“Hey, Doctor J…” by Joe Parkin July 08 2019

Former professional cyclist and published author Joe Parkin recounts his quest for the perfect cycling shoe in the new era of clipless pedals and his magical form during the 1988 season…

Joe Parkin 1988 Worlds

I’m a child of the ‘70s. I was baptized by bad fashion, zero point zero technology, three television stations that broadcasted 30-minute sitcoms, sports, the odd Movie of the Week and straight-up, no-nonsense news.

On the weekends, if I was lucky, ABC’s Wide World of Sports would bring me something beyond baseball, football and basketball — sports that inspired my imagination a bit more than the big American three — though I watched those, too. 

Between the action, of course, there were commercials. I have no idea whether it was the nature of my developing brain or the quality of the work that allows [read: forces] me to remember the ad jingles for so many products, so many years after I first heard them. I can sing you the Chicken of the Sea Tuna ad, the Apple Jacks Cereal ad, Alka Seltzer, various Coca-Cola campaigns, Hamm’s Beer and a whole gaggle of others.  

There’s only one sporting-goods product spot that ever got my attention in those days, and that was the Hey, Doctor J, where’d you get those moves? ad that Converse produced in 1977. If you can get past the short-shorts fashion of ‘70s hoops, the low-tech nature of his sneakers is shocking. And I lived back then, experienced it.

Eight years after those Julius Erving Converse ads aired, Bernard Hinault claimed his fifth and final Tour de France victory. Aside from that win being a record tying number five with Merckx and Anquetil (at the time), it was the first time that a rider won the Tour de France using clipless pedals.

To put things into perspective: I started dabbling in road-bike racing in 1984. In 1986, I went to Belgium to be serious about it. In 1987, I turned professional. Stephan Roche was the last rider to win the Tour de France using toe-clips and straps in 1987. In 1988, I rode clipless pedals (Mavic’s Look version) for the very first time. Sean Kelly, the last of the holdouts, switched to clipless in 1993.

For anyone born after Hinault won that ’85 Tour on Look pedals, the idea of racing with a leather strap cinched tight across the top of your foot — sometimes rendering it numb in the process — must seem like the worst idea ever. Given modern shoe design, a toe-strap is kind of the worst idea ever. But, in the mid 80s, we weren’t dealing with cycling shoes designed for clipless pedals. Nope, we were mostly using shoes designed to be slipped into a metal cage and secured with a leather strap, so they really didn’t need much structure. And clipless pedals weren’t really a big thing yet.

The best clip-and-strap shoe I ever rode was Sidi’s Cycle Titanium. Basically, it was a black leather ballet slipper with a built-in cleat system — which meant you didn’t have to manually tack the cleat into place. The sole was leather and flexi, but the size of a standard pedal more than compensated for the soft sole.

But in 1988, when I knew I would be clicking in, I went searching for a personal shoe sponsor. Andy Hampsten had been wearing Lake shoes and, based on the way he climbed in them, I figured they could be the shoes for me. I wanted to climb like Andy did. Who didn’t? I contacted Lake, and they agreed to set me up with a few pairs.

The Lakes had a fair amount of curve in the sole, similar to Adidas’ cycling shoes, and the mounting setup in those early models was pretty far forward, which meant —for me at least — that I couldn’t get the foot position I wanted on the pedal. Add to that the fact that we didn’t understand back then that this new Look design placed your foot farther above the pedal’s axle, meaning you had a lower effective saddle position.

This was my first full year as a pro, mind you, first time racing the Spring Classics, and I was torturing the hell out of my knees. Days off the bike, physical therapy and painful cortisone injections — directly in the troubled tendon areas — marked at least half of my early season.

I started trying out other shoes. I’ve joked that I might be the Imelda Marcos of cycling shoes, but it’s probably not far from the truth. Along with trying different brands, I was also experimenting with shoes that were up to three sizes too small — and by that I mean too small by racing shoe standards. Pain and black toenails were a way of life. And I still couldn’t find my perfect shoe solution.

I was pedaling home one day from a training ride, and I stopped at my local bike shop — which doubled as a barbershop. They didn’t carry a ton of stuff, because they simply didn’t have room for it, and usually they’d have to special order things for me. But they did have a fresh shipment of Brancale cycling shoes, the, Dynamic, the kind Greg LeMond was riding. I tried them. They fit. One more pair of shoes? Why not?

Brancale Shoes Through The Years: 1982, 1986, Present

Now, there were certainly other shoes being developed at the time, but these were the first I ever rode that provided the structure and support needed for clipless pedals. The toe box was ample, the heel counter was solid and the curve of the sole was perfect for my cleat placement and pedaling style.

My new shoes and I got along famously right from the get-go. My knees felt good and I started riding well. And my results kept getting better as the season progressed.

By late summer, the magical ‘form’ started to happen. I had a pretty decent Vuelta Ciclista a Burgos, and managed to attract the attention of one of the biggest teams in the peloton. I rode to a top-10 in the Tour of Belgium.

And then came the World Championships in Ronse, Belgium. Luck was not on my side that day, as a flat front tire at the worst possible moment sent me packing. But who really knows what would have happened if nothing mechanical would’ve happened.

But man, I felt great that day. Legs were good, head was good, I never felt my feet, and I felt like I could do anything. If you’ve been lucky enough to have one of those days on a bike, you know that sometimes, that is enough.

That was almost 30 years ago. I never found that perfect feeling again, but at least I had it once.

Hey Doctor J, where’d you get those moves?

I actually do believe in magic shoes.

Dramatic Finale of 1988 Worlds in Ronse, Belgium

Joe Parkin is a former professional cyclist and the author of “A Dog in a Hat: An American Bike Racer’s Story of Mud, Drugs, Blood, Betrayal, and Beauty in Belgium” and “Come and Gone: A True Story of Blue-Collar Bike Racing in America.”

 Photos: Graham Watson, Brancale