Dog In A Hat is a book that has been around for a few years now and it has been reviewed many times by people with more cycling and literary credentials than I do. It was one of those reviews that made me want to read the book in the first place, so when the travel and outdoor book store, Woodslane, asked if BNA would like to select some books for review, this one was on my list. I know I’m selfish doing that, but I really wanted to read it and I’m glad I got to – it’s a great read.
“My arrival in Ursel could not have been more perfect. It was raining, and there were bike races going on. In my mind, rain, cobblestones, and bike races equal Belgium, then as now. Maybe seeing the country for the first time exactly as I had imagined it helped seal the deal. It was my goal to become a professional cyclist-a Belgian cyclist. I was willing to do almost whatever it took to achieve that goal. Normally a trip to the doctor was something I’d undertake only in an emergency, but my new coach, Albert, insisted. Albert had been around cycling for several years. He was the son of a pre-World War II champion of Flanders who had won a stage at the Giro d’Italia. He had also been a mechanic for some of the bigger Belgian teams of the ’70s and ’80s. He told me I had to go to the doctor to be tested because, after all, one could not make a racehorse out of a jackass. If the numbers were not good, he would send me packing.”
Having read it, and liked it, I suppose I had better give you a review of it. A Dog In A Hat is about an American cyclist named Joe Parkin who, like a lot of non-European cyclists, realises that to be a pro-cyclist he’s going to have to go to Europe and race. So he goes to Belgium, where cycling is looked upon in the same way that rugby league and cricket are in Australia. There he is forged into a Tour de France winning champion, defeating Eddy Merckx and Lance Armstrong while getting the girl and slaying the evil dragon. Actually no, it isn’t about that at all, and that’s where this book differs from dozens of other books on cycling; it’s not about the top end of the sport or the rise and/or fall of a hero.
Joe’s adventures in Belgium in the late 80s, moving from the amateur to the professional ranks, are about racers you have likely never heard of racing in places that are equally obscure. It’s about a culture that sounds like science fiction to cycle tragics like myself living and riding in suburban Australia. The book paints a vivid picture of the training, the racing, the politics, the drug taking and the job of cycling in the lower professional ranks. This is the level that your local club hot-shot may ascend to (I’ve met a few who have) and the level from which the heroes of the pro circuit are chosen. It’s the testing ground that we very rarely hear about but which, logically, must exist if we’re to have a steady flow of riders in the top ranks. While big name cyclists and big races are mentioned in the book (Joe rode on the same team as Greg LeMond, for example), they’re supporting actors alongside the main stars: the racing and the racers.
“In those days, if a rider planned on being “good” for the race, then exactly fifteen minutes before the start a syringe would come out. Some clear liquid would be sucked up into it from any number of different ampoules and injected, either subcutaneously or intravenously. If injected subcutaneously, the substance was usually a low-grade amphetamine. Injecting it this way would create little time-release lumps under the skin that the riders called “bolleketten,” which basically means “little rocket balls.” Depending on the length of the race and/or its importance, a rider might have as many as four of these little balls hidden under the sleeves of his jersey or legs of his shorts. The shoulder area was the typical spot, since that was an area that might still have some fat on it. If the amphetamines were surgical-quality, the rider would probably shoot them directly into the “canal.” There are plenty of medical preparations that have genuine, legal uses for a cyclist, but as a general rule, anything being shot fifteen minutes before the start of a lesser race can be considered suspect.”
No topic is off limits in this book. The author openly discusses drug use (though I suspect his own use was not as “accidental” as he makes out), contracts, race fixing, dirty tricks and the conditions under which these young men live and race. Rather than a disjointed series of anecdotes, this book tells a story and flows from scene to scene. It’s well written and engrossing – you’ll likely finish it in just a sitting or two because you’ll want to turn the pages and see what happens next.
You don’t need to take my word for it, you can have a read of the foreword (written by Bob Roll) and first chapter by going to the A Dog In a Hat site and downloading it. When you’re done reading, get onto the Woodslane site and order a copy of A Dog in a Hat for yourself. Actually, while you’re there, also order the sequel “Come and Gone” which picks up where Joe left off, returning to America and resuming his racing career there. I mention this because Father’s Day is coming up and I know my wife will be reading this review when it’s put up (I want this book. Tell the kids). Trust me, you’ll want to read it when you’re done with A Dog In A Hat.
“In Belgium, a good local amateur is like an all-state high school quarterback in Texas. A decent local pro has about the same value as the amateur but lacks the promise of greatness in the future. I was a good amateur who held the American card. I was like the actor who goes after a rock-star fantasy-everyone wants to be
there when you rise to the top, but they are just as happy to see you fail miserably.”
While you’re buying books, have a look around at the cycling and other outdoor titles that Woodslane have. These niche bookstores are often a hit or miss affair, but Woodslane seems to be one of the hits. My package of books arrived in perfect condition; they were very well packed and delivered by courier. According to their website, they dispatch order within 24 hours. Their selection of books (6000+ titles) covers most areas of cycling as well as many other outdoor activities (and they have maps, I love maps).
If you want a good read about cycling from a different perspective than most cycling books, then this is a book for you. If you prefer massive tomes about the history of cycling and the greats of the sport, buy this book anyway because you’ll still really like it (and then buy those other books from Woodslane as well).
Sale Price: $23.39 (incl GST) at the time of writing
Available Online from Woodslane: A Dog in a Hat