Thursday, May 7, 2009

Why I Love Crappy-Category Amateur Racing

A new allegation against Alex Rodriguez: he tipped opposing players about what was coming next from his own team's pitcher. A-Rod would signal the batter to expect high heat, a slider off the plate, or a pick off. In return, the opposing players -- a cabal of midfielders -- would tip A-Rod when he was at the plate.

It's just what an economist would predict, because giving tips doesn't hurt you as an individual, while receiving them helps you. But what a devastating blow to the sport of baseball. Whereas steroid use cheats the history books, the fans, and non-steroidal players (if there are any), tipping cheats your own team. I mean, free agency is one thing...

Professional cycling is apparently not so different, though. Everybody knows about the drug abuse in the peleton. What is, perhaps, less well known is that riders routinely sell races or grab UCI points by sandbagging and then sprinting in events where they should be working for their teams.

I've been reading A Dog in a Hat, by Joe Parkin, an American who raced professionally in Europe in the late eighties and early nineties. Parkin's gripping and well-told tale will shock even those who are already resigned to the fact that everybody dopes.

He describes the typical scene before kermis, in Belgium, where riders prepare for the race in someone's living room near the start line, shooting up and/or ingesting their favorite drug cocktail: some of the racers, amphetamine addicts who race in order to use, rather than the other way around.

He tells how riders infuse clean urine, catheter-to-bladder, before testing, or sneak it into testing rooms via condom-in-body-orifice.

But more disturbing: when Parkin gets into his first winning break with nine other riders, he realizes that they're working together well and will stay away from the pack. He's thrilled, knowing he'll place top-ten, but his director asks him if he's in the deal.

"Nee," I responded. "There's a deal?"

"Of course there is, dummy. Why do you think they are all so content with each other? You must attack. When they take you back, you must go again and again, until they speak with you. Understand?"

Parkin follows orders and eventually they let him in on the deal: seven thousand francs.

Parkin explains:

"Over the years I have recounted the stories of selling kermis races, and the response has run from shocked disbelief and anger to fascination. My experience as a pro cyclist in Europe has left me with a somewhat altered moral code, such that many of the things that bother normal people are invisible to me. This race that I sold would not be the last. In fact, I was able to make good spending money by making it into the breakaway and then attacking at precisely the right moment if I thought a deal was forming. A rider from the town where the race is being held will often want to win more than anything else in the world. Think of this as Homecoming for bike racers. As such, the local cafe might offer him a small bonus for winning in front of his people. Most likely, he would also receive a bonus from his team. Add to that the prize money, assuming he didn't have to split it with any teammates, and his cost for buying a kermis race could be reasonable."

Interesting. Very interesting. It is, of course, just what an economist would predict. But it goes against the very spirit of bike racing.

The Parkin book is a great read and I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in pro cycling, or in human nature for that matter. Parkin never achieves much in terms of results, but he becomes a real European pro in every sense: language, values, skills, body-type. If you'd like to know what that means, well, A Dog in a Hat is probably your best guide.

Bob Roll was racing in Europe at the same time, and in fact advised Parkin to leave the U.S. for Belgium. He pens a ridiculous foreword, which is, by itself, worth the price of the book. In the following excerpt, he recounts running into Parkin along the canal, years after seeing him last:

"Joe was no longer the rheumatoid doughy tosser type that ruled Stateside racing in those days. He was an avenging angel of misery and, best of all, not a starry-eyed regional time trial champ with delusions of grandeur about to be sent home in a pain-induced coma after falling asleep in a crosswind battle. No, Joe knew the score. Joe had become the inside skinny. Joe was a twelve-toothed assassin.

What was it in those bleak landscapes that carved the fat off Joe's carcass like vultures around a kill? The weeks, months, and years of isolation in Belgium? The vicious, epic races that were virtually unknown by Americans then but are now part of our own cycling lore? The ancient, semi-illusionary dialect of a downtrodden people who revere cyclists as beacons of hope and cultural pride? The food, the dirty deals, the pig-shit toothpaste, the two-faced team managers, the smoky bars, homicidal teammates, and demented competitors? All these things and many more that you will read carved Joe into a missile of sinew, veins, sunken eyes, narrow shoulders, skinny arms, and huge ass and legs typical of a survivor of the toughest game on two wheels.

You should count yourself lucky to have stumbled across a treasure map from the old country of forgotten dreams and buried riches. In Belgium, bike racing rules, and I am not surprised in the least that Joe Parkin was a Flemish prince.

I have a rather ominous premonition that many a cycling fan will take umbrage with the grittier side of our sport that Joe writes about. If you do, you do not deserve to read this book -- and feel free to FO and D! For everyone else, you may now read and be enlightened and entertained by the most authentic book ever written about making a two-wheeled living as a pro cyclist in Europe."

1 comment:

Calvini said...

Whoa. I thought cycling was all about Krabbe's "beautiful wrists" and suffering for glory.

Sweet write-up.