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For Joe Williams, Iron Horse is more than fun; it's therapy

posted May 23, 2014, 9:16 PM by Dianne James   [ updated May 23, 2014, 9:17 PM ]

Here's how Joe Williams' return to bicycling began:
“I locked up,” Williams says. “Off into the tumbleweeds, sagebrush, rabbitbrush. I just tumbled.”Four hundred yards, crash.

His wife, Jan, asked if he was OK, and then asked what he was going to do next.

“I'm going to get back on the bike,” he told her.

Another half-mile, crash.

There's a really good reason for the crashes, which we'll get to in a second. But the bottom line is this: Despite a newly diagnosed life-changing ailment, he kept getting back on the bike, and nearly four years later, he's one of nearly 3,000 people headed to the start line Saturday morning for the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic road ride.

The 43rd running, weather permitting (see accompanying weather story), will go from Buckley Park in Durango to Memorial Park in Silverton. The renowned 50-mile ride and race crests both Coal Bank Pass (10,640 feet) and Molas Pass (10,910 feet) before dropping into the Silverton caldera.

Of the 3,000, about 2,500 are citizen riders starting from Durango, 250 are racers starting from Durango, and about 250 more are citizen riders doing the newly created Mountain Horse, which begins at Durango Mountain Resort and goes to Silverton.

All the riders have stories and reasons for being there. Not many will be pedaling with Parkinson's disease. On top of the 5,500 feet of climbing, that's what Joe Williams will be conquering Saturday.
Williams learned during a July 2010 trip to the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona, that he has Parkinson's disease. A doctor advised him to stay active to keep the pathways working from his brain to his body as best he could.

Parkinson's affects each person differently. Williams doesn't suffer from tremors but instead has clenching. He's losing ability to control his left side, the signals from his brain to left arm and leg being slowed and degraded along the route.

Not long after the diagnosis, he divulged his condition to his Daybreak Rotary group. And he asked a favor.

“I want to cycle,” he told them. “Would any of you come with me?”

In half an hour, he says, 10 people were standing with him ready to ride.

Among them was John Francis, who remembers it a little differently. He remembers not exactly being strong-armed, but being hit by Williams' “gentle velvet hammer.” Williams yanked Francis from cycling retirement.

“We're going to form a team, and you're the first guy,” Francis remembers Williams saying.

Francis is astraddle a road bike at the Durango Community Recreation Center, where the “Go Joe Go” team meets a couple times a week for training rides. Individual team members have now ridden thousands of miles in training and in events they do to raise money for charity.

That charity is often, but not always, Parkinson's disease. Go Joe Go has a goal of $15,000 as its 30-plus riders raise money for this year's Iron Horse. Half of that will go to the Davis Phinney Foundation for Parkinson's and half to locally administered Parkinson's programs.

“Mr. Williams doesn't take too many things negatively,” Francis says. “He talks it up to everybody, and people join because it's a good cause.”

Nancy Lauro, also ready to roll at the rec center, joined the group after a convergence of events. Her kids were leaving home, leaving her more time to ride. And her father died of Parkinson's three years ago, about the same time she joined Rotary and heard of Williams' cause.

“Joe Williams is a hero for me,” Lauro says. “I couldn't be there much for my dad (because of family obligations). I can be there for Joe.”

Tanya Pendarvis works with Williams. He began talking to her about cycling, and in no time, she'd “volunteered” to join the team.

“I think I just agreed to ride the Quarter Horse,” she recalls realizing after their conversation.

Williams tries to keep it light, but it's a heavy burden he carries and struggles with every day. Tasks such as typing or operating his trackhoe, for example, are time-consuming. Other activities, cycling being an example, force his brain and body to work in unison. He may begin a ride pedaling almost exclusively with the power in his right leg, but eventually, his left side pitches in.

“We call him Lefty. Lefty is lazy because he doesn't get the signal,” Williams says. “Usually, in about 20 minutes, Lefty will wake up. ... I stay with (the group) as long as I can. My whole life is like that.”

In 2012, Williams, team at his side, attempted the full Iron Horse. Several Go Joe Go team members rode with him, including Francis and Rich Fletcher. Coal Bank was a grind, but he made it.

“People as they passed me would say 'go Joe go,'” he says. “It was absolutely the most incredible experience of my life. ... I'll never forget riding up that main avenue in Silverton.”

Parkinson's can be a lonely disease. But Williams says the 22 members of the group, easily identified by the team jersey, are huge support.

“Every day, I get on the bike with the Go Joe Gos, I'm not alone.”