From a Blizzard… to Belgium…to the Rockies
“He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.”
— Muhammad Ali
This sharpshooter could kill you at 600 yards without a ’scope, and at 1,000 yards you’d have a 3-percent chance of survival. He was a merit scholar in French at high school and decided in 1985 to race his bike in Belgium at the urging of Bob Roll. Yeah, that Bob Roll. It should also be noted, with all due respect, that he had one of the better Euro-mullets of the time, well before Euro-mullets were ever a thing. Oh, and he’s also the author of two books, “A Dog in a Hat” and “Come and Gone: A True Story of Blue-collar Bike Racing in America.” Meet Joe Parkin. He has been everything from a professional cyclist and magazine editor to a stunt pilot and, yes, a sharpshooter. He’s also a father and recently took what some might consider the biggest leap of faith in his career. Looking back at his many life choices, taking risks has always been part of his DNA.
While Parkin likes to joke that he was born in a “crossfire hurricane” he actually entered this world in a raging blizzard in Pontiac, Michigan, in 1967. His father worked for the Pontiac Motor Division of General Motors and his mom, as he fondly recalls, “was the one who kept everything together. She was a full-time mom, but she also worked doing various different admin-type jobs from the time I was 10 years old.” At the time, General Motors had a habit of moving their people around, which meant that the Parkins never stayed in the same place very long—they moved nine times before Joe graduated from high school, and he went to 11 different schools. He got his first bike, a Schwinn Midget Stingray, when he was 4, but his true sports love in the early years was baseball. As fate would have it, it was being unceremoniously benched by his ninth-grade baseball coach because he was too small that brought road bikes into his life; and it was a tad ironic that the first bike he purchased was too big for him. Bike size be damned, Parkin won the first race he entered, a time trial, and from there it was game on.
During Parkin’s senior year of high school in Danville, California, his local bike shop, Danville Pedaler, brought him into contact with the now legendary Roll, one of the early American cycling gangsters to go and race in Europe. That put Parkin at the crossroads of a major life decision. “My dad had a strong desire for me to go to a military academy, and I knew I didn’t want to become an engineer. I was more liberal arts minded,” he says. “Bob told me to go to Europe, and my mom was amazingly supportive. She wanted me to give it a try.” For a guy who’d never even seen any bicycle racing until he watched Paris–Roubaix on television in 1984, it was a bold move to turn pro and head to a foreign country at age 19, especially to a country steeped in cycling tradition like Belgium. But, then again, Parkin’s always been good at taking calculated risks.
As he remembers it, “I was very fortunate that Albert Claeys, the patriarch of the family I lived with in Belgium, was savvy to the scene and introduced me to it slowly and cautiously. Had I just landed and entered a few of the closest races I could find, we’d probably not be having this conversation.” As far as the language barrier went, being a French merit scholar didn’t help him in the slightest, so Joe learned to shut his mouth and listen, as well as read the newspapers and watch the news. The Flemish language, according to Parkin, “was like listening to a drunk Englishman speak.” And riding with such teams as Transvemij and Humo-TW meant that he needed to speak Dutch and proper Flemish, because no Belgian teams spoke much English in the 1980s.
While racing Paris–Roubaix always had the most prestige and fanfare, it was Ghent–Wevelgem that really captured the young American’s heart. “The first time I did G–W, I was already used to not doing well as an amateur. I was getting used to making the second echelon. But there was one time, when we turned a corner into 40 kilometers of crosswind action in the pro event, and I found myself in the first echelon! You ride a race well once, and you’re inspired to do it again.”
Parkin also participated in lots of Belgian kermis events (called kermesses in northern France), a style of racing that typically begins and ends in a town square and includes multiple laps and distances, anywhere from 90 to 140 kilometers. In reference to his time doing those events, he reflects bluntly, “Back then, yeah, the amphetamines were widely used in the kermis races. The amazing thing about it is, when you shoot a guy with amphetamines, he just wants to keep attacking. In many cases, they can’t attack as hard as they could before. But they just want to keep going, it’s frustrating.”
Let’s be clear, Parkin’s no saint, and he definitely doesn’t hide the fact that he took part in doping, just not knowingly. It was common practice in those days, especially if you were in the break, for the team car to pass to their rider a bottle, often fondly called the “Belgium” or “Magic” bottle. As Parkin remembers: “They handed it to me, there’s always the chance that you could be given something, and if you quit grabbing bottles, or quit grabbing hand-ups from the car just because there was the possibility of that happening, you’d never drink again!” So he drank it and felt really good in less than five minutes. “I looked down at my legs and they kinda started to almost shine, and I got goose bumps as well. And that’s typical…we always used to laugh when we saw a guy in a race with goose bumps, that meant that he was jacked on speed.”
Considering he rode with some cycling legends and then witnessed the demise of a few others when the EPO era came crashing down, it might be a surprise who Parkin cites as one of the true cycling greats. “I’m still of the opinion that the greatest racer ever was Greg LeMond. He could climb off the couch and win races. He could come back from the off-season soft and doughy, and within a week he’d be ripped. Hands-down amazing.” Speaking of bearing witness, Parkin rode during the time when the pro peloton was going through a pharmacological transition of sorts, when riders went from using amphetamines to using EPO. He jokes that poverty saved his life when it came to EPO, because he was too poor as a racer to afford it.
After six years of racing in Europe, Joe returned to the U.S., where he joined the Coors Light team and then, in 1995, turned his attention toward the booming NORBA mountain bike scene and competed for Diamond Back Racing until he retired in 1998. When asked about his life post racing, he honestly states, “It has been the constant quest to fill the void that bike racing once filled. I have struggled with that one because, in many ways, it feels a bit pathetic—like those guys that are still catching some winning touchdown 30 years after graduating from high school. But the search for something to fill that void led me to some other cool things.”
For one, it inspired him to write two books that chronicled his time as a professional bike racer and spend years further honing his writing skills working as an editor for cycling publications, including BIKE magazine. And, most recently, it has led him to his current “risky” decision, to buy a bike shop in rural Colorado.
Buena Vista (locals call it “Boona Vista” or “BV”) is perched at an elevation of 7,965 feet in the Upper Arkansas River Valley, sandwiched between the towering Collegiate Range to the west and the Pike and San Isabel National Forest to the east. It’s home to multiple fourteeners (peaks topping 14,000 feet), endless gravel roads, networks of swoopy single track, roaring Class 5 rapids and world-class fly fishing, with amazing skiing just a short drive away and remote hot springs nestled in the jagged mountains. For outdoor enthusiasts, the area is paradise, plain and simple. In early 2018, quite possibly against their better judgment, Parkin and longtime friend Simon Stewart, bought a bike shop in this sleepy little mountain town of 2,700.
In case you haven’t been paying attention to the bike industry landscape these days, it’s pretty bleak. Brick-and-mortar shops have been closing their doors at record pace and even a few established national chains have been filing for bankruptcy lately, all feeling the pinch from on-line retail. Against this backdrop, Parkin and Stewart decided to purchase Boneshaker Cycles, a shop originally established by two riding buddies with no retail business experience (sound familiar?). The store had been serving BV for just five years before the partners had a “business divorce.” For Parkin, shop ownership has become his way of giving back to an industry and community that he’s been part of for three decades, a way to fill the void that bike racing left. And in regards to Stewart, whom he met in 2001, Parkin says, “He is an absolute salt-of-the-earth-type guy, and our skill sets complement each other pretty well. Most of all, we both really like the idea of bike shop as a church/bar/cultural center for bike riders—and we think this is a good place to have that.”
Speaking of partners, Parkin’s better half, Elayna Caldwell, is now the general manager at Juliana Bicycles—the premium line of women’s mountain bikes founded by Juli Furtado. Before that she worked for Fox and SRAM, and she’s been one of the few females at the executive level in the bike industry for many years. Parkin said, “I think most people would have no idea the kind of shit Elayna has endured for years—the dick jokes, sexual innuendo, condescension and general frat-boy behavior—and she managed to not only survive but to thrive and to move the needle toward getting more women into bikes and into the bike industry.” And when it comes to raising their son in Buena Vista? They both love that Nico has access to so many outdoor activities that he can have more freedom than he would living in a city; and the local schools are great.
Whether it was taking the leap of faith to turn pro in the meat grinder of Belgium bike racing, or launching a magazine, or buying a bike shop, Joe Parkin has taken some pretty big risks in his life. But knowing this free thinker, he may not be satisfied with what he’s accomplished so far, although he certainly should be. So, the next time you’re planning a trip to the Rocky Mountains, think about pulling into that sleepy little mountain town just off Highway 24 in Chaffee County, Colorado. Roll on over to Boneshaker Cycles for some local trail knowledge, an expert bike tune, a frosty beer, some cycling history or, better yet, a ride with one of the owners. Oh, and be sure to ask him about his Euro-mullet.
From issue 85. Buy it here.